The Purpose of Christian Music
By James D. Berkley
Music and the people of God have been partners ever since God called out a people for His Name. Scripture points out that it is God who truly gives a song. At Creation the stars sang together, and when the Jewish nation was born, music was placed in the hearts of God’s people. The Book of Psalms, the hymnal of Israel, is located in the center of God’s Word.
David, the man after God’s own heart, was the “sweet singer of Israel” and calmed his sheep and his king with his harp music. The Jews were the singers of the ancient world. Even when the nation was taken into Babylonian captivity, they were asked to sing (although they had temporarily lost their song through disobedience and had left their harps hanging on the trees).
In temple worship, singing was vital to the proceedings singers and trumpeters with one voice would lift powerful music to God, and He was pleased. Levites (the worship leaders of the nation) who were talented in music were encouraged in every way to discipline and train themselves in the craft of musical composition and performance.
The scriptural refrain “sing a new song to the Lord” has inspired believers in every generation to vital, relevant expression that will magnify the King of Kings. Musical literature is full of sacred expression that has expressed eternal truth from the soul of believers. Perhaps no vehicle of expression has more power than music to address the conscious and subconscious mind of humankind with information that will be retained.
Music is an art form that brings the intellect and emotions together uniquely. Musical texts with biblical and theological substance weld facts and feelings.
Humankind has the ability to be rational and thoughtful about eternally significant truth. A tendency to go by feelings – How do I feel about this – accompanies most people’s rationality, however, and sometimes life situations cause us to react more by how we feel than by what we know to be true. Music of theological merit uniquely informs our feelings. It communicates much of what we know of God and how we respond to God.
A nonsinging Christian is like a nonswimming fish. It is natural for the joyful heart to sing, and no song is greater than the song of the soul set free, no message greater than the fact that we have been forgiven, reconciled to God. The fact that we get good at what we practice should motivate us to rehearse our faith in song and to strive constantly to improve that song to the glory of the God who gave it.
The Language of Emotion
Music can be defined as a language of emotion. It is made up of component parts of tone (timbre) which gives the sound identity, melody (tune), harmony (simultaneous sounding of related pitches), and rhythm (or meter). The juxtaposition of these components is directly related to the innate talent and training of the composer. The art of composition has long been honored by humankind, but historically, many of the greatest artists were not recognized as significantly during life as after death.
Music exists for its own sake, (i.e., for beauty and expression of the otherwise inexpressible). It has also been found to be functional: to accompany dance, to tell a story (i.e., program music) as vocal accompaniments or dramatic accompaniment (as in musical theater and worship).
Often the ‘function’ of music has given the particular sound an inherited meaning. A strong three pattern soon became associated with the waltz (or other dance form). A four-beat march pattern became associated with the military or parades, as in Sousa marches. A rhythm that is in four with accents on the second and fourth beats brings association with jazz or rock. Tempo added to these rhythms sets a mood from relaxed and dreamy to frenzied.
Various timbres of musical sound have become associated with function as well. A smooth, silky violin speaks of romance, a raspy saxophone of sensuous activity, the blast of a trumpet with a call to arms, and so on. Certain kinds of harmonies also have associations. Clustered dissonance represents chaos or unrest. Other altered chords speak the language of jazz. Simple straight chords say hymnic or folk music.
Listening to film scores will further clarify the matter of association. Note the music in a western, a science fiction classic, a love story, a city scenic, a country setting, a lively club, a tranquil forest, a cathedral wedding, a funeral, and so on. Your imagination has probably changed musical association while simply reading this list.
Music in Church History
This matter of association has had a great influence on church music through history, and still does. Certain sounds tend to send messages based upon the activity most commonly associated with that sound. New Testament times undoubtedly produced music that sounded very Jewish, since early Christians came from a temple background.
Familiar Jewish folk music such as “Havah Nagilah” is minor, peppy, and happily melodic, with open harmonies and strong, even rhythm. This music in a “verbal” tradition has been rather consistently preserved through history and can still be heard in neighborhood synagogues.
From the early Roman church came various modes and chants that dominated the music of that church until the Reformation (1520s). All kinds of rules were developed to keep the chant “pure and free from worldly association. Scale systems and eventually harmonic combinations were canonized and then protected for sacred use. Sacred and secular music were, for the most part, clearly distinct. Church music performance was primarily limited to the clergy.
