Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
August 10, 2003
Holy & Free, Part 4 – Music in Worship
I approach this morning’s message with some fear and trepidation because there is no greater area of opinion driven by emotion that can be discussed than music. The only other area I have found that people can be more touchy about is to talk with them specifically about how they are raising their children. In addressing this topic, I will be doing so first from the stand point of the use of music in the worship of God. I will make some comments here and there about the application of the basic principles we will be learning to wider application, but it will be next week that we will specifically tackle “secular” music and entertainment. If you simply keep in mind that Christians are to be Christians full time, then you should be able to make application of these principles to any circumstance
PERSONAL PREFERENCES VS. TRUE WORSHIP
Everyone has an opinion about what is and is not good music. This is usually based on their preferences in style. There are very few that have studied music enough to give careful critique of what makes up truly good music and what is just popular noise. The criteria for judging music, like all other forms of art, has degenerated in our time into a question of individual taste regardless of how decadent it may be or what it may lack in form and balance. People often identify themselves with their preferred style of music to such a degree that any criticism of that style is taken as personal criticism of them.
When it comes to the use of music in the worship of God, the problems actually compound. One of the great misconceptions about worship is that many equate worship with the music and not with the rest of the worship service. They then judge the worship by whether they like the style of music or not.
Scotty Smith, a pastor in Franklin, Tennessee, brought out this point in an article in Worship Leader magazine entitled, Are we worshiping worship more than we worship God? He gave two sample dialogues about people responding to styles of worship. In the first, a change in music format resulted in the following comment by a parishioner. “Oh, it’s great! We don’t sing many of those old, boring hymns anymore. We are into some of those really neat choruses. We even got rid of the pipe organ and replaced it with a rhythm section – you know, a guitar, drums, bass, and the most incredible rack of synthesizers you have ever heard! We have a blast every time we worship now. By the way – have you every lifted your hands when you sing to the Lord? It’s great! It makes me feel so good. I could never go back to that old way of worshipping. You should visit one of our worship celebrations. You’ll be glad you did.”
Another church also made some changes resulting in the following comments. “Well, finally we have awakened to real worship! We got over our fixation with those mindless choruses, and are once again thinking when we sing. I was so bored with those little ditties they called music. And our pastor is, at last, dignifying the pulpit by wearing a collar and robe. It makes me feel so good to see him each Sunday now. I actually look forward to worship each Lord’s Day now that we have made all of these wonderful changes. And we also installed kneeling benches in our pews. It makes me feel so warm and close to God when we read The Apostle’s Creed while on our knees. You ought to worship with us. You’ll really like it.”
Two completely different styles of worship, but both advocates have the same problem. The topic is the worship of God, but all their comments are based in themselves. What they like. How they felt. What they enjoyed. Tragically, this has become normal. People may claim the Word of God is their top priority, but what they really want is their “ears tickled,” as Paul warns in 2 Timothy 4. Their true interest is “what is in it for me” rather than “what am I giving to God.”
If God is not the center of your worship; if He is not the one filling your mind and heart; if what He has done is not the reason for your emotions; then do not kid yourself. What you have is religious exercise, not worship of the Creator of the universe. True worship is not passively waiting for some emotion to fill you while those up front entertain you. In true worship you must be active. It takes work to block out all the stuff you have been dealing with and concentrate on the Lord. There is labor involved in keeping your mind focused on the message preached and to consider how it applies to your own life. True worship means that you are putting God back into His proper position as the center of your life and the reason for your existence.
Yet, the very reason for most of the debate about music in worship is because people are focused on themselves, not on God. The arguments go back and forth about hymns verses choruses; organ and piano vs guitar and synthesizer; choir vs. “worship team,” etc., but those arguments revolve around style, not substance. The debates get heated because people are arguing about what they want rather than what is honoring to God. And what honors God? Praise given from a humble heart. Let me put it this way, if I may use John Halpin as an example since he tends to disparage himself in his ability to sing. There would be more true worship if John did a solo making a joyful noise from his heart than there would be if we had some popular vocal artist whose thoughts were on their honorarium and their next gig.
FORM VS SUBSTANCE
Music itself is not worship, but it can be a powerful force in true worship, or it can be its biggest obstacle. Don & Dave Wyrtzen comment that music is form not content. Content is the message you want to communicate. Form is the manner by which you communicate that message. Content is what you say. Form is how you say it. Unless the proper form is used the content will not be communicated clearly. The form can overpower, confuse or even hide the message.
