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Easy Like Sunday Morning? The Role of Music in Sunday Morning Worship Services

In a recent chat with a young Baptist pastor about the use of choruses in Sunday morning church services, I had complained about the fact that choruses do not show anything other than words projected on a screen (making it impossible to sing them properly the first few times one sees them, and makes picking out the bass part impossible.)  Generally, I find the new choruses pretty shallow theologically, and I am put off by the shift toward contemporary beat, instrumentation, and amplified music that drowns out the voices in many of our church sanctuaries today.  The pastor declared: “Every song we sang was scripture or based directly on a specific scripture passage”.  I didn’t verify this, but I believe him.  he strikes me as an honest man, and a sincere follower of Christ.  But is that enough?

Back in the late 1960s, my older brother owned a 45RPM record (I know some of the current readership is too young to know what that is) containing 2 songs by a group called “The Byrds”.  On one side was a song called “Turn, Turn, Turn”.  The lyrics of the song were drawn directly from the Bible – specifically the Book of Ecclesiastes.  The lyrics are; “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”  It was a very popular song in its day, and remains a folk classic today in the secular music world.  The flip side of that same 45RPM record was an even more popular song recorded by the Byrds entitled “Mr. Tambourine Man”.  This song was originally written by Bob Dylan, but the Byrds recording was far more popular, and musically speaking, it was performed beautifully by the group.  Lyrics from this song include: “Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to. Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, In the jingle-jangle morning I’ll come following you.”  Although Mr. Dylan has denied this on occasion, it seems clear to many (myself included) that the song is about drugs such as LSD or marijuana, particularly those lines that say things like “take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship” and “the smoke rings of my mind.”  Given the temporal position (1960s) of the origin of the song, and Dylan’s well-publicized experiences with drugs in those days, it’s an easy connection to make. 

The point is that merely embedding phrases and text passages from the Bible does not – in and of itself – make all music appropriate for Sunday morning worship services. There is much more involved.  A truly excellent study of this topic was done by Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi (a Ph. D. professor of theology at Andrews University) in March, 2000.

In his published report, Dr. Bacchiocchi points out that music in the Bible, it is made clear that the purpose of singing is “not personal gratification, but God glorification” (Exodus 15:1), that in the temples and synagogues it was “not for personal pleasure or to reach out to the Gentiles with tunes familiar to them, but to praise God by chanting His Word – a method known as “cantillation”.  (Psalm 135:3, Psalm 147:1)  He also points out that the often quoted but almost as often misinterpreted phrase “joyful noise” (from Psalms 66:1, 81:1, 95:1-2, 98:4, (8:6, and 100:1) is frequently used to defend loud, amplified music in church services.  Unfortunately, as Bacchiocchi points out, this is a misinterpretation of the Hebrew word “ruwa”.  Ruwa does not mean a loud, indiscriminate noise.”  It means “shout for joy”.  He points out that a good example is Job 38:7, where the sons of God “shouted for joy at creation”.  In essence, the translation should say: “burst into jubilant song.”  To quote the article, “The review of relevant texts indicates that the Bible does not sanction making a joyful noise unto the Lord, or any kind of noise making for that matter. God’s people are invited to break forth in singing with power and joy. God does care about how we sing and play during the worship service. God has always demanded our best, when making an offering to him. As He required the burnt offerings to be “without blemish” (Leviticus 1:3), so it is reasonable to assume that He expects us to present Him the very best musical offering. There is no biblical basis for believing that the loud noisemaking music or questionable lyrics are acceptable to God.”

Then there is the matter of “a new song.”  Many Christians today have made the assertion that new choruses and songs are sanctioned by the Bible because the Bible uses the phrase “new song” (Psalms 33:3. 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, and Isaiah 42:10).  They consider the production of contemporary choruses and “pop religious music” a prophetic fulfillment of the biblical “new song.”  Again, returning to Bacchiocchi, we read that “However, a study of the “new song” in the Bible, reveals that the phrase “new song” refers not to a new composition, but to a new experience that makes it possible to praise God with new meaning.”  “The “new song” in the Bible is associated, not with simpler lyrics or more rhythmic music, but with a unique experience of divine deliverance. For example, David says: “I will sing a new song to you, O God; on the ten-stringed lyre I will make music to you, to the One who gives victory to kings, who delivers his servant David from the deadly sword” (Ps 144:9-10). It is the experience of deliverance and victory that inspires David to sing with a new sense of gratitude the hymns of praises.”  “The “new song” presupposes not a new tune or lyrics, but a new experience.  It is only the person who has experienced the transforming power of God’s grace, who can sing the new song.  It is noteworthy that Paul’s famous exhortation in Colossians 3:16 to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” is preceded by his appeal to “put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:9-10).”

Bacchiocchi also points out that many of those involved in contemporary music ministries believe that music involving percussion instruments and amplified guitars, even when they practically compel the congregation to break into dance, is Biblically sound because they believe that it was common in Old Testament services.  He says: “A careful study of the function of music in the Old Testament reveals otherwise.  For example, in the Temple musicians belonged to the professional clergy, played only on limited and special occasions, and used only few specific music instruments. There was no possibility to turn the Temple service into music festival where any Jewish band could play the pop music of the time. Music was rigidly controlled in the Temple. What is true of the Temple was later true also of the synagogue and the early church. This survey will help us to see that in music, like in all other areas of life, God does not give us the license to “do our own thing.”

Researching this topic recently, I came across some information about a popular Christian band called “AppologetiX”.  According to their various websites, “ApologetiX is a band that makes Christian parodies out of hit secular songs, and gets their message of salvation out to crowds that revel in the popular music.   (The photograph at the beginning of this article is drawn from one of the ApologetiX web sites.)