With the Reformation came a move to give the music back to the people. German folk songs (drinking songs) were “sanctified” and brought into the church so the people could sing recognizable melodies and harmonies. These were refined and further defined and nationalized, and thus a hymnic tradition evolved in the various countries and denominations of Christians.
Great debate followed as to the kinds of music permitted for Christians and where and when music could he used. Can singing be accompanied? Can it have harmony? Who can sing the melody? Can words other than Scripture be sung? Can thoughts other than prayers be musically expressed? Who can lead the songs? Denominations split over the answers to some of these endless questions. People served jail time for singing the wrong song at the wrong time or in a wrong manner.
Music has had many limitations specifically spelled out, all in the name of pleasing God. In some situations, it became such a problem that decisions were made to eliminate it from the church altogether. Music is such a dynamic, vital vehicle for the praise of God, the teaching of his people, and the proclamation of the gospel, that the Enemy has constantly worked to neutralize it in the church.
Church Music in the U.S.
In the brief history of the United States, many traditions unique to a given time and culture have grown around church music. Early European settlers brought their country’s and sect’s traditions and were often protective of them. Early in our history, Africans introduced a highly developed, complex rhythm not heard before by the settlers. The combination of these cultures ultimately gave rise to spirituals, blues, jazz, and rock the result of European melody and harmony energized and adapted by African rhythms. Regional influences became recognized in the spirituals and sacred harp of the South, the defined traditions of New England, and the functional folk influences of the West, not to mention the ethnic preferences of communities and denominations.
Various revivals and outstanding movings of the Spirit of God have contributed other unique sounds. Revivalists such as Dwight L. Moody, with musicians Ira Sankey, P. P. Bliss, and others, gave a whole new sound to the gospel. Radio, with music and preachers like Charles Fuller and the “Old-Fashioned Revival Hour,’ brought in chorus-choirs, quartets, and piano styles to the Christian community. The “Jesus movement” of the 1960s and 1970s added its unique brand of sound to Christian music.
Recently the recording studio, with endless possibilities for songs and styles, has flooded the market with music in the name of God. Compact disks, tapes, music videos, and magazines about Christian music represent a giant industry in modern communication. Christian television programming, which creates tastes for large segments of the Christian populace, is having a great influence on what people expect to hear in church on a Sunday morning.
All of these factors have brought us to our current world of music in general, and church music in particular.
Music as an Ally
Christians of all stripes can view music as a great ally in ministry. Those committed to a rich, historical tradition of classic proportions can benefit from a good dose of openness to contemporary sounds and expressions. Those who believe today’s church demands only “now” sound can gain historical perspective and a sense of the continuity of Christian music by learning their musical heritage. Youth needs what experience has taught for support and meaning. Likewise, older Christians need youth to stay vital and alive. Music is a marvelous trans-generational bridge.
Music is a tool in our hands to do the work of ministry. The church is not a museum for preservation of the arts or a showcase of creative talent. It is a vital organism of God, the bride of Christ here to carry out God’s eternal plan. Music allows the people of God to join in one voice to His glory. We can sing the same words at the same time and focus on His attributes of holiness, mercy, grace, and glory. He created us to glorify Himself, and music helps us do it. Music teaches the truth of God; truth sung is permanently planted in the singer’s mind. It is a sure way to teach the alphabet or phonics, and just as sure a way to teach doctrine and theology. Singing it equals retaining it.
Music has also been one of the greatest means of expressing the gospel to unbelievers. Revivalists from Charles and John Wesley all the way to Billy Graham have sung the gospel and had it sung. Contemporary musicians using all the musical resources at their disposal sing the gospel to their generational peers, often with great results. Well-worded metrical texts set to the current musical sound have reached into unbelievers’ hearts with conviction. Interestingly, once a musical style is used evangelistically, it has impacted tradition.
A basic theology of music may be developed by observing some of the occasions in Scripture where music appears prominently. In the worship service described in Exodus 15, several principles emerge: (1) Moses led Israel in singing to and about their exalted God (Verse 2: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.”). (2) Their music rehearsed the mighty, redemptive work of God, who had delivered them from the hand of a formidable enemy. (3) Their song exalted the attributes of God. He is called majestic, exalted, holy, and awesome, and He possesses unfailing love.
