The Purpose of Music in Corporate Worship

24Oct09

worship in the dark

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.

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15 Responses to “The Purpose of Music in Corporate Worship”

  1. 1 churchmusicblog

    I just wanted to address a potential objection. Someone might skim this post and say, “Harrumph!  You neglect the more important matter!  The purpose of music in worship is to ‘glorify God,’ or ‘declare the Gospel,'” or something spiritual like that.  Well…duh.  I’m not disagreeing with you.  But my goal here is to focus on the musical, not the theological side of the question.  I entirely agree that what we sing (lyrically) is of supreme importance.  It must be God-honoring and Gospel-declaring.  But I am focusing on what role the music itself plays.  And the purpose of the music is to facilitate robust singing.

  2. Let me start by saying I agree with almost everything you’ve said here. To be a Christian is to be one who sings to God (among other things). And there is something incredibly powerful about singing to God along with a room full of people who are also singing to God. I consider it a great privilege to be a part of the group God has called to help facilitate this in our church, and it’s not a ministry I take lightly.

    My objection is really to your introductory question. Your post discusses the question “What is the purpose of music in corporate worship?” My objection is that the question itself assumes there is only one answer. And if there can only be one answer, then I would have to agree with you that it is to facilitate singing. But I don’t think this is the only purpose of music in corporate worship. If this were the case, then it wouldn’t matter if we played skillfully or not, and in fact we should probably just go the way of the puritans and do away with instruments altogether. The important thing would simply be that everyone sing, whether beautifully or not, making a joyful noise to the Lord.

    But the scriptures tell us, as you point out, that we are to play skillfully on our musical instruments. And I don’t think this is just so people will sing. God doesn’t gift some people with musical ability solely for the purpose of leading sing-alongs. Great music moves the soul to worship, regardless of whether the listener is singing along or not. And while I will agree that in corporate worship we should focus on corporate singing, I would argue that instrumental music and non-corporate singing are also important in this context.

    The answer to your question about music in corporate worship depends largely on how you answer the question “What is the purpose of corporate worship?” When we look at all that we do in corporate worship, from the liturgy to the music to the prayers to the sermon to the sacraments, we see a list of activities that invite the whole person to engage with the Lord in the context of his or her worshipping community. All of these activities, used by the Holy Spirit, bring the congregation to a place of awe and wonder of God Almighty on the one hand, and intimate experience of the tender mercies of God on the other. Without the Holy Spirit’s assistance, we are merely performing acts of profound vanity that only bring attention to ourselves. This is why we pray the prayer for purity in worship at the beginning of our service, “…that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name” in all that we do in worship together. Just like other forms of music expression, facilitating corporate singing can be an exercise in vainglory and self-gratification. But just like facilitating corporate singing, other forms of musical expression can bring people into heartfelt worship of God.

    I would propose that the PRIMARY purpose of music in corporate worship is to facilitate people singing together, but that there are secondary purposes as well that should not be neglected.

  3. 3 Lewis Grant

    Good posts and comments. I’m going to have to think through the issue more before I can add anything to this specific conversation.

    But I will throw this out there: is the relation between ‘congregational’ and ‘performed’ church music analogous to the relation between the parts of the liturgy that the priest says and the parts that the congregation says?

  4. I’m kind of surprised that Adam would say corporate singing can be an exercise in vainglory and self-gratification. To be in the congregation, listening to everyone around you and harmonizing, adjusting your tone and volume so that everyone blends in musical prayer is not self-centered at all. To play your music so loud and in such an uncomfortable key and with such embellishments that it becomes about you and “showing off your gifts”, while alienating everyone else – well that seems to be more like vainglory to me than anything else. And honestly, when it comes from that kind of heart, and people start to realize it, no matter what the talent level, it comes off like clashing cymbals. Worship should never be a point of consternation in a church, and if it is, you are doing something wrong.

  5. 5 Lewis Grant

    Here’s another relevant question to get us thinking:

    Why do we have instrumental music, rather than congregational singing, during communion? That would seem to indicate that purely instrumental music (which is presumably ‘musical performance’) has value in and of itself, rather than music only having value inasmuch as it leads the congregation in singing? (which, I think, tends to supports Adam’s point).

    (Just for the record, I think it’s good that we do instrumental music during communion. I don’t think all instrumental songs are equal, however. I think it’s probably preferable to play songs that people know, and songs whose words help us to further appreciate Christ’s self-offering.)

  6. I think different parts of the service call for different music. The services I attend most regularly has three or four hymns that everyone sings together, a musical offering, which is done by the music teams only, and very humble, simple songs during communion that people can sing along to if they want. I like this model. Communion is a reflective time for many, and many would rather pray or listen during this time, on the other hand some like to sing along at this time. I like the service that has a little of everything, times you participate and times you listen. By contrast, I have had negative experiences at other services where the music was made up of songs everyone knew, and would probably like to sing but nobody could sing along because it was so loud you could hurt yourself if you tried.

  7. 7 churchmusicblog

    Susannah,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    We do similar things at our church, particularly doing more modest, stripped-down pieces during Communion, so people can sing or reflect or pray as they feel led. We usually try close that time with a rousing participatory hymn in order to end the service on a high note (not literally).

