A Philosophy of Church Music

A Philosophy of Church Music
Robert Berglund


When dealing with a philosophy, one must deal with the question of purpose. Concerns not only focus on the question of how to achieve certain ends but why and for what reasons. The logical sequence is to first determine goals or objectives (reasons for action, or the why), the action needed for achieving those goals (the what), and the methods employed in the action (the how). In other words, a why-what-how sequence is established to achieve continuity, unity, and cohesiveness in endeavors. There must be an internal consistency or unity among the components of the why-what-how relationship. If there is an in-consistency in type or nature between a means (how) and an end (what), or if the means leads to an end that is not what was originally desired in the objective, then philosophic integrity is nonexistent. Particularly in an “ends justify the means” philosophy that consistency must be apparent.

Church music appears to suffer presently from well-meaning musicians who recognize important or defensible goals but utilize a means of achieving those goals (ends) that is inconsistent in nature or type with the goal itself. One obvious example is when the goal is spiritual ministry but the means leads to entertainment with little spiritual content. Another simplistic (and hopefully fallacious) example of that inconsistent approach is the story about the individual who heard the sermon on stewardship and was so moved to respond that he raised his church pledge considerably a noble end in itself. However, in order to achieve his weekly commitment he robbed a local bank each Friday (means to the end). Although everyone easily sees the incongruity and internal inconsistency in that example, virtually the same situations occur with frequency within the church music program.

Within the framework of evangelism, for example, an “anything goes” approach is often used as long as it brings out people.” As mentioned earlier, integrity is often compromised for such a valid goal as “keeping the young people coming to church.”

Certainly it is possible to attract crowds to events if there are few limitations as to the how of doing so. Not long ago a large church in Washington advertised that a nude female dancer would dance a “worship segment” in one of its morning services. A news magazine in reporting the occasion indicated that they packed the house. One could imagine a pastor relatively unconcerned with the inconsistency of the means of getting out the crowd as long as they got there. All too often the same level of reasoning seems to be used by well-meaning church musicians and pastors who use entertaining music forms or styles to “pack them in” but pay little attention to the paradox they create. Few pastors view their own roles as that of entertainer, yet they relegate the music program to that precise role. Undoubtedly the mass media and televised church services have influenced this trend. When entertainment ranks high on the list of objectives of the electronic church so as to capture its audience, local churches blindly follow suit.

For some musicians, in order to accommodate their own entertainment-oriented egos, the word ministry is substituted for the word entertainment. But the approach and content betray them. At best, the situation reflects inadequate understanding of philosophic consistency in means and ends; and at worst, it reflects shallow commitment and insincerity in the ministry of the Word.


During the Greek civilization the arts functioned as a means to an end. Music was used in conjunction with drama to support the dramatic intent of the play. Modes or systems of sound were used in conjunction with and, for the purpose of evoking specific kinds of extra musical responses. One mode was used to evoke a sense of esprit de corps for the warriors of the state as they went to battle. Another was used in worship and in the expression of’ love for the gods. Another expressed love for fellow human beings; end they had other kinds for other occasions. People tended to respond to music depending on the mode used in somewhat predictable and specific ways. The Greeks attributed that aspect of their behavior to a supernatural or mystical power resident in the music itself. They were sure music could in fact influence for good or evil; thus, music had moral implications.


Today it is recognized that music can evoke specific and predictable responses as well. From the time of the Greeks to the present day, music has been used in utilitarian roles to function as means to extra-musical ends. Rather than modes or systems of sound, as with the Greeks, people today are influenced by styles of music, or simply “the sound.” There is music to shop to, dance to, march to, have teeth drilled to, love to, and, yes, worship to. Explanations as to why people tend to respond as they do to stylistic stimuli is somewhat different from the mystical supernatural notion of the Greek. It is recognized today that people are conditioned to respond to styles through their experiences. It is true that some basic responses are intuitive; however the majority of responses are learned. People learn that a march style encourages one kind of bodily response; people also learn through conditioning that certain other styles encourage certain dances. Although they may not be total behaviorists psychologically, few musicians reject the idea that many responses to musical stimuli ale the result of learned behavior. For example, a given style may evoke predictable responses in the Western civilization or within a given ethnic context but not necessarily the same response in a different culture. The Greeks accounted for predictable responses by ascribing supernatural power to the sounds. Although there are musicians today who believe that music has an intrinsic mystical power to influence for good or evil, most aestheticians support the conditioned response explanation. Regardless of what explanation of observed conditions one chooses to accept, the point to be made is that music does influence people to respond in predictable ways. That fact must not only be accepted by church musicians but understood and utilized to the fullest in the church music ministry.

Music, the purpose of which is to evoke extra-musical response.'(stop, march, dance, worship, praise, meditate), is known to function within a utilitarian frame of reference and philosophically falls within an ends justifies the means context.


Art that exists for art s sake is art that has ends that are primarily aesthetic in nature. Historically, most vocal music created prior to the fifteenth century was of the utilitarian nature. Its purpose centered either in the experiences of the church or in social concerns (folk singers Meistersingers, minnesingers, trouveurs, and troubadours). However, as instrumental music and the instruments themselves were developed, the performance of music for sheer pleasure increased. Parlor music led to concert hall music, the purpose of which was primarily enjoyment. To this day a large percentage of music produced falls within the aesthetic ends category.

