Ask Steve: Church Music

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Question: Steve, what are your views on styles of church music?

Answer: The type of music played in church services is an interesting topic, although one that can be somewhat divisive based on one’s nationality, upbringing, musical tastes, age, etc. The Bible does not explicitly state what kind of music is to be played in church in worshipping the Lord. For this reason, a Christian cannot be too dogmatic on insisting on a certain musical genre or type. However, there are still some good tips that I can propose in approaching this topic, which is my view on styles of church music.

First, the music should be based on truth. What I mean by this is that the lyrics of the song should exalt God with accurate theology. The song should always have biblical content that brilliantly extols the sovereignty, grace, love, justice, truth, power, and even triune nature of the Holy One. John 4:24 states that all worship of God is to be done in spirit and in truth, which is why it is important that the lyrics of the song accurately portray the God of the Bible. The lyrics should not be so vague or general that the songs could be speaking of the God of Islam, Catholicism, or Judaism, and so inaccurate that it portrays a complete idol. It must capture the nature and character of Yahweh, and also point people to reflect upon and worship Jesus Christ through the gospel. That is really the heart of all praise music in church, whether it is contemporary music or traditional hymns. The content of the music not only honors God, but instructs the saints who should be edified by it in all learning and meditation. Ephesians 5:19 instructs the church to “speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father.”

Music 2Second, the music should properly capture what it means to worship in spirit. This means that the music should not only be theologically rich, but resonate with the human heart. This principle is also captured in Ephesians 5:19, as well as in many Old Testament passages. Psalm 86:12 states, “I will give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with all my heart, and will glorify Your name forever.” A word of caution must be said regarding this idea. Sometimes people place too much emphasis on this principle that they get carried away in it, giving themselves over to emotional frenzy without regard to how others around them feel about it. Thus they cause anxiety in public worship and divisions in the church. Music should not do this, as 1 Corinthians 14:33 teaches that the Lord is not one who promotes disorder, but unity and peace within the church. All music should be emotionally resonant, but at the same time, be able to unite the congregation in worship.

Third, the music should be appropriate in the cultural context of the local church. I am now addressing the styles and/or genres of music that should be played in public worship, or even in Bible studies. Questions are asked regarding what style of music should be played. Contemporary worship songs? Christian pop songs? Ancient hymns? Modern hymns? What genre? Pop? Rock? R&B? Hip-hop?

As I have said, Scripture does not specifically forbid or endorse any particular music styles or instruments (except the timbre, lyres, and tambourines that were characteristic of the Old Testament people). If all things are truly done to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31), then all music styles are acceptable to God, given that it is God-exalting and does not contain profane, blasphemous, or questionable expressions (Eph 5:4).

Music 3Though acceptable songs of worship may take many sizes and shapes in the Christian music industry, the church must be cautious in what songs or styles of music to select for public worship. They must be songs that are theologically sound and that causes people to worship the Lord with the right attitude and spirit, and there are a few genres that do not accomplish this as well as certain other genres. For example, I prefer traditional hymns and contemporary worship songs which incorporate a mixture of guitar, drums, and keyboard, and other times organs, piano, and violins. I would find it a bit unsettling if the church made all the congregants sing to hip-hop or heavy metal rock, no matter how clean the lyrics are. It is not because hip-hop and heavy metal are in themselves wicked or tasteless, but that in the context of corporate praise, it might not be the most fitting and unanimously loved choice. This feeling has much to do with the social stigma or cultural affiliation of these music genres, which is often times associated with worldliness and sinful expressions in the secular music industry. That is why it is wise at times to consider whether music like these (or any other practices within Christian liberty for that matter) should be entertained in the church if they are so heavily attached to the unbelieving and/or pagan world. We should never seek to cause others to stumble into sin or be tempted if this is really the case (Rom 12:1-2; 14:13-23; 1 Cor 8:13). However, every situation differs based on cultural and historical context.

With that said, I believe that churches should incorporate music that can best fit the age or cultural demographics of the local church. If the church is composed of mainly old people who love organs and choir, then it is best to go with that particular flow. However, if the church is made up of mostly younger people who can relate better with guitars and drums, then that should the music style of the church. And if the church is made up of a combination of old and young people, then the church should be able to incorporate music that can accommodate both groups fairly well, especially in mixing contemporary songs and old hymns. In any case, music is an important element of church and public worship, but it should never split churches or be a Christian’s sole purpose in choosing which church to be a member of. Sometimes a Christian will have to give up some of his particular tastes in music for the greater benefit and unity of the church. However, my view on music style, again, is that it be done in spirit and in truth, and can accommodate the demographic as best as possible.

Recommended Resource: Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin