Music is a Language

Roy Adams

Every service we perform for the church should be regarded as a "commercial" - a commercial for the King of kings. And our audience should be clear about what we are trying to say, whether it be in a Bible study, a sermon, or a musical rendition.

An Adventist Review editorial with response letters and a follow-up editorial . . .

When McDonald's puts out a commercial, it leaves its audience in no doubt as to what it wants to say. Like other corporate giants, it doesn't spend millions of dollars on advertisements whose messages are unclear to its target audience.

Yet with infinitely more at stake - from the perspective of the great controversy - too many of our educated musicians seem content to serve up stuff that only a fraction of our worshipers can possibly comprehend. How would an English speaking audience take it if one of our gifted Bible scholars should present the sermon on Sabbath laced with technical theological jargon - or worse, in Greek or Hebrew? So why do we think our musicians should behave any differently?

Every service we perform for the church should be regarded as a "commercial" - a commercial for the King of kings. And our audience should be clear about what we are trying to say, whether it be in a Bible study, a sermon, or a musical rendition.

That thought came forcefully home to me as I listened to the Southeastern Conference camp meeting choir on a sweltering Sabbath morning last June near Gainesville, Florida. Under the direction of Panchita Mitchell of West Palm Beach, the group presented the piece I've Decided to Make Jesus My Choice.1 Sitting under the nose of the director, I heard her give her final pep talk: "Sing those words as if you mean them," she said with a twinkle in her eyes. "Because it's true, isn't it?"

I wish I could convey the reaction of that audience as the choir broke out into the song's refrain: "The road is rough." It was as if, by some magic, those words had become balls of healing fire, touching each listener exactly where they hurt. Every word hit home.

I had experienced something similar the previous Sabbath at the South Atlantic camp meeting near Orangeburg, South Carolina. Here the Maranatha mass choir of Atlanta took the stage, under the direction of Dolores Patrick, with a piece by Shirley Caesar entitled He's Working It Out.2 As the soloist articulated the words of the song, its lyrics spoke poignantly to the times: about the burdens of life that weigh us down, about problems on the job, about drugs and alcohol, about marriage on the rocks, about poverty and disappointment about the power of prayer.

I was familiar with the piece and, like many others under the big triple tent, could hardly wait for the point of high drama I knew was coming. That's when the seventy-five other voices of the-choir would join the soloist in the powerful lines: "God cares! I'm so glad to know He cares! And He's working it out for you! "

I find it utterly impossible to capture in words the impact of that electric moment. You have to have been there. As the piece ended, many people, including members of the choir themselves, were in tears. Pastor Ronald Wright, sitting to my left, explained part of the reason: "Many of those in the choir," he said, "are singing from their own experience."

As they made their way back to their seats, they kept on humming the tune in a kind of afterglow. In no time, the entire congregation, with the organist picking it up, caught fire again. If you've never participated in something like that, you have no idea how powerful worship can get. Goose bumps broke out all over me.

What I'm trying to say is that there is a kind of music that primarily feeds the mind, and another that feeds the soul. One that reaches the head, and another that reaches the heart. One that entertains, and another that inspires. One that appeals to our aesthetic sensibilities, and another that probes the deepest recesses of our spiritual beings. One that we encounter at a recital, and another that we experience in church. One that ordinary people find obscure, dense, inaccessible, and another that lifts their burdens. And the churches that are growing most rapidly today are those that have figured out the critical difference. Yes, music is a language. To be of any use in worship, it must be clear. Its message is too important for anything less.


1. Words and music by Harrison Johnson, Copyright 1969-1971 by Planemar Music Company.

2. Shirley Caesar, "Live in Concert," Word Music.


These observations were written by Roy Adams, Associate Editor of Adventist Review as an editorial in the September 12, 1996 issue and then reprinted with permission in the International Adventist Musicians Association Spring 1997 Notes. It was again reprinted in the Autumn 1997 issue of Notes, along with response letters that had been sent to the Adventist Review and another sent to IAMA when it was printed in Notes. Adams' response to those letters, The War Department, was also reprinted from the Adventist Review at that time.


Adventist Review Letters

Adams certainly expressed what many of us feel about church music ("Music Is a Language," Sept. 12). It can be so important in lifting our thoughts to heaven. How music that sounds like finger exercises could accomplish this I'll never understand. The larger the church, the less inspirational the music is at times. We need to build up not only lost doctrine of the past but also the art of communing with God through music, as did David.