It is apparent that whenever one “pigeon-holes” a realm as sophisticated as an art form like music, problems of oversimplification can result. Undoubtedly there can be aspects of both utilitarian ends and aesthetic ends within given music selections. And too, what at one time in history functioned primarily within a utilitarian context (a Bach cantata, for example) may today function primarily within an aesthetic ends context. In other words, it is not only possible but probable that because of societal change in varying aspects of life, responses to age-old stimuli will change as well. Normally such changes in response are valid outgrowths of change, and performing musicians (or those who select literature for given situations) simply do so with a reasonable understanding of expected current responses. For example, no in-formed musician would select a waltz (triple meter) to be played while endeavoring to march. Most people have two feet with which to march and therefore are best accommodated by a selection in duple meter!

Although societal change occurs rapidly today, behavioral responses in the arts are not always able to comfortably keep pace. Within the commercial or popular realm of music, what was dance music twenty years ago is still dance music today. Love ballad styles of the forties and fifties are not dissimilar from the love ballad styles of the eighties. And yet there are church music producers, particularly in the gospel-pop area, who argue that pop styles do not produce the same responses as they did twenty years ago. They suggest that it is not at all incongruous to assume that secular love ballad styles that encourage seductive or sensual responses can, by changing the text, encourage spiritual responses. Such arguments are common among those who financially have the most to gain from the consumer of church music. Of course, today’s cultural milieu is a perfect climate for such propaganda. In a day when an “if it feels good it’s got to be right” philosophy of life is common, the anything goes approach to church mu-sic is right at home. Uninformed and sometimes well-meaning parishioners do not understand that what may be acceptable within one context is out of place within another.

I recall how as a young man I enjoyed jazz and popular music. (I still enjoy jazz and some pop forms.) At that time evangelicals viewed the listening to or involvement in jazz and pop music as sinful. Movies, make-up, card playing, and other vices constituted a list of “don’ts” for the serious Christian. But at the same time, within the church gospel song-writers were producing Broadway-style love ballads with “Christian” lyrics, and my colleagues in the church thought that was great! One no longer sinned if one simply changed the text within the same old musical context. I recall how my friends and I insincerely (as well as sacrilegiously) “wailed” on gospel tunes for the kicks we got out of it. Of course everyone called it “ministry” because that was the password for acceptance by the church fathers. We knew beyond question that the gut-level purpose of what we did (as well as the true responses of the listeners) was no different from that of our counter-parts in the secular jazz or pop world. Today similarly immature (or commercially knowledgeable) church musicians have steered church music in that same direction.

Recently I have purposefully involved myself in situations where I could get behind the closed doors of some of the current church music pop stars and music producers. On one occasion I was to address a church music convention. I sat for two hours listening to the planning committee of supposedly mature adults debate the merits of calling a choreography workshop just that. The contention was that by calling it staging or worship movement it would get by the “old fogies” who thought dance was sinful but were “too stupid” to recognize dance as such with another name tag. Here was a group of church music leaders who prayed like all other believers I know (or at least used the same buzz words), mapping out a strategy of flagrant dishonesty and devious manipulation. That kind of Machiavellian leadership is not uncommon in some church circles today. Congregations bent on self-indulgence and pleasure are ripe prey for panderers of inappropriate music forms. If Christians recognized and accepted pop music for what it is-namely fun music primarily for entertainment many many problems would resolve themselves. It is not a question of right or wrong but one of appropriateness.

It is here that the all-of-life-is-sacred proponents might argue that if a music form is appropriate in one area of life it is appropriate in another. In other words, if pop music is acceptable or right pleasure or clean entertainment it is also right for worship. The same logic (or lack thereof) is present in the idea that if chocolate cream’ pie is good for dessert it is also appropriate as the main course; or if tackling an individual is a good thing on a football field, then tackling individuals at State and Madison streets in Chicago is also a good thing. Obviously, what may be good or appropriate within one context may be totally inappropriate within another. If entertainment is a prime goal of church services then music that primarily entertains is appropriate. However, one is hard pressed to develop a biblically based argument that advocates entertainment as a primary (or even secondary) goal in church services.


Much of the apparent confusion in church music today is due to a lack of understanding of the difference between music styles and their primary functions. Concert music rightfully exists for the sheer pleasure of being listened to and being performed. It is not wrong for the Christian to nurture that aspect of himself. Man, created in the image of God, was uniquely created with the propensity for the appreciation of visual and aural beauty. The great Creator gave the intellectual and emotional potential for involvement in experiences that are beautiful, rewarding, and enjoyable. In years past some preachers suggested “if you like it, it must be sinful.” That is not so, however. Man functions, in a sense, in the image of God when man is involved in the creative experiences of the arts. It would be naive to today suggest that a God who created man with the ability to appreciate His incredible creative acts (including a sunset or beautiful lake scene) is not pleased to have man function creatively in producing and appreciating aesthetic experiences. Great paintings, symphonies, or plays reflect some of the highest and most noble creative endeavors of man and are available for all to enjoy.

