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How to Deal with Music Choices in the Assembly

How to Deal with Music Choices in the Assembly
Mar 26 Tags: music | 18 Responses Print Save as PDF

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.

Understanding music

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.

Personal preference

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.

Building tolerance

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.

Randy Bushey

Randy is dedicated to full-time elder’s work at Bethel Gospel Chapel in North Bay (Ontario).  With a primary pastoral focus in Bible teaching (preaching and leading Bible studies). Randy is also engaged in visitation, church music, and helping develop other men in their roles as Christ-followers, preachers and leaders. He is married to Pat who is investing her life in working with women and children in the local assembly. They are both energized by their 3 children (2 married) and 5 grandchildren!

18 Responses to How to Deal with Music Choices in the Assembly

  1. Lee Mountney

    Randy Bushey,
    Thank you for your comments. This seems to be an ongoing struggle in a lot of places. I appreciate your thoughts, and supporting comments of them. The other factor of course is entertainment vs. worship. Thank you.
    Lee

    • Juanita Wigle

      A funny thing came to mind as I was reading this article because our assembly tried to bring some new songs into the 11:00 service but it didn’t fly. I’m not sure why because the songs werre not hard to learn and the words were meaningful and not fluffy. We have a lot of older people in our meeting who are not as flexible and our young people are not sitting in the 11:00 service. They have Sunday School at that time. Anyway, as I was reading the part in this article about an elder helping with the music I immediately thought of North Bay and Randy Bushey. I had scrolled down so quickly, it wasn’t until the end that I realized who wrote it. I can tell anyone that the North Bay 9:30 service is special and there are times that I long to be in that meeting. Keep up he good work Randy. I don’t see why we can’t have a mix of the old and the new at 11:00.

      • Leon Crawford

        We mix the old and the new music styles at our assembly in Ensenada, Mexico. We believe that Matthew 13:52 can refer to the need for wisdom and thoughtful balance regarding the purposeful use of new and old ‘treasures’. “every scribe which is instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.”KJV Always keeping in mind the many different age groups and styles represented in a healthy family fellowship.

  2. Greg Goebel

    I would give a warning, having come from without, I have seen the dangers of performancism. A music team in my view is a danger, as we move from the simplicity of the NT Pattern, adding unscriptural things. The music ministry, the worship team, and so forth, have no basis in scripture. Liberties? Bad ones in my view. This may offend some but I wish to give the counter to such an idea. Rome did not come about in a day, it was the increasing inclusion of extra biblical practices over time, that once entrenched, become difficult to remove down the road. What a music team becomes is a performance by a few, and honestly the exaltation of them as individuals, taking the role (dare I say it) of the Holy Spirit in leading worship. It also opens the doors to sisters in leading the assembly and has a host of problems. This is not merely about hymns versus choruses (and the above discussion is on target with regard to the lack of “teaching and admonishing one another” in contemporary music, which tends to be more emotional and doctrinally empty). But the only problem isn’t the songs per se, but again it is the performance mentality. Another thing I wonder about is the notion that it must be done to “keep the youth.” This is a true problem and a real concern, but we should be simple and biblical first, rather than set in motion permanent trends, that are not easily undone-lest we become like christendom. To the young who find this response unacceptable, may I ask your prayerful consideration as to whether a performance before the saints is appropriate as a pattern? No thank you, in love. I sign my name. Greg Goebel

    • jaby jacob

      I would submit that there is no explicit NT pattern to how music is to be done in church meetings.

    • Sam

      I would agree wholeheartedly except for the whole old versus youth dilemma…I think our generations need to be raised along with us….I’m rather young and was raised with the King James Version and am not adverse to its style or the style of the hymns being used. The solemnity, respect and deference due are clear and elevate the worship element to what it truly is….if that is what we are aiming for….Any less and we’re at a coffee shop snapping our fingers to some ditty…Accordingly music and hymns that mirror these elements would be best in our worship….which is not to say that the judicious use of modern instruments cannot augment or include more folk in their appreciation of such….but we must raise the bar….Young peope must be familiar with old English and verse and the basics of music….not necessarily to be a tutor but to fully partake so that as a community, we are making a joyful noise….not just noise….and the untrained, uncaring masses will propagate nothing but noise which isn’t worship…and others will simply sit silent wondering when it will end…
      The new praise and worship songs with their simplistic cereal box jingles do nothing to create the attitude, the proximity and truth of worship but merely keep me on my feet for minutes at a time repeating the same tuneless, forgettable phrase in a horrible rhythmic chant….

  3. Eddy Plett

    I appreciate your balanced presentation as well as your carefully planned implementation of your elders’convictions on the subject. It is easy to be given over to fear in these matters. The fear of “the slippery slope” often completely ignores that we are already on “a slippery slope”. The solution is to prayerfully prepare a biblical, solid level ground that addresses all the challenges and moves forward with the liberating and motivational joy of the positive rather than the deadening fear of the negative. It seems to me that you are doing that difficult work and I wish you God’s discernment, guidance and blessing.

