Music for Worship

The aim of every Christian fellowship or assembly should be to have truth-based worship [1] rather than entertainment-based worship. 

The current popularity of 'seeker-friendly' services sometimes leads to the entertainment-content of Christian gatherings being increased at the expense of the truth-content.  There's also a tendency to gloss over those aspects of the faith that are thought to be objectionable to non-Christians, especially sin, salvation, judgement, the blood, heaven and hell.  Anything to fill those seats! 

This move to de-emphasise the truth and water-down the gospel has even become a characteristic of believers' own gatherings to worship God.[2]  Many Christian 'worship services' can now more accurately be described as entertainment sessions or religious concerts. 

Music and singing are an important part of our worship, and it is largely in this area that the greatest de-emphasis of truth is occurring.  The following suggestions are intended to help in the selection of music and songs for truth-based worship: 

• True worship must always be our response to God - not our response to the band or the worship-leader. Songs for worship should remind us of the character and acts of the wonderful God we worship so that we can respond in true worship and praise to Him alone.[3] 

People who sing for long periods because there is a great band or a famous worship- leader are responding to the power of the band,[4] or to the skill of the worship-leader, rather than responding to God.  This is not true worship and it is not truth-based worship. 

A strong contemporary band and a skilled worship-leader can become so important and essential to worshippers that they can actually prevent the true worship of God.   They can be a barrier between people and God.  People reach the stage where they are largely controlled by the band and the leader, and begin to feel that they cannot worship without them.  Their bodies and minds become addicted to the heavy rhythms.  They are aware of nothing else.  God becomes superfluous in "worship."  Take away the music and nothing is left! 

A better approach is to emphasise the importance of congregational singing and to minimise the role of musical instruments and worship leaders.  The focus will then be on the God described in the words of the songs that are sung by the worshippers - rather than on the band or the worship leader.  It might even be possible to try the occasional song without any musical instruments![5] 

• If we are to respond to God rather than to the band or the worship leader, our songs must be true to Scripture and doctrinally accurate.  However, even if the actual words of Scripture are set to music we should be careful that they are not taken out of context.[6]  We must worship in spirit and in truth.[7]  We should be excited by God's truth,[8] not by the powerful rhythms of contemporary band music. 

• The words of the songs should be more than just true - they should have a high truth-content.  They should be full of biblical truth.  It's not worth wasting precious time on CCM [9] "praise songs" that make the same obvious statement again and again.  The words of the songs might be true, but the truth in them is often so self-evident that the songs do little more than evoke an emotion.  Instead, we should sing hymns and songs that enhance and inspire our worship by telling us more wonderful truth about the God we worship. 

Colossians 3:16  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.[10] 

• Songs for Christian worship should be specifically Christian and give reasons for praise.  Some Christian worship songs are so vague doctrinally that Mormons or Muslims could happily use them.  For example, many contemporary praise songs say little more than that, "God is great and to be praised."   Every Muslim and Mormon would agree with this. 

To be specifically Christian our songs should do much more than say that God is great.  They should also give examples of God's greatness[11] especially in His provision of His only Son, the Lord Jesus, to die for us and atone for our sins.  Only Christians believe this. 

Songs of praise should be addressed to God the Father, or to the Lord Jesus, rather than to some vague entity such as, "Him" or "You."   There is only one God who is worthy of our praise and we should be definite about Who He is. 

Colossians 3:17  And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. 

• Our songs should be full of the great Bible themes that can cause our hearts and minds to respond in true praise and worship to God.  There are many things we can sing about, including:

  • Christ's eternal existence before time began.
  • His involvement in the creation of the universe.
  • His eternal deity, His death and resurrection.
  • His body broken and His blood shed for us on the cross.
  • Our remembrance of the Lord Jesus as He requested in the broken bread and poured-out wine at the Lord's table.
  • The gospel of God's grace and our complete assurance of salvation from deserved punishment in hell.[12] 
  • The total inadequacy of our own good works and the total adequacy of the work done for us by our Saviour.
  • Salvation by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone.
  • God's ongoing faithfulness to His people.
  • The Christian life - its problems and blessings.
  • Our great High Priest's constant intercession for us before the throne of God.
  • The Lord's imminent return to earth for us.
  • The wonders of eternal life and our heavenly rewards. 