Although one does not have to be a Christian to use that God-given potential, it is only right that Christians, of all people, develop their abilities and sensitivities to the fullest and, in so doing, honor their Creator. It seems apparent that the Christian should not only conscientiously develop a few aspects of mind, body, and spirit, but strive to reach the highest potential possible for the glory of God. It is not necessary to appreciate a great choral work in order to experience the miracle of saving faith in one’s life, but there is a sense in which the serious believer will utilize every opportunity to, among other things, fully develop himself aesthetically. It is therefore not inconsistent for Christians to attend concerts or for Christian performers to concertize. In the above context it is uniquely Christian.

The problem for the church musician and layperson is to discern when a concert is a concert and when a worship service is a worship service. Too many worship services suffer from the malady, of concert artists’ performing for their audience (congregation) rather than musicians leading the congregation in a spiritual experience through the medium of music. The role of the church musician within the service (utilitarian ends) is not to use music for the primary purpose of aesthetic gratification (aesthetic end)but to use music as a means to lead the congregation in extra-musical experiences (worship, praise, meditation, prayer, stewardship, consecration, and evangelism). The church building is not primarily a concert hall but a house of worship. Other activities legitimately transpire including concerts in the church, but the primary purpose of the assembled Body of Christ is to worship its God. The performer’s ego must be held in check to enable the decision-making process to consistently support the spiritual goals of the service.

That does not preclude all aesthetic considerations. As a matter of fact, a spiritually wise and mature church musician does not select cheap or trite music but the best available that also convincingly achieves the intended spiritual experience. His best creative efforts are not used to achieve salvation or to be better accepted by God the best that can be offered to God is never enough to attain salvation. Rather, he gives God his creative best out of a heart of love and out of gratitude for the free gift of salvation. It is not only musically weak but spiritually immature to offer God less than one’s best in any act of service, in any realm whatsoever. There may be a place for trite experiences for the Christian, but certainly in the realm of the spirit one does well not to compromise.

In summary, all music falls within two broad categories: utilitarian ends and aesthetic ends. The Christian should be knowledgeably involved in both areas, using discernment as to appropriateness and utilization of either. The variables that determine how music functions are the cultural patterns of the given time and place taken together with the more intrinsic aspects of the music itself. It would seem logical that one could determine how a style would best function on the basis of its primary intent. Although a piece might be capable of evoking extra-musical responses as well as aesthetic responses, one can determine where it best functions on the basis of its primary intent. Therefore, a given piece may primarily cause people to respond by marching or dancing, but a secondary by-product may be sensual or aesthetic gratification. To apply that principle to church music, aesthetic gratification may be a legitimate response, but it should be strictly secondary. The primary response should be worship or praise. If that is not the order in which responses occur, the music is no longer service music but concert music that functions under aesthetic ends.



It becomes apparent that music that can be categorized must have distinguishing characteristics that, when heard by the listener, may be recognized. The characteristics thus identifiable are referred to as style, idiom, or, currently, the sound. Style in music is what the musician studies in an endeavor to produce accuracy in performance. The identifiable characteristics that make a Beethoven symphony sound different from a Brahms symphony, or acid rock different from folk rock, is style. Style is the way in which the elements (melody, harmony, and rhythm) of music are combined. Musicians deal with two areas of style: the composer’s style (Bach’s approach in the Baroque style) and the performance style (as exemplified by Sir Thomas Beecham’s performance of the Messiah versus Robert Shaw’s). Musicians endeavor to faithfully recreate the music according to their stylistic understanding. Why is it that some give their entire lives to the study of style? Why is it that almost every music appreciation textbook written deals with style in music? The obvious answer is that it is through style that music assumes much of its meaning to the listener. Certainly in vocal music concrete meaning is arrived at through texts. But as far as the music is concerned, meaning, both concrete and abstract, designative and embodied,* is generally arrived at through style. In other words, as people are aware of style and its implications through conditioning and psychological associations along with their intuitions, music assumes meaning. Therefore music is probably not a universal language as some have romantically suggested. It is a language that becomes intelligible as any other spoken language becomes intelligible. Each style (Renaissance, Baroque, Classic, Romantic, Modern, 1930 Dixie, 1940 boogie-woogie, 1969 rock, or 1980 disco) has its own set of meanings. To know how to use or to understand music becomes the task of understanding style. Leonard B. Meyer states that “style constitutes the universe of discourse within which musical meanings arise. Style is to music as language is to verbal communication; communication takes place when the listener is conversant with the style.


When communicating verbally, words assume meaning as a language (including a vocabulary) is understood. In order to communicate verbally one must speak English, German, or whatever the language is in which one intends to communicate. Although concrete levels of meaning can come close to being arrived at through verbal communication, there can be a gap between the one who communicates and the one to whom the communication is directed. Excluding the obvious difficulties of the communication process, it is readily apparent that there is little chance of communication’s taking place unless a common language is spoken.


Non-verbal communication is when communication takes place without the use of words. In arriving at meaning in the communication process, one is clearly affected by the body language that is used by the communicator. As a matter of fact, the body language may betray the true intention of the communicator. One can normally use body language as a clue of support or nonsupport of what is in fact said. Importance of meaning can be underlined by the manner in which something is stated. Good communicators develop every aspect of non-verbal communication to assist in effective communication. The theater capitalizes on non-verbal communication to assist in the powerful communication intent.

