Contemporary Christian Music and Worship
Jeffrey K. Lauritzen
"Even a scripturally sound text, when wedded to an inappropriate musical vehicle, becomes a theological ‘Babylon,’ a mixture of good and evil - truth and error."
For the common things of every day,
God gave man speech in the common way.
For the deeper things men think and feel
God gave the poet words to reveal.
For the heights and depths no word can reach,
God gave man music, the soul's own speech. 1
Howard Hanson, American composer and long-time music director of the Eastman School of Music, once said,
Music is a curiously subtle art with innumerable, varying emotional connotations. It is made up of-many ingredients and, according to the proportions of these components, it can be soothing or invigorating, ennobling or vulgarizing, philosophical or orgiastic. It has powers for evil as well as for good.
Music was God's idea, a wonderful gift that has enriched our lives since the beginning of time. Christianity, more so than all other world religions, has contributed to the great music of the world. In the Old Testament, God joined music and worship in a glorious union which still stands today. God takes church music seriously, but how many of His people share this attitude?
The state of music in American churches today is mixed. On one hand, church music is enjoying unparalleled acceptance, with many new hymnals of great depth, breadth, and balance. The quantity of sacred music being composed, published, and recorded staggers the imagination. This growth in and vitality of church music is positive and encouraging. There are some aspects of the current church music scene, however, that are not quite so encouraging or positive. Bruce Leafblad notes:
Much contemporary church music is shaped more by secular values than by theological principles. Commercial interests rather than spiritual objectives motivate much sacred music. Church music is often aimed at satisfying a popular musical taste at the expenses of a balanced ministry designed to meet a variety of spiritual needs. Many of the basic (and unbiblical) assumptions and objectives of the entertainment industry are eroding an already thin concept of ministry through music.
Moreover, a nagging tendency towards the trite and the superficial only serves to point up the avoidance and neglect of real substance and depth in much of today's church music. Quantity substitutes for quality, as mediocrity surges over excellence. Few people in the church take church music seriously enough to think about it biblically and theologically. 3
The problem appears to be that music continues as a major area of church life largely untouched by Biblical theology. This fact should make Seventh-day Adventists nervous.
Since one fourth to one half of a worship service involves music, it would seem vital to give our church music a thoughtful, wise, and prayerful review. Music forms a part of God's worship in Heaven and is intended to elevate the soul and awaken a spirit of devotion and gratitude; it is as much an act of worship as is prayer.4
Simply "performing" sacred music is not enough. Since the ultimate goal in worship is to glorify Him, it is God's pleasure - not man's delight - that should be our objective. In worship, God is the audience.
In spite of this, however, two popular approaches to church music have emerged - neither of which enjoys Scriptural support. The first, rooted in musical taste, has for its goal maximum pleasure of the congregation. "Good" music, by this definition, is usually equated with what is familiar. Textual material is subservient to the sound of the music, and as long as the majority of the congregation likes this sound, the music is deemed appropriate. This approach, perhaps unconsciously, views music primarily as a form of "sacred" entertainment, and hence, a form of escape from reality. There is a place for entertainment - but is it appropriate in the worship of God?
The second approach uses music that expresses cultural values and ideals. Here the preservation of the church's heritage of musical art treasures is paramount. This view, however, is also flawed. Music used in worship as an end in itself - art for art's sake - is in theological trouble. Everything in the church service must have a purpose rooted in something greater than itself. The role of music in the church must be no different from the mission of the church itself: ministry to the Lord, the body of Christ, and the world for whom Christ died.5
Ellen White has said that
... the singing must be directed toward God, otherwise it is little more than an exhibition of self... Music does not exist for its own sake, but, like prayer, as a means of approach to God.
The purpose of this article is to suggest that there are identifiable wrong uses of music in worship that violate this objective of God-directed worship. These wrong uses have been prevalent in charismatic circles for some time, and now seek to encroach upon Adventist worship. In developing this thesis, current popular religious music styles and uses will be examined, the problem will be addressed, and, some standards and criteria for church music today will be suggested.
The apparent position of some trendsetters is that musical song style, as long as it contains a sacred text, is usable in a worship setting. The mass media have so thoroughly conditioned the public with a diet of rock rhythms that anything else seems bland and dull to many. An obsession to clothe all gospel music with some sort of rock beat seems to characterize many of today's gospel performers. Musicians among us are taking over styles developed by the world, and all too often, the rock rhythms of the dance hall have become the music in the church, justified as an approach to reach people where they are.
