The Polarization of Music in the Church

The Polarization of Music in the Church
Dr. Lindel M. Anderson

Synopsis: The controversy surrounding music in the church seems to be growing. As our congregations become more multi-cultural and the growing plethora of musical genres are introduced to the church, the worship leader/music minister has a greater challenge than ever before to sing music that is relevant to a diverse group of worshippers. God is not the author of discord, he is the promoter of unity. How can we please God by bringing disunity to the church? How can we possibly unite the generations and the many cultures that comprise the modern Apostolic Church and bring them together in a song of praise to the ONE true God?

Music has been around a very long time: “And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ” (Genesis 4:21).

Music is especially important to younger people: “The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their musick” (Lamentations 5:14).

Music has been a part of worship to the one, true God for a very long time: “It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the LORD; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the LORD, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the LORD; So that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of God’ (II Chronicles 5:13-14).

Music was part of the lives of Jesus and the disciples: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30).

Martin Luther (1500s)

“…next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…Our dear father and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms. This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might therby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God…A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

The Bible was authored roughly 2,000 years ago, and the Creator knew that it had to be written to be completely relevant over an extreme range of cultures and technological developments. For subjects that are absolutely unchanging, such as baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit, the directions are simple and direct. For other subjects, however, that are inextricably linked to culture and technology, specific details are left out and basic principles were established.

Music in the church clearly falls into the category of a subject that is tightly linked to culture and technology. It is seriously doubtful that any of the music we enjoy today in our services sounds much like what was heard in the early church. As an illustration, is it possible that any type of church music can be conducted without some sort of keyboard? Given that the piano was not developed until the 1700s, and the predecessor harpsichord was not around before the 1500s, it would seem that the early church somehow managed to struggle through in the pre-keyboard era.

As another example, a quick listen to recordings of local church music from non-western countries during missionary services quickly reveals that even today, all sorts of interesting sounds and utterances can be part of a joyful noise.

Much of what we know about early church music is from records of church decisions concerning what was acceptable and what was not acceptable music. The controversy concerning musical style is not new.

At first, harmony was unacceptable. It was thought to be too beautiful for the church or for Christians who were supposed to deny themselves of “worldly lusts” and things that are beautiful. The church leaders taught that you should not have nice things or enjoy yourself in this life, but in the life to come.

All sacred music had to be in 3/4 time. Three beats per measure with one beat for the Father, one beat for the Son, and one beat for the Holy Ghost. Secular music was in 4/4 and was not allowed in church.

When the organ appeared in the 500’s, it was at first opposed by the Christians as pagan and inappropriate for churches. The organ eventually found solid footing in the church. But 1300, every significant church possessed an organ.

Charles Finney (1835)

“It was thought best to have a select choir of singers sit by themselves, so as to give an opportunity to improve the music. But this was bitterly opposed. How many congregations were torn and rent in sunder by the desire of ministers and some leading individuals, to bring about an improvement in the cultivation of music, by forming choirs! People talked about ‘innovations,’ and ‘new measures,’ and thought great evils were coming to the Churches, because the singers were seated by themselves, and cultivated music, and learned new tunes that he old people could not sing.”

In my lifetime, I’ve heard of churches almost splitting over whether or not they should have a grand piano on the platform.

Worship music often reflects the culture’s music, though admittedly there is a delay in the church’s adaptation of cultural patterns. The musical forms and instruments of worship in West Africa will differ from that of Nebraska simply because the cultures are different. Each will use different rhythms, styles, instruments and traditions. And the musical forms of a downtown church full of middle-aged folks will differ from that of a brand-new church full of singles and younger couples, because their cultures are also different. Ultimately, worship is an expression of the people and that articulation is almost always expressed in a way that is culturally comfortable.

So what does the New Testament say about the kind of music that we should involve in our worship?

“Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;” (Ephesians 5:19-20).

Definition of Psalms, Hymns & Spiritual Songs

Psalms – The apostolic church used the Psalms of the Old Testament to assist their praise to the Lord. The greek word is psalmos, which primarily denoted a striking or twitching with the fingers (on musical strings); a sacred song or scriptural song, sung to musical accompaniment.

Hymns – The first Church did not have hymn books as we do today. The Greek word is humnos, which means “a song of praise addressed to God.”

Spiritual Songs – According to W. E. Vine, the phrase means “songs of which the burden is the things revealed by the Spirit.” It is a song inspired by the Holy Spirit or from a spiritual experience.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).

“Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5:13).

“And they sung a new song; saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof- for thou wart slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).

As expected, no firm guidance such as “harps only, by two, or at the most by three” was delineated, but a clear principle can be gleaned. Rather than a particular style or type of music being the requirement, it must be God-centered and lead us toward Him, both individually and corporately.

These scriptures about music are consistent with other New Testament guidance about what we should focus on: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely; whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).There are over 200 scriptures that tell us to sing. It must be important to God. God loves to hear His Bride sing those beautiful love songs that are like a sweet perfume to Him the songs of praise, which are the fruit of our lips.