  4. Stu

    On entertainment..I am reminded of how important it is to recognize that when it comes to worship, regardless of it’s form, that I am responsible to bring the worship of my heart to the Lord. If my heart and life is prepared to offer the worship that Christ is due, I don’t see how entertainment comes into the equation. The Word teaches us to worship in spirit and in truth. If my purpose in corporate worship is to entertain, whether in prayer or in song, then I have missed the boat! On the other hand if I am being entertained by another’s pouring out of honest, sincere worship, am I honest enough with myself and the Lord to acknowledge that the focus of my heart and perhaps my life aren’t in line? In summary: regardless of the form of worship, the responsibility of worshiping in spirit and in truth lies on each individual believer. Pride is the wedge and we all know how God views pride, don’t we?

  5. David Macdonald

    Great article! I agree with you Randy. We have practiced much the same in our assembly as Bethel Gospel Chapel and it is a wonderful blessing to have the young musicians involved. The balance of sound contemporary songs and older hymns is well accepted by the assembly and has been a great encouragement in unity in the Body. We will be singing for eternity, so let’s get lots of practice now!! 🙂

  6. James Kime

    I found this article to be very poorly written and thought out. For example, something is not Christian simply because of the lyrical content. The world offers many forms of art that would not be “christian” simply because you put some Bible verses on it.

    If music is truly an art, then it must be bound to the same standards all true art is held to. For example, a picture of a pretty woman might be perfectly appropriate. A picture of that same woman who chose to be extremely immodest stopped being something beautiful and has become something ugly.

    The reality is that the Bible governs language and art. Music must be governed by Scripture. If the response is that there is no verse for music, then you would need to study quite a bit more.

    Music “teams” are not biblically based. It is compromise with worldly methods of marketing and production.

    • jaby jacob

      Visual art cannot be compared to music. A immodest pretty woman is clearly immodest–it’s fairly objective.

      How can one judge the art of music? It cannot be done without an objective standard, because none exists. Every such judgement appeals to culture, and cultural standards are subjective. This subjectivity is not just generational: we are fooled into thinking only young people like different styles of music. It’s a cultural subjectivity by ethnicity and region also.

      To claim one form of musical art is superior or inferior to others is to claim superiority of one culture over another: west over east, white over black, European over Asian, etc.

      Assemblies have been in India since the 1800s. The musical styles used in India are different than here in the west. Are they wrong? immodest? no. Different, yes. More importantly, different culturally.

      Furthermore, to claim that group song leading is anti-Biblical is adding Biblical authority where none exists. There is no explicit Biblical instruction on how music is to be conducted in church meetings.

      • James Kime

        The Bible commands us to use discernment and states explicitly that the mature are those who can identify what is good from what is bad. If your point is that music is the one realm that is off limits to that required judgement, then I think we are done here.

        If you can concede though that language and communication are governed by Scripture, then we can at least start down the right path.

        Appeals to culture are completely irrelevant to me. Culture is nothing more than group think. I happen to enjoy a very wide range of music styles. I cannot speak German or Russian, but I have CDs from those countries which reflect their culture.

        What is beauty? What is the source of beauty? Should the Christian turn to the God-hating world for information about worship or start with the holiness and beauty of God? If you begin with the latter, you at least start in the right place.

        As far as music “teams” go, your argument seems to be that the Bible doesn’t forbid it. The Bible doesn’t forbid the same music team to smear peanut butter all over their head have lunch meat stuffed in their pockets when they play.

        • Jaby Jacob

          Firstly, please excuse me if I’ve misunderstood you in any way in this post and in my prior one.

          Here’s where I think we stand:

          Things we agree on:
          -We need to use discernment to identify what is good and what is bad.
          -Language and communication are governed by scripture
          -Worship is about God, His beauty, and begins with His Holiness.

          Things I think we agree on (but am not sure):
          -Musical enjoyment is varied, and is personal. You enjoy Russian/German music. I may not (never tried, to be honest). I also enjoy a wide variety of musical styles, from here in the US and also international. My tastes may/may not be similar to yours. But they’re our individual tastes.

          Things I think you’re saying, with which I disagree (apologies if I’ve misinterpreted):
          -I think you are saying that while musical tastes are individual, they can be judged as right or wrong (or modest/immodest, or moral/immoral).
          -I think you are saying that musical appropriateness (or inappropriateness) for a church meeting is objective and universally true.
          -I think you are saying that music teams leading congregational singing are not appropriate for church meetings.

          Using the above assumptions:

          In an earlier post you mentioned:

          The world offers many forms of art that would not be “christian” simply because you put some Bible verses on it.”

          My prior post was mostly an attempt to address this point specifically. (I apologize if that didn’t come across clearly.) My point was that I do not think you can make that above statement with respect to music. Visual art, yes: you and I agree. Some call pornography art, but you cannot make pornography “Christian” regardless of Bible verses. Music, I believe, is not so clear. There is no such thing as moral/immoral musical styles. Acceptable musical style is determined by culture.

          I should pause here and define what I mean by culture. When I say “culture”, I really mean “cultural acceptance”. Specifically, “what a particular group feels is acceptable and normal.” This acceptance varies by at least four variables: geographic region, by era, by generation, and by community. What is culturally normal musically in Africa may be like “fingers on a chalkboard” to someone in Europe (geographic region). Similarly, 2015 music may be unpalatable to someone living in 1915 (era), my grandparents might think my children’s music is too loud (generation) or my assembly might think another assembly sings a hymn way too slowly (community).