In the realm of music, non-verbal communication is created by the musical style, for it is through the sounds of music the style that music assumes meaning. Style in music can be equated with nonverbal communication, or body language. Just as gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and inflections give rise to meaning so also do the sounds of music apart from any attached text. In church music where so much of what is performed has texts, listeners are often only tuned in to meanings that arise from the text. However, the whole set of meanings that arise solely from the sounds are often not subtle, being obvious to the listener who knows the language. If one is going to arrive at meaning through any given style of music, one must know the style. (The same is true in verbal communication.) If listeners are unaware of the meaning of a given selection of music (assuming they under-stand the language of the text), the apparent reason is that they do not understand the style of the music itself.

It is precisely for that reason that those who advocate the utilization of pop styles in church music suggest that such styles are most appropriate inasmuch as they are the styles that are best understood by the masses. The so-called classical styles are understood by a much smaller group of individuals and therefore would be inappropriate for utilization in the average church service. If the debate were to stop at that point, I would be pressed to agree. However, when it becomes a matter of appropriateness of style penetrating beyond the surface of mere acquaintance to implications of meanings, more serious complications force this writer to disagree. The meanings, feelings, and moods of pop music are well known. The meanings are beautifully united in the “secular” forms, and the pop world uses them appropriately. The question is, Does the meaning change by changing the text? The concern here is not to point out the inadequacy or inappropriateness of some pop music styles for utilization in the church and thereby imply that only Brahms, Beethoven, or Bach are appropriate. Rather, it is the church musician’s responsibility to locate those styles that are consistent in their meanings with the meanings and intentions of the objectives of the service. Surface level meanings that are appropriate as entertainment and fun are normally not what most churches desire as their spiritual food. Such trivia knowingly desired would be an indictment of the theology and purpose of the church.

If in fact music assumes meaning to people through style, it becomes obvious that in order to determine whether or not a style of music should be used, one must first of all analyze the style to determine what types of responses may be expected. Some appropriate and revealing questions are:

* What meaning does this music have to those who use it within the culture?
* Out of what kinds of values does it come?
* What kinds of people use it and how do they use it?
* What does it mean to those who most frequently use it?

One must also determine whether or not the expected responses are the desired responses or determine if the meaning in the music is what is desired. In other words, are the meanings of the music consistent with the purposes or ends of the service? Needing to recondition a subculture so as to provide new meanings to accommodate a given style is sufficient to cause the integrity of such attempts to be questioned. Moreover, it simply does not work. The meanings of styles in the broad world culture simply cannot be replaced by small church subcultures regardless of the amount of well-intentioned effort. Pop music styles by virtue of their roots and content reflect the pop world culture and the accompanying meanings. Simply changing the words will not change the meanings of the sounds.

A sensitivity to appropriateness of music style is developed through an awareness of both style itself and the context of that style in the world. Church musicians must therefore be conversant with all music styles-and be culturally aware. It is not necessary to become a part of the world to achieve that. They simply must open their eyes and ears in order to see and hear how various music idioms are used. It quickly becomes apparent that what some music styles mean is diametrically opposed to the verbal communication of spiritual texts.

The church musician has the additional task of insuring that his musical values be consistent with and supportive of his theological views. Care must be taken that cultural patterns and meanings of the unregenerated world do not infiltrate the church, causing the church to no longer speak with authority in matters of the spirit. When the mu-sic of the church functions as a vehicle for fun and entertainment rather than as a focal point for worship, praise, and other spiritual experiences, clearly the life blood of the church is being sapped.



Designative meaning is “when a stimulus or process indicates or refers to something which is different from itself in kind as when a word denotes an object or concept which is not itself a word.”* An example is when the word chair refers to an object upon which people sit. In other words, the word chair designates such an object. Within the realm of music, writers refer to that kind of meaning as extra-musical meaning. Designative meaning in music is when a tympani roll represents thunder, a flute or piccolo-part represents birds chirping, or specific orchestral colors create moods or feelings that are outside of the music itself. Football fans may recall having chills go down their spines upon hearing their old alma mater rouser played. That sense of esprit de corps is a learned kind of meaning. The rouser (often in a march style) refers back to meanings that are outside of the music itself. Such meaning results from both an awareness of the musical style within a cultural context and a conditioning to the stimulus itself. Whenever music is used to evoke extra-musical responses (i.e., emotions, bodily responses, or spiritual responses), it is based upon the concept of designative meaning and is functioning within a utilitarian context.

Designative meanings are therefore those meanings that arise out of a musical style (the stimulus) and evoke highly predictable responses that are primarily extra-musical or extra-aesthetic. The world of music therapy as well as the radio and television commercials of Madison Avenue have researched ways in which human behavior can be manipulated through designative meaning. Increased spending in stores where happy music is played through the sound system, a quieting of the nerves in the dentist chair, the purchase of a given product because of a remembered “happy” commercial, or thoughts of passion are all examples of ways in which people respond to designative meanings through styles.