I have read the writings of quite a few people in which they strive to prove that certain forms of music are evil in and of themselves. The same thing was being done in the middle ages because form and content were confused then too. The scholastics of the time argued that the augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) were evil and called “the devil in music.” The result was that this type of chord was not used by church musicians and since that time tri-tones have been used extensively in the church. But where in Scripture can we find even a caution against certain sounds – i.e. “Thou shall not play too many notes together that they may not clash.” Yet consider that most of what is common to the middle east seems a bit discordant and noisy to our ears trained in western style music, .
What does scripture say? Psalm 33:3 tells us to “sing unto him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise” (KJV). Psalm 66:1 says to “Make a joyful noise unto God” (KJV) as does Psalm 81:1; 93:4; 95:1,2; 98:6 & 100:1. “Noise” is “Teruah” or its root, “ruah” which is used to describe the sound of trumpets blaring, people shouting in triumph, joy or alarm and for a war cry. Psalm 98:4 says “to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth” and then adds, “make a loud noise.” This uses the word patsach which is used to describe the sound of something breaking. I don’t think anyone here would describe those sounds as harmonious music, yet they are all pleasing to God. I think it should be clear that there is no such thing as a “devil” chord or sound that is itself inherently evil. All types of sound, loud and soft, clear and noisy, are used to praise the Lord. It is the context of usage and purpose that brings about any evil associated with forms of music. It is the message conveyed that is evil, not the form itself which is non-moral and can be used for good or evil. This same principle applies to secular as well as sacred music. The debate should not be about the genre of music you listen to, though some forms lend themselves more to either good or evil messages than others, but what is the message that is being conveyed by both the words and the form.
Some have also argued that certain instruments should not be used in worship. This is often because of that instruments association in their mind with something evil. Guitars and drums are often singled out because of their use in rock and roll and bar room music. The argument here is and has always been weak. The very people that would claim a guitar or drum to be evil also claim the organ to be sacred, yet it was the organ that was used to provide music in ancient Rome while Christians were being killed in the coliseums. Don’t you think that association is a little more negative? Let me add that the organs used in many churches are those acquired after the silent screen gave way to talking movies resulting in the theater organs being sold. Yet those who consider the organ a “sacred instrument” are often those who also consider the theater as evil. We best be careful about applying guilt by association, or our own hypocrisy will be evident.
What does scripture say? The Bible mentions quite a few various instruments as being used to praise the Lord. There were idiophones – things made of naturally sonorous materials. These were things clanged together – metal most often. These would include cymbals of various types as in Psalm 150:5 – “Praise Him with loud cymbals; Praise Him with resounding cymbals.” Wood pieces beaten together – castanets – 2 Samuel 6:5 There were things that rattled – beads placed in a gourd and shaken. Bells were crafted for making sound. The High priest wore gold bells on His robes while serving in the temple (Exod. 28:33).
There were various aerophones – wind instruments – pipes (Zech. 4:12), flutes (Psalm 87:7), horns (Psalm 98:6) made from various materials, and we wait for the sound of the trumpet of God to announce the return of Christ (1 Thess. 4:17).
There were membranophones – i.e. drums of various sorts. The “top” (Hebrew) or tumpanon (greek), which is often translated as a “timbrel,” was a piece of leather stretched over a hand held frame. This instrument occurs in Psalm 150 as well as in Exodus 15:20 when Miriam and the women of Israel played it and danced for joy over the Lord protecting them from Egypt’s army at the Red Sea.
There were also various types of chordophones – stringed instruments. There were lutes (Ps. 92:3) string stretched along a neck attached to a resonating body – i.e. guitar, violin like). There were harps (Ps. 13:2), which have the neck at an angle to the body, and lyres (Gen. 31:27), which have a body with two arms joined by a crossbar, the strings going from the body to the crossbar. It should also be pointed out that all these instruments were common in the surrounding cultures and were used in pagan rituals, yet they were also used in the worship of God.
If we are going to classify things as being evil themselves simply because evil people use them for evil purposes, then we will have to get rid of most everything. Every kind of musical instrument has been used by evil people for evil purposes. But those same instruments can and have also been used to the praise and honor of God. Musical instruments are no different than our tongues, which can be used to bless or curse (James 3:10). Ammonium nitrate can be used as a fertilizer to help crops grow, or as an ingredient in a bomb to cause mass destruction. It is not the instrument, it is what you do with it.
Now having said that it is still important to ask about the identification that you make with certain styles of music. The principle we have learned from Romans 14 applies to this as well. There may be styles that you so identify with sinful practices that you do not have the freedom to listen to it though other people may. Don’t violate your conscience. And if you are the stronger brother in such a situation, remember to love your brother. You may need to be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of the weaker brother with you. This is also an area to be careful of using your freedom as a covering for your own sinful desires. Just because you have the freedom to do something does not mean it is the best or even the right thing to do. Why do you like that style? What is your own personal identification with that style of music? Is this a godly identification, an ungodly identification or something neutral?
