Should we sing old hymns or praise choruses? Should the music be classical, traditional, folk, rock, contemporary, country and western, or what? Should we use organs and pianos, or guitars and drums?
What are we to make of these matters?
A change in music, whether to something older or newer, is difficult because most worshipers are not musicians and simply like what is familiar to them. Most worshipers are not motivated by some aesthetic theory but by the emotional links they have to their familiar music. Because music so powerfully engages and expresses our emotions, it is not surprising that it is an emotional minefield for individuals and congregations.
As with all forms of worship, we must evaluate music in the first place biblically. We must stand back from our own experiences and preferences and ask again, “What pleases God?” We should recognize that not all music and praise pleases Him.
Think of the worship and praise that Israel offered to God in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. They made a golden calf, called it the Lord, and danced around it (Ex. 32:4-6). Such praise was an abomination to God and evoked his wrath! We must carefully seek what the Bible says about how we should praise the Lord and make music to Him.
When we think of music in the worship of God, we are really thinking of three issues: 1) the words that we sing, 2) the tunes to which we sing those words, and 3) the instruments we might use to accompany the singing.
The Words We Sing
Of these three issues the first is the most important. The words we take upon our lips to sing to God must be true and pleasing to him. God has given us direction by giving us in the Bible a whole book as a model for what we are to sing. The Book of Psalms (which in Hebrew is entitled “The Book of Praises”) provides us with songs that God Himself has inspired. The Psalms should at least function as the model for what we as Christians sing to God.
The words themselves have a twofold purpose. First, they should be glorifying to God and centered upon Him and His works. Second, they are to be an instrument to minister to one another during the corporate worship time (Eph. 5:19).
The Songs We Use
What do the Psalms teach about song? First, they remind us of the rich variety of songs that we can and should present to God. The Psalms contain joyful praise and thanksgiving. The Psalms are called the Book of Praises because they not only contain, but also culminate in the praise of God (see especially Psalms 146—150.) But the Psalms contain more than praise. Some Psalms reflect on creation (for example, Psalms 19 and 104); others recount the great saving work of God in Christ (Psalms 2, 22, 24, and 110); still others meditate on the perfections of God’s revealed Word (especially Psalm 119). There are Psalms of lamentation and repentance (Psalms 32, 51, and 137) as well as Psalms that express the confusion and frustration that God’s people sometimes experience living in this fallen world (Psalms 44 and 73).
Second, the Psalms also model for us the substance of our singing. Some Psalms are short and have repetitive elements, and some are full, rich, profound responses to God and His work.
What Tunes Shall We Sing?
We may use any tune that is singable for a congregation and that supports the content of the song. The tune should reflect the mood and substance of the song in light of the joy and reverence that are appropriate to worship. The songs should also reflect the congregation who is being called on to sing them.
What Kind of Instruments?
What kind of musical accompaniment is biblical? In Old Testament worship a wide range of instruments was used in the worship in the temple. Yet, in the worship in the church, it appears that for almost the first thousand years of its history no instruments were used in Christian worship. Today, most churches use one or more instruments. But where instruments are used, the instruments should aid the singing of the congregation, not overwhelm it. They should contribute to a deep spirit of reverence and joy, not undermine it.
Nowhere in the New Testament church are instruments clearly used for worship. They certainly have no central or independent role in worship. At most they should support the singing that the congregation is commanded to do.
Music is a powerful and vital element in the worship life of God’s people. But precisely because it is so significant, we need to give careful thought to it. We must be sure that we are pleasing God and not entertaining ourselves. The temptation to turn worship into entertainment is great because as sinners we are much more inclined to be self-centered than God-centered. We are much more inclined to amuse ourselves than to serve God.
Preparing for Worship
To meet with God, we need to come prepared to worship. We need to come well-rested, expectant, thoughtfully ready to meet with God. We need to be aware that God will be present in the elements of worship that He has appointed. He will be present to speak through His Word and will be present to hear our praise and prayers. We need to come with a clear understanding of the ways in which worship with God’s people will bless us and should come looking for that blessing.
We come to worship in faith. Faith is trusting Christ, resting in His finished work for the forgiveness of our sins. Our faith must be real as we come to church, so that our reliance on Christ may deepen. We come to worship with repentance, acknowledging that we are sinners and seeking the grace of God so that we turn more and more from sin and pursue holiness. We come to worship with love for God and for His people. Such love will make us desire communion with the people of God and long to draw nearer to God.
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.” (Ps. 122:1)
When the heart is prepared for and engaged in worship, we can enter into the sentiments of the Psalmist:
Teach me Your way, O LORD; I will walk in Your truth; Unite my heart to fear Your name. I will give thanks to You, O LORD my God, with all my heart; And will glorify Your name forever. For Your lovingkindness toward me is great, And You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. (Ps. 86:11-13)
Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there is any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way. (Ps. 139:23-24)
I will give thanks to You with all my heart; I will sing praises to You before the gods. I will bow down toward Your holy temple And give thanks to Your name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth, For You have magnified Your word according to all Your name. (Ps. 138:1-2)
When the heart is prepared by the Word of God and by God’s Spirit for worship, then the worship we desire is the worship that delights God. We come not to be pleased but to offer God the worship that pleases Him. We move from the self-centeredness that characterizes those who do not know God to the God-centeredness that should characterize those who do know Him.