Music in Worship

Music in Worship
Garth Bolinder

My wife and I were seated high in the Minneapolis Civic Auditorium, where approximately seven thousand were celebrating our denomination’s centennial. Up front, four choirs were leading in worship. To demonstrate both diversity and unity in Christ, the choirs were from Hispanic, Korean, Anglo, and black churches.

At one point the black choir from Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago burst into a rousing anthem that asked everyone to “stand up and be a witness for Jesus.” Almost in unison, the entire centennial congregation stood, clapping and singing, to declare its solidarity as witnesses called of God.

Then the four choirs began to mingle in what seemed a chaos. To the pulpit came a pastor, who read the majestic words of Revelation 7, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ”

Suddenly the combined multi-ethnic choir exploded in the mighty words of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Again the audience was on its feet. Some heads were bowed. Others were held high with hands outstretched. Radiant smiles were on faces and tears were in eyes. Hands were clasped as the entire company of believers joined in joyful, loving praise to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It was an eternal moment that illustrated music’s incredible power, as Bach put it, to “glorify God and recreate the spirit.”


When we reflect on the life of God’s people, both in Scripture and in church history, it is obvious that God loves music! From Jubal and his pipe and lyre in Genesis, through the musical hosts at the temple worship, through New Testament songs, hymns, and spiritual songs, to the heavenly choirs in Revelation, music has been at the center.

Though music has taken many forms and had many uses, worship has been its primary purpose. As Winfred Douglas said at the 1935 Hale Lectures at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, “Worship is the primary and eternal activity of redeemed mankind.”

William Temple wrote, “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”

According to Jesus, there is only one true object of worship: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10). Music is first and foremost a ministry of worship to God. It is a gift we bring to our heavenly Father. This radically affects the way we choose church music.

Several years ago, when living in New England, my children and I attended a concert by the Northeast Connecticut Concert Choir. My wife sang in that choir, as did several friends from our church. We sat next to a neighbor, a good friend, yet one who expressed little interest in Christianity.

The concert concluded with John Rutter’s magnificent “Gloria.” As the choir and orchestra blended voices and instruments in the words “Gloria, in excelsis Deo,” a transformation took place. No longer was this just a proper Sunday afternoon concert for the culturally interested (and those who would leave television football early). The music swept us heavenward. The audience was awestruck.

The explosive applause at the end was more spontaneous agreement than appreciation. My neighbor friend turned to me with tears in his eyes. I, the pastor, and he, the agnostic, embraced in wordless affirmation. Music had been the bridge from the senses to the soul.

God alone is worthy to be praised. We are made to worship. If we really believe this, music will be a prepared offering, not a spiritual pacifier. As Austin Lovelace and William Rice write in Music and Worship in the Church, “Our gifts to the God who created us, sent his Son to us, and guides us by his Holy Spirit should be worthy of acceptance. If this be true, our gifts should represent some cost to us. A shallow hymn, a sloppily sung anthem, are hardly fit gifts to bring as an offering to God, for they cost us little or nothing. If more work is required to sing a better hymn or to prepare a finer anthem, should we do less than our best to bring a ‘living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your spiritual worship?'”

This attitude differs from our culture, which primarily sees music as a means of stimulating and/or soothing human emotion. It is largely feeling-oriented – which is too often our view of music in the church. The comments of several pastors I interviewed reflected this. A friend in Massachusetts felt music should prepare people for the message from the Word of God. Another pastor in Illinois commented that music should be contemporary in order to appeal to all types of people. Another spoke of the need to keep music plain so no one would be offended. A friend in California thinks music should “be exciting so people get excited about God.”

All these may be important, but they pale in significance if our primary purpose is to give glory the God. Music ministry is more than “emotion, commotion, and promotion.” From a trained, even paid, soloist singing a recitative from the Messiah, to a high school choir singing the latest contemporary Christian hit, to a young child singing “Jesus Loves Me” in the Sunday school Christmas program, the first priority of music ministry is singing unto the Lord. Any pastor, regardless of musical interest or ability, can encourage such a perspective in the church.

Lovelace and Rice offer the following criteria for worship music:

1. Does the music speak the feelings and thoughts of the true worshiper? Is it related to life itself?

2. Does the music express universal truths as well as individual emotions? Does the music help each individual to grow in Christian stature?