          Accepting one musical style for use within the church is not appealing to the world or being worldly. Music is not inherently good or bad. Appropriateness for use in a church setting comes from discernment of lyrics, and from discernment of what is acceptable to that particular church community.

          Lyrics are an objective standard that we can use to discern appropriateness. We don’t have to just eliminate songs with bad lyrics, we can also eliminate songs with trite lyrics. Let me illustrate with a story: when I had just graduated college 15 or so years ago, I was asked to take over the church bulletin. Since our assembly was small, the sister who did it before me used fill the blank space with poetry, quotations, etc. I was excited and thought that this was a great chance to pull out popular CCM songs to use in this space. What I discovered in putting together my first bulletin was that much of the lyrics from these popular CCM songs were bland, trite and, quite frankly, trash. When these songs were separated from the musical accompaniment and viewed words on paper it was clear that 99% were inferior…and these were “worship” songs too! We can use this kind of discernment to eliminate these types of songs from our meetings.

          Appropriateness for use in a church community also requires discernment. This requires taking the pulse of your meeting. For example, at one assembly I know, they didn’t think a full drum kit would be received well, so they went with just a djembe and/or a cajón for percussion.

          Regarding musical teams and silence of scripture: many assemblies use pianos and organs. But the NT is silent on instrumentation with music. We know that the psalms often refer to various instruments (Ps. 33:2, Ps 150, etc.), but the NT only refers to singing (Matt 26:30; Acts 16:25; etc.). Does the silence of the NT prohibit instrumentation? I would submit that the answer to this question is “no”.

          I think we are going down a dangerous road when we legislate doctrine and/or are adamant about church practice due to the silence of scripture. This applies to all areas of church life, not just music (e.g. Sunday school/youth group, evangelism methods/mediums, etc.). The guiding principles are: a) does it glorify our Lord? b) is it orderly (1 Cor 14:33)

          What is orderly is determined by each assembly individually. What is orderly at one assembly may not be orderly at another. One assembly may have no issues with ___________, but at another, the same thing may cause chaos. This is where discernment and wisdom comes in, especially with respect to change. It may not be a wise time to attempt change now.

  7. James Lehmann

    Randy… thanks for a great article/thread for us! I too as an elder at Blasdell Gospel Chapel attempt as Leon and David noted to have a balance of sound contemporary worship and praise songs with some older anthems and hymns of the faith… Loved Sam’s comment on music to “participate as a community” (as opposed to listening to new songs sung by a leader or team each week which are not the “body”s” hymns but always new… When meeting with Keith Getty as elders/pastors he mentioned he felt that a fellowship should have a body of hymns which have meaning to them as a group which is already “in-grown” to them in times of need., I liked that. He expressed their desire to write songs of depth for worship. Greg warns us about “performancism”… good to take heed so elders may guide hymn leaders back into “more of Him and less of me” lives. I’ve often wondered what Hebrew worship rang out like with the last few Psalms of clanging cymbals and loud sounding cymbals, rams horn “trumpets” and lutes… (no valves on rams horns!) What a cacophany of sound in His ears, pleasing unto Him! Sometimes we are so staid… and miss the joy.

  8. Nate Louro

    Randy, I very much appreciated you’re careful consideration of this topic as well as the rest of the elders and assembly on the matter. It is true, and needs to remain that way that our focus and direction of worship is unto Him and Him alone. I find myself leaning more towards Greg G.’s views because I can speak from personal experience on the matter. I’m only 30 and realize my “wisdom” only goes so far, but I grew up all my life in Pentacostal churches and have experienced much of the worship team setting. Roughly 10 years ago the Lord led me to an assembly and all I can say is how much I appreciated the simplicity of worship in unity with all the brethren without the leading of someone else to do that. My heart is drawn out to the Lord far greater when I’m not looking to the front of the church of others leading me to do so. When many instruments are involved the focus tends to become “how well did i play” rather than “was the Lord pleased in my worship of Him”. I do not believe the solution to “keeping” young people in the assembly is catering to desires of music (as is so prevalent in the world today with every kid having headphones in their ears at all times) but to teach them the real heart of worship. Granted we all need to be willing to change, for that is the Christian life, but I want to stick to the Scriptures as close as possible and avoid as much as possible the way of Diotrephes (III John 3:9). Leading worship in the assembly has a way of doing this as I have been a part of that in times past. If this is working for your assembly, praise the Lord! But I do not believe this is the best for most.

  9. Jones

    ‘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.’

    Hi Randy,

    – Baffles me on why there is a divide on the Remembrance meeting and every other meeting? Any particular reasons/ Doctrines for implementing diversity in every other meeting except the meeting on the first day of the week!

    – Some posts in this blog refers to ‘Music Ministry’? Any scriptural connotation for such a ministry? How is it different from what Hillsongs is doing?

    – What are you thoughts on the ‘Works of the Holy Spirit’ being limited when run by the ‘Music Team’?

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