For instance, the popular song “Barbara Ann” from the Beach Boys becomes “Bah We’re Lambs.” By using tunes that people know and love, ApologetiX songs are useful for memorization, and others send a message of repentance or salvation. But whatever the song’s intention, the parody sounds incredibly like the original performances. ApolgetiX has put out 17 CDs, with parodies of songs from Pink Floyd, The Beach Boys, Queen, Ted Nugent, Kansas, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Kid Rock, The Hollies, Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Joan Jett, Michael Jackson, Smash Mouth, Def Leppard, Ricky Martin and many others. Their music is available on line as well as in Christian bookstores, and Best Buy.”  What a stark contrast to the biblical reflection of Christ-honoring music, especially as it should be performed in worship services!


As Bacchiocchi pointed out, “The lesson for us today is evident. Church music should be different from secular music, because the church, like the ancient Temple, is God’s House in which we gather to worship the Lord, and not to be entertained. Percussion instruments which stimulate people physically through a loud and relentless beat, are inappropriate for church music today as they were for the Temple music of ancient Israel.  A second lesson from the Temple music is that the musical instruments used to accompany the choir or the singing of the congregation, should not cover up the voice.  Like the string instruments used in the Temple, musical instruments used in the church today should support the singing. Musical instruments should serve as a hand-maiden to the Word of God which is sung and proclaimed.”

Now I’d like to hear your perspective.  What do you think?




The Loss of the Cross

Last Sunday morning I had the opportunity to attend our former home church in northern Illinois.  While it’s not the church I grew up in, it is the one where I was married and where I was baptized, and where I spent a significant portion of my early adulthood.  Some family members are still among the congregation.  It is always an interesting experience to return to your home; one of the things I discovered is that it is a little like being away from your child or grandchild for significant stretches of time.  When you return, you realize how much they have changed.  Subtle changes in weight or height or dental features or hair style are more pronounced, because you have carried a static mental image of the child while you were away, but the child has continued to grow and mature.  Of course, later in life, the same process is true but the changes are rarely improvements.  As older adults, we are typically fatter, shorter, and have less hair.  None the less, the changes continue and periods of absence make those changes seem more pronounced.

In this case, the traditional Baptist church to which I was accustomed had certainly changed since I saw it last.  The beautiful hand-crafted pulpit fashioned by one of our most beloved church elders, now long-since deceased, was nowhere to be seen.  The organ and piano were still in their traditional places flanking the platform at the front of the sanctuary, but they were not often heard through the course of the Sunday morning service.  That’s because they were largely swallowed up in the electronically amplified strumming of the guitar and base guitar which have moved to center stage, and led all of the musical portions of the service.  The hymns of old have all but disappeared as well, replaced by choruses of what one brother-in-law refers to as “7-11 Music” (the same seven words repeated 11 times).  And finally, the entire front wall of the auditorium is now covered from ceiling to almost-floor by a projection screen, upon which the lyrics of the choruses are displayed, as well as the bullet points of the sermon of the day.  The large rustic wooden cross, once the visual center of the stage, and the constant reminder of what brought us all there, is no longer to be seen.  There was no evidence of a cross remianing anywhere in the sanctuary in fact, nor was the baptismal tank above which it hung. 

The message last Sunday was from the Book of James, and highlighted the importance of not speaking critically of others – especially our brothers in Christ.  I thought it was a pretty good sermon in most respects, solidly founded in biblical teaching and more importantly, targeted right at one of the biggest challenges I face personally on a regular basis.  The young pastor who is responsible for all of the changes that I find so disquieting was also the pastor that developed and delivered the sermon, and I am grateful that God made it possible for me to hear it last week.  I’m trying to incorporate it in my life, though I know that will continue to be a struggle for me as long as I draw breath. 

 Now,  I realize that the physical wooden cross hanging in the front of the sanctuary is only a symbol.  It’s a physical reminder, though, of the reason Christanity exists.  One day about 2,012 years ago, the world was changed forever by the sacrafice of Jesus Christ – the only beloved Son of God – on a wooden cross.  The result of that event has transcended time – forward and backward (see Isaiah 53) to provide the opportunity for all of us to accept Jesus Christ’s sacrifice as the payment for our individual sins, and avoid eternal seperation from God in the next life (John 3:16).  All of us who are Christians know that event stands between us and Hell.  It’s hard to imagine anything more important.

For me, it’s especially hard to see it supplanted by a projection screen whose purpose is to display the repetive, often shallow lyrics of today’s choruses.  One of them says “Our God is an Awsome God.”  Give me a break.  Our God isn’t “an Awesome God” – that would mean that He is one God among many, and happens to be more “awesome” than other Gods.  No; our God is GOD.  The very word means omnipoitent, omniscient, and omnipresent.  He isn’t just ‘awesome”, He is GOD.  I should mention, in fairnesss, that the projector screen did list the hymn number of a couple of hymns that were included in the list of musical performances of the morning.  There was no time to actually extract a hymn book from the holder and turn to the page before it was over, though.  So anyone like me who actually attempts to read the music and follow a particular part (like the bass or alto part) is almost as helpless with the hymns in this situation as we are when the words of a chorus go up on a projection screen with no accompanying notes.       

In any case, as I said initially, intervals of time make these changes more pronounced.  Perhaps I am over-reacting.  But for me, a church sanctuary that has been stripped of its cross is much more like any other large room, and filling it with guitars and amplifiers does little to enhance the reverant worship of the saints.

What do you think?

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