3. Does the music speak of eternal mysteries? Does the greatness of the music suggest the greater majesty of God?

4. Is the music creative in design and performance? Does it help make the time of worship one of new insights, new visions, and new approaches to God?

5. Have composer and performers assumed moral responsibility for creative integrity and excellence of craftsmanship in presenting the Word of God?

I’ve found these questions important to ask, because they focus on why I do what I do. If I really believe, in Kierkegaard’s well-used words, that God is the audience in worship, then everything I do and direct should be pleasing and honoring to him. One doesn’t need to be a five-star chef to make sure the toast doesn’t burn. I don’t have to be an accomplished musician to make sure our musical offerings have integrity.

This positive attitude becomes contagious. I regularly get phone calls from soloists, youth choir directors, and even accompanists, asking if their choice of music (not only for Sunday mornings but Sunday evenings as well) is appropriate to the sermon theme or focus of the service. I’ve never insisted on such control. Rather, I think our folks are seeing the value of a clearly defined purpose in worship. They want to participate in harmony.


Of course, the more we plan, the more we want to plan. It takes work, but it’s well worth the effort.

Planning is hard work. People will always resist it, including pastors. Once Martin Luther’s friend and nemesis Andreas Carlstadt complained that it was unnecessary to spend time in music planning and hymn composition. He even objected to harmony, because there was only one faith, one Lord, one baptism.

To which Luther quipped, “Then Carlstadt should have only one eye, one ear, one foot, one knife, one coat, and one penny.”

We need only to read about the great festivals of the Old Testament to realize the significant preparation necessary for divine worship.

There are many ways to plan. We each have our own system of aiming at the future. I’ve found I need to have regular meetings with all those associated with our worship services. Not only do we have weekly general staff meetings where we evaluate, brainstorm, and plan, but each week I meet with the minister of music to compare calendars, share ideas, review services, and focus on the future. We try to keep thinking six months ahead. And, yes, I need to be held accountable for this.

Of the several structures one can use, the most common ones seem to be the Christian year, the preaching schedule, and special events. Some churches use a combination. I mention the Christian year because it has the longest history. Formalized since the fourth century, it provides a New Testament parallel to the Old Testament cycles of feasts and remembrances. Thus the entire year is divided into the great redemptive themes of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (what a splendid word!), Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

Some evangelical churches may find this “too liturgical.” Every tradition has its own liturgy, however. Even regular “sharing time” on Sunday nights is liturgical. So the question becomes “Why do we order our music and worship the way we do?”

Personally, I have a growing appreciation for the Christian year because it does, in Henri Nouwen’s words, “shape our personal stories into the One True Story. Usually, we try to shape His Story into ours.” So, even as I write these words, I’m reminded that the season is Pentecost, and I need the indwelling Spirit for guidance, creativity, and strength.

If you choose this method for worship planning, including music, the process becomes both ordered and exciting. Hymn selection, anthems, and special music are all influenced by the reason for the season. Within these guidelines, creativity emerges. Several years ago, during Advent, we used Sunday nights to walk through the Christian year. It was a novel experience for most of the congregation.

First we talked about the theme of redemption in the Old Testament and walked through the cycle of feasts and sacrifices, each one signifying a mighty divine intervention. We talked about the meaning of these events for the people of God. We even imagined their songs. Then we turned to the back of our hymnals and found the lectionary of seasons and Scriptures. We talked about the coming of the Messiah, the already and the not-yet. We sang Advent hymns about preparation and expectation. We read Scriptures of judgment and consolation, both Advent themes. We personalized the season, asking where we each needed to prepare the way for Messiah. Then we prayed, asking for a fresh divine visitation in our personal lives, our families, our jobs, our church, our community, our world.

It was marvelous! The services were simple. The hymnal was our primary aid. No gimmicks were needed, because the story spoke for itself. Everyone from youngest child to oldest adult became both storyteller and story receiver during that season.

Canon Michael Green says a distinctive characteristic of the early church was its incessant “babbling” of the gospel. The people couldn’t stop talking about Jesus. Ordering music and worship into the Christian year helps such holy and joyful babbling continue.