One writer several years ago noted:
There has been considerable rage for "jam gospel music, in the churches of the country during the last several years. It is in many respects an evil thing. If it does nothing more, it puts the church in league with cheap and inartistic music expression. The fact of the matter is that the evil is greater than this, for the cheap music seems naturally to ally itself with banal texts, with careless and inconsequential, if not absolutely trivial and sentimental, thought.
Most popular music today is, by definition, rock. Basically, rock is a repetitious, rhythmically driven musical form which derives much of its power from accenting secondary beats in the music rather than primary beats. This characteristic is not limited to "hard" rock only. Much "soft" rock and "easy listening" popular music fits this definition. Medical research has found that this alteration of beat accent patterns can have a negative effect on natural body rhythms. High levels of volume often in excess of one hundred decibels - is another feature of rock music and a source of its power. This loudness has been shown to damage the sense hearing.8
Drum sets, electric guitars, synthesizers, and elaborate amplification systems, which greatly intensify the rhythmic effect and loudness of the music, are making dramatic inroads into Christian worship, as are commercially produced accompaniment tapes, many of which are in the rock idiom. A strong emotional/physical "moving" experience can be created by repetitious rhythms and carefully calculated orchestral effects. Irwin Schoenfield writes,
For some time, the use of massive power through electronic technology has played a major role in popular music. Electrical instruments, along with amplification, manipulation, and synthesis, are almost inevitably associated with new sounds. These are more than tools; they are controlling factors. They determine the nature of the music and its effects. The power of high wattage and decibels is worshipped for it's own sake and also for the sake of the intense physical and psychic experiences that can be evoked. It is a human alliance with, and subjugation to, superhuman technological through which the sensations of pain and ecstasy become mystically united.
William Schaefer has observed, "What is undeniable about rock is its hypnotic power. It has gripped millions of young people around the world and transformed their lives."10 Obviously, then, any use of popular rock-type music in the worship of God at least calls for a high degree of discernment. An emotional or physical response must never be confused with a spiritual response. Could confusion of a spiritual high with an emotional high be an aspect of the false latter rain? Could this confusion occur within Adventist churches today which seek to promote this new music in their worship?
The creation of emotional/ physical responses is one of the natural outcomes of contemporary rock music. Although it is easy to see the potential dangers of utilizing these styles in church music, a whole new genre of music has nevertheless developed, much of which contains all the elements of secular rock. Such music used to be called "Christian Rock," but users have now given it the euphemistic label "Contemporary Christian Music." It has long been a part of charismatic worship, and is now being used in Adventist worship among congregations which have adopted a more "informal" worship style.
A parallel issue to that of popular/rock style and emotionalism is that of theatrics. Many performers find that much contemporary religious music evokes a Broadway-like theatrical interpretation, both physically and vocally. The Pentecostal religions of today have led the way in promoting this type of physical/emotional/ theatrical music performance, and it appears that Adventists are becoming increasingly intrigued with it as well. One may ask who is the object of attention in this type of worship God or the performer? Notice this warning from Ellen White:
Not one jot or tittle of anything theatrical is to be brought into our work. God's cause is to have a sacred, heavenly mold. Let everything connected with the giving of the message for this time bear the divine impress. Let nothing of a theatrical nature be permitted, for this would spoil the sacredness of the work.
Many attempt to justify these popular means by pointing out apparent successes. What does one say when an approach program has general wide popularity and support, yet appears to be in open violation of guidelines? Ellen White again offers valuable insight:
If you lower the standard in order to secure popularity and an increase in numbers, and then make this increase a cause of rejoicing, you show great blindness. If numbers were an evidence of success, Satan might claim the preeminence; for, in this world, his followers are largely in the majority. It is the degree of moral power pervading the college, that is a test of its prosperity. It is the virtue, intelligence, and piety of the people composing our churches, not their numbers, that should be a source of joy and thankfulness.
Never are we to "bring the truth down to a low level in order to obtain converts, but seek to bring the sinful and corrupted up to the high standard of the law of God."13
Job asks, "Who can bring", a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one." (14:4); and the wise man in Proverbs 6:28, "Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?"
