Rap. Rock. Hip Hop. Jazz. Chants. Acappella. Choral. Guitars. Harmonicas. Pianos. Flutes. Organs. Drums. There are so many styles and ways of making music that the question comes up all the time: what kind of music should you use in church?
If someone hates a certain style, lovers of that style get personally offended—you’re judging them! Because of that, music has been at the heart of sometimes totally changing the local assembly and at other times splitting it right down the middle.
What I want to do is, beside touching the third-rail of Christian discussions, cut through the ways most people deal with this then move to where the questions really lie.
Music In Scripture
Music is throughout the Bible. In the first book of the Bible (Gen 4:21), we hear lyre and pipe players have taken up their functional father’s trade. The last book of the Bible let’s us hear songs in heaven (Rev 15:3) and shows us a judged city that now lacks joy-making instruments (Rev 18:22). And in the middle of the Bible a massive hymnbook that is repeatedly quoted in the New Testament—the book of Psalms.
We hear double-pipes (the dulcimer: Dan 3:5), harps (the Ancient Near East equivalent of a banjo: Psalm 137:2), tambourines (called a timbrel), cymbals (not crashed on top of a drum set but the type you crash with your hands: 1 Chronicles 15:19), pipes, trumpets and more.
Musical instruments are used for everything: giving marching orders (Numbers 10), announce the anointing of the King (1 Kings 1:34), the honor of God (Psalm 98:6), worshipping him (Psalm 81:2; 149:3), and the worship of men in opposition to God (Daniel 3).
Music is used corporately and individually (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19), casually (Acts 16:25) and formally (1 Cor 14:26).
Music is so assumed that Paul can teach the lesson of order within the local assembly by talking about an orchestra (1 Cor. 14:7-8).
Here, therefore, is the conclusion you can make about music in Scripture: it’s there.
Music In Church History
Historically, music has been part of the church. Pliny, writing a letter to the emperor in (112 AD) said this about Christians:
They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to commit any wicked deed…
St. Basil (330 – 379 AD), commenting on the book of Psalms notes how the entire book teaches history, prophesies the future, gives advice—everything, but in song. In essence, God used music to trick messed up people to get good doctrine:
For when the Holy Spirit saw that mankind was ill-inclined toward virtue and that we were heedless of the righteous life because of our inclination to pleasure, what did he do? He blended the delight of melody with doctrine in order that, through the pleasantness and softness of the sound, we might unawares receive what was useful in the words according to the practice of wise physicians who, when they give the more bitter drafts to the sick, often smear the rim of the cup with honey. For this purpose, these harmonious melodies of the psalms have been designed for us, that those who are of boyish age or wholly youthful in their character, while in appearance they sing, may in reality be educating their souls. For hardly a single one of the many, and even of the indolent, has gone away retaining in his memory any precept of the apostles or of the prophets, but the oracles of the Psalms they both sing at home and disseminate in the marketplace.
He continues to underscore that it isn’t the musical instruments or the music that make the Psalms great:
Although there are many musical instruments, the prophet made this book suited to the psaltery, as it is called, revealing, it seems to me, the grace from on high which sounded in him through the Holy Spirit, since this alone, of all musical instruments, has the source of its sound above.
From there we see cantors, group singing, chants, hymn-writing, jingles (Arius, a guy who taught that Jesus was created and not eternal was apparently really good at this), choirs, orchestras, and even discussions about which music to use. Aquinas at one point says:
Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.
What church history teaches is that the church has used many styles of music and sometimes made choices on the kind of music.
Music In Culture
Culture, like Scripture and Church history, shows us that music is part of the human experience.
Music is used to announce sporting events, claim allegiance, direct troops, cure boredom, accentuate scenery, sooth children, enrage, entice, encourage, and enamor.
Music is found everywhere: from bars to churches, zoos to offices, nurseries to stadiums, and board room to bathroom stall.
All of this isn’t to say that the use of music in culture is always right. Music, like certain words, often has a cultural screen by which they’re appropriated. In other words, just like certain words wind up being impolite to use in regular conversation, there are certain styles of music that temporarily wind up being impolite. It’s not a permanent state, and it has less to do with the music or the instruments than it does with the context.
If anything, the use of music in Scripture and culture reveals one thing: humans use it.
Music: Can-Do Versus Should-Do?
With all of the above information many (correctly) note that there is nothing inherently wrong with music in itself. One might appropriately suggest that although there might be times when certain types of instruments and musical styles might be temporarily avoided, there is no cultural mandate that automatically renders the use of any musical sound, by it’s nature, wrong. Therefore, some (incorrectly) conclude, we both can and should use any musical sound in the assembling of the church.
But that’s a categorical mistake.
The question isn’t “what can be done by any church” but rather “what should be done in your church”.
