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Talk 5 - The Musical Church

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‘The Musical Church’

a musical morass

I’ll feel very sorry for you if you’re sitting next to me when we are singing in church. When I arrived in Windsor church in 2000, they used to record the whole service for the elderly unable to be there. After a few weeks they stopped recording the whole service and started recording only the sermon. I was told that my singing was so bad that the elderly couldn’t stand it any longer!

For as long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve been singing—or at least, I’ve tried too! In Sunday School we used to sing—I remember, ‘Wide, Wide as the Ocean’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me, this I Know’. ‘The Best Book to Read is the Bible’. In Youth Group, I remember singing, ‘Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God’. I remember as a young man going to CMS Summer School and for the first time singing, ‘Tell Out my Soul, the Greatness of the Lord’. I remember singing ‘O For a Thousand Tongues’ when there was actually one thousand people in the auditorium. I have been profoundly affected by these experiences. These songs have stayed with me for years and so do the truths they teach.

These days, and for many people, music is the make or break of church. I’ve come across people who choose to stay or leave a church based upon the skill of the musicians and the quality of the congregational singing. In recent years, Hillsong have redefined the contours of the musical landscape. Our churches are living in a ‘musical morass’ and no-one is really satisfied.

 the theology of church

We shall never understand the place of music in church unless we understand the nature of church. Indeed, our understanding of why Christians meet together not only shapes our musical activities, but all the activities which take place in our meetings—and the manner in which they are carried out. We’ve been talking about the nature of church over the last few weeks—so now is a good time to pull a few threads together. We shall call this a ‘theology’ of church. An easy way to remember our ‘ systematic theology’ is to speak about the three dimensions of our meetings: the ‘word of God’, ‘prayer’ and ‘love for one another’.

            first dimension: the word of God (Exod 19; Acts 2:42, Col 3:16–17)

Consider the scene at Mount Sinai as the Israelites received the commandments of God. They understood that they were in God's presence and this affected their priorities. There had very loud trumpets (Ex 19:16) but they were not too concerned about the choice of trumpet music! Since God was in their midst, what mattered more than anything else was to listen to what he said.

The earliest church meetings followed the pattern of Sinai. In Acts 2:42, the believers ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching’. In his instructions to the Colossians, Paul commands that the Word of Christ dwell in them richly through wise teaching (Col 3:16,17). Hearing the Word of God is the most important activity we do when we come together. It is by his Word that he has called us together. If we do nothing else, we must hear the Word of God from the Scriptures in whatever format we can—whether its through listening to sermons, personal bible study, in home groups—whatever is appropriate in the situation. For listening to the word of God is the first dimension of any Christian meeting.

            second dimension: prayer (Phil 1:9)

The second dimension of church involves our response to the Word of God. Throughout the New Testament, churches are repeatedly exhorted to pray. Having heard from God and understood his character and his plan for us, we should recognise our complete dependence upon him. Through prayer we express this dependence upon God in the most humblest of ways.

In the Book of Common Order which we looked at few weeks ago—we saw that prayer is a vital ingredient when responding to the word of God. Prayers of response: thanksgiving and intercession. ‘And this is my prayer’—Paul says in Phil 1:9—‘that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.’.

The second dimension of church is ‘prayer’.

            third dimension: love one another

The third dimension in our meeting together is ‘loving one another’. We meet as Christians because God has called us to himself. He has accepted each of us and brought us into his presence. We are, therefore, bound to accept one another. In our meetings, there are no greatest and least of us, we are servants of one another. Certainly we have different gifts and these are for our common good—if these gifts are used. And as we unselfishly use our gifts we are loving one anther.

Remember, at one time, all of us sinned and fell short of the glory of God. The antidote was the same for each of us—one gospel to rescue us. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. When it comes to our salvation, God makes no distinction between us. So who are you to draw distinctions? How dare anyone here feel superior to any other Christian believer! How dare you feel inferior to any other person in this church family! God has made each you his son or daughter if you have put your faith in the Lord Jesus.

