Church Music: You are Not Going to Like This

“Make a joyful noise unto the LORD” (Psalm 100:1).

“O come, let us sing unto the LORD: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation” (Psalm 95:1).

“Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:9).

A Brief History of Music

The power of music cannot be understated. It has been called the “universal language” by many, because every culture has a musical style associated with it. Because of the myriad genres associated with a myriad of cultures, we might call musical preference a “social construction,” in that it varies based on geographical and temporal conditions.

The Western music scale is chromatic and contains 12 notes that are virtually “equal” in tonal distance from one another, but we typically use 8 notes per octave depending on the sharps or flats of the scale. The Chinese use a pentatonic scale that emphasizes only five of the 8 notes. The Arab tonal system has 24 “equal” tones in one octave.

The point I am making is not that you need to be an expert on music theory, but so we can understand that not all regions share the same ideas of pitch or tones. Westerners do not often appreciate Eastern music because the use of semitones seems dissonant to our fragile ears.

There are also vast differences in Western music. Genres include classical, baroque, symphonic, techno, EDM, dubstep, trap, trip-hop, hip-hop, rap, classic rock, rock, rap-rock, country, country and western, hair metal, heavy metal, emo, screamo, hardcore, post-hardcore, hard rock, djent, polka, 50s rock, 60s rock, disco, 70s rock, 80s rock, surf rock, grunge rock, jazz,fusion jazz, big band, swing, blues, bluegrass, etc.

You get the picture. There are dozens of musical genres. Some differ far more than others, but all are cultural.

The “Power” of Music

Music is literally in our DNA. Recent studies have been conducted in which musical notes are assigned to our DNA. The results have been astounding! They are able to record the music that our DNA produces, and it is beautiful!

A pastor decided to use various tones, sounds, and rhythms found throughout the universe to assemble a song that sounds like a popular contemporary Christian music (CCM) track.

Music therapy is a growing field that helps combat negative emotional states, as well as improving child development and physical rehabilitation.

Contrary to popular belief, listening to heavy metal music has been found to help with depression, anxiety, and anger, not accelerate them.

There is simply no denying that music is intertwined within us. Music helps soothe us. Music also helps to unite us as we come together at concerts and churches to engage in collective effervescence.

The Christian Rock Controversy

Ever since The Crusaders released their first rock album in 1966, the “Christian rock” controversy has been ongoing in Christian circles.

The controversy is drawn from the roots of rock music itself. “Rock ‘n Roll” is a sexual euphemism for intercourse. Thus, the very description is vile.

It is also highly unfortunate, because rock music incorporates a massive number of different rhythms that are not necessarily associated with those that existed when the genre was named.

Any musical similarities between The Beatles and Dream Theater pretty much stop at instrumentation and using Western scales.

There was also the “backmasking” controversy that erupted in the 1970s and 80s. Backmasking occurs when a “secret message” can be heard when playing a record backwards. Famous examples are “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC.

Some legitimate cases occurred, but many claims are spurious at best. The power of suggestion provides some explanation for the phenomenon. I have listened to examples in which I could not really hear anything nefarious. When someone told me “what was there,” I could hear exactly what they told me.

I liken it to the “elephant in the cloud” – when someone points to a cloud and says they see an elephant, your mind begins to also make out an elephant, even if the shape is ambiguous.

Again, backmasking did happen on occasion. It is a technique used in advertisements as well. That is not a valid reason to dismiss an entire genre of music.

There have also been a number of songs that promote drugs, sex, violence, and other wicked behaviors. Some prominent rock bands are vehemently anti-Christian.

How, then, could Christians ever use such a musical genre rooted in such evil, wicked, and vile history to praise the holy Creator of the universe?

I will come back to that later.

Church Music

The “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” verse is quoted often in defense of traditional Christian hymns. Few define these terms. For this, I will lean on the Webster’s 1828 dictionary.

