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Music in Worship (Ministry Magazine)

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Written by Ryahn Hablitzel
The proper use of music in worship remains a difficult topic in the Christian church. Music, intensely complex, can be interpreted in many different ways. Typically, the topic of music and worship is approached with considerable bias for or against certain forms; however, this topic will be approached with the assumption that appropriate worship styles are difficult to universally define because of complex cultural differences. Musical worship comprises a God-centered activity entirely focused on Him. In order for music to fulfill this purpose, inspired perspectives, musical linguistics, and a synthesis of current implications must be considered.

An inspired perspective of musical worship
Throughout the Bible, inspired writers conveyed their messages through the avenue of song. Moses and the children of Israel lifted their voices in inspired adoration to the Lord after being delivered from the Egyptians at the Red Sea. In Deuteronomy 32, Moses again uses music to impress the minds of his audience in a historical and prophetic utterance.1 The entire book of the Psalms presents a mixture of musical meditations clearly fixated upon the Torah and the Messiah. Clearly, God uses music as an avenue to impress truth upon His people.

In addition to the impartation of biblical truth, inspired writers recognize music’s ability to turn the thoughts of worshipers toward God. Within the school of the prophets, “Music was made to serve a holy purpose, to lift the thoughts to that which is pure, noble, and elevating, and to awaken in the soul devotion and gratitude to God.”2 The psalmist purposed to sing praises to God, praising Him as long as he lived with all his being (Ps. 9:2; 104:33). Isaiah entreats us to “praise the Lord in song, for He has done excellent things” (Isa. 12:5, NASB). As a response to the Lord’s healing, Hezekiah declares his intent to have songs played on stringed instruments at the house of the Lord all the days of his life (Isa. 38:20). Paul invites us to sing and make melody with our hearts to the Lord (Eph. 5:19). The use of music to declare one’s adoration to God for who He is and what He has done is deeply rooted in Scripture.

God is the center of worship. “Worship is not something we do for ourselves. Worship is meant to be done for God and to God. It is a Godcentered activity, entirely focused on Him.”3 The worshiper is not the most important person in worship; God is. An attitude of selfless sacrifice becomes essential in order to enter into God-centered worship.

Unfortunately, many current worship formats have become venues for entertainment and debate. Socially pleasing services are sometimes offered in order to attract individuals to hear consumer-focused messages. Worship must never digress into a self-seeking therapy session centered on the worshiper; rather, sacrificial worship necessitates a recognition and response to God.

Musical linguistics
The complexities of music and its relationship to worship are considerable. One important distinction is music’s ability to communicate in two unique languages simultaneously. Both vocal and instrumental forms of music act as linguistic communicators. While the message of vocal music is easily recognized, due to the presence of lyrics, instrumental music is also capable of speaking to the listener in a unique way. In order to obtain an appropriate and meaningful experience in worship, both vocal and instrumental languages must be considered.

Individuals often criticize lyrical music for repetition, but repetition is not necessarily negative. People typically love to join in on the chorus because of its commonality. Repetition becomes negative if it serves as a mindless utterance. Lyrical substance is critical in musical worship. Matthew Ward, a pioneer of the Jesus Music genre (later to be called contemporary Christian music), recognizes the triviality associated with some types of worship music. “It talks about God being good, but it doesn’t say why. It says that we do worship Him, but doesn’t often get into the nuts and bolts of why we worship Him.”4

Lyrics should remain centered upon who God is, what He has done, and what He will do. While music for young people often necessitates simplicity, too often the lyrical message becomes lost in an indiscernible conundrum of repetition and focused too much on emotions rather than intellect. Quality lyrical worship music necessitates variety mixed with commonality while uplifting a high standard of contemplative thought and reflection.

Understanding the instrumental contributions of music is distinctly more difficult. “It is undeniable that composers have consciously or unconsciously used music as a language, from at least 1400 onwards—a language never formulated in a dictionary, because by its very nature it is incapable of such treatment.”5 “Music does not merely imitate, it speaks; and its language—inarticulate but vivid, ardent, passionate—has a hundred times more energy than speech itself.”6 Music itself, devoid of words, communicates.

Like spoken languages, culture plays a major role in defining the meaning of music. “Qualities which have been acquired by an object through association and suggestion” determine the meaning of that object.7 The effect that a certain type of music has on one person might have the opposite effect on someone else. “Quite simply, music can mean different things to different people at different times.”8 Just as certain words are considered offensive because of their historical and cultural connections, culture plays a major role in defining instrumental music.

Yet, whatever the influence of culture, music conveys a universal message of good or evil. In order to understand the implications of this statement, morality must first be considered. Jesus asserted that “ ‘there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man’ ” (Mark 7:15, NASB). Negative music does not necessarily equate personal defilement, yet music can represent the negative outcropping of sinfulness within the composer and, as such, influence others. Evil tendencies that exist within people can be impacted by music.