Embodied meaning is when “a stimulus or process acquires meaning because it indicates or refers to something which is like itself in kind. * Within the realm of verbal communication, embodied meaning is when word denotes a word. Embodied meaning is intrinsic to the stimulus or process, and the meaning that arises will be within the context of that stimulus or process. In the realm of music this form of meaning is referred to as musical meaning. Within the context of a given style, “one tone or group of tones that leads the practiced listener to expect another tone or group of tones to be forthcoming” assumes embodied meaning.

This kind of meaning is less precise and necessarily more abstract than designative meaning and yet is satisfying and worthy of pursuit. One has to know a given style with some certainty in order to arrive at embodied meaning. Musicians and many music lovers move beyond the level of designative meaning into embodied meaning because they find it so fulfilling. It is the differentiation between the two levels of meaning that delineates the representational content in music (designative meaning) and the nonrepresentational music content (embodied meaning). Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade or Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration are examples of representational works replete with designative meanings. The fourth symphony of Brahms probably carries little if any designative meaning potential but a profound experience in embodied meaning for those who are attuned to Brahms’s style.

To the musician, textual communication is only part of the whole realm of communication. The educated musician will be as much or perhaps more aware of the levels of communication that take place through the sounds themselves. Those sounds are the realm of musical meanings that so few in the ministry and in church music understand. It is not abnormal for a pastor to be incapable of analyzing the style of a given piece to know the implied meanings, therefore most analyses done are textual ones rather than musical ones. But-to analyze text alone is to do only 50 percent of the job; the other 50 percent is to analyze the music styles. t is the responsibility of church musicians to be informed and lead the way in arriving at the meanings of any given style. That is not to say that the text is unimportant or should not be carefully considered.

In endeavoring to determine the appropriateness of a piece of music, the problem then is not only a textual one but a musical one. It is common knowledge among choral musicians that if the music does not appropriately support the implications and meanings of a text, the piece is not a good piece and is unworthy of performance. (It is said that there is a bad wedding between the text and music.) When there are literally thousands of pieces where the music fits the text and the text fits the music, it is highly questionable for any individual to choose selections where a paradox of meanings can be created. Yet some current trends are best characterized by just such a paradox.


In summary, music assumes meaning, both designative and embodied, as performers and listeners understand the style. Music that is pitches, harmonies, melodic lines, and rhythms does not intrinsically mean. People give meaning to the sounds through their conditioned and intuitive responses. The capacity for a satisfying level of understanding is directly related to the individual’s stylistic awareness. The church musician cannot assume that ignorance is bliss. Although many people cannot give specific reasons as to why they think there can be duality of meaning between styles and texts, they at least will have some intuitive awareness that a paradox is created. Regardless, it is the musician’s responsibility to lead the way and not capitalize on and take advantage of a lack of musical awareness in the congregation. To perpetuate trends that rely on naivet in the church is hypocritical at best. Trite words should give rise to trite music. Profound words and ideas should give rise to profound music. There are many hymns that are very simply written but are profound in both their musical and textual content.

The musician must always analyze the text and the music separately. A musician must not allow a text to subjectively predetermine the meanings of a piece. It is important to analyze the sounds of the music completely separated from any given text. Separate analysis is necessary to ascertain that there is congruity in the feelings, moods, and meanings of both the text and the music style. If there is incongruity, the piece should be judged to be unworthy of use.

Some time ago I recall hearing a piece based on the text “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” It was set to an upbeat flippant style that rendered the piece a paradox of paradoxes. The cross and its implications are only worthy of a musical support that has profundity, sobriety, and an awareness of what Christ’s death cost. To sing of the wondrous cross in a flippant manner reflects not only a stylistic lack of awareness but a spiritual unawareness as well. A similar incongruity is reflected in a number of gospel songs of recent years dealing with the theme of the joy of the Christian. Once again, the incongruity of the joy motif as reflected in the style of the music is readily apparent. On the one hand, theologically it is said that the joy of the Lord surpasses anything the world can offer and is of a spiritual nature. Yet the music style often reflects the fun of the life of sin. The dilemma probably resulted from either the song writers’ being musically in-adequate to express the joy of the Lord or from their not being spiritually sensitized to the differences that exist between the joy of the world and the joy of the Lord.

One other trend that needs to be questioned is the use of seductive love ballad styles that focus on Jesus Christ as the erotic lover. The language used both musical and textual to describe the agape love relationship of the Lord and Savior must of necessity not smack of today’s lusty, sensuous, cheap love. The true tragedy of the situation may not lie in the fact that there is a disparity between the text and musical style, but may be in the fact that the paradox is an accurate commentary on the spiritual life of the church itself. Can it be that the joy or love that is proclaimed by the church is in fact the same joy or love that the world expresses through its pleasure? Certainly some current church music trends lead to that conclusion.



It is only right to expect careful analysis of a text in determining suitability for any music performance situation and, most important, the church service. The choral musician and the church musician commonly develop music skills as other musicians do but also deal with the art of text or literature, consequently needing skills in textual analysis as well. Regardless of the situation, the text usually reflects at least 50 percent of the whole communication element. In church music, the text carries the more concrete verbal levels of meaning and is therefore vitally important to the achievement of spiritual communication.

