Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
June 5, 2005
Music in the Worship of God, Part 1
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.
SELFISH OPINION VS. HUMBLE WORSHIP
Everyone has an opinion of what is good music and what is not, and it is usually based on their preferences in style. There are relatively few that have studied music enough to give careful critique of what makes up truly good music and what is just noise that some people like. The criteria for judging music, like all other forms of art, has descended into what an individual likes regardless of how decadent it may be, or what it may lack in form and balance. People also 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 as well.
When it comes to the use of music in the worship of God the problems actually compound. As I have mentioned in previous sermons, one of the great misconceptions about worship is that so many equate worship with the music and praise and not with the rest of the worship service. They then judge the worship of the church by whether they like the style of music or not.
In the fourteen years that I have been here, we have had a lot of people visit. Many years ago I used to send out a visitor questionnaire in order to get a sense of what our guests believed by asking them to rank the factors that were important to them in choosing a church home and how we did in those areas. This helped me not only evaluate what ministry that we might have to them, but also helped identify areas we could improve. Fairly consistently people would mark that the clear teaching of the Bible was their top priority and the spiritual quality of the leadership was second with the music program being a mid level priority, and things like the appearance of the grounds were a very low priority.
I was able to follow up with a number of the people that finally decided they would make another church their home. Their verbal comments did not match what they marked on the survey. Their comments were both fascinating and troubling at the same time, for quite consistently they told me that they really “liked” or “enjoyed” my sermons, but they also said that they were not able to worship as they wanted. Many were specific that they had come from church backgrounds where the music was different from our own and they did not like our music. One man even said he thought my preaching was great, but that our worship was “dead.” Keep in mind that in those early years here that we only had pianists and an organist though we wanted other musicians such as guitarists and bass players.
I hope you understand that comments such as those only reveal the individual saying them has a self-centered heart. They discounted even what they agreed was the central aspect of worship which is the proclamation of the Scriptures so that we might live daily according to them, and instead judged the worship by their preference in style of music.
Scotty Smith, a pastor in Franklin, Tennessee, made 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 every 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 worshiping. 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 of their comments are based in themselves. It is what they like, how they felt, and what they enjoyed. The tragedy is that 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 a religious exercise, not worship of the Creator of the universe. True worship is not something you passively wait for. It is not some emotion that fills 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 some labor involved in keeping your mind focused on the message preached and to consider how it applies to your own life.
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 back and forth about hymns verses choruses; organ and piano vs guitar and synthesizer; choir vs. “worship team,” etc., revolve around style, not substance. And the debates gets 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, there would be more true worship if the two worst singers in our congregation did a duet making a joyful noise that arose from their hearts in awe of God 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, however, 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 middle ages argued that the augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) were evil and so were 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 is the word patsach which is used to describe the sound of something breaking. That does not describe the sounds of harmonious music, yet it is pleasing to God. I think it should be clear that there is no such thing as a “devil” chord or a sound that is itself inherently evil. All types of sounds, loud and soft, clear and noisy, are to be 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.
Some have also argued that certain instruments should not be used in worship. This is often because of those instruments being associated in their minds with something evil. Guitars and drums are often singled out in our times 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 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. I tend to think that such an association is a little more negative. Let me add as well that the organs still used in many churches are those acquired after the silent screen gave way to talking movies and the theater organs were sold. Yet those who consider that organ as a “sacred instrument” are often the same folks who also consider the theater as evil. We best be careful about applying guilt because of 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 would include cymbals of various types as in Psalm 150:5 – Praise Him with loud cymbals; Praise Him with resounding cymbals. These were things clanged together – metal most often. There were things that rattled – beads placed in a gourd and shaken. Bells were crafted for making sound. The High priest even wore gold bells on His robes while serving in the temple. 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 also 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 aerophones – wind instruments – pipes, flutes, and horns made from various materials. They too are mentioned in Psalm 150 as well as in many, many places throughout scripture. We wait for the sound the trumpet of God to announce the return of Christ (1 Thess. 4:17). There were also various types of chordophones – stringed instruments. There were lutes (strings stretched along a neck attached to a resonating body – i.e. guitar, violin like). There were harps, which have the neck at an angle to the body, and lyres, 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.
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. 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 itself, but how its usage enhances the message being communicated, and the message that is being communicated.
COMMUNICATION AND FORM
The form used does affect the message and blends with it, for form does have an effect on human emotion for various reasons. In the field of what is called, “psycho-acoustics” – 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 must be very careful not to label certain sounds as evil in and of themselves.
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 7:15-22. 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, but in 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.
CAUTIONS TO HEED
Chuck Fromm of Worship Leader magazine wrote a very though 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, a 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. Good melody can hide lousy and even heretical lyrics. Fromm’s Z-factor 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).” But it is not just choruses. Close examination of popular hymns also reveals heresy. A hymn sung often even in most fundamental churches in is #336 in our Hymnal. That hymn includes the lyrics, “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins.” 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 just that because they sing it in the hymn. Thus they have doctrine from a hymn instead of the Bible.
There are also songs with good words and themes that are not matched musically. Usually you never hear them more than once because most people do not like them. One exception I can think of is “They will know we are Christian’s by our Love.” It has an excellent theme taken straight from Scripture. The theme is one of joy, but the tune sounds like a dirge and is a bit depressing.
Next week I will continue on this subject, for there is still much to say. Let me close this week with the challenge Scott Smith gave in his article.
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.
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) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up later. 2) Count how many references are made to music. Talk with your parents how music affects your worship of God. Search the Bible to see how many different musical instruments are used in worship.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.
What are your preferences in musical style when you worship God alone? When you are with other believers? How important is that style to you? Can you worship God when a different style is used? Are you trained in music? What is the central aspect of worship? Why? What is the difference between form and substance? What role does music actually play in worship? How can music be beneficial in worship? How can it be detrimental? What kinds of sounds were used in the worship of God in the Psalms? What different instruments were used in the worship of God in the Psalms? Is there such a things as a “Devil chord” or Devil instrument”? Why or why not? How effect does form have on communication? What makes music evil, negative, neutral, positive, good? What cautions do churches need to take in choosing and using music in congregational worship
Sermon Notes – 6/5/05 a.m.
Music in the Worship of God, Part 1 – Selected Scriptures
SELFISH OPINION VS. HUMBLE WORSHIP
FORM VS SUBSTANCE
Sounds made in the worship of God
Psalm 33:3; 66:1; 81:1; 93:4; 95:1,2; 98:6 & 100:1.
“Noise” is “Teruah” or its root, “ruah” =
Instruments used in the worship of God
COMMUNICATION AND FORM
Romans 14:14; Mark 7:15-22
CAUTIONS TO HEED – The “Z-Factors”
“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.” (Scotty Smith, in Worship Leader Magazine – “Are We Worshiping Worship More than We Worship God?”).
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