I have also read articles in which certain rhythms were attacked as being inherently evil. Our lives are filled with all sorts of rhythms – clocks tick, electric motors hum, machines clank, bees buzz, your heart beats and you walk at a pace. Again, the context of its usage is the determining factor. Sure Hitler used carefully calculated repeated shouting of “Sieg Heil!” to stir up the crowds, but the same rhythm is used in sports events to encourage the home team to put forth extra effort to win. Alexander the Great used a march cadence to get his troops to go great distances, but so has every other army including the Colonial Army of the American revolution. Joshua used a rhythmic shouting to bring down the walls of Jericho according to the Lord’s instructions. There is no “devil’s beat” just as there is no “devil’s chord.” The form is itself non-moral. The question is not the form, but its usage in communicating what type of message.
In the field of what is called, “psycho-acoustics,” which studies the effect of sounds on human behavior, there is ample evidence showing that certain rhythms or beats used repetitiously and played loudly tend to have negative effects on us while other rhythms used in thematic melody lines played softly can have positive effects. My favorite example of this was a study subjecting plants to growing conditions that varied only in what music was being played in the greenhouse. Those that were subjected to classical music thrived while those subjected to rock music died. The driving vibration of the rock rhythm was destructive to the cell structure. But this should not surprise us, take a group of teenagers to a classical music concert one day and then to a rock concert the next and compare their behavior.
Consider as well that composers spend a great deal of time and energy in trying to produce music that will move you emotionally in certain ways. They know that the various elements that make up music can stimulate different moods within most people. Certain music we classify as “upbeat” and “exciting” while others are “calming” or “serene.” But even with all this we should not label certain sounds as evil in and of themselves, for they are not.
Paul writes in Romans 14:14, “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” This is really just a brief comment based on the Lord’s teaching in Mark 7:15-23. There is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man (15). for from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness (21,22).
John Murry well states, “This principle is the refutation of all prohibitionism which lays the responsibility for wrong at the door of things rather than at man’s heart.” Don & Dave Wyrtzen comment “It would be much simpler if some musical sounds were evil in themselves. Just eliminate the evil sounds and the entire moral problem in music would be solved.” “the morality or immorality of the sounds needs to be located in the hearts of the composer, the performer, and the listener, not in the music itself.
The problem is not in the sound itself, but in the evil hearts of men. Evil people will take sounds and arrange them in a way with the purpose of striving to promote evil. Such people understand form and use it wisely to accent the communication of their evil messages. Others are ignorant of form and content and simply take sounds and arrange them in a way pleasing to themselves but are oblivious to their effect on others or the message that is to be communicated. For these people form and style drive the music, not the message. It is for these two reasons that it is extremely important that the music used in worship be carefully considered before it is used. The Christian must consider these factors in all the music they listen to.
CAUTIONS TO HEED
The Power of Music
Chuck Fromm of Worship Leader magazine wrote a very thought provoking article entitled, Taking Music Off the Throne: Acknowledging the Z-factors. The article repeated and expanded on some of the cautions Zwingli gave during the Swiss reformation of the mid-1500’s. Fromm calls his cautions, the “Z-factors.” Zwingli, among the three major reformers (he, Luther and Calvin), was the most musically inclined for he had been a professional musician. He feared so much the power of music that he banned musical instruments from use in worship. He even insisted that when Paul said in Eph. 5:19 about “making melody in your hearts” he meant just that: make melody in your heart only and not with anything else. Zwingli, like most good musicians, understood that music can move us emotionally in very strong ways. If it was used correctly it could enhance worship, but if used incorrectly it could destroy it.
Fromm’s first Z-factor caution applies here. “Music often hides rather than reveals truth. It is prone to enchantment, not communication.” If the form does not match the message, the message is garbled or lost. And this works both ways. A good message can be lost and a bad message can be encouraged.
Let me give you an example of the latter and then the former. There used to be a radio station I enjoyed listening to that played orchestral arrangements of contemporary songs. Then one day they changed format and started playing the original versions with the lyrics. I listened for awhile longer because I had become accustomed to the tunes and had enjoyed them. However, the longer I listened, the more I was able to figure out the words to the songs. As I began figuring them out I was shocked for they were often crass, selfish and glorifying of evil which was opposite to the emotional pleasure I had felt listening to the melody line. The form did not match the message.
