The Purpose of Music in Corporate Worship
If you’ve been following along, you know we have been talking about what I believe makes a song useful for corporate worship. I have argued that the best song are those songs that have strong, singable melodies.
But I have yet to ask or answer a much more primary question. What is the purpose of music in corporate worship? Why did God even give us music and tell us to use it when we gather corporately for worship? Why don’t we just recite poetry together without music? Why did God specifically give us notes, melodies, and harmonies?
This question is important, even if it does not readily strike you so. A lot of the disputes about how and what we sing in church come back to differences over this basic “Why?” question.
So let me take a stab at it. I believe that the purpose of music in corporate worship is to facilitate people singing together. This seems pretty clear from Scripture. Briefly: the Psalms tell us 70 times that we are to sing; the New Testament church sang a lot; and Revelation is full of images of saints and angels singing. Usually when the Psalms tell us to sing, it’s with an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, as in, “SING WITH ALL YOU GOT, PEOPLE!” Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating the emphasis of Scripture. “Sing!” is one of the most frequent and emphatic exhortations in the Bible.
So, for a musician, when we ask, “What am I supposed to be doing here?” The most obvious and fundamental answer is, “Get people singing!” The Psalms do not say, “Perform for one another.” That said, they do often reference the skillful playing of instruments, but it is almost always in the context of facilitating singing. Consider two examples that I just pulled from a quick search.
Psalm 81: 1″ Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob!2 Begin the music, strike the tambourine, play the melodious harp and lyre.“
Or Psalm 33: 1 “Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.2 Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.“
It doesn’t take elaborate exegesis to get the idea. The images here are of people (all the “righteous,” not just the musicians) singing with instruments aiding them. It is not an image of a bunch of musicians playing together while the Faithful look on approvingly.
This claim may seem obvious, but if you look at church music in many American contexts, you’ll see that it’s not obvious at all. In fact, many churches treat music as if its purpose is to sound cool to a listening audience, not to incorporate the voices of a participating congregation. The music is often excellent and attractive, but it is turned up too loud, or the songs are keyed too high, or the songs are simply hard to sing along to, with the overall effect being that the congregation is musically irrelevant–they mostly watch and listen. If the congregation sings or not, it doesn’t make much difference, because they can’t be heard.
But if facilitating congregational singing is the purpose of our music, things will look and sound different. Next week I will talk about what this means for worship leaders.
What do you think? Am I crazy, misguided, or simply wrong? I’d like to hear from you.
Filed under: Congregational Participation, Corporate Singing, Leading Worship, Performance, Worship Leaders | 14 Comments