Worship and music

Aug 2012    


Four principles to guide churches towards a music ministry that glorifies God:

§ Music supports the Word of God and the sacraments

§ Music in Christian worship is primarily vocal

§ Music is for the whole assembly

§ Music derives from the local culture

IN RECENT TIMES, Christians have engaged in spirited disagreements about music in worship. Some favour traditional hymnody, while others prefer contemporary “Praise and Worship”-type songs. Perhaps amid all the debate we have failed to consider what the role of music in worship actually is.

To understand the role of music in worship, we first need to consider the nature of music.

While it would be easy to think of music as merely a human ability or phenomenon, it is really a gift from God.

The air that is vibrated to produce music, the time in which it exists, and the human body that produces it, are all creations of God.

Like any of God’s good gifts, we need to receive music with thanksgiving (cf. 1 Timothy 4:4) and use it to glorify God. The following principles are offered in the hope of guiding churches towards a music ministry that achieves this goal.

First, music supports the Word of God and the sacraments. The Sunday worship assembly is essentially the people of God gathered around the read and proclaimed Word of the God, as well as the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Music that truly glorifies (manifests) God is music that participates in the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments.

Accordingly, the songs sung by the assembly will echo, reflect on and expound the biblical readings used in the service.

The songs surrounding the Lord’s Supper and Baptism will underscore the meaning of the sacraments and stir the assembly to a deeper sacramental faith. Instrumental music (preludes, offertory selections and postludes) will be based on the music of the assembly’s songs and thereby participate in the glorification of God.

Thus, music in worship does more than merely decorate or beautify the service; it serves as the vehicle through which the assembly’s prayer, praise and proclamation are expressed.

Second, music in Christian worship is primarily vocal. Communication in worship is mostly (although not exclusively) achieved through the use of the human voice: Bible readings, sermons, prayers and benedictions are all spoken. Naturally, music that is inherently part of Word-bound worship will be vocal, that is, it will consist of texts that are sung by the assembly and the assembly’s musical leaders.

Accordingly, the human voice will be the primary instrument in Christian worship.

But this is not to suggest that other instruments (organ, piano, guitar, keyboard) have no role in worship. Indeed, these instruments support the singing of the assembly, although music independent of assembly singing also has a role in worship.

At this point we might note the significance of singing. Basically, when a text is sung, the meaning of the words is heightened. In other words, rendering a text through song takes the text to a higher level of expression and impacts the emotions more deeply.

Consider what it would be like to speak versus sing a great hymn like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” or “O For a Thousand Tongues”. Additionally, singing involves the whole body, and so is a way of affirming the goodness of the human body.

Third, music is for the whole assembly. Worship involves a “call and response” whereby God speaks to the assembly and it responds.

Responding to the Word of God is the duty and delight of the whole assembly, rather than just that of musical leaders. If most of the music in worship is directed from professional musicians to the assembly – rather than from the assembly to God – the very nature of worship as “call and response” is lost, and the (wrong) impression is given, namely, that worship is about passively listening and less about actively responding.

Fourth, music derives from the local culture. The incarnate Word of God, Jesus, was a person of a particular time, place and culture. God’s Incarnation affirms that each culture and its art, architecture and music can be used to proclaim the Gospel. Because music is closely bound up with culture, churches have praised God using music that is culturally relevant to the local community. Music that reflects the local musical heritage affirms the local culture and glorifies the God who has gifted that culture.

A music ministry guided by these principles will truly glorify God. Conversely, if music is used only to fulfil human agendas in worship – pandering to different tastes – then worship will only “glorify” humans.

May our music always glorify the God who has given us the gift of music for praising Him!

NEXT ISSUE: Worship and Time

The Rev Dr. Jeffrey Truscott, Lecturer in Worship and Liturgy at Trinity Theological College, is also the Chaplain of the college.


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