• CCM songs should be avoided, not only because of the music styles they use and their commercial origins, but also because in their attempt to be ecumenical, the writers ignore many of the great Bible themes listed above.  This is sometimes because the writers believe that doctrine divides.[13]  However, Scripture puts a heavy emphasis on the importance of sound doctrine and never sacrifices truth for the sake of unity.[14] 

Also CCM can easily create an appetite for secular music, because there is basically no difference.  Why should you keep listening to a copy (the Christian band) when you can listen to the real thing (the secular band that the Christian band is copying)?  CCM draws Christians to the world. 

• Ideally our songs should written in today's English rather than early or poetic English.  However, this is not always possible or desirable.  After all, some of the greatest worship songs of all time have been written in early and poetic English.  Songs such as "When I survey the wondrous cross" and "How great Thou art" are full of praise-inspiring truth and are precious to the believer.  They should have a place in our worship, even though they are old and their meaning might need to be explained. 

• When possible we should consider the origin of the songs we sing.   Many contemporary Christian songs come from tainted sources - for example the Toronto Blessing, Hillsong, Kingdom Now, Latter Rain or Word of Faith.  If we know we don't agree with their teaching or practice, it's best not to sing their songs. 

Even if the lyrics of a song from such a source are acceptable, the "unspoken message" or "feel" of the song with its music tends to be one that is characteristic of the type of gathering from which it originated.  This often has a strong emphasis on emotion and a subtle de- emphasis of truth.[15]  This feeling easily transfers to the group that is singing the song.[16] 

Many songs used by Christian groups originate from professional musicians who write and record mainly for financial gain.  Their lifestyles are often less than exemplary - even though they have a high media profile.[17]  Most major "Christian" recording companies have non- Christian ownership[18] and understandably their aim is to make a profit rather than to maintain the purity of the gospel. 

• We should never use songs simply because they are on the religious "pop-charts" or because some famous "Christian" musician or group is promoting them on the radio or at religious music festivals such as "Parachute." [19]  Every song should be evaluated critically before being used in worship.  Fashions in music come and go, but truly great worship songs will stand the test of time. 

Why use doubtful songs if we can find songs from reliable sources that emphasise and promote biblical truth? 

• It's best to use simple music for congregational singing.  Complex arrangements are difficult to learn and sing.  The effort of singing them can also take our attention away from the words of the song.  Contemporary Christian music that has been written by and for, professional music groups is often difficult for the average singer in the average congregation as well as being difficult for most church musicians.[20] 

• Songs for children should have the same high truth standards as songs for adults.[21]  In fact, it is possibly even more important for children to learn the great truths of the Word through their songs, as these will stay with them for the rest of their lives.  Music can make the truth memorable.  Rhythm-based CCM music styles and shallow lyrics should not be used for children's songs, as they can be as damaging to children as they are to adults and their use conditions children to expect CCM and light-weight lyrics when they get older. 

• There is a superb new hymnbook Redemption Hymns that follows the principles outlined in this article.  For details visit www.redhymns.com

Lindsay Smith 23/9/04

Redemption Hymns

Recommended Reading

Dan Lucarini, Confessions of a Former Worship Leader, Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement, Evangelical Press, 2002. 

Brian Smith, Theology Off the Wall, The Overhead Projector as Teacher. An excellent article from the principal of Carey College 

Gary E. Gilley,  This Little Church Went to Market. The Church in the Age of Entertainment)  Xulon Press 2002 (Especially chapter 9 on worship) 

John Makujina, Measuring the Music, Another Look at the Contemporary Christian Music Debate, Old Paths Publications, 2002.  A 370 page scholarly study. 

David W. Cloud,  Contemporary Christian Music Under the Spotlight.  Word of Life Literature, 1998.  450 pages including a directory of well-known CCM musicians with comments on each.