A psalm is, “A sacred song or hymn; a song composed on a divine subject and in praise of God . . . The word is also applied to sacred songs composed by modern poets, being versifications of the scriptural psalms, or of these with other parts of Scripture, composed for the use of churches.” David composed psalms when he was king of Israel, and there are many folks who put those psalms to music even now. I have a personal friend who helped compose a psaltry filled with such music.

A hymn is a “song or ode in honor of God, and among pagans, in honor of some deity.” This is not a genre of music, it is merely a song of any genre used to honor a deity. A hymn is not necessarily even Christian, though, we know that in the verse above, the hymns spoken of are regarding worship of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Spiritual songs are not in Webster’s fine dictionary, and I have heard several definitions. A couple that I prefer are 1. songs that are filled with some sort of theological or doctrinal message and 2. doctrinally sounds newer songs that have not yet been established enough to be considered hymns. These are the types of songs often sang as “specials” in traditional churches, but are not in the hymnals.

Our hymnals are filled with music mostly written in Europe and the United States after the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, though the oldest ones date back to around 300AD. Although there are unverified rumors that the hymnists merely changed the lyrics to popular tavern songs (because people confused “bar form” – or music composed using metered bars – with “bar music” – or music played in bars) that have become mythologized, the style of the music used in churches likely did resemble the local customs of the day.

The intention of the music, however, was vastly different between church and secular songs. The lyrical content would have stood out. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is steeped in rich theology and was written by Martin Luther, a man who I believe was used by God to break away from the Catholic Church and bring Christianity out of the “Dark Ages.”

The longevity of those Reformation era hymns is astounding. Some pre-date the King James Version of the Bible by centuries, and we all know that the KJV remains the dominant English translation to this day.

More recently, Southern Christian gospel music has made inroads. This is the style made famous by quartets back in the early 20th century, but it is used in even the most traditional, conservative churches. It mostly features four-part harmonies and lyrics that explicitly praise and worship Jesus Christ.

 Are hymns and gospel music the only acceptable forms of music in church? If so, why?

Worship Music

The Bible is clear – Music is essential to worship of God. Furthermore, He appreciates a variety of instrumentation.

1 Chronicles 13:8 says, “And David and all Israel played before God with all their might, and with singing, and with harps, and with psalteries [a bowed instrument similar to a violin], and with timbrels [tambourines], and with cymbals, and with trumpets [likely made of silver – Numbers 10:2].”

Thus, we have a choir with strings, brass, and percussion represented. This is a far cry from the instrumentation found in most churches today. Churches seem to vary from a piano to a full rock band with little in between. We all have voices, but the Bible shows us that God loves a variety of instruments (even percussion, but don’t tell the Baptists).

However, we know that music is vital to worship (here). David was able to soothe the evil spirit within Saul using music (1 Sam 16). Trumpets were used to knock down the walls of Jericho and will be used to signal the Christ’s return.

Singing hymns on Sunday morning soothes my soul, but I would enjoy having a wider variety of instrumentation. Christian musicians often seem afraid to play in church, which has been a common theme almost everywhere I’ve ever attended.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is cultural.

Instrumentation vs. Intention

A hymn, by definition, is a song written to honor a deity or important figure. I am positive that the hymns in Ephesians circa. 70 AD are not the same as those written by Martin Luther in 1527. The instrumentation, song structure, and even vocal style changes over 1450 years would be significant.

This also excludes the various styles of worship music in other non-Western cultures around the world. It is extremely ethnocentric to believe that the songs in our church pews are superior to those sung in India, Ghana, China, Pakistan, and Nepal. Our Western music scale would be as awkward sounding to some of those cultures as theirs would to our ears?

And what of instrumentation? Not only do different cultures feature different tonal components, but they have different instruments used in worship services. Are those used in our culture inherently more righteous than in others?

I do not believe so.