Dr. Howard Hansen, dean of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, New York, asserted the following: “Music is a curiously subtle art with innumerable varying emotional connotations. It is made up of many ingredients, and according to the proportions of these components, it can be soothing or invigorating, ennobling, or vulgarizing, philosophical or orgiastic. It has powers for evil as well as for good.”9 Interestingly enough, thousands of years ago, “Plato, in The Republic, argued that music can (1) strengthen a person, (2) cause him to lose his mental balance, or (3) cause him to lose his normal will power so as to render him helpless and unconscious of his acts.”10

Though one can recognize that music has the power to manipulate individuals toward good or evil, it does not necessarily represent the same experience to all individuals. Whereas powerful organ music can be a deeply spiritual experience for one person, it may represent a negative response from those who have been culturally trained to respond differently. For instance, songs and hymns that are sung in church today were also used for purposes of spiritualism in the early 1900s. “Nearer My God to Thee” and “The Sweet By and By” were endorsed “for the use of spiritualist and other liberal societies in their public meetings and their homes” by a professed spirit medium.11

Beyond music’s ability to communicate on cultural levels, music can communicate on a universally inappropriate level. Music can be an expression of the composer’s outlook on life. While God inspires musical expression, Satan does also. Spirit mediums readily recognize the ability of materialized spirits to produce music through a spirit medium.12 Music can be inspired by evil forces and contain universally inappropriate messages. Rhythm, melody, and harmony can all communicate a universal message that transcends culture. Worship and music must not be reduced into simple cultural distinctions. The way we say things, either soft or harsh, speaks a language transcendent of culture. Aggression, peacefulness, elation, and fearfulness, can all be exemplified on universal levels. The application of Christian lyrics to a musical piece does not instantaneously equate appropriateness.

“Music is often perverted to serve purposes of evil, and it thus becomes one of the most alluring agencies of temptation. But, rightly employed, it is a precious gift of God, designed to uplift the thoughts to high and noble themes, to inspire and elevate the soul.”13 Instruments themselves are not problematic; rather, the way in which an individual plays an instrument is essential to appropriateness of the music produced. Rhythm is foundational to music, but when the rhythm becomes pronounced, it shocks the senses and begins to cross the threshold of consciousness.14 Repetition and variety with periods of tension and relaxation are essential in producing quality music.

Music must fit the atmosphere and message being presented. In general, dance tunes and sacred words do not mix.15 Ellen White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, relates an experience of observing youth at a Christian assembly participating in music she described as “a frivolous ditty, fit for the dance hall.”16 Though we do not know exactly what the music was, there is no question some appropriate forms of music are better suited for popular celebrations and should not be appropriated for worship.

Just as the rhythms and melodies of instrumental music must match the lyrical message, the message itself must be raised to a higher standard. Steve Taylor, American singer, songwriter, record producer, and film director, says, “I realize that what’s critically important about Christian music is its distinctiveness. If it loses the Cross, if it loses Christ, if it becomes just ‘positive pop,’ then I’d rather be cut off from it.”17 Christian music must transcend and transform culture, offering something more than what is found at a secular club or social gathering.

Formulative synthesis
One aspect of music consists of its ability to speak the language of the culture that defines it. Musical styles related with negative behavior or imagery should be avoided. While aspects of these musical styles can be integrated appropriately, it remains difficult to implement a culturally negative form of music into the worship setting. Lilianne Doukhan, associate professor of music at Andrews University, asks, “Will this particular mode of expression within a given culture truly be understood as expressing reverence to God?”18

Caution must be used when implementing new forms of music into worship because of their ability to act as a gateway to other musical extremes. Many contemporary music enthusiasts find themselves attracted to similar styles of music associated with inappropriate behavior. Too often individuals find inspiration in the instrumental genius of secular artists who promote elicit sex, violence, greed, and/or selfish behavior. In fact, the use of wrong kinds of music in worship can influence individuals to return to negative musical choices or environments.

Worship musicians must be converted individuals. To a certain degree, musicians share their philosophy and outlook on life through their music. “There is nothing more offensive in God’s sight than a display of instrumental music when those taking part are not consecrated, are not making melody in their hearts to the Lord.”19

Music affects the mood and response of the worshiper. The Church of Satan teaches that “there is no higher god than oneself and individuals should worship accordingly.”20 When musical worship purposes to fulfill the selfish desires of the worshiper, worship of the one true God is lost. Individuals who find it necessary to have a certain style of music in order to enter into worship should reevaluate their motivations. Worship is not a feeling we get, but an offering we bring. “Music was made to serve a holy purpose, to lift the thoughts to that which is pure, noble, and elevating, and to awaken in the soul devotion and gratitude to God. . . . How many employ this gift to exalt self, instead of using it to glorify God!”21

Worshipers and worship leaders need balance and discrimination. Let us sing not only “songs of testimony, simple faith, and of invitation; but also hymns of worship, doctrine, and admonition.”22 Let us make music that causes worshipers to examine their hearts as they lay their musical offering before the throne of God. Let us not reject new types of music simply because they differ from traditional forms, nor freely accept music promoted by the culture around us. With careful discernment, we must consider both the cultural and universal implications surrounding music. Let the music of the worshiper transform culture, not be dictated by it. As Christians we should present a higher culture, a heavenly culture of music that lifts the thoughts of worshipers to our Creator and Redeemer.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.
1. While the Song of Moses recounted the wonderful dealings of God with His people in the past, it also foreshadowed the great events of the future, the final victory of the faithful when Christ shall come the second time in power and glory.
See Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, ID:
Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1958), 465, 466.