Footnotes

[1] John 4:23-24.
[2] The de-emphasis of truth in Christian worship mirrors the post-modern de-emphasis of truth in contemporary society.
[3] Our response to God might be praise and reverence - but it could also be some service for the Lord.  Even sweeping the floor can be worship if it is done for the Lord and in response to His love.
[4] Church bands often use styles and sounds that are virtually identical to those used by secular bands to capture their audiences.  The loud dance-rhythm based music that is used by non-Christian rock groups to enslave the hearts and minds of their fans, and in many cases the adoration and worship of their fans, is now used in churches.  The world has its " pop-idols."   Are we guilty of bringing idols into God's house?
[5] Unaccompanied singing needs practice and takes a while to get used to, but it can be helpful in some circumstances.
[6] The context often determines the meaning of biblical passages.  Even if songs are nothing more than Scripture set to music, they can still be misleading if the context is missing.
[7] John 4:23-24.
[8] 1 Corinthians 13:4-6  " Love ... rejoices in the truth."
[9] CCM: Contemporary Christian Music.  This addictive entertainment-based style of music has invaded most evangelical churches since the 1960s some CCM songs are now quite old.  CCM has often displaced the use of rock-solid truth-filled hymns, even the new truth-filled hymns.  For this reason it should be avoided altogether by Bible-believing churches and assemblies.  It includes music styles such as soft rock, pop/rock, easy listening or classical rock.  It can also include other styles of heavily syncopated music with rock influences such as jazz, rap, blues, hip-hop, punk, ska and modern Country & Western. CCM is ecumenical music.  In fact, CCM is one of the glues holding together the end-times ecumenical movement.  The same music will be perfectly at home in a Roman Catholic retreat or a World Council of Churches conference or a charismatic Laughing Revival.  To create such a broad ecumenical unity requires that doctrinal issues be ignored.  The message must be limited when the fellowship is enlarged.
[10] Just as John 3:16 summarises the gospel of salvation, so Colossians 3:16 can be said to summarise the gospel of music for the believer.
[11] The hymn "How great Thou art" does this very well.  Each verse gives examples of God's greatness and then each refrain is an outpouring of praise.
[12] The gospel is good news, but it is also bad news:  " You are a sinner, and you will face God's judgement."   Needless to say, CCM recording companies don't want this emphasis.
[13] Another reason writers may avoid doctrine is that emphasis on a doctrine will reduce sales to those who don't accept the doctrine.
[14] Acts 2:42 1Tim 1:3-11, 4:6, 13, 16, 5:17, 6:1-5 2Tim 3:10-17, 4:1-5 Titus 1:9, 2:1, 7, 10 2 John 1:7-11 Mark 9:43-45 Matt 5:29-30 1Cor 5:9-13 2Cor 6:14-17.
[15] The idea that music doesn't have an effect apart from the words is completely without support.   Music without words can be used to create many different moods for instance, marching music, night-club music, film sound tracks, sad music, happy music etc.  All music conveys a message of some sort - often derived from associations in the mind of the listener.  Christian lyrics cannot make worldly music into Christian music - especially if the worldly music has powerful worldly associations.  Marshall McLuhan explains the relationship between the medium and the message in his landmark 1967 work, " The Medium is the Message."   The style of music used (the medium) carries its own inherent message to the listener.  Timothy Leary, the '60s LSD guru, knew a lot about rock music and he said, " Don't listen to the words, it's the music that has its own message.  I've been stoned on the music many times."   He was right.  Charismatic worshippers who think they are high on God may in reality be high on the music.
[16] This is true of nearly all CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) songs, and is another reason why CCM should be avoided.
[17] For examples see Contemporary Christian Music under the Spotlight, especially page 131.  Publication details are at end of this article under " Recommended Reading."
[18] Secular corporations now own most of the major CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) producers and distributors.  Word, the largest, is owned by ABC-TV, which is owned by Stanford Oil.  Word owns or supports Maranatha, Myrrh, Lexicon, Light and others.  Sparrow records sold out to EMI in 1991.  Music Entertainment Group purchased Zondervan-owned Benson in 1993.  BMG has purchased 50% of Reunion Records and Blanton/Harrell. (CCM under the Spotlight, page 135)  The very popular Mission Praise hymnbooks are published by a division of Harper Collins Publishers - a major secular publisher that also publishes a great deal of immoral literature including the numerous anti-Christian diatribes of the apostate " Bishop" Spong.
[19] The fact that a song is promoted at a music festival like Parachute may be a good reason for avoiding it entirely as such songs are nearly all in CCM style.
[20] Many contemporary praise songs have several pages of complex music to accompany lyrics that can easily be summarised in one short sentence.  This indicates that the primary emphasis of the song is the music.  A great hymn such as, " When I survey the wondrous cross" has only one page of simple music, but every verse is packed with truth.  The primary emphasis is on the truth in the words.
[21] It is possible for young children to learn simple hymns.  Too much emphasis on fun songs about butterflies and elephants can be counter-productive