It’s sad, but it is all too easy for Christians to get distracted by “style” issues that have nothing really to do with our mission to share the good news of Jesus with the world. I’ve written in the past about differences in how to dress for church; today I’m writing about differences in music styles. Like so much of life, there are pros and cons to each of the many types of music used by worshippers. Here are some of those, from one person’s perspective only.
Types of Songs
This distinction happens to be a fairly common topic of conversation in my own church family. It was one factor in our choosing to do two worship services each Sunday morning. One is more “traditional” (hymns) while the other is more “contemporary” (praise choruses). As our pastor says, we have unity in our love for each other and our message to the world. We just offer a choice of both ways to express that message.
The best of the traditional hymns are rich with Biblical truth. They use poetic language to express deep theological messages. Without the music behind them, just read the lyrics to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or “Amazing Grace” or “Just As I Am” or “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It” or “Blessed Assurance” or “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” or “The Old Rugged Cross” or “How Great Thou Art” or so many others. Notice how much you can learn of the gospel from those lyrics!
I’ve had a conversation with a friend that many people have absorbed much of their theology by way of the hymns they grew up singing. A pastor once said that watching our congregation sing these hymns shows the same feeling that other churches get from their traditional prayers. They can be that powerful.
Getting theology from hymns can be dangerous, if the hymn writers have not been faithful to the Bible. Hymns should never replace God’s Word as a means of instruction!
Musically, hymns tend to be very “iambic pentameter” and to be within a fairly narrow range of pitches. That makes them easy for a musically-untrained congregation to sing. But it can also become a bit of a boring sound, with those untrained voices droning the words without much inflection. That can cause those powerful lyrics to be diluted into rote repetition that doesn’t do justice to them. 1
Praise choruses focus on just that — praising God — without as much of the theological story-telling that hymns have. Here is a link to about an hour of music including 25 popular choruses, including “I Love You, Lord”, “How Majestic is Your Name”, and “Oh, How He Loves You and Me”.
Praise choruses have an exuberance that hymns can lack. They are joyful, expressing wonder and awe at God’s glory. They are more often directed toward God, rather than telling about Him. They have the feeling of excitement and applause for God’s greatness. Their short musical phrases can stick with you, causing you to hum the same line (over and over again!) all day.
The lyrics to these choruses tend to be very simplistic. Often they really do have only a line or two, repeated with variations throughout the song. That can be boring in its own way, even with the more interesting musical arrangement, if the given song does not really express the person’s feelings at that moment.
Musically, these choruses can be surprisingly difficult for a congregation to sing. They don’t have the predictable verse-and-chorus arrangements that most hymns have. Instead they have interludes that switch to completely different words and tune for a few measures before switching back to the main theme, or they have jumps in pitch or tempo that untrained singers can’t always follow easily. That can make them uncomfortable for a group to sing along.
Types of Singers
Music can be led by anything from a single soloist to a mass choir. It can be presented for the congregation members to sing along, or to simply listen and let the leader(s) be speaking for them as well as to them.
A group of singers who have practiced to build close harmony can deliver a beautiful, full, rich sound. Think of the the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, or the Morman Tabernacle Choir. The combined voices can have a power that isn’t matched by any smaller group.
Not all churches have a lot of singers able to put in the practice effort required. Those who can’t be in the choir (or those like me, who shouldn’t be there with my lack of singing ability!) can feel left out or rejected. Not all songs are suitable for a large group; choirs are often better at the slower, more majestic songs than at the bright and fast ones.
Soloists and Small Teams
An alternative type of leadership for the music is a soloist or a small team like a quartet. They may not be able to do as full a sound as a choir, but they can be more flexible with both rehearsal needed and musical options.
A soloist or small team can be more personal and expressive as they sing, in a way that would be distracting if done by all members of a large choir. They can ad-lib or tailor the song to the specific listeners as needed. Their listeners can participate through that listening, allowing the singer to express what they feel but don’t have the ability to articulate as well. I know that I can get totally involved in what the soloist is singing. When my friend Eric sings “Midnight Cry”, the world stops for me! 2
There’s a danger for both singers and listeners to go into “performance mode”. The point of music in church is to direct attention toward God. If it becomes a performance, with listeners directing their attention to the singer only, then it has missed the point. It has become a distraction from God, instead, to the detriment of everyone involved.
In an effort to avoid the “performance mode” effect, one option is to have no one “on stage” as the focal point. Someone kicks off the song and indicates the tempo, but the entire congregation is expected to consider themselves part of the action.