    Thanks for reading.
    Wendell

  8. 8 Joel

    “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”

    What about a U2 concert? Everyone sings along to “Where The Streets Have No Name” despite the fact that it was written for Bono’s ridiculously high vocal range.

    On a different note, while I do agree that the community element of corporate singing is important, I also think there’s something special about music apart from lyrics. Music expresses what cannot be expressed in words. Certain instrumental songs lead me to thinking of the beauty which God has created every time I heard them. Although the songs to which I refer are generally recent indie-rock songs, this notion is nothing new – just listen to the music of Bach, Beethoven, or any of the great composers. They saw this too. That’s not to say that all church music should be instrumental, either – I just don’t think the emphasis should be solely on singing. After all, the Psalms also had Selah sections.

    • 9 churchmusicblog

      Joel,
      These are good points; thanks for raising them. You’re right about singing along with U2 despite the high range. A few reasons for this come readily to mind: 1) people are in the dark and the band is loud enough that they can’t hear themselves–both of these make people feel anonymous and remove inhibitions, 2) because the band is so loud, many people are shouting, which allows them to reach higher vocal ranges, 3) alcohol is generally served (again, inhibitions suppressed).

      Bravo to U2 for getting people singing. But at church, we actually want to make it easy for people to sing along (without the quick-fix of alcohol or “liquid courage,” as some call it.) And, we want people to actually realize that the sound they are making together is beautiful. This can happen at U2 concerts (when the band stops playing and Bono gets people to keep singing), but it is the exception. At church, hopefully it is the rule.

      On the other point, I agree. Music can serve other purposes: we use instrumental music during communion; we use it as a prelude to get people to find their seats and prepare for worship. Instrumental music often strikes me very powerfully.

      I would just reiterate that corporate singing is the usage of music most frequently referred to in Scripture, and I believe (for reasons I’m trying to elucidate in subsequent posts), it’s the most important one for us as believers.

      Thanks for commenting, Joel.

  9. I think the distinction that has not been raised is that a church service it the one time during the week that the entire body is expected to gather together to worship. You are free to listen to whatever music you want at any other time, and worhip on a more personal level, but the weekly service is supposed to be about the entire body collectively worshiping God, putting God at the center. How can you do that when you are passively watching a performance? Let me ask you, during the times when you are sitting back and watching are you saying “God I love you and this is how I show you” or are you saying “wow that person is really gifted, we are so lucky to have this kind of talent at our church, I don’t think they have this at other churches”. I can’t pretend to know what goes on in the minds of every worshiper, but my experience has been that people begin to be about their “Art” and get very covetous of the spotlight and it becomes less and less God-centered when the body is excluded.

  10. I think I need to add that there is a continuum to consider. It is when a service goes too much in either direction musically that I begin to become concerned. I think everyone more or less agrees that balance should be the goal. However, it is good to have these kinds of conversations to ask ourselves where we are in achieving that goal, have we gone off course? Do we need to re-evaluate our approach, the problem is when people do not respect each others opinions and alienate each other. That should never be done in the name of worship. I would not stay long in a church where that occured.

  11. 12 C. C. Collins

    Music serves several purposes. Sometimes it is a testimony, an opportunity to share a message about what God means to you or how he has worked in your life. It can draw the holy spirit to the place of worship. Music can prepare you for the message or set the tone for a part of the service. God uses all for his glory and to accuse someone of sharing their gift for any other purpose is sin.

    • 13 churchmusicblog

      C.C.,
      Thanks for the comment. I agree that there are many things music can do in a church service. I would, however, disagree that suggesting someone is sharing his/her gift for any purpose other than God’s glory is sin. Frankly, if someone gets up and does a flashy solo with little relevance to the Gospel and everyone leaves church that day talking about how great the soloist is, I am inclined to say that, even if the musician’s intentions were good, he/she didn’t do the best job of honoring God.

      Plus, in general, the Scriptures teach that even believers can often do things out of pride or selfishness or other sinful motives (consider, for instance, the Corinthian church Paul addressed in his two letters to them…there was a lot of pride and posturing going on there). So I don’t think we can/should just assume that anyone who gets up to share some music is always doing so for pure, God-honoring reasons.

  12. We all sin and fall short of his Glory, maybe I’m wrong but I always thought this was the only way to approach God – with reverence, acknowledging our need for his Grace. I know leading worship is hard work and it truely is an offering from the heart, but as you have been preparing, and rehearsing throughout the week, you have been living worship. what about the 100 or 200 people in the congregation who have not had that opportunity? Francis Chan in “crazy love” says the average Christian spends ten minutes a day with God. I would submit that Sunday is a really important time for them to participate. I hope I have not offended anyone, but please if you find yourself on the defensive, take a moment to examine these feelings and ask yourself why you feel that way. It’s not just about music and tastes, it is a lot more important than that. I don’t think God likes seeing people left out or excluded. Everything I know about scripture tells me such things displease him.

  13. 15 marie

    …God has gifted many, many people in special ways with voices and abilities and ways of ministering that not every worshiper is gifted with. Doing a solo can be a definite offering to God. He is just as deserving of “the best” as He is of corporate worship. When the minister teaches from the pulpit, we don’t all (usually) join in with him. There are thousands of individuals who are gifted to teach us of God’s greatness, all by themselves through music. “Praise Teams” are not the only way of worshiping God. They are one of many and we need to be thankful for any and all gifts and talents.


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