Juanita Simpson, Organist, Show Low, Arizona

While I usually appreciate Roy Adams's editorials, I was saddened at his barbed thrust at our professional musicians. He contends that "too many of our educated musicians seem content to serve up stuff that only a fraction of our worshipers can possibly comprehend."

As he was not specific, I am puzzled as to what music he does not comprehend. Would he suggest that we should scrap the vast body of great organ literature in favor of hymn tune arrangements? Would all "special" musical selections need to be vocal to be regarded as "a commercial for the King of kings"?

Are we to judge the suitability of a selection by "audience" reaction?

From my perspective as a professional musician, it seems the problem is that many of our worshipers come to church to be entertained. Their musical tastes have been formed by TV, radio, and pop culture. Their exposure to great church music has been minimal, and therefore they find traditional sacred music incomprehensible. If we were to use more educated professionals to provide the musical portions of worship, we might be able through constant exposure to counteract the deplorable influence of pop culture on our worship services.

Margarita Merriman, Ph.D.,South Lancaster, Massachusetts


Did I read Roy Adams' injunction to the camp meeting musicians right: "Keep it simple, stupid"? Does he advise his preachers to do the same, to focus their message on the heart and not the head? Has he forgotten that in the great religious revivals of the past it was the preachers who urged the musical education of their congregations? Does he take Ellen White seriously when she counseled preachers to "educate, educate, educate"? Does he really want the Adventist Church to embrace an aesthetic of crass functionalism and ecstatic spiritualism? If so, those who love beautiful, refined, and intellectual things will be running for the exits of his camp meeting tent, and those who remain won't know the difference.

Estelle R. Jorgensen, Bloomington, Indiana


Adams is absolutely right - music is a language. Our ability to understand and appreciate various types of music depends upon our cultural backgrounds and our past exposure to different styles. Some of my fondest memories of my days at Atlantic Union College are of attending Sabbath afternoon "soulspirations." But I remember just as fondly the inspiring choral anthems and majestic organ pieces from church services during my student years. Both of these styles of music speak to me, each in its own way.

Sharon Dudgeon, Berrien Springs, Michigan


Roy Adams feels that one kind of music (good) feeds the soul or heart, and the other kind (no good) feeds the mind or head. False dichotomy. The sacred music of Mozart, as just one example, has inspired thousands over many generations precisely because it speaks so clearly both to the mind and to the heart. Although the Popular sacred music of the day appeals to many and has a valid place in public worship, most of it will be forgotten in a few years. Its Popular appeal lies in its minimal cost in mental and emotional effort, and its lasting value is about proportional to its costs. There is a place in our public worship for both the "easy listening" currently popular music and the more Costly music Adams disdains. We can't afford to write off either group.

David Patterson, Via E-mafl


IAMA Notes Letter

Our dear brother, Roy Adams, has expressed his opinion on subject of the effectiveness of Christian popular versus sacred classical music. There are many different ways to look at this question.

One of the most obvious is cultural background. We are comfortable with what we have grown up with and been taught as children. Education will always take us beyond that, but getting on the right track as a child and having wise, responsible teachers puts one at a decided advantage.

The historical view is also instructive. God poured out an incredible stream of light on this world during the Reformation. We are the heirs of that heavenly movement. Musically, the highpoint came in the late Baroque with the music of J.S. Bach and Handel. The spiritual fervor that gripped these men while composing their sacred scores was so intense it spilled over into their secular music as well. It is no wonder that masterpieces like The St. Matthew Passion and the Messiah were written during this time, the glory of their age and every age since.

Ever since that time each generation has become increasingly secular, egoistic and skeptical. But that is not to say that no great sacred music has been written in the last 250 years. Styles have changed; musical vocabularies have expanded; and one can observe a chain of musical truth right down to the present day.

We are now living in a flagrantly godless generation dominated by fast food, television situation-comedies, violence, quick flings, and all pervasive "me-ism. And now we have tocontend with the "dumbing down" of America. God help us. A more shallow and vapid environment can hardly be imagined. And popular music is its quintessential expression. Why would anyone even be tempted to ally his/her religion and forms of worship with this culture?

Yet another aspect of the issue is that of intellectualism versus emotionalism. The best music is a combination of both in equal parts. This is a difficult assignment to fulfill, and frequently composers err on one side or the other. From this viewpoint, Stravinsky's angular and thorny Mass is just as inappropriate for worship as are these emotional quick-fix Christian pop tunes. What we are looking for is a fine balance, a sensitivity to text, inspired melodies, noble harmonies and appropriate rhythms to bring us into the heavenly courts to the presence of God.

