I thank God for the gift of music. I am particularly thankful for sacred, Christ-honoring music. Music is an integral part of worship and edification. It can draw our hearts closer to the Lord and reinforce scriptural truths in our minds, or it can weaken our walk with God and pull our flesh toward the world.
Because the church is an ekklesia—a called out assembly—our philosophy of church music should be cultivated scripturally and should provide a “certain sound” of distinction.
For all the blustery discussions regarding music, however, I have been surprised to find few of my friends who have written a policy or philosophy of music. This lends credence to my sense that much of the discussion is based on personal paradigm and preferences.
In truth, everyone has a paradigm. Some view music as a musician. Some as a listener. Some as a “joyful noisemaker.” Of course ultimately, our paradigm should be biblical. Mine in this article is simply from a pastor’s heart trying to rightly interpret and apply Scripture.
I am not a music expert; in fact, I never took music lessons. But I don’t believe you have to know the intricacies of musical technique or be a concert musician to discern godly music. Although I’ve asked several godly musicians to review these thoughts, I’ve tried to avoid too much technical jargon in this article. Many of the technicalities of music tend to be subjective, and in the end, it boils down to spiritual discernment anyway.
I never took drugs or had a rock and roll stronghold in my life, so I may not always see a connection like someone who has a background of this nature sees it. I am not familiar with current secular or Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) groups. I don’t make it my practice to research or study them. Scripture tells us to be “wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil” (Romans 16:19).
I simply write as a pastor, sharing a pastor’s heart and God’s Word. Like any other pastor, I’ve made my share of mistakes. Our music staff has had to pull songs. I remember a few years ago when a friend brought me an issue or two related to songs we’ve used and we deleted them from our repertoire. As my friend, Dr. Wayne Van Gelderen, with whom I’ve spoken about contextualization on numerous occasions, said, “Constant evaluation of how well we are aligning with the truth of God’s Word and a willingness to put away questionable things is a strength of any vibrant ministry.” Indeed, we attempt to do so on a regular basis.
It has been our desire from the very beginning of our ministry to take a strong, biblical stand while remaining sensitive to the Holy Spirit. We periodically step back and evaluate, to be sure we are unashamedly standing for truth.
And so, while there are a variety of paradigms from which a person will approach the subject of music, realize that our philosophy on music must come from Scripture.
There are, in fact, over 750 references to music in the Bible found in over 300 passages of Scripture. Through God’s Word, we see overarching principles that should encompass every area of our lives—including our music. We see:
- that everything we do should be done to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31),
- that God creates and ordains order (1 Corinthians 14:40),
- that we are to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh (Galatians 5:16),
- that we are to exercise spiritual discernment (Philippians 1:10),
- that we are to prove what is acceptable (Ephesians 5:10),
All of these principles relate just as truly to our music as they do to our lifestyles, relationships, personal decisions—or any other area of our Christian walk.
And thus, while most Baptists want to be Bible based in their philosophy of ministry, few areas of discussion have such broad interpretation as music. The following is my best attempt to share a biblical philosophy of music and worship while admitting here and now that there may be a few preferences in the statement as well.
Music can be a tough topic because of the concerns of good, godly people who have differing convictions and paradigms in the discussion. I’ve tried to be thorough, but this is nowhere near exhaustive. I’d ask that you read this material in its entirety (which will be posted as a series of three blogs), rather than skimming for “hot button” points or phrases. Also, realize that I am not writing to set a standard for your church. I am simply sharing what I have learned thus far on my journey.
I believe these fifteen basic principles reflect the heart of Scripture and uplift the biblical purposes of God-honoring music in the church:
1. I Believe Preaching Is Central in Worship and Evangelism
Although we can sing the message of the gospel, God has chosen preaching as the primary means of evangelism. From the Old Testament prophets to the New Testament preachers, God has placed a priority on the declarative preaching of His Word with an invitation for hearers to respond.
