Nothing has divided Christians today more than Bible versions and church music. So, for whatever it is worth, I thought I would give my opinion on church music.

Let me be careful to point out that I am talking about music used in a church service, in corporate worship. Singing and music in church to me is different than singing and music outside of church. I enjoy some music that there is absolutely nothing wrong with, but it would be completely out of place in church. One of my favorite songs and melodies is "Unchained Melody." To me it is enchantingly beautiful but it has no place in a worship service.

Every church has a personality of its own. What makes up a church personality? Among many other things, socio-economic level, general educational level, general age level, preaching style, church mission, friendliness, concern, and of course, music style. That is the reason a person might enjoy attending one church and not enjoy attending another, although both may be sound Baptist churches. Different is not necessarily wrong it is just different. One church might enjoy preachers who "stomp and snort" and another church might enjoy preachers who are "calm and quiet." That does not make one right and the other wrong. It is a matter of personal preference.

There are many, many styles of music sung in our churches today. There are anthems, sacred classical and the old standard hymns. There is a little different style of songs found in such hymnals as "Favorite Songs and Hymns" and "Heavenly Highways Hymns." In my first pastorate in Arkansas, the churches in that area looked forward to getting the latest "Stamps-Baxter" song books and enjoyed singing from them. Then there is Southern Gospel, Country Gospel and Bluegrass. 

I once heard a pastor say, "I hate Southern Gospel music!" He did not mean he hated the words sung in Southern Gospel music, what he did not like is the vehicle used to deliver the words.

Then there is a whole spectrum of music that has been labeled "contemporary." There are what have been called 24/7 songs -- you sing seven words twenty-four times. Then there are choruses, like we have sung for years. Some songs are old hymns sung to a different style of music, some are Scriptures set to music and some are new songs. I enjoy some contemporary music and some I do not enjoy. Whether I enjoy it or not does not make it right or wrong. What makes something wrong is not my preference, but God's Word. 

There are two scriptures in the New Testament that deal specifically with church music.
"Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:19).

"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" (Colossians 3:16).

Both verses have some things in common. First, they both mention the same kind of songs -- psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. A psalm (which includes the whole book of Psalms) is a religious song sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments. A hymn is a song of praise or glorification. And, a spiritual song is just what it says, a song that is spiritual in nature. All three are very closely related and it is difficult to separate them into their own categories. 

The second thing these verses have in common are the words, "in your hearts." Any song sung in a worship service of a church, either congregational, choir or special, should come from the heart. According to these Scriptures, every song should be one the singer feels deeply about. From my own personal experience, most congregational songs are simply mouthing words and do not come from the heart.

The third thing they have in common are the words, "to the Lord." Church music should not be sung to impress people with the singer's talent. It should be sung as if the person were standing in the bodily presence of the Lord, looking Him in the face and singing the song only for Him. That is worship and anything less is simply making a noise. If these three scriptural principles were observed in our church music it would transform our services! 

Colossians 3:16 says we are to teach and admonish each other with songs. If that is true, then the words of a song are important, must be true and must be understood. The words of a song can be used of the Holy Spirit to reveal truth, to correct and to encourage.

Church music must teach truth. A song I heard once said, "If working and praying have any reward, if anyone makes it, Lord, surely I will." That is blasphemous! Closer to home, how about, "On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise." If Jesus is coming in a cloud, as the Scriptures teach, then it will not be a cloudless morning. How about, "There's a brand new angel in the choir and I want to hear her sing." There is no such thing as a "new" angel and people do not become angels when they go to heaven. Or, "I've got to make it to heaven somehow." You don't get to heaven "somehow." I do not feel it is any better to sing error than it is to preach it.

The music must not overpower the words. It is not about the music, it is about the message. Paul said, "Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue" (1 Corinthians 14:19). If I can't understand the words I cannot be taught or admonished as Colossians 3:16 teaches.

I often wondered why some music had to be played so loud and I finally found the answer. Marilyn vos Savant, who is purported to have the world's highest IQ (228), writes a column in the Sunday news magazine, Parade. That question was asked her in the March 5, 2006 issue and her answer was, "They're trying to generate excitement, and a high level of decibels accomplishes that goal. Subjected to such intense sound, listeners' bodies produce adrenaline, noradrenaline and more. These substances make the heart pound and give an impression of increased muscle strength. Not surprisingly, some people become psychologically addicted to this hormone rush, which is implicated in thrill-seeking behavior. What a way to get -- and keep --fans." That is not the kind of excitement that needs to be generated in church.

Church music must be culturally appropriate. To make a point, let me tell an incident that Missionary Joe Morell in Lithuania related to me. It went something like this: A good Southern Gospel quartet went from the United States and sang some Cathedrals Quartet songs for a Lithuanian church. The performance would have brought the house down in many American churches. However, the Lithuanians were unresponsive. After it was over some of the Lithuanian men took Brother Morell aside and expressed the feeling that the music was the most carnal they had ever heard. What was the difference? Culture!

There are cultural differences between countries and there are cultural differences all across America. The music that is enjoyed in a small rural church in the South probably will not be enjoyed by a large suburban church in the North. Why? Because they live in different cultures. Which is right and which is wrong? Well, the one is right that enjoys the kind of music I enjoy! 

As much as I hate to admit it, there are even cultural differences in different age groups. A younger colleague of mine came into my office one day almost in tears. He said, "You must come hear this song. It really touched my heart." So, I went to his office and he played the song for me. The best I remember the song was about the crucifixion. I am sorry but it did not move me. What brought him to tears left me flat. Why? Because the difference in our ages put us in two different cultures that enjoy two different styles of Christian music. 

I have heard some say that a church cannot grow if it does not use a certain style of music. The facts prove otherwise. There are growing churches across America that use almost every kind of church music. However, we must face the fact that a church is not likely to attract people who do not enjoy the personality of the church. 

One of the great mistakes many a new pastor has made was to try to suddenly change the personality of a church, in music and other ways. What usually happens is that the church is torn up in the process. If the personality of a church needs to be changed, it must be done with a lot of teaching, love and patience.
 My conclusion is, if a song meets the Scriptural criteria, that is:

        1. it is a psalm, hymn or spiritual song,
        2. it is sung from the heart,
        3. it is sung to the Lord,
        4. it is true,
        5. the words can be clearly understood,

then it is a good song, regardless of the style of music in which it is delivered. That does not mean I will enjoy it, that it will speak to my heart or that I would want to belong to a church that only used that style of music. Let;s be careful not to equate our own personal preferences with Scripture.


by Raymond McAlister
March 2006