The following Ietter, written by a student in a Bible college, sums up the searching of many as they grapple with the issue of current Christian music:
God has called me to work among youth to win them to Christ. I have one question yet in my mind. Can a person play rock music with a beat and really be effective for Christ? I wonder if the sound is of the flesh or not. I know that there is no true Christian "annointing" in the music yet the words sometimes have a message. I know others use this medium to reach youth but do they get a cheap conversion because of the compromise? Do they think because they were won under this type of music that rock isn't wrong?
I’ll be going into full-time Christian work this summer and I don't want to be deceiving kids by compromise. Do youth actually look up to a Christian who uses this type of music as a spiritual leader or as just another entertainer? Can I really be an effective spiritual leader and use this music and afterwards preach to them?
A major evangelist discovered that when he switched to folk-rock music in his meetings the numbers of commitments rose sharply. Later he found that the percentage of these that completed his follow-up program had fallen from his previous twenty percent to less than one percent.15 Former rock musicians who have become Christians make it clear that no compromise with this music is possible, that total abstinence is the only way. The nature of the sound is so surely "of the flesh" and part of "the world" that it must be eliminated altogether from the life. Can Adventist Christians afford to support what others have found to be anti-spiritual?
Inspiration is clear that there is acceptable and unacceptable music in worship. When descending Mt. Sinai after having received God's law, Joshua thought he heard sounds of war. The "sounds of war" turned out to be sounds of singing in the worship of the golden calf - a service which had been proclaimed a feast day to the Lord. In Daniel's day, a "Babylonian orchestra" was influential in setting the mood for the worship of Nebuchadnezzar's image. The prophet Joel pictures a day when God will tell His people to "Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs: for I will not hear the melody of thy viols" (5:23).16
At the turn of this century, Ellen White pictures and condemns a type of worship music in Indiana, and states this would be repeated just before the close of probation. Her assessment of the musical performance is revealing:
Better never have the worship of God blended with music than to use musical instruments to do the work which last January was represented to me would be brought into our camp meetings. The truth for this time needs nothing of this kind in its work of converting souls.
Finally, note this alarming prophecy:
Those things which have been in the past will be in the future. Satan will make music a snare by the way in which it is conducted.
Perhaps at this juncture a brief review of some of Satan's methods would be helpful: "Satan will work with his deceptive power to influence the heart and becloud the understanding, to make evil appear good, and good evil."19 And here is a perfect description of his technique in our context:
Satan does not enter with his array of temptations at once. He disguises these temptations with a semblance of good. He mingles with amusements and folly some little improvements, and deceived souls make it an excuse that great good is to be derived by engaging in them. This is only the deceptive part. It is Satan's hellish arts masked. Beguiled souls take one step, then are prepared for the next.
As noted earlier, many new hymnals have been published in recent years, and in most cases, the hymns included in them represent a shift in emphasis. It seems that many denominations feel they have missed out on something deeper, due to their limited use of the great hymns of the church.21 In these new hymnals, therefore, we see a shift back to the great hymns of the church. As many Adventists look to simple, informal choruses and contemporary sounds, other Christians who have experienced these are apparently looking for something more substantial.
In a recent Adventist Review editorial, Eugene Durand points out that the Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) churches have come to view Christian rock music as out of tune with the gospel:
The church of Jesus Christ has come under special attack from Satan through the entertainment media and has been provoked to emulate the world in its degraded art forms ... putting the label "Jesus" on rock music doesn't change the essential nature of it. They take something that is basically unacceptable to Christians and relabel it, but it is still just as bad as before.
How strange that charismatic, exuberant Pentecostals sound a warning against Christian rock music, while many supposedly conservative high-minded Seventh-day Adventists just eat it up! I'm not talking only about hard rock, but about the soft rock and nightclub type of music that is often heard at Adventist gatherings
In a 1973 article in The Ministry, H. Lloyd Leno stated that "probably the most important
development in the scientific investigation of music was the discovery that music is perceived through that portion of the brain receiving the stimuli of emotions, sensations, and feelings without being first subjected to the brain centers involving reason and intelligence."23 Schullian and Schoen explain this phenomenon:
Music, which does not depend upon the master brain to gain entrance into the organism, can still arouse by way of the thalamus - the relay station of all emotions, sensations, and feelings. Once a stimulus has been able to reach the thalamus, the master brain is automatically invaded, and if the stimulus is continued for some time, a closer contact between the master brain and the world of reality can be thus established.