For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.—1 Corinthians 1:21
2. I Believe Music Is to Reflect the Holiness of God
The seraphim in the throne room of Heaven continually cry out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3), and Revelation tells us that the saints in Heaven likewise sing in grateful worship of God’s holiness and redemption (Revelation 5:8–14).
We must not separate our music, especially in church, from God’s holiness, degrading it to merely a matter of personal taste. As Dr. John Goetsch, Executive Vice President of West Coast Baptist College, said,
“We incorrectly take the idea that music is a matter of taste (which, of course, it is) to the extreme and say that it is just taste and therefore is only relative. Taste, however, can be right and wrong. If my taste for entertainment is directed toward violence, I am told by Scripture that I am wrong. If my taste in literature is slanted toward the profane, I am obviously also in the wrong. When Christians are of the opinion that their tastes in music (specifically regarding so called ‘Christian’ music) are relative, they take little or no thought to what is holy and what is profane.”
In all areas of a Christian’s walk, holiness matters. And in no area is this more true than in the area of our worship, particularly of the music we use to worship God.
As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.—1 Peter 1:14–16
3. I Believe There Is a True Danger in over Contextualizing Church Ministry
Every Bible-believing pastor wants to help people understand truth. We want to preach and teach Bible truth in a way that hearers will understand and apply it to the context in which they live. This is contextualization—the way we package a Bible message to connect to hearts. But when over contextualization happens, the “package” distracts from the message. At that point, it is not the Bible message that is given the emphasis; it is the methods with which it is presented.
Think of it like a gift. The Bible truth is the gift itself. Contextualization is the packaging in which it is delivered. Over contextualization is when the packaging is so flamboyant that no one even notices or cares about the gift. In extreme cases, the gift isn’t even there—just the packaging.
I believe the use of technology (such as screens) can be helpful in certain teaching presentations. But in our ministry, when we feel the use of technology is becoming a distraction rather than an aid, we limit its use.
For example, many churches will use some form of staging or light effects at Easter, Christmas, or other special presentations. (Dr. Lee Roberson had colored spotlights on the baptistry during baptisms in the 1960s.) When the lighting effects and technological changes become the predominant theme and attraction, however, I believe over contextualization is taking place.
Every pastor must strive for balance, and on our journey of using such tools, we’ve had times where we’ve spoken about why we should limit the use of these effects to keep the clarity of the message as our focus. We try to evaluate each special service or event before and after to be sure our use of technology supported our message and mission rather than hindering them. If we find the décor or technology distracting to presenting Bible truth, we adjust and go on with our best efforts for clarity, connection, conviction, and conversions.
In many of today’s discussions, it’s not unusual for a fundamentalist to say that he’ll never use “XYZ” method. In reality, however, nearly every fundamental church sings at least one song that was written in a modern era, uses microphones, and has some type of lighting on their platform. It seems to me that the key in these discussions is moderation and keeping Christ at the center of the message.
Over contextualization is when everything has to be the latest beat, latest feel, and latest look in order to please the “seeker.” At some point, when we’re thinking more about pleasing the seeker than we are about pleasing the Saviour, we’ve tragically distorted Bible worship. (See The Saviour-Sensitive Church, Striving Together Publications, for more thoughts on this topic.)
We would be wise to remember the admonition of Proverbs 24:21 to “meddle not with them that are given to change.” Change is not always wrong, but when we are “given to change,” over contextualization can become a problem. When a ministry is defined by change, there’s a strong potential for over contextualization and the loss of doctrinal clarity and soundness. It is a real danger to so contextualize to the modern world that people focus more on the context than on the truth. Thus, you deemphasize truth under a method that was supposed to be in place simply to support it.
Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.—Psalm 29:2
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.—1 Corinthians 9:19–23
Stay tuned—in part 2 of this post, we’ll look at seven more principles for music and worship. You may want to hold your final analysis until you read all three parts.