Music, praise and edification

©David Peterson (2010)


Why was Rachmaninov given only a short paragraph in a textbook on musical greats that I read?

Why do passionate rockers believe that pop music is pathetic?

Sadly, the snobbery about music that exists in the world at large can govern our attitude to church music and cause unhappy divisions amongst Christians.

Most people are used to thinking about music in quite selfish terms: ‘this is what I like and every other kind of music is unsatisfying and inadequate for me.’

Sometimes, secretly, we even say, ‘I am not willing to listen to your kind of music, let alone sing one of your silly songs!’

This is an area where Christians can be quite unrestrained in expressing their sinfulness.

If music is to be a meaningful and effective part of our church life, we need to apply the Scriptures to this ministry in a rigorous fashion and do so publicly from the pulpit.

But what biblical teaching?

Some false trails

It might surprise you to hear this, but I do not think that ‘worship’ theology (as normally defined and understood) will get us very far in this matter.

Worship theology is usually applied in one of two ways:

You must present the very best music to honour God

But this requires us to make value judgements about styles of music and the Bible gives us no clear guidance about this.

The principle of ‘the best to honour God’ could be applied to all sorts of music, from folk through to classical: do whatever you do well.

You must present music that will lift us up to God and help us to encounter God

This implies that worship is all about ‘verticality’ [1]: so church music must be ‘elevating’!

Worse still, it can imply that music is a way to help us experience more of God/get closer to God [2]: so church music must be affective and emotionally engaging.

The New Testament teaches that there was a three-way movement in the early church’s meetings: from God to his people, from the people to God, and from the members of the congregation to one another.

‘The primary element is the God-man movement, downward rather than upward, in which God comes to his people and uses his human servants to convey his salvation to them, to strengthen and upbuild them.  He bestows his charismata in order to equip the members of the church to serve one another.  Of course, the effect of such service by God to his people will be to move them to praise, thanksgiving and prayer, but the point is that this is response and is secondary to what is primary, namely the flow of divine grace.’[3]

Music can be a significant contributor to each aspect of our gathering. Congregational songs or items from individuals or groups can (at one and the same time):

Convey God’s truth to us;

Be a means of mutual encouragement or challenge;

Be a vehicle for reponding approriately to God.

Some biblical clues

Colossians 3:16-17 brings the threeway movement to clear expression (cf. also Eph. 5:18-20):

God ministers to us as his word dwells richly among us (God’s truth begins to inhabit and control every aspect of our lives together as his people as it is taught and applied in different ways, even through singing);

We minister to one another as we ‘teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit’ (TNIV);

We respond to God collectively but also personally as we sing to God with gratitude in our hearts (Eph. 5:19 ‘Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.’).

Edification is the missing factor in much of our thinking about music and corporate worship.

The biblical theology of edification found in places like 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4 and here in Col. 3:16 is our best guide in evaluating ‘psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit’.

Indeed, every aspect of our music ministries should be evaluated by biblical teaching about the edification of the church.

So a good hymn or song will be:

God-centred revealing God’s character and will to us afresh;

Encouraging us in our Christian lives – written in clear and understandable terms, teaching, admonishing and inspiring us to serve the Lord more faithfully;

Easily sung by the majority – if more than a few are struggling with the tune, it will not be possible for the congregation to be edified (ie. to respond to God appropriately together and, in effect, to say/sing ‘Amen’, as in 1 Cor. 14:16-17).

This last point is so important that I am going to spend the rest of this article developing it.

Edification and music ministries

Here are some biblical principles to apply:

Encourage believers to welcome the contributions of others (if they are honouring to God and are able to build up the body of Christ), following the teaching on the variety of gifts and how you exercise and receive them in Romans 12;

Teach people how to share their insights, preferences and contributions for the welfare of the body and not just as a means of self-expression (applying 1 Cor. 14:26-32);

Remind everyone that speaking the truth in love is an essential part of the process of edifying the church (following Eph. 4:15-16) – giving appropriate feedback.

Here are some specific ways of applying biblical teaching about edification to the issue of music style in a congregation:

In the first instance, choose music that is appropriate to the particular culture or sub-culture you are trying to reach – especially if this is a church plant or a new service.

I do not think there is anything biblically wrong with the homogenous unit principle for evangelism and church growth.  It is a recognition of racial, cultural, educational and experiential differences. However, it is clear from Scripture that the glory of the gospel is to unite all nations and peoples of every language and culture under the lordship of Christ (e.g. Eph. 2:11-22).

As we grow to maturity in Christ, individually and corporately, we should be looking for ways to express that unity – in combined services, united gospel action, exchange of ministries and gifts, and the sharing of resources like music (across cultural boundaries).

Congregations should be encouraged to learn music which may be unfamiliar in style and even outside their comfort zone, for the sake of Christ and the edification of the church on a wider scale.

A healthy church, with a healthy music ministry, will include the old and the new, the familiar and the foreign - not for the sake of novelty but in order to experience the richness and variety God has provided for his people.

1 Peter 4:10 applies here: ‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.’

Leadership of such a church, with such a music ministry, will only be possible when:

Pastors and music directors are working together in harmony (modelling biblical teaching about edification amongst themselves!);

When there is good teaching from the pulpit about the relevant biblical principles;

When music directors or song leaders have the right approach to congregations – warmth, confidence and humilty, being able to inspire confidence in the congregation about learning new songs and enjoying new music.

Striving for quality

‘There are many cultures; the very word itself tends to confuse because it can have many applications.  But there is one common denominator, that of quality, which is no more exclusively a pop, folk or rock gospel culture, any more than what we think of today as “classical” represents one exclusive culture.’[4]

‘Those who suggest that music in worship should preferably be spontaneous and unrehearsed, no only adopt a soft option which conveniently offloads any effort, but also fail to take into account that many people nowadays are musically educated through records and tapes, radio, television and the concert hall.’[5]

Why should we accept poor standards in church if the musicians can do better?  The demands of modern music are sometimes greater than those of traditional hymns and so adequate preparation is needed.

‘Good music will just as certainly help to draw people to church as unworthy music will in the end alienate.’[6] But quality and style are not to be confused.

[1] So P.F.M. Zahl, ‘Formal-Liturgical Worship’, in P.E. Engle & P.A. Basden, Exploring the Worship Spectrum 6 Views (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 23, says ‘There is nothing like it for taking you outside your problems and also bringing you back to them a renewed person, better able to cope and to endure.’

[2] J. Horness, ‘Contemporary Music-Driven Worship’, in ibid, 109, says ‘God’s deepest desire is that we would bring our whole hearts to him in worship and that he would be free to move in us.’

[3] I.H. Marshall, ‘How far did the early Christians worship God?’, Churchman 99 (1985), 227.

[4] L. Dakers, ‘The Establishment of the Need for Change’, in Spirit and Truth (ed.) R. Sheldon (London: Hodder, 1989), 72 (my emphasis).

[5] Ibid, 77 (my emphasis).

[6] Ibid, 87.

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