This mechanism makes it possible to reach mentally ill patients who cannot be contacted through the spoken word. Could Satan, heaven's former chief musician, possibly use it as well?
There can also be little doubt that rhythmic music has strong appeal for nearly everyone. Willem Van de Wall explains why: "Much of what we call irresistible in music is so because we react on this sensory-motor level of functioning."25 This sensory-motor, or physical, response to rhythm can be illustrated further by the "ecstatic seizure," an essential element of ceremonial dancing in West Africa, and other similar trance-inducing, highly rhythmic and repetitious ceremonial dances among American Indians and the Aztecs.26 This rhythmically driven dance ceremony culminated in the prostration of the participants, at which time they were promised victory over their enemies.
Referring to this repetitive rhythm, Gaston says, "One is reminded of rock and roll."27 One is also reminded of Indiana, and of certain charismatic services in which worshippers are induced to receive the gift of tongues. Music used to induce a response must be used with a great deal of caution. Time and space do not permit a thorough treatment of musical perception. Suffice it to say that studies over the past fifty years have brought to light some rather significant findings which Leno summarizes as follows: -
1) Music is perceived and enjoyed without necessarily being interpreted by the higher centers of the brain involving reason and judgement.
2) Response to music is measurable even though the listener is not giving conscious attention to it.
3) There is evidence that music can bring about mood changes by affecting body chemistry and electrolyte balance.
4) By lowering the level of sensory perception, music heightens the responses to color, touch, and other sensory perceptions.
5) It has been demonstrated that music effects changes in muscular energy and promotes or inhibits body movement.
6) Highly repetitive rhythmic music has an hypnotic effect.
7) The sense of hearing has a greater effect on the autonomic nervous system than any of the other senses.
These findings suggest that Satan is able, through music, to mount a sneak attack on anyone willing to indulge in the "wrong" kind of music.
It can be concluded that the music itself, not just the text, is a key issue in the acceptability of music for worship. This is why a word of caution needs to be sounded to all groups experimenting with new church music and worship styles. Even a scripturally solid text, when wedded to an inappropriate musical vehicle, becomes a theological "Babylon," a mixture of good and evil - truth and error.
In referring to the fall of man, Ellen White says: "By the mingling of evil with good, his mind had become confused, his mental and spiritual powers benumbed. No longer could he appreciate the good that God so freely bestowed.29 The prophet Ezekiel also warns of the dangers of mixing the sacred and profane:
Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they showed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them ... saying thus saith the Lord God, when the Lord hath not spoken. (Ezekiel 22:26, 28)
Mixing God's truth with the world's goods is risky business!
Music, in its simplest terms, is made up of three components: melody, harmony, and rhythm. These three correspond at least to a degree, with man's spirit, or intellect; his emotions or feelings; and his body, or physical needs. In selecting music for worship, this hierarchy must be kept intact: melody should reign supreme. Harmony supports melody, but never supersedes it. Rhythm should support both, but supersede neither.
God communicates with man through his mind. This is why melody - which appeals to man's mind - must reign supreme. Melody is the vehicle that carries the text of the song. In the setting of worship especially, that text must dominate. Is there any place in inspired writings which suggests that God communicates with man primarily through emotions or his physical nature? Rather, Paul's counsel is to "keep under my body, lest that by any means . . I myself should be a castaway" (I Corinthians 9:27).
Emotion and drive cannot and should not be separated from our music, but must be kept under control. That which appeals to the mind must reign supreme!30 An experienced Christian disc jockey offers this pertinent confession:
knew that rock has strong influential powers and I reasoned that maybe it could be used to spread the Gospel and I stood firm in those feelings. What I wouldn't admit was that I couldn't worship the Lord while I was hearing those drums and other instruments pound out the rhythm. I felt the driving sound and rhythm in my body and mind. It was a flesh trip. Logic tells me that if one is going to worship the Lord one should have his mind on the Lord - not on the feeling you're getting from that groovy Christian music.
I believe in making a joyful noise unto the Lord but when the music leaves the spiritual realm and becomes a driving force it goes into the physical realm - a realm that takes worship away from God and puts the music to work satisfying one's self. If I'm fighting to win a spiritual war I cannot voluntarily listen to the enemy's propaganda .