There is also an interesting problem for those churches that promote gospel music. On one hand, gospel music uses the same instrumentation as a typical rock band (guitar, bass, piano, and drums). On the other hand, preachers almost always use the example of drums as a reason that rock music is wicked. I have heard pastors say things like, “drums are only used for war” or “certain rhythms are sexual” (which was the basis for the naming of Rock ‘n Roll, remember?).

There is validity in these statements. However, we must look at the intention, not the instrumentation.

Drums are often the bogeyman, especially in traditional churches. As a Baptist drummer, I am often given sideways glances when I announce my talent in church.

The origins of drums as we know them (barrel shaped with animal skins) were instruments used as a means of communication between tribes, similar to smoke signals. This is because instruments are tools, and their use determines the moral value, because they have no inherent morality.

Drums CAN be used for war. Drums CAN ALSO be used in a gospel quartet.

Trumpets were used in war as the Israelites brought down the walls of Jericho. Flutes were common in the Revolutionary and Civil war militaries. These instruments were used for war. They can also be used in church.

One purpose is wicked. The other is for worship. Can the same be said for Christian rock music?

Music for Worship vs. Music for Enjoyment

For a thought experiment, let us drop the label of “Rock ‘n Roll” or “Rock” from the music and focus on instrumentation and musical theory.

Progressive bands use very similar music theory as classical music. There are some bands, like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who use “wicked” instruments to play classical music. They use the exact sheet music, but with modern instruments. Does this make it inherently evil? No.

Gospel music does the same with classic hymns, do they not?

I see no problem with enjoying Christian music of many genres. I listen to a wide variety of music and understand how to use it as a tool to combat or enhance my emotions.

That being said, I do believe we should keep our daily music separate from our church music (but not necessarily the opposite).

Sound theology is not a requirement for enjoying music, but it is a necessity for good church music.

This is not because I believe there is anything inherently wrong with CCM or rock music (which makes me a heretic in many churches), but because of some other concerns:

  1. The songwriters may not be Scripturally accurate. Just like why I do not support using books other than the Bible for preaching, it becomes incredibly difficult to vet songwriters. Some of the most popular CCM writers who have infiltrated our churches include Bethel Music and Hillsong – both of which are dangerous charismatic cults that embrace New Age practices in their doctrine. They incorporate those beliefs into their music, and those lethal beliefs are being sung by congregations across the world.
  2. Incorporating CCM into church worship is often a symptom of a larger disease. When a traditional church begins to move away from what they have done prior, it is a sign that they will not stop with music. I was involved in a traditional Baptist church. They sang hymns, used the KJV, and were experiencing amazing spiritual growth. They asked me to play drums, and I agreed. Within three years, they almost entirely abandoned hymns for CCM (including Bethel and Hillsong) and started using different Bible translations. They are now far more liberal than they were when I first started going there, and I had to leave the church because they moved so far from where they began.
  3. Christians are supposed to be “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9) and the local church is our sanctuary from the world. There should be a completely different environment inside a building filled with believers. The clothes should be different. The communication should be different. The music should be different. People should not be coming to church because it provides the same experience as any other secular community center, but because it is a respite from the world.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

Music is vital to the human experience and can be an incredible tool for us to use in worship and in our daily lives.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Christian music of any genre, so long as the intention of the music is to glorify God.

However, church should be a place apart from the world, it is incredibly difficult to assess the spiritual and doctrinal validity of every CCM artist, and the wicked world continues to seep into our church services. Therefore, I do believe we would be better off sticking to traditional hymns with traditional instrumentation (piano, guitar, strings, brass, woodwinds) within our worship services.

If you allow gospel tracks with drums for “special music,” but not live drums for worship, perhaps you should lighten up a little.

Do you disagree? Probably. Traditional conservatives and modern liberals will likely both reject my take. That is okay. I value doctrine over preferences, and the Bible is not explicit about musical genre. We can all believe and worship the same God in different ways.

I work hard to combat my own ethnocentrism, and I hope you will to.

Feel free to discuss this with me further. I am always up for a conversation.


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