Another method of music planning revolves around preaching. As mentioned in the previous chapter, having a preaching schedule not only gives structure and security to the music minister but also helps the pastor plan and preach better. A preaching schedule insures that the preacher and musician are heading in the same direction. It guards against such ludicrous embarrassments as a sermon on temperance preceded by that lovely anthem “Ho! Everyone That Thirsteth. ”

Every week our music minister and I spend about a half hour evaluating and planning, each with sermon schedule in hand. What a harmonizer this is. She has a starting place from which to select appropriate music, and I get a preview of “coming attractions.” Several weeks ago I found out Lois had chosen Tom Fettke’s beautiful anthem “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” to coordinate with my sermon on Creation. Knowing that this anthem would complement my message gave me renewed inspiration and encouragement. With the music running through my mind, sermon preparation became worship. I could hardly wait for Sunday to come so I could hear both anthem and sermon (even if I was preaching).

Special events, holidays, and recognition days also provide structures for music planning. Like many pastors, Ray McGinnis, a Free Methodist minister in western New York, has a special independence theme every year on the Sunday closest to July 4. Patriotic music and symbols are tastefully integrated into the larger biblical theme of freedom in Christ. Every time I’ve worshiped in such a service, especially in a rural church, I’ve come away grateful for the privilege/ responsibility of being a Christian in America in a needy world.

Planning gives purpose. Hymn selection becomes a meaningful exercise. Until several years ago, I relied on either my limited hymn knowledge or the suggestions of my music minister. Now I’m growing in my understanding and appreciation of hymnology. To do so is to realize that, while all hymns have some use, some have more use than others. Evangelicals seem to slide particularly toward hymns of sentiment rather than substance. We like hymns and choruses that speak about God or about our experience with him. Though the past decade has seen a renewal in praise choruses directed to God, I think there’s great room for improvement in hymn use.

There’s probably even room for more pastors to venture into the uncertain arena of hymn making. On several occasions I’ve written additional verses to hymns in order to tighten the connection with the theme of the sermon. I put such a verse in the bulletin, with no by-line. Hearing the entire congregation sing those new words gives me all the affirmation I’ll ever need. (Who knows, maybe they think I’ve uncovered a rare manuscript?)

Resources abound to help the pastor interested in hymnology. Anything by Eric Routley is most helpful. His Hymns and the Faith (Seabury Press, 1956) is an excellent introduction into wise selection and use. Also very useful are two books by James Sydnor, Hymns: A Congregational Study and Hymns and Their Uses, both published by Hope.

I’ve been fascinated to sit down with our hymnal and study its rich contents. The categories, Scripture references, even composers and dates add insight into hymn origin and use. For instance, it’s encouraging to remind the congregation of Fanny Crosby’s blindness before they sing “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.” To learn that Girolamo Savonarola, author of “Jesus, Refuge of the Weary,” eventually met a martyr’s death is to add deep meaning to the words of that fine Passion
hymn. And what a surprise it is to realize that the author of “Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain” is none other than John of Damascus (a. D. 696-754). Imagine how he’d feel to hear his hymn used every Easter some twelve hundred years later.

But that’s the beauty of music ministry. To borrow a phrase, “it’s a gift that keeps on giving.” Creativity flows when music ministry is planned. I believe spontaneity is the result of planning rather than a haphazard jump. To wait for “any favorites” or “the Spirit to move” is to miss out on the creative discovery that comes through the discipline of preparation. This isn’t to dismiss those unplanned moments of elation that grace worship, but even Paul the apostle had to caution the Corinthian church that all spontaneity wasn’t necessarily spiritual.

This leads to the next area of music and worship.


We live in a performance-oriented culture. The better we impress people, the louder the applause. No wonder church musicians sometimes try to imitate those who impress people best.

Worship, however, seeks to honor God, not people. The more we understand this, the more authentic will be our music ministry. Here pastors can lead by encouragement and example.

Usually, at the beginning of the fall season I visit the choir at a rehearsal and thank them for their dedication. I remind them of their importance to the ministry of the church. From the very moment of entrance they are observed and emulated by the rest of the congregation.