This brings me to my final question. Are we dealing here with universal moral values, or are we restricted to our own viewpoints, which are determined by our cultural backgrounds and our education? I believe that God is much more inclusive than we erring, restricted humans can ever be. He looks on the heart, whereas we are distracted by outward appearance and by the sounds we hear.

I believe God accepts every act of worship no matter how sophisticated or simple if it is offered in the right spirit. In that sense we are all on the right track, or can be. God is big enough to accept all of us as his children, so we need to try to accept each other and not condemn. Perhaps in heaven the angels will lead us in music so glorious that everything we have loved best on earth will fade away into insignificance, a mere shadow of what is to come.

Peter Mathews, Freelance composer and conductor, St. Augustine, Florida


The War Department

Roy Adams

Last spring I touched on the subject of music in a Review article.1 A few weeks later, we heard from one angry musician: "I daresay," she wrote, "that Mr. Adams has shown that gospel music or the way that it is expressed is not something he appreciates and/or understands."

Now in response to a more recent piece, "Music is a Language,"2 other musicians seek to paint me with a different brush. In the opinion of Evelyn Kopitzke of Tennessee, my editorial summarily "vilified all 'complex' music offered by educated musicians.'" Margarita Merriman of Massachusetts was "saddened" by what she regarded as my "barbed thrust" at our professional musicians.4 And David Patterson spoke of "the [mentally] costly music Adams disdains."5

What seems to have ruffled the feathers of these musicians was their assumption that (a) I was tarring all musicians with the same brush, (b) I was knocking all classical music, and (c) I was suggesting that suitable worship music should appeal to the heart only, and not also to the mind.

Each of these assumptions is wrong. Because of space, our editorials are necessarily tight with no room for a single redundant word. And gratuitous caveats take up valuable space. If I wanted to criticize all educated musicians, for example, I think I had access to appropriate language for that. And when I said, at the head of a peroration that "there is a kind of music that primarily feeds the mind, and another that feeds the soul,"6 I expected that the careful reader would understand that the key adverb "primarily" must be understood to precede each succeeding couplet of that literary unit.

The fact is that I have a native love for the classicals. I have thrilled at the performance of Handel's Messiah by singers who know their business. My hair has stood on end at Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University, with Dr. Warren Becker at the organ and the University Singers presenting Marshall's My Eternal King. And the powerful melody and scriptural message of Hummel's Hallelujah has never failed to grip my soul.

Certain musical compositions, however, are just plain horrible to the ears of ordinary people. At the end of Sabbath afternoon vespers at one of our schools, I asked a fellow student how he had reacted to the organ presentation that closed the service. "It sounded," she said, "like the theme song for a horror movie."

Musicians, I think, would commend themselves to the rest of us if they would stop pretending that every piece of classical music is good, and that all music that did not originate from a certain group of composers from a few selected areas of the world is somehow inferior, - "commercial jingle," as one of them wrote. Such snobbery is unbecoming. I believe in high standards, and am often appalled by what's coming into some of our churches. But I keep reminding myself that on the subject of music in worship, our great God is no respecter of culture. No one can show that He is more impressed with CWM Rhondda than Kum ba ya. Yes, give us the heavy stuff, by all means. But then intersperse it with Come, Ye Disconsolate, and then listen to the congregation hum as you play. Many people carry heavy burdens, you know.

However, not all the musicians who wrote took issue with everything I'd said - a good sign, I think. Organist Juanita Simpson of Arizona, for example, said that the editorial "certainly expressed what many of us feel about church music." "The larger the church," she wrote, "the less inspirational the music is at times."7 And Ted Swinyar, of Washington state, a trained musician, gave a most beautiful affirmation in the following statement: "I believe," he wrote, "that music of every kind can be and is used by the Lord, whether gospel, baroque, or contemporary Christian. Whether amateur or professional, the Lord can use our talents, whatever they may be, for His work."8

Elder H.M.S. Richards, Sr., used to describe the music department as "the war department of the church." And he was right. Yet every so often, a death wish comes over me, and I make a hit-and-run foray into the war zone. But the present skirmish is over, and I'm outa here.

1. See Newsbreak, May 23, 1996, pp. 20-22.

2. Adventist Review, September 12, 1996

3. Unpublished letter.

4. See Letters, Adventist Review, November14, 1996

5. Ibid.

6. See the brief proration toward the end of the editorial in question.

7. See Letters, Adventist Review, November 14, 1996

8. Unpublished letter.