This is precisely why much of today's contemporary Christian music, with its dominant rhythmic structure, must at least receive close scrutiny regarding its place in Christian worship. The fact is that much of this music embodies a reversed hierarchy, with the melody - the vehicle carrying the text - being of least importance.
Can we afford to let our feelings and emotions, or our desire for physical expression, rule over our minds? Do we want worship that simply makes us "feel good," or do we want worship that points us to God, as the only source of our salvation? The issue here is far greater than one of personal tastes and preferences alone. Our music and worship styles illustrate our perceived needs, and perhaps our concept of God.
Jeffrey K Lauritzen is the director of choirs for the Greater Collegedale School System. He graduated from Union College in 1974 and completed a master's degree in music at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has taught at Cedar Vale Jr. Academy in Kansas City, Missouri; Wisconsin Academy, and Rogers Elementary School in College Place, Washington. Lauritzen has been at Collegedale since 1986.
1. Harold Lickey, "Today's Religious Music Scene," The Ministry March 1973: 18.
2. Howard Hanson, The American Journal of psychiatry 99: 317.
3. Bruce Leafblad "What Sound Church Music," Christianity Today, 19 May 1978: 18
4. E. G. White, Messages to Young People (Nashville: Southern Publishing Company, 1930) 291-96. The importance of music in the worship of God is a constant theme in Scripture. God ordained Levites as priests and musicians in the services of worship. Especially in Revelation do we see the integral role of the anthems of praise in worship of God.
5. Leafblad 19.
6. E. G. White, The Seventh-day Adventist Bible commentary, ed. F.D. Nichol (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1954) 1035.
7. Earl Enyeart Harper, Church Music and Worship (New York: Abingdon Press, 1924) 52, 53.
8. Joe Crews, Creeping Compromise (Baltimore: Amazing Facts, 1977).
9. Irwin Sonenfield, "The Mystical Rite of Youth Culture: Search and Celebration in Popular Music," The Music Educator's Joumal February 1973: 28.
10. William Schaefer, Rock Music (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972) 79.
11. E. G. White, Evangelism (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1913) 94. 12E. G. White, Counsels to Parents and Teachers (Mountain View; Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1913) 94.
13. White, Evangelism 137.
14. Bob Larson.
15. Lickey 19.
16. Cf. also Joel 6:5; 8:3, 10.
17. E. G. White, Selected Messages, (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958) 2: 38.
19. E. G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1915) 264.
20. White, Messages to Young People 83.
2l. Carol Thiessen, "Dusting Off the Old Hymnal," A review of The Worshipping Church in Christianity Today 22 October 1990: 66-68.
22. Eugene F. Durand, "Contemporary Christian Music," Adventist Review 6 December 1990: 5. It should be further clarified that the prime target of the Assemblies of God was the "hard" rock music. However, this author agrees with Durand that the "softer" rock sounds can be just as damaging. They at least have allowed us to take another step toward that which is inappropriate.
23. LIoyd H. Leno, "Music - How It Affects the Whole Man,- 7he Ministry November 1973: 24.
24. Dorothy Schullian and Max Schoen, Music and Medicine (New York: Henry Schuman, Inc., 1948) 270,271.
25. Willem Van de Wall, Music in Hospitals (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1946) 15.
26. Leno 25.
27. E. Thayer Gaston, Music in Therapy (New York: Macmillan and Company, 1968) 329.
28. Leno 25. A much more thorough treatment of the subject of perception can be found in this excellent article, with a complete bibliography of research documentation. Another outstanding source is Crews, Creeping Compromise, Amazing Facts, Inc., Baltimore, MD.
29. E. G. White, Education (Mountain View: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1903) 25.
3O. This hierarchal concept of melody/harmony/rhythm and their relationship to intellect/emotions/the body is obviously a simplistic illustration. There are, to be sure, many other factors to be considered in selecting music. Music is much too complex to be categorically reduced to something this straightforward. Nevertheless, the concept of hierarchy is an easy to understand starting point from which to work, and provides at least a degree of concreteness for an abstract subject.
31. Larson 61.
This article was printed in the Spring/Summer 1995 issue of IAMA's magazine, Notes