In recent years there have been societal trends to downplay correctness of grammar, syntax, and beauty of speech. Educated young people (as well as their parents) often deliberately use incorrect speech (as so as to not appear too sophisticated or intelligent. One hears “it don’t matter” and “there’s lots of with considerable frequency among educated people. Where there is a waning emphasis placed upon excellence of speech, the same trend can be expected to influence texts of songs. That is one of the areas where cultural trends have had a questionable influence on the church. The relevance concern has encouraged the inclusion of colloquialisms and trendy expressions in texts by songwriters who hope to be “with it.” Unfortunately, in the same vein many marvelous and worthy hymn texts have been altered in recent hymnbook publications so as to render them current. There is no problem with change where the poetic or artistic integrity is maintained if there was any in the first place. However, change that issues in weakness and plays to trends that tend to encourage less thoughtful involvement by the participants, yet goes under the disguise of encouraging increased involvement, needs to be strongly objected to. In a sense, Shakespeare is dated (there are probably those who would like to modernize his language), but it is timeless to those who are willing to exert the intellectual energy of an involvement and appreciation of great art. “I’m thinking of killing myself,” although an accurate paraphrase, can never have the impact of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Shakespeare has a powerful communication potential that supersedes vocabularies based upon three-letter words.

In addition to negative cultural influences, buzz word syndromes influence church music texts. It may not be long before there is a song suggesting how super Jesus is and how super one should feel as a result. The “really really” generation searches for authenticity of experience and endeavors to express that search in trite language. “I’m really glad that Jesus is really my friend, and I really know that He’ll really go with me to the end.” It is little wonder, then, that some church music texts focus on relevant buzz word language and superficial subjective experiences resulting in both questionable language and content. Far too many texts are “I” or “how I feel” in orientation. Scriptural truth is often referred to casually if at all. What often finds its way into some churches as contemporary gospel music is textually quasi-religious at best, with little or no solid scriptural basis and focus.

An analysis of texts for the purpose of spiritual communication and spiritual response is therefore critical. A text must not only coincide with basic biblical premises but should reflect the integrity arid value of the Word itself. When dealing with eternal values and the souls of mankind, shoddy or “cute” texts do not enhance the import of the message. Certainly subjective experiences focusing on the individual rather than the Godhead are chancy anyway. People’s feelings change with great frequency. However, God does not change. The subjective response of man to God’s work in the world and one’s life are important. But subjective experience as a singular diet is disastrous to the nurture and growth of the believer. The gospel must be presented in simplicity and clarity, yet its integrity should not be impuned in the process. Ultimately there is no contradiction between the ideals of simplicity and correctness.

The solution in contemporary music is to encourage the development of literary and poetic skills of authors and not accept marginal materials unworthy of a musician’s time and effort, much less God’s glorification. Careful scrutiny as to theological consistency with the teachings of the Word as well as appropriate language will help to eliminate unworthy texts and will provide the stimulus for helpful spiritual experience. Also, a willingness to experience spiritual truth through historically proved texts should not be unthinkable. Even today, young people can learn to use and love old hymn texts if the hymns are approached positively. Thinking young people are as much concerned about froth in spiritual experience as are older generations. The current trend of using Scripture verses set to folk-style music is a positive and hopeful example of that concern.


Music analysis is often more difficult for some church musicians than is textual analysis. In order to ascertain appropriateness of musical style one has to be conversant with all of the styles currently extant, with the way those styles are primarily used, and with the normal contexts of their meanings. Within the realm of the classics, a stylistic awareness of Gregorian, Renaissance, Baroque, Classic, Romantic, and a number of twentieth-century styles is needed. In addition, if one adds to the list all of the pop, jazz, rock, folk, and gospel styles, the task may seem formidable. But of all the members of the church staff, if the church musicians do not know style and lead the congregation in meaningful music experiences, who will? All too often, musicians build cases of appropriateness or inappropriateness based on textual analysis alone. People do not need to be musicians to analyze texts. A church musician needs the skills not only to perform various styles accurately but to understand them as well. To be a fine conductor, organist, or singer is not enough. Performance skills are important, but they do not prepare musicians for the necessary decision-making process. Having a great talent as an orchestrator, arranger, or organist does not qualify an individual to lead the church in understanding the theological, philosophic or psychological aspects of the music used. As mentioned earlier, practitioners of the art are strictly that and no more.


It is no more music directions to be determined by name musicians who are new believers than it is for the theology of the church to be determined by a newly converted philosophy major. Being able to effectively, logically reason in the method does not qualify one in theology. Because one can play the piano or create beautiful orchestrations does not mean that one is philosophically qualified in church music. The analysis of the music score in church music is a process involving

* the awareness and integration of music styles, theology, and Scripture
* the applying of that analysis to church service objectives
* the anticipation of (and capitalizing on) how people respond to and normally use the styles in question

That synthesis and integration of knowledge can only take place by one who is not only mature in the skills of music but also mature in the skills of understanding Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture is there the suggestion that if one becomes a believer the regeneration experience will also provide a supernatural wisdom on matters of church music. A style that, for example, encourages a burlesque queen to remove her clothes is not going to have a different meaning because some religious words have been added and it is performed in a Sunday evening church service rather than a theater. The commercial pop styles selling sex or toothpaste only cheapen the gospel message when a religious text replaces the old one. Pandering Jesus Christ in the same idiom as a television commercial does a gross injustice to the ministry and message of Christ. Yet the church has sometimes been led to believe that such allegations are false and only a figment of the imagination of overly educated stodgy church musicians. Time after time serious scholars of church music who do know better have been unjustly minimized by new Christians or others who somehow refuse basic logic.