These are the spiritual dimensions that define our meetings together: hearing God's word, responding to him in prayer and loving one another. And as we consider the role of music in church, we must realise that our music must operate within these three dimensions. Now there’s one more thing to consider before we can address the challenge of music.

the nature of praise

            problems with praise

Many Christians describe the time of singing in our meetings as ‘the time of praise’ or ‘the time of worship’. Often song leaders choose songs around tunes which allow people to lose themselves in themselves and this is often described as the ‘worship time’. And then after praising God in song we get down to the business of bible reading and sermon and those more cerebral activities. Is singing a more praiseworthy activity? Often when people say ‘The worship was wonderful’, this is code for saying, ‘I loved the music’. Sometimes we see churches advertise a ‘Service of Prayer and Praise’ in which the praise element always refers to singing.

So there seems to be ‘head’ Christians and ‘heart’ Christians. Music is worship for the ‘heart’ people—and bible reading and sermon is worship for the ‘head’ people (especially when looking at the Book of Revelation). Sometimes its like there are two separate groups of Christians who attend church. Or maybe one week you can be a ‘head’ Christian and next week a ‘heart’ Christian—and the week after you can be both—depending on the choice of music and the sermon topic!

We need to pay more attention to what the Scriptures mean by the word ‘praise’. The idea that the time of singing in our meetings can be described as ‘the time of praise’ or ‘the time of worship’ contains two errors. Firstly, it assumes that the purpose of coming to church is to worship God; and secondly, that the way we praise God is through our music.

            in the psalms (Psalm 92)

The obvious part of the Bible to examine is the book of Psalms. It is very clear here, in almost every psalm, that praise is declaring what God is like and what he has done. Psalm 103, which we read earlier, follows this pattern. Let’s have a look at another psalm—Psalm 92 –have a look with me (read). This psalm declares what God is like: he is loving and faithful (v.2); his deeds and works and his thoughts are praiseworthy (v.4 and 5); the Lord is upright, he is as firm as a Rock, there is no wickedness in him (v.15). The psalmist is praising God for what he is like—and he also praises God for what he has done: the work of creation (v.5); the defeat of the Lord’s enemies and the scattering of the wicked (v.9–11); the flourishing of the righteous (v.12–15).

In general, praise in the psalms is telling others about God rather than speaking to God. And although the Psalms were sung, they were handed down in Scripture without a note of music attached to them. I can’t find anywhere in the Bible that discusses the issue of tunes—let alone good tunes and bad tunes. There are no melody lines in the book of Psalms and yet the element of praise is undeniable. Praising God cannot, therefore, depend upon music alone. It’s a great thing to add contemporary tunes to the Psalms—but it  does not make the psalms anymore ‘praiseworthy’.

            praise in the New Testament (2 Cor.13, 1 Pet 1:3, Heb 13:15–16)

In the New Testament, the concept of praise remains the same—declaring what God is like and what he has done. Now that the mystery of God’s will is made known to us through the gospel, the content of our praise is expanded. We have more to praise God about! We read praises of God at the beginning of many of the epistles: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles’—says Paul in 2 Cor. 1:3; and Peter says in 1 Peter 1, ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Pet 1:3).

And carefully note Heb 13:15–16, ‘Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased’. This is very helpful verse. Hebrews tells us that, above all else, that God is praised when we acknowledge him and do good in the world.

Interestingly, there is nothing like the book of Psalms in the New Testament. Rather, the whole New Testament rings with praise since the highest praise of God is the proclamation of the gospel. ‘You are a chosen people’, Peter says, ‘that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Pet 2:9). Declaring the gospel, whether it be done in song, in preaching, quietly over a cup of coffee or written in a letter—explaining and living under the kingship of Jesus is our praise of God. And singing is one element of this response to God.

It is therefore absolutely essential that we approach questions about the place of music in our meetings in the light of what church is about. And so we’ve talked about the three dimensions of church and the nature of praise in the Bible. Our music must reflect the dimensions of our meetings together: listening to the word of God, responding to the word of God and loving one another—spurring each other on