More than ever before, there is a polarization concerning musical styles used in the church. Everyone has an opinion and doesn’t mind telling you. One generation begrudgingly watches as its songs (with lyrics most often found in a songbook) are replaced by another generation’s songs (with lyrics most often found on a screen). The new songs, so the one grouses, don’t portray a commitment, dedication, or depth that is essential in walking with and worshiping God. The old songs, so the other proclaims, are dreary, dated, and horizontal.

It’s easy for the change agents no matter what their age to see these foundational tithes-payers as frowning anchors, dragging progress to a halt, when actually they’ve paid a great price to make sure we have a place to worship. For us to be unthankful (I Timothy 4) and condescending would be unacceptable.

Besides, “There are two kinds of fools. One says, ‘This is old, and therefore good.’ And one says, ‘This is new, and therefore better.'”

So where is the wise middle ground of progress with respect?

Outline of Music Changes in my lifetime

-only hymns  shaped notes  singing schools
-more worship choruses (people complained that they were too repetitious and shallow
-black gospel influence (Andre Crouch  “Take Me Back”)
-as churches have grown the hymn book has totally been replaced by overhead projectors and computer generated lyrics on a screen. (This was controversial at first  too charismatic!!!
-Praise Singers Praise Teams Song Leader becomes Worship Leader
-Praise & Worship music becomes more prevalent with less singing of hymns. (Some complain that they are too “wordy” and “shallow”. Gloria Gaither says that much of the new music tends to be only the punch line and doesn’t tell the story.

Of course, a great majority of anything new is forgettable. Face it, even the best songbooks are stuffed with few sung after the novelty faded. (Then consider the many average songs that didn’t make it in to begin with.) I believe the hymn books are only a small portion of the music that was written during that era. My mother sang, “Only a Tramp on the Street”.

There were even some bad songs or songs that aren’t relevant to our day that made it in the hymnal. Some examples….”Royal Telephone”, “Bringing in the Sheaves”, “The Great Speckled Bird.” Today we are living the music history as it unfolds. Some of our music today will stand the test of time, while others will not, just as many hymns did not stand the test of time.

We are now saturated with new songs, new sermons, and new ideas for ministry. This isn’t some nefarious movement to supercede the Greatest Generation, but the vagaries of time and creativity. Every generation pushes to replace the previous. The circle is completing itself again. It’s foolishness to believe “The Great Speckled Bird,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” or “Camping in Canaan Land” minister to anyone below 60 today. The language, the metaphors, and the rhythm all speak to a long-distant time that no longer exists.

The genius of praise choruses is their accessibility. No, they can’t possibly be compared to the best mainline hymns, whose depth and complexity properly reflect life, but the catchy simplicity hooks visitors and youth.

However, many new songs are worth celebrating, but aren’t yet recognized as exceptional. Some praise choruses will slip through the gauntlet of time and competition to be sung in future decades. Only a fool would guarantee which songs will persevere.

None of these new entries will taint the all-time classics. No praise chorus will ever top “Amazing Grace” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Likewise, we needn’t tremble in the night over the status of “At the Cross,” “0 How I Love Jesus,” and “Blessed Assurance,” as these hymns will still be sung when Jesus comes.

Still, none of this means praise choruses shouldn’t be given their chance in the spotlight At some point, every generation must accept that their day of dominance is passing. They needn’t accept lesser standards from the rising vanguard, but they must understand that there will always be different methods and varied means in expressing praise and worship to the Lord.

The battle lines in this controversy are too often drawn between the generations. Over the years I’ve heard older people complain bitterly that the music is too loud or the worship leader plays the piano too hard or the new songs are shallow or too wordy, etc. I’ve heard young people complain that he music is boring or that they can’t worship in the Spirit because the worship leader is too old and he only leads old songs!

The beauty is when two different generations treat each other with respect and portray a humble heart toward God. Young people would not be allowed to stick their fingers in their ears or make fun of an elder when they were singing or if the pastor or worship leader leads an old song. Likewise, elder saints should be reprimanded by the pastor for a bad attitude towards new music or music sung by the youth of the church. A bad attitude is a bad attitude if the person is 13 or 83.

Isn’t it refreshing to see a young convert who doesn’t care about the style of music, they are just ready to worship. “Take me back. Take me back, to the place where I first received you…” Sister McFarland at Calvary is a true worshipper.

Too often church people think they’re standing up for their principles when they’re really just disagreeing about methodology. We all differ in our musical tastes, yet we complain or even refuse to worship if the style of music doesn’t suit us. Churches should use a musical style that the majority of the congregation prefers, but styles change. And to complicate matters, there are so many different styles to choose from these days.

When it comes to worship, musical style is not the main issue. The words are. If the lyrics extol Christ, don’t let anyone stop you from worshiping “in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23) The apostle John tells us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). The first test of any worship song or hymn is whether or not the lyrics lift up the name of Jesus.

