Music is powerful! It’s a kind of universal language. Wherever you find people, you find music.
God’s people have always been distinguished by their songs. Yet pastors will tell you that music has been one of the primary sources of conflict in Churches.
How should leaders and congregations respond when faced with controversy over music? I’ll suggest an answer in a moment, but let’s begin with a little reflection on the power of music.
A friend of mine (John) who worked for the university in our town is an example of the power of music. John has always been an avid bicyclist and he faithfully wore a helmet. But one day he took a short ride without his helmet and was cut off the road by a car. John’s bike flipped and when he landed, he hit his head in a way that permanently altered his cognitive-speech skills.
John can only say about 15 words and they don’t make a lot of sense. He is normal in every other way and can still understand me when I speak to him. Strangely, however, the one thing John can verbalize is the hymns and prayers from his Church. I couldn’t believe it the first time his wife told me this. She started a song and John picked right up on it, singing it verbatim! It was amazing! This is one of many examples of the powerful cognitive benefits of music (see: The restoring power of music).
An example of the influence of music is also found in the Wesley brothers (for those who know a little Church history and remember a few good hymns). I doubt many people could quote anything from the extensive writings of John Wesley. John wrote volumes – of books. But his brother Charles wrote songs. And many people could sing from memory the words Charles wrote because they’ve been singing them for years. Lyrics set to tunes have a way of sticking with people and this is important for the Church to recognize.
Music is a kind of teacher that goes with you wherever you go. It’s a great way to mediate on great truths!
Worship and singing
The Church is unique in society in that it offers a weekly gathering where people sing with others. How many public gatherings can we attend where people sing together? Yet many pastors consider music one of the most divisive issue in the Church. It’s not doctrine or mode of baptism; not the meaning of communion, but music! Hymns or choruses? Contemporary or traditional? Pianos and organs or worship bands?
When I began ministry (almost 30 years ago), we had one man behind the pulpit leading the hymns from hymnals. Soon after that worship became the buzz word for music. Now we have worship times under worship pastors who lead worship bands. When people say a Church has great worship, you can be sure they mean great music. I am not interested in dissecting this too much but we should at least recognize that worship is more than music and singing — much more (see: Worship: more than singing and style).
My take on it
Personally (and so much of music is personal), I have a broad appreciation for different kinds of music. I love the giftedness of good musicians and (whether offered to God or not) I view their gifts as a reflection of the Imago Dei (image of God) . Listen to a good Jazz band, for example, and ask if you would get the same sound if you replaced the human instrumentalists with monkeys. Skillful creativity is one of the shared aspects of the Imago Dei and music is a great place to see and hear it.
I don’t get too exercised over different styles of music and I have a great aversion toward those who try to endow certain styles with being of God or the Devil. There is too much subjectivity in this for me to join a crusade. I am much more interested in the content and clarity of lyrics.
At our Church, with reference to music, we tell those interested in membership that we fear no instruments. If we took all the instruments mentioned in the OT and incorporated them into corporate worship, I am sure well-intentioned Church people would get angry. Some people cannot be content without something to crusade over and sadly Churches are too often fertile ground for such people. We simply let folks know up front that if they want to crusade over music, they’ve found the wrong Church. This has helped to protect the unity of our fellowship.
But we also tell people that our music ministry is guided by two non-negotiable factors. We sing lyrics that are faithful to Scripture and ask those who lead us to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. I think it is sinful for any member to demand that all the music style conform to his or her tastes.
Music is too important for it to be surrender to the demands of well-entrenched pharisees. If your Church is divided over music, you should recognize it as a symptom of a deeper issue. Before addressing the music issue directly, I recommend that leaders patiently teach people truths related to legalism and debatable matters in the context of the gospel.
Resources for teaching
- Understanding legalism
- Understanding legalism (part 2)
- Understanding legalism (part 3)
- Understanding Legalism: (part 4)
- Warning: Dangerous people
- Unity through the Gospel
- Six reasons legalism is a challenge for the Church