In worship, well written and played pieces of music can hide inane or even heretical lyrics that accompany it. Many songs and choruses fit in this category. A good melody overcomes lousy lyrics. Fromm’s Z-factor corollary here: Contemporary choruses have reduced corporate singing to mindless babble, making light of the Scriptural injunction to “sing with the mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15). While there is some great worship music being written today, a lot of it is either so shallow or so repetitious that it is practically meaningless. Shallow theology produces shallow worship regardless of how good the musical form it is set in.
But it is not just choruses that have lyric problems. Close examination of popular hymns also reveal theological aberrations and even heresy. An example of this is #336 in our Hymnal. There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins. This hymn is sung often in most fundamental churches. The problem is that there is no such fountain. Christ’s blood was shed and it spilled out on the ground at the cross so that our sins could be forgiven. It was not supernaturally vacuumed up and placed in a fountain in heaven where we can take a bath in it. Tragically, there are a lot of people that believe that very thing is true because the hymn writer’s analogy distorted truth and made false doctrine.
There are also songs with good words and themes that are not matched musically. One case of this I can think of is “They will know we are Christian’s by our Love.” A very good theme taken straight from Scripture, but the tune is depressing because it sounds like a dirge. The theme is joyful, but the form is one of sadness. Then there are all the songs that have wonderful God glorifying lyrics that are so poor musically that they are never used. Great lyrics with poor music will leave a song sitting on a shelf instead of being used to enhance our worship of our Lord.
We need to understand that music is meant to communicate thought and emotion. The individual words in the lyrics of a song are neutral in themselves. It is the arrangement of them that will communicate a message that is either good or evil. The same thing is true with the various elements that make up music. The rhythm, tempo, melody, harmony, volume are as important to that communication as are the lyrics. The individual parts are neutral in themselves, but the arrangement is done to communicate a message, usually emotional, that may be good or bad. The quality of the music will be in how well it communicates that message. The moral value of the music will be according to the moral value of the message communicated. The Christian must carefully consider that message in light of the commands and precepts of God’s word. We will look at this in more detail next week.
When it comes to sacred music used in worship, we must remember that the message and form must fit its purpose for being included in the worship service. We must consider who is present and how we can use music to move them to the true worship of God. The variety of styles of music we use here at Grace Bible Church are selected for that purpose. It is not about what I or Stephen or John or Tracy personally like, it is about how we can best move the whole congregation to the true worship of God. That is why we will continue to use a variety of styles. But no matter how hard we work at picking out the right songs and putting together the rest of our worship service, there is a personal aspect that only you can achieve. You must come prepared to worship. The challenging questions Scott Smith gave in his article are well worth contemplating if you want to truly worship God.
Have we become those who worship worship more than we worship God? Do we enjoy our own “forms” more than we fear God? Do we show more passion in defending our “style” of worship than we do in obeying and serving Him? Are we more agitated by what other Christians “like” about their worship than we are grieved over our own sin and foolish hearts? Are we more resolved to control the worship service in our churches than we are to be controlled by the Holy Spirit in our relationships? Is it God that we adore or simply ourselves that we serve? Let’s ponder these things, long and hard. The glory of God is all that is at stake.
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Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children : Do one or more of the following: 1) Count how many times any reference to music is made in the sermon 2) Discuss with your parents the dangers of music and how music should be used in the worship of God.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others
What style(s) of music do you like? What makes it enjoyable to you? How does it affect you emotionally? What style(s) do you dislike? Why? How closely do you listen to the lyrics? Can you sing with the song? What do you do if you find that the lyrics promote what God says is evil? Discuss the various elements in music and how they could be used for either good or evil: Chords & notes, Instruments, Rhythms, volume. What is the power of music? How much time per week do you listen to music? How much money per month do you spend on music? What music do you consider to be helpful in your worship of God? What styles of music are acceptable for use in church? What styles should not be used? Why? Can you have meaningful worship even if the music is not to your taste? Why or why not? What is true worship and what is necessary for it? What criteria should be used to judge if a song should be used in church?
Holy & Free, Part 4 – Music in Worship
Sermon Notes – August 10, 2003
Personal Preferences vs. True Worship
Form vs. Substance
Cautions to Heed
The Power of Music
Purpose of music:
Quality of music is based on:
Moral value of music is based on:
The purpose of music in worship
Have we become those who worship worship more than we worship God? Do we enjoy our own “forms” more than we fear God? Do we show more passion in defending our “style” of worship than we do in obeying and serving Him? Are we more agitated by what other Christians “like” about their worship than we are grieved over our own sin and foolish hearts? Are we more resolved to control the worship service in our churches than we are to be controlled by the Holy Spirit in our relationships? It is God that we adore or simply ourselves that we serve? Let’s ponder these things, long and hard. The glory of God is all that is at stake. – Scott Smith
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