The text of their song is a lesson to all who would sing to and about God. Our songs should remind people of the character of God, His absolute victory over the power of sin, and the superior way He leads and guides those He has redeemed. It seems that too often songs concentrate on ourselves and our problems rather than on the Lord, who is the very essence of victorious life.
Another biblical music lesson comes from the Book of Nehemiah, in which the man of God who obediently rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem under difficult conditions dedicates those walls. He sought to carry out the festive occasion in a manner pleasing to the Lord. In 12:27 he calls out the Levites to lead in “songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps, and lyres.” The Levites purified themselves, the people, the gates, and the wall. All who would serve the Lord in music should see to their own purity of heart and motive. It is always vital to ministry that we heed the command of God to be holy and sacrificial toward Him.
Note also how carefully the musical offerings were organized and rehearsed in verses 31 and 38; the choirs proceeded in a carefully planned and orderly manner. The singers performed, led by Jezrahiah, offering sacrifices with rejoicing. The joy was so great that it was heard from far away. The musical offerings gave voice to triumphant hearts, and the entire community became newly aware of the wonder of God. A mark of biblical music ministry is the impact it makes on all who participate, both hearers and performers.
Many more lessons of theological significance may be gleaned by a study of the Psalms. Emotions ranging from tears to dancing, exclamations of fear to praise, clapping to weeping, thanksgiving to complaint were all set to music. The range of musical expression is limited only by the imagination, as we consider the incredible greatness of God and the tremendous need of humankind to relate to Him.
One final Bible passage informing our theology of music comes from the pen of the Prison Apostle who sang with great power in the Philippian jail (Acts 16). Paul instructed both the Ephesian church (5:19-20) and the Colossian church (3:16) with similar words. He established a priority of variety in singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”
What exactly qualifies as each kind of music has been widely debated, but the fact remains that we should sing psalms, and there are 150 easily definable ones in the canon of Scripture. Hymns are usually regarded as being of human composure but solidly God-centered in terms of declaring His power and attributes (objective in nature). Spiritual songs usually are considered more subjective and based more on our experience. Some would even define them as extemporized “songs of the spirit” primarily intended for private worship. The overarching principle here is to balance our singing to include all of these in an effort to express a view of God that is fixed in His eternal Word (psalms), His immutable character (hymns), and our relational experience in knowing Him (spiritual songs).
A Costly Sacrifice
There are challenges to music ministry that must be faced if we are to be effective. Hebrews 13:15 refers to our sacrifice of praise as the fruit of lips that confess his name. A study of biblical sacrifice reveals the mandate to give to God the best, a costly sacrifice. This surely rules out shabby, poorly rehearsed musical offerings. This principle to serve God with our best may vary from person to person, but we and God both know when we have done our best for Him.
Mankind’s tendency to claim glory that belongs only to God presents musicians another challenge. The flesh has a habit of looking for human approval. Too frequently well-rehearsed and well-trained musicians seem to obstruct the view of God by communicating the notion that they are great. This puts no premium on shabbiness in the name of humility; it is intended only to remind us that God will not share his glory with another, and that he resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. The lofty goal of excellence with humility is one to which every musical servant of God should aspire.
The need for meaningful enjoyment for the believing community is valid. The danger, however, is to fill the need for fame and fortune instead of the eternal glory of God. We must constantly ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” And come up with a God-honoring, honest answer.
Music offers the people of God one of their most valuable assets. The worship of God – our highest priority – is powerfully served by music. With united voices we sing back to God His wonder-working power in sovereign design. One generation can declare God’s power to another in song, and teach them of Him. The educational power of music is undisputed. The unbeliever can be confronted with God’s eternal truth effectively through music. All of ministry – worship, edification, and evangelism – has music as a willing, powerful tool.
Music has been used in these three dimensions for generations. Our task is to learn from history, align ourselves with it, contribute to it, and express God’s truth, until He calls us to Himself – the church triumphant, in which “the song” will continue eternally in musical terms we can’t even imagine here and now.
The Purpose of Christian Music . By Gordon L. Bonus.