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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?




2 Responses to “Easy Like Sunday Morning? The Role of Music in Sunday Morning Worship Services”

  1. Marie Luft says:

    And here I thought I was just being an old lady when I complain about this very subject. There must have been a dividing line at some point, between those of us who grew up with the old hymns and choruses and the new way of doing things … if so, I missed it. I always loved to sing, and learned pretty well how to read the music so I absolutely do not like having only words projected on a screen. Of course, I grew up in a church that had the greatest song leader ever (your grandpa) so maybe I was spoiled. The music is really not all that great most of it is repetition, does not tell a story of any kind, etc. etc. as you can tell, I really do not like it. … my opinion, for what it’s worth.

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