Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:18-19).
Over the last generation, assemblies and other churches across North America have battled a major threat to unity. And rather than being an external force, the cause for sometimes heated disagreement and bitter division has come from within. In fact, although not always a source of conflict, it’s been present in the church since the 1st century.
And here’s what makes it ironic: sometimes labeled as a “wedge issue”, this was created by the Lord as a dynamic for unifying His people in joyous declaration of His character, providing the corporate opportunity to praise and worship the Triune God.
I’m speaking, of course, about music and singing. Too often, choices of style around corporate singing divide those called to the highest standard of unity – a togetherness intended to be expressed by making music collectively! How could the people of God separate from fellowshipping with brothers and sisters merely over musical style?
My observation may sound harsh, but this clash speaks to our own selfishness in making good choices around the type of music used in our assemblies. It also reflects on our inability – or refusal – to understand music as a creative art-form.
The love of singing
From the time of Moses, those who loved the Lord also loved to sing. Music is “Christian” because of its lyrical content. We are privileged today to sing hymns and spiritual songs from across the spectrum of the last 500 years. Hymns have enduring appeal because of the marriage of creative music with compelling words articulating the beauty of God’s character and sovereign activity, and other beloved biblical principles. Songs with weak theological content don’t endure.
Good music is art, and as such its beauty – as in any other artistic endeavour– is in its simplicity and complexity, in its harmony and proportionality. That is true of good literature or visual art, of architecture or the media arts. It’s in Beethoven and it’s in The Beatles.
But appreciation for music is subjective, hinging on personal preference. Some object to what they perceive as “worldly” music. What exactly is that? To what are they referring? To the style of music? To the origin of the tune? To the mode of accompaniment? To the appearance of the musician(s)?
Secular roots of hymns
Sometimes those holding such views are helped by being reminded that some of the church’s best-loved music historically originated from within the secular life of protest movements, the theatre, and….the pubs!
Tunes like Finlandia (Be Still my Soul, the Lord is on Thy Side), Greensleeves (What Child is This?), and one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world, Amazing Grace, were all well-used outside of the church before being sung within.
Of all people, shouldn’t we, the followers of Christ, demonstrate broad-minded tolerance for music that is not within the scope of our favorite style – if the lyrical content is theologically accurate and honoring to God? Couldn’t we even learn to appreciate alternate expressions in genres that are not within the confines of our own preference?
Our own assembly (Bethel Gospel Chapel, North Bay, Ontario) has challenges just like every other gathering of Christ-followers. However, I think we’ve handled the issue of music and singing in a way that reflects some diversity (both traditional and modern) and to this point has not provoked acrimony.
A blend of styles
Approximately 20 months ago, the elders made a deliberate decision to contemporize some of our singing, while retaining the musical traditions we loved. We continue to sing a cappella (voices only, without instruments) at the Lord’s Supper. For decades, we’ve sung hymns at other meetings with piano (and sometimes organ) accompaniment and we were intentional about not losing that entirely.
What we wanted to do was add to our musical diversity by utilizing younger musicians in a music team format and by learning to love good contemporary Christian songs. To work with what we have, we formed a music team composed of piano, guitar, and vocalists, sometimes joined by bass and bongo drums.
Here are some principles that have helped us in peaceful implementation
- Getting started – This was a decision by the leadership; therefore, we didn’t think it fair to leave it up to the music team alone to find their place within our meetings. One of our elders explained to those who usually chair meetings and lead singing that the decision of the elders was to include younger people and to add a component of contemporary music. That elder also worked with the music team in implementing the following items.
- High quality – In addition to adding something new, the music team was encouraged to “raise the bar” in terms of excellence with which music was led. They decided that to achieve this, they would need to practice weekly.
- What about the old beloved hymns? – The young adults of the music team also love the old hymns and were encouraged to express that affection. Consequently, they have introduced arrangements that respectfully maintain the essence of the hymn including its musical genre. (For example, they lead us in singing “What Can Wash Away my Sin?” in a slow style with volume rising and falling throughout the song, and dominated by beautifully harmonized vocals. We’ve never sung the hymn quite so thoughtfully, worshipfully…or beautifully!)
- Lyrical content – Many opponents of the use of contemporary music in the church believe that modern songs inevitably contain weak lyrics. Unfortunately that can be true – but it’s also been true in eras past. Our music team is careful to make selections that are strong lyrically – clearly declaring biblical truths.
- Volume – contemporizing music does not mean having the music team sing over the congregation. They are to lead us and to sing with us! The people in the pews need to hear themselves sing, as well as those around them.
- The place of grace – Our folks have responded with spiritual maturity and grace, realizing that church music is an art-form, and that art-forms are matters of personal preference; however, we’ve encouraged our young adults to demonstrate grace as well. Both groups have had to learn to authentically appreciate that which they may not first have been attracted to.
Focusing on the Lord
As followers of the Lord Jesus in the 21st century, we’ve had to ask ourselves: Am I prepared to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that declare the worthiness of the Almighty while uniting this multi-generational local church of which Christ is the Head? Our objective is to focus on The Persons and work of the Triune God, while also learning to appreciate the artistic merits of the music in different forms and styles.
After all, it was the Lord who created music. At least part of its purpose is to unify His people in praise and worship.