As mentioned, this avoids performance. It allows everyone to be involved, without regard to age or ability.
Not everyone wants to be actively singing, or considers that necessary in order to be “involved”. I, for instance, am a horrible singer. I don’t even sing “Happy Birthday” for fear of being disrespectful to the birthday person! If I am singing in a congregation, there’s a very good chance that I am not worshipping; I’m too busy worrying about how I sound. Alternatively, an especially good singer may have the same temptation to focus on themselves instead of on God.
Types of Instruments
Accompanying instrumentation can range from massive pipe organ, to full orchestra, to guitars and drums, to none at all. Again, the priority is what leads the participants’ attention toward God.
Pipe Organs and Full Orchestras
The huge majestic sound of a big pipe organ — or the scaled-down version in a smaller church — conveys the majesty of God. No instrument is really big enough to match Him, but the organ comes closer than most. The swelling sound of an orchestra full of string and brass instruments, accompanied by tympani rolls, can have that same effect.
To some, the organ becomes ponderous and overbearing rather than big and majestic. It has an old-fashioned feel that doesn’t match the taste of someone who leans toward livelier instruments. Violins and trumpets can have the same effect (depending on arrangement, though: The same instruments can also be “fiddles” and “horns”! 😀 ).
Guitars and Drums
An alternative to the more traditional “church-y” musical instruments are those found in modern praise bands. The keyboards switch from piano and organ to electronic keyboards and synthesizers; the rhythm section is led by drums and bass; guitar fills in the chords.
To generations who grew up with rock, hip-hop, or heavy metal, those are the kinds of musical instruments they most appreciate. Guitar, bass, and drum are what speak to them.
To generations who did not grow up with appreciation for the finer aspects of heavy metal, these instruments (as often played) can seem unharmonious and intrusive.
No Accompaniment Instruments
Some churches prefer voices only, with no instrumentation. Part of their reasoning is that instruments are not mentioned as being used by the early church in the New Testament. (Although, reasoning from silence is generally considered to be a weak argument, and instruments are mentioned regularly in the Old Testament. 3)
Without the crutch of depending on instruments, these congregations tend to have very good singing voices. They specifically practice and encourage vocal music, and can become quite skilled at it.
Instruments, of any kind, are used for a reason: They enhance the music, contributing a range of tone, pitch and “voice”. Their lack can leave the music feeling a bit flat and weak.
Music, whether in worship service or not, can range from soft background sounds to loud enough to overwhelm conversation.
Soft and Reverent
Quiet music can contribute to a mood of respect and reverence. People tend to talk in softer voices, or sit in quiet prayer and contemplation.
Quiet music can also be boring and easily ignored. People simply raise their voices slightly to continue their conversations in spite of it.
Loud and Enthusiastic
Louder music demands attention. It can insist that other conversations cease, and that the focus be on the music…therefore on God (presumably). Louder accompaniment also encourages shy singers who are afraid of sticking out in a quieter environment.
Louder music can also just be annoying, causing focus on the discomfort rather than anything else.
Just Praise God
So which is right, and which is wrong? All of the above, and none of the above! As far as I know, there is no Biblical direction that “Thou shalt do music this way”. The goal, always, is to direct the focus to God. Anything else is a matter of personal taste and mood.
If whatever is being done at a given worship service is not my personal favorite, that is no reason to say it’s “bad”. To someone else in the congregation, that same music may be exactly what they need to turn their hearts to God. If I get my mind off of myself and my own preferences, I can always find something appreciate in any style of music.
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth.Psalm 100
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful [Note: Not necessarily beautiful!] singing.
Know that the LORD Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the LORD is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.
Footnotes and Scripture References
- I couldn’t resist this link to “Redeemed” sung by professionals who really believe every word. This is definitely not droning or boring!
- I don’t have a video of Eric doing this song, but Ivan Parker is pretty good also! :) Do you get caught up in the music and the message with him the same way I do?
- Some examples are:
When bringing the Ark of the Covenant home in 1 Chronicles 15:16-25;
When David turned the throne over to his son Solomon in 1 Chronicles 23:1-6 and and 1 Chronicles 25:1-7;
At the dedication of the temple in 2 Chronicles 5:11-14;
At the re-dedication of the temple after restoration from the exile in Babylon in Nehemiah 12:31-43;
All of Psalm 150 and the heading to several Psalms such as 4 and 54.