I will not soon forget a conversation I overheard a few years ago by several “outsiders” from a secular university when the song’ “;He Touched Me” was being crooned. At first the young people began giggling at the text sung by the sultry female. They quieted down after a while, but their response to the text, the music style, and the performance style (which included every sensual gimmick a seductive female singer could use) was appropriate. Not long after that experience I heard the same opening phrase sung by a woman on a television commercial advertising Chantilly perfume. The gist of the message of the commercial was “he touched me” (in the physical sense) because she had the perfume on. The sensual style was appropriate for the occasion, and there was total congruity between the seductive performance style, the text, and the music. If people responded honestly to the music styles of much of what they hear in church services today, the church would become just another theater or nightclub setting with the expected responses of such establishments. There is nothing wrong with clean entertainment per se. However, I believe the church has a different mission in the world.

By now, there are undoubtedly readers who have questions concerning how certain styles, if they are so inappropriate, can be the source of so much blessing. How can it be that such styles can apparently lead so many to the Lord? One possible answer may lie in how one defines blessing. The word is often used as a buzz word within a context more suitable to the words fun, joy, pleasure, or aesthetic gratification. Young people in my college choir often have difficulty discerning the difference between a blessing and an aesthetic experience. They prefer to use the word blessing because it sounds more spiritual, or it may be that they have honestly misinterpreted what is actually aesthetic in nature as being spiritual. If an experience results in spiritual insight or it is primarily in the realm of scriptural or spiritual truth, the word blessing is then appropriate. If it is another way of saying, “I enjoyed the music,” then that is something else. What some people think is a blessing is more likely a pleasurable experience with little true spiritual fiber.

Secular aestheticians do not differentiate between the spiritual and aesthetic realms. To them, all such experience is spiritual. For that reason many people find their spiritual food at symphony concerts or other art experiences. It is therefore necessary for the believer to differentiate between those two realms, or the logical result leads to a diminishing of the need for Holy Spirit led (spiritual) experience.

As to the question of so many being saved, it would be difficult to prove that it was the music style that saved them. Undoubtedly pop styles can gain the attention of the young people and others as well. But most likely it is the truth of the Word textually that specifically reaches the hearts. Scripture states that God’s Word will not return to Him void (Isa. 55:11). The sowing of the Word through music of varying styles is possible. To the casual listener why should the church not use serious scriptural texts with music that is fun and alive with emotion? The answer is that the Word deserves more than secular, fun- level experience. God the Spirit often works in spite of man’s feeble efforts to accomplish His will. In evangelism it is not so much that a style results in converts as it is that the Spirit of God works through a text. Undoubtedly, the same people could have become Christians with the same text set to an excerpt of a symphony or “Yankee Doodle.” It is important that church musicians not mislead themselves into thinking that it was a specific style that did the work any more than it is the body language of the pastor in preaching his sermon that causes people to come to Christ. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that issues in changed life experiences, not the pastor’s delivery or the musical style. However, that does not remove from musicians the responsibility of giving Him their best and utilizing their skills to convey spiritual truth. Thinking people seeking spiritual truth deserve the most consistent product and best method of hearing that truth. The question, then, is not, What can we get by with and still lead people into a spiritual experience? Rather, it is, How can the Word best be presented through consistent meanings between texts and music styles? A proper answer will lead to the use of the art of music with no tinge of profanation.

Needless to say, what is here advocated will not be popular with record companies, music publishers, and the Christian pop musicians who base their business on music trends.* However, it is time for the church to formulate its philosophy of church music on the basis of thoughtfully informed insight rather than blindly buying every new moneymaking scheme introduced by the pop music industry. Church musicians and pastors must provide leadership in resisting the tide of inappropriate literature flooding the scene.


If one, in good conscience, is to reject much of what is today produced as, church music, what are the alternatives? Problems are often easily ascertained, but valid solutions are sometimes evasive. In any evaluative procedure it is important to as objectively as possible see whatever good exists in areas thought to be broadly harmful. The following are suggestions as to how to avoid using inappropriate music yet maintain the interest of the entire congregation, young and old.

Education. Use every available opportunity to tactfully educate the congregation in the use of music in the church. Articles in Church papers or bulletins, church music classes for worship committees and others of the congregation, and explanations of textual and musical meanings to all performers in rehearsals are an ongoing and vital part of every church musician’s ministry. Questions by anyone such as, “Why can’t we sing songs like “I Wanna Rock with the Rock of Ages’?” are indicators of what needs to be done educationally in the church. Comments or questions concerning any aspect of the church music program are usually serious and reflect an honest concern. An effective church musician capitalizes on such opportunities and develops a multifaceted educational program touching all departments of the church.