2. Ibid., 594.

3. Lilianne Doukhan, “Can Joy and Reverence Coexist?”
Adventist Review, September 11, 2003): 24.

4. Matthew Ward, Worship Leader, Sept–Oct 2002, 19.

5. Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1990), 13, 14.

6. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Essai sur l’origine des langues,” in
Écrits sur la musique (Paris: Stock, 1979), 229.

7. Carroll C. Pratt, The Meaning of Music (New York & London:
McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1931), 10.

8. Elizabeth Brown and William Hendee, “The Acquired
Character of the Musical Experience,” Journal of the
American Medical Association 262 (Sept 1989): 1662.

9. Howard Hansen, “A Musician’s Point of View Toward
Emotional Expression,” American Journal of Psychiatry 99
(November 1942): 317.

10. Richard D. Mountford, “Does the Music Make them Do it?”
Christianity Today, May 4, 1979, 21.

11. It should be recognized that spirit mediums of this time period readily mingled biblical thought with spirit mediumship.
W. C. Bowman, 20th Century Formulary of Songs and Forms
(Los Angeles: W. C. Bowman, 1907), no. 35, 36.

12. W. W. Aber, A Guide to Mediumship: Dictated by a
Materialized Spirit (Lily Dale, NY: Dale News Inc., 1946), 19.

13. Ellen G. White, Education (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing
Association, 1952), 167.

14. Ellen White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist
Church, responded to an event at the 1900 Muncie, Indiana, camp meeting in which fanaticism through the “holy flesh” movement was exemplified. Music played a major part in producing the fanaticism present. Mrs. White describes this type of music as a “bedlam of noise” that “shocks the senses and perverts” (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages,
[Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association,
1958], vol. 2, 36).

15. Mrs. S. N. Haskell describes the inappropriate music mentioned in the former endnote as “dance tunes to sacred words” played from a songbook called the “Garden of Spices.” Mrs. S. N. Haskell, Report to Sara McEnterfer,
September 12, 1900.

16. White, The Voice in Speech and Song (Boise, ID: Pacific Press,
1988), 420.

17. Steve Taylor, Christianity Today, May 20, 1996, 23.

18. Doukhan, 25.

19. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald,
1946), 510.

20. The Arcane Archive, “The Alt.satanism FAQ,” http://www., no. 2, par. 1
(accessed May 26, 2009).

21. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 594.

22. Donald P. Hustad, “Problems in Psychology and Aesthetics in
Music,” Bibliotheca Sacra (July 1960): 227

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...The purpose of this paper is to explain how the chaplain/pastor leads in worship using the world of technology and how evangelical chaplains can provide worship in the military or corporate setting. Bryant and Brunson quotes George Barna in his book “Boiling Point” that, “10 to 20 percent of the population will rely on the Internet for their spiritual input by the year 2010 and if a church doesn't have a presence on the Web, then that church does not exist for most people.” It doesn’t matter if your church is a small or mega church, traditional, hybrid, or attractional church, there is a tremendous benefit in using technology to remain connected to people and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Brunson and Bryant points out that using “emails as a quick effective way to respond to questions and issues or to announce important events within the church, and many pastors are using “blogs” as a sounding board to clarify their thoughts and the direction of their churches or simply to share insights into current events.” Additionally, some pastors and churches utilize graphics via data projection systems, and online streaming as a means of leading worship not only to the local congregation but to others viewing the worship service from around the world. For example, my pastor is extremely focused on the utilization of technology in how worship is lead. One of the tools we use is “Live Stream.” We broadcast our Sunday services, Wednesday night services as well as most of our......

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...Worship, Courage, and Fear “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:16 “Sing with your head up, with your eyes closed; not because you love the song, but because you love to sing.” – Aaron Marsh. It is so very easy to be swept away by sound, smell, sight, and taste. It is so very convenient to let the music worship for us, and it is so common to only worship when we feel swept away. It takes much more courage to maintain a spirit of worship, regardless of what we hear, smell, see, or taste. We maintain this spirit of worship when we don’t like the music that’s being played, and we worship God anyway. We maintain this spirit of worship in the monotonous, gray periods of life, when nothing seems to sweep us away. We maintain this spirit of worship in the bitter cold, in the pools of blood, and in the wells of despair that inevitably come alongside the extraordinary joys and miracles of love. Along with the courage of discipline, is the courage to overcome fear in worship. The fear that we’re not worthy to approach God, and the fear that he won’t accept us if we do… the fear that God only lovingly sweeps us away now and then, and that he isn’t present in the terrible or the terribly mundane… and the fear that God is the one who causes or allows unspeakable pain to occur in our lives. There’s also the fear of public worship, which is actually the fear of......

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