St. Paul underscores this point when he (if you allow it) quotes the Corinthians “’All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are profitable. ‘All things are lawful for me’ but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Cor. 6)
In that context he’s talking about the human body belonging to the Lord and how it isn’t to be owned by anything else—specifically immorality but even food: something that is integral to the human experience. It isn’t the fact that you have a desire that can be satisfied but rather that you should properly order your desires.
Don’t jump ahead and define music as a desire-satisfier (it may be), but rather hear the main point: a can doesn’t translate into a should. In other words, you have to discern what’s best.
Paul’s expands on this in his long discussion about meat offered to idols. Sure you can eat, says Paul, but should you? In 1 Corinthians 9 he spends a very long time pointing out his rights: he could have accepted support from Corinth, he could have married, he could have enjoyed the fruit of his labor—but he lay his rights aside as an act of service to the Corinthians and to the Lord.
So just because the church can use any style of music it doesn’t mean it should use any type of music.
Music And Ecclesiology
Someone, somewhere, gets paid money to use a big word like “ecclesiology” but what it means, in short, is figuring out the church. That gets deep pretty fast. It’s not only about this or that church—it’s about Church history, how the church is governed, how it’s set-up, what’s it here for and so on.
Folk automatically jump to what they can do without wondering if there are questions to figure out way before that.
Let me be clear: when trying to decide what music you should be using in your local assembly you need to first figure out what the assembly is supposed to be doing when they’re assembling.
What is the church for? Why do we gather? What are we doing on Sunday mornings? Why are we here instead of home? What are we supposed to be doing in our corporate gatherings? What are we trying to accomplish in these gatherings?
All of these questions must be rightly answered before jumping to choice of music—the question of freedom to use the music is secondary to ecclesiology.
After figuring out the purpose, then one can properly decide if the musical choice helps achieve the purpose of the gathering. If the musical choice detracts from the purpose (be it sound, style, or cultural setting, etc.) then wisdom dictates that it would be better not to use that specific musical choice.
This is to say that after answering the first set of questions you ask goal-centered, instead of merely freedom-centered, questions.
- Will this type of music help the group achieve our corporate purpose?
- Will this type of music detract from our corporate purpose?
- Is there anything we can do to ensure that this music doesn’t detract from attaining our goal?
- Will this type of music cause division as we try to achieve our purpose?
- Does it edify the church?
For example, if you (wrongly) conclude that the purpose of gathering as a church is to attract as many people as possible, then the best choice of musical style is that which attracts the widest audience—not which music you are free to use. If you (wrongly) conclude that the purpose of the gathering is to show what each individually likes, then the best option is to play all the musical options at the same time.
Music In This or That Specific Situation
Questions about the purpose of the church deserve a series of posts but, in regards to music, the leadership needs to be thinking in those terms and examining the state of the gathering as it stands before trying on any form of music.
If the local leadership realizes that the purpose of the church is to remember the Lord, take the bread and the cup, and sit corporately under the word of God then the music choice has to be examined under those parameters. But, even while examining the music under those parameters the leadership also has to decide which music option is the best for that situation.
For example, if the gathering were in an area prone to persecution, then the type of music with the loudest singing wouldn’t be the best option. If the style of music is used by the local whorehouses, then it’s probably better to steer away from the music until the culture changes. If the gathering is musically challenged, it’s probably best to avoid arrangements that necessitate serious vocal expertise. If the gathering doesn’t sing very powerfully, then adding instruments that drown out the congregation wouldn’t be the wisest option.
All of these things are thoroughly situational. They vary. They’re not the same in every assembly. There can be many more like “is it too cold to sing in the building?” or “are these all new believers that need to learn hymns?” or “are there more women than men thus reducing the range of vocals” and so on.
To re-apply Paul in his response to the Corinthians, all things might be okay but not all things helpful. If there is a Biblical goal to the gathering of the saints (there is), and if we’re doing everything in our situation to edify the corporate body when it comes to music (adjusting temperature, right key, proper theology, etc.), then the question regarding the type of music should be naturally weighed.
So, Which Music Then?
Honestly, you still have work to do. There are other questions that you need to answer. Things like, is this music style better for individual worship or corporate participation? Is this style of music better for silent corporate contemplation or robust group integration? They’re not only situational but they’re also about weighing the actual musical styles. And I haven’t even touched content which is one of the major questions to answer!
So what music should you use in your local assembly? Well, you and your local church leadership have some work to do first. You can’t make your choice on what you’re free to do because the answer lies elsewhere.
Be it rap, rock, hip hop, jazz, chants, psalms, a choir, guitars, harmonicas, pianos, flutes, organs or drums—everything needs to be done with the right order and with the proper concern regarding the purpose of the assembly. As the Proverbs teach us, decisions need to be properly ordered under God and tough choices take God-fearing wisdom.