Involvement. The most effective education takes place when the church regularly experiences appropriate music through meaningful involvement. Good or great music performed poorly is the quickest avenue requests for questionable literature. Musicians who select literature too difficult for their choir’s performance and congregation’s meaningful involvement are inviting trouble. It is far better to use simple yet good literature within the range of available performance skills than to use difficult literature far beyond everyone’s reach. Effective music ministry is not only a matter of “getting through a piece; it is a question of mastering it sufficiently so as to get out of the way of the music in order that it may effectively communicate. When musicians have to focus most of their intellectual and emotional energies on the techniques of performance, they usually sacrifice the joy of being ministers off the message. I fear that many well-meaning musicians make the mistake of choosing literature reflecting their own musical capabilities rather than those with whom they work. As choirs and congregations grow in skill and insight, the level of literature used can also grow. If too large a gap develops in that regard, the church musician will lose his effectiveness in the leadership role.

Nurturing. Church musicians and pastors need to nurture the notion that it is not necessary to use music from the Top 40 on the charts of gospel music publishers to have relevant spiritual experiences. As new should not be blindly equated with appropriate by young people, so also old should not be blindly equated with appropriate by older people. There are old hymns and gospel songs no more worthy than the most trite new song. As a matter of fact, some of the most trite, gospel sons of the forties and fifties were the forerunners or the generic heritage of today’s trite songs. Some of the ‘great classic’s musically have texts no more worthy of consideration than some of the current texts. It is essential, therefore, that the church musician have the necessary textual and musical skills to effectively evaluate literature of all styles. One has only to multiply the number of minutes spent by the number of people involved (performers and congregation) to arrive at the total man hours wasted in superficial experience. Just as a pastor may some day be held accountable for the wasted time for which he has been responsible in the pulpit, so may the church musician be held accountable. It is a serious thing not to use precious time as effectively as possible in the world of the Spirit. Time wasted in entertaining endeavors under the disguise of spiritual experience will some day be accounted for. The selection of literature and effective involvement of all in the music experiences are matters of serious consequence and must therefore be carefully planned for and carried out.

Consistency. A total music program will suffer and crumble from within if all literature used in all departments of a Church does not meet the tests of suitability. In some churches the music literature used in the morning worship service is worthy, but in the Sunday school or youth groups the literature is trite. It is as though the church says, “Our children are worthy only of ditties that create meaningless spiritual experience,” or “Our young people only want to sing for the fun of it, not for profound spiritual involvement.” It may be that the young people only enjoy certain styles; but if their services are supposedly for reasons other than sheer pleasure, such concern is misplaced. It is true that much youth music is best used for social purposes, but the objectives of the gatherings are also in need of evaluation. Churches often underestimate the intellectual and emotional sophistication of today’s young people and continue feeding them musical Pablum rather than steak. In public schools young people can do math problems and deal with abstractions far more advanced than prior generations. The sophistication of some of their educational experiences greatly surpass their experiences at church. It is as though the church says to today’s young person, “Do your thinking in school, but come to church to play games.” My personal experience has been that young people will become involved in music experiences that have substance if they are so encouraged and if they experience them at a qualitative level of excellence. As with adults, youth choirs singing good literature poorly is disastrous. However, young people singing good literature with a relatively high level of excellence will do so with the greater enthusiasm they have for performing some of the poor youth music that they seem to enjoy.

In my own church our high school choir presently averages ninetyfive singers who rehearse Tuesday nights for one-and-one-half hours, Sunday mornings for one hour, sing at two worship services every Sunday, and always sing solid and meaningful selections. In addition, the choir presents “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” by Dubois, every year with orchestra and soloists, as well as taking part in other concert opportunities. The young people like jazz and pop music like all young people do today, but when it comes to spiritual experiences they are taught that there is a difference. The skeptics always believe that to-day’s kids will only take part in “Contemporary Christian” music styles. There are a number of churches in addition to my own where that assertion is regularly proved wrong.

It is only a matter of time before the church using bad literature with young people will experience the creeping paralysis of bad literature in the worship service. After all, the young people are the future members of the church. What they know by experience they bring with them through life into adulthood. Young people who only know pop music experiences in youth services and Sunday school will soon expect those same experiences in worship services. The surest path to future weakness is to begin with compromises in the youth programs of the church. Conversely, the best insurance for continued meaningful worship and praise experiences musically is to teach it and implement it in the early years. The result is harmony and unity with no credibility gap between the young and the old of the congregation. Youth music of necessity may be a bit simpler than that used by adults, but it need not be inferior.

Analysis. An analysis of both text and music is essential in ascertaining the suitability of any literature for use in services. Literature is worthy only when the textual and musical meanings coincide and are consistent with the objectives of the service. The avoidance of music-text paradoxes such as those listed below is essential:
Music Text
Trite Profound
Lighthearted Serious
Serious Lighthearted
Sensual Spiritual
Happy Sorrowful
Sorrowful Happy

A good wedding of text and music always results in supportive reinforcement of moods, feelings, and meanings when analyzed both musically and textually. Many years ago, Fred Waring made a statement that I have never forgotten. It is clearly applicable to the point at hand: “If you can’t sing it better than you can say it, why sing it?”

This article A Philosophy of Church Music written by Robert Berglund is excerpted from his book A Philosophy of Church Music.

The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study and research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.