I tell them of the first time I saw a Norm Johnson choir enter the sanctuary. Every member immediately bowed his or her head in genuine prayer. There was no looking around or talking to each other. Their entire posture suggested meditation and preparation. Most of the congregation bowed with them in humble expectation.

Performance, I tell them, is first to God. Therefore, all their hard work and sacrifice will be worth the effort. I even throw in a little C. S. Lewis opinion that it’s better to abolish all church music than to abolish the difficult work of a trained choir.

Then I pray for them at rehearsal and usually on the following Sunday morning in worship. How they perform! But it’s unto the Lord. And it’s contagious.

What about “special music”? First and foremost, it too is a musical offering. Almost every church has some people who have musical gifts. These good folks need to be encouraged and equipped. Working with the minister of music, pastors can formulate a policy that helps musicians lead worship. Selected well in advance, these people may need help in music choice, spiritual preparation, even appearance.

To sing or play well in corporate worship can be a part of one’s spiritual growth. I was interested in a recent quote by well-known conductor Lukas Foss: “If a performer feels he gains a sense of identity in a work, then he will want to play it again.” Apparently, the making of music especially unto the Lord can be both a pleasing offering and a powerful spiritual formation.

But a perennial question arises: Which is more important, the quality of the music or the intent of the person? Every church has people who feel convinced of a call to music ministry, while the rest of the church (including the pastor, at whose door the buck stops) feels otherwise.

There is no hard and fast rule, but if a final decision is needed, I put people over performance. While always striving for excellence and encouraging people to do the same, we need to realize that even the finest musical offering by the greatest musician is paltry to the Almighty. Do we dare presume we can add to his musical appreciation or impress him with our melodic expertise? To borrow an incarnation analogy from C. S. Lewis, slugs may make great music for other slugs, but most humans aren’t too impressed. God loves music, but his Son lived among, taught, healed, died, and rose again for people. Music is like any other ministry. It is people.

When author Madeleine L’Engle first started attending the village church near her Crosswicks country home in Connecticut, she found herself volunteering to organize and direct a long-dormant choir. She writes in A Circle of Quiet, “Some of them couldn’t stay in tune and pulled the whole group down into a flat, sodden mass. One woman stayed in key, all right, but at full volume at all times, and with an unpleasant, nasal whine. If the choir was to be a success, the obvious first thing to do was to ease out some of the problem voices.

“But I couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, but something told me that every single person in that choir was more important than the music. ‘But the music is going to be terrible,’ I wailed to this invisible voice. ‘That doesn’t matter. That’s not the reason for this choir.’ I didn’t ask what was, but struggled along. The extraordinary, lovely thing was that the music got to be pretty good, far better, I am now convinced, than it would have been if I’d put the music first and people second.”

Purpose informs planning, which then shapes performance. If a pastor is so directed, the music ministry of the church will follow. When I smile and sing heartily during a hymn (rather than thumb through my sermon notes), the congregation sings much better. When I become absorbed in the choir anthem (instead of talking to an associate on the platform), I notice the congregation paying rapt attention. My public affirmation and integration of music ministry into the larger worship service pave the way for the congregation to follow.

But if the pastor helps shape music ministry, I’ve discovered an even greater miracle. Music ministry helps shape the pastor.

On a Sunday morning several years ago, all our choirs were singing together. They filled the platform and spilled into the aisles. I was hidden behind them, but I could see, in the midst of that sea of heads, the silken hair of my two daughters, Megan and Arwen, and my wife, Dixie. First Arwen’s choir, the youngest, started singing, “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice, to worship you; 0 my soul, rejoice.”

Then the Good News Singers, Megan’s choir, joined in: “Take joy, my King, in what you hear; may it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.” The junior high and senior high choirs blended their voices.

Finally the adult choir entered this musical gift to God, and the entire congregation seemed transformed. There I was, the preoccupied pastor, completely hidden from view, while beautiful children and adults, including my own family, led me to the throne of grace.

With a trembling smile on his face, one very tired pastor caught a radiant glimpse of a heavenly worship yet to come. I knew right then that everything else would be preparation for that Day. And I can’t wait to face the music.

Article “Music in Worship” excerpted from “Music, Youth and Education”. Article written by Garth Bolinder.

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.”