The older I get the more I realize that musical style is another one of those externals that doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. As long as the lyrics are God-honoring and Jesus is at the heart of it, I’m learning that I can worship with any style of music.

As worship leaders, are we getting too preoccupied with the sounds and songs we are creating? Is there a danger that we look first and foremost at gifting, talent, (musical style’, the beat of the song, etc.) and forget the key thing the heart? We do not worship forms of music we worship God.

A respected worship leader will have fewer problems with people complaining about the style of music he leads. This doesn’t always happen overnight. Respect is earned, not demanded. Character is a big issue and spirituality, too. Also, we must develop a relationship with the people in the congregation. We must never appear that we are the only ones who know what “real” music is.

Some worship leaders have an attitude of superiority. “I’m going to educate these hicks and expose them to some real music.” If you feel that way, you are the only one who will get an education (in humility) and exposed as someone who cares more about showing off your musical expertise than serving the church. Most of us aren’t as smart and cool as we think we are. Some of us don’t like to sing southern gospel. We are too educated and have too much culture. The truth is that more of us are country than not. Even if you live in the north, there are just as many country hicks!

We must do our best to be relevant to the congregation. This becomes much more difficult as our churches are becoming more multi-cultural. Know your congregation. Don’t change too quickly. The music in a urban city church will probably sound different than the music of a small town mid-western church. Don’t sing music from just your favorite style. Do sing hymns!!! Do sing choruses of the 80’s and 90’s. Do sing Urban Gospel. Do sing new music! “Sing unto the Lord a NEW song”. Use a diversity of style. Everything from Bluegrass to Urban.

Who is our service formatted for? The saint or the un-churched? Who will benefit the most? From our opening remarks until the final note is played in altar service, who is the target? Are we just, “having church,” or are we “seeking to save that which was lost?”

If we are programming our services for the lost, then we should go to great lengths to cause the seeker to feel comfortable. They should understand what is going on. They should comprehend the message and they should relate to the music.

In most cases, music is the first impression they will get of the actual service. Our goal should be for their familiarity with the style and melody to cause them to relax. This will allow for a much greater opportunity for God to work in their life.

We’re straying from our purpose if we program everything that we do for the saint. We must instead be reaching for new people every Sunday and thus, plan accordingly.

Jesus was certainly into this mindset. He loved to find where sinners lived and then go there. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the churches in North America to find out where sinners live and go there in our service planning.

We expect our missionaries to discover and adapt to the culture of the country they are reaching and yet, in many cases, we fail to do so back home. We should not fear being current with our culture. Our Gospel is powerful, its truths are untouchable! We need not be paranoid of losing what we have in our pursuit to stay relevant to our ever-changing, progressive society. We must find what they are accustomed to, learn what they enjoy, and discover what makes them comfortable.

Music is an amazing tool for us to show our communities that we understand where they are living. They often feel that the church has no awareness of who they are or what they need! When they hear a song they relate to, it can help break down these preconceived ideas.

Ps 33:3 tells us, “Sing unto him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise.” No less than 9 times the Bible speaks of singing a new song. New in truth or in style? New in message or in melody? New in doctrine or in arrangement? We are not changing the message that we sing. We will never change the truth that we sing about. The God that we worship in our songs is un-changing and thus our songs should always glorify Him as He deserves. However, we are given a direct command in the Scriptures to update and renew our melodies.

The first and most obvious idea is the STYLE of music you play! You need to look at your extended community and create a sound that they will be comfortable with when they enter your building. In doing so, try to think like an unchurched individual who is already skeptical of church and work toward minimizing their apprehension.

Don’t be afraid to make changes in your music department in order to relate better to the seeker. Being current is not compromise. Let’s keep our purpose in mind and work to provide a pleasing and comfortable atmosphere in our churches for the lost to find Jesus.

Aligning ourselves too closely with the popular will not help the church maintain its separation from the world so strongly urged by apostle Paul, “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing…” (II Cor. 6:17). “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2).

Our worship must be genuine. If it is, God accepts it. When the woman at the well realized who she was talking to, she worship him. Jesus accepted her worship because it was real. He didn’t worry if the water was too cold or too hot, etc. He accepted it because she gave it from her heart.

Make it a priority to pray for direction and guidance from the LORD. “God give me wisdom… Give me direction. YOU know the solution to this difficult situation.”

Reference Sources
David Kuhtenia: “Music Styles in the Church”
Kent Curry: “Hymnals are Dead! Long Live Praise Choruses!”
Tim Hughes: “Here I Am to Worship”
Rory Noland: “Thriving as an Artist”
Gary D. Erickson: “Music: On the Rocks?”
Keith Drury: “The Wonder of Worship”
Jonathan Moore: “Music in Ministry”
Cheri Walters: “Get a Giant Hat Rack”

The above article, ‘The Polarization of Music in the Church,’ is written by Dr. Lindel Anderson. The article was borrowed with permission from the author.

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 or research purposes.