Notes on Disharmony: Music in the Church
- Friday, February 09, 2007
From outside a massive church building in one Southern city, you'd never guess there's a crack about to split the church in two. That's because the crack I'm talking about is a fissure in the heart of the congregation—one that threatens to rip the church apart.
The disagreement isn't over church doctrine or missions policy. No, it's over the style of music used for the worship service.
The congregation has always sung traditional anthems of the church from well-worn hymnals. But some members complain that the church is losing people to other congregations that offer a more contemporary style of worship service — with Scripture songs, guitars, and drums.
The disagreement has erupted into a full-scale war. And similar conflicts are tearing churches apart all across the country. How can we bring peace to these war-torn churches?
Is there a right and wrong kind of music for worship?
The way to forge a peace treaty is to ask the fundamental questions. What's the biblical standard for judging any kind of music? As Christians, how do we choose which music we listen to on our home stereos and car radios? Do we simply gravitate toward the music we like, or do we try to appreciate truly good quality?
Good music is a bit like good food. We all know that what we like is not necessarily what's good for us by objective standards of nutrition. And if we're smart, we don't just eat whatever we pile on our plates. Instead, we cultivate our tastes so we learn to like broccoli and carrots, not just pizza and ice cream.
In the same way, the music we like is not necessarily what's good for the soul. As Christians, we ought to cultivate our tastes so we learn to like music that is good by objective standards of beauty.
We should develop our musical tastes so we enjoy what is truly excellent.
Perhaps you thought taste meant merely personal preference. But Christian authors J. I. Packer and Thomas Howard write that "taste is a facet of wisdom: It is the ability to distinguish what has value from what does not."
In music, we should be learning to distinguish what has objective value from what does not. For example, good music should fit the message — treating serious themes with a somber tone and cheerful themes with a light tone. Good music should not use cheap cliches — like heavy drum rolls or sliding violin solos — things that function like flashy visual effects in a movie. Good music should be emotionally powerful without lapsing into sentimentality.
Churches that unite behind objective standards of beauty such as these can heal the rift that divides so many congregations. And they might discover that they've been fighting the wrong battles. By objective standards, old music may be either good or bad — and contemporary music may be either good or bad as well.
It's not that one group is right and the other is wrong. Rather, Christians of all ages and backgrounds should unite behind the goal of discerning real beauty.
For, after all, we worship the God of beauty.
This article originally appeared August 9, 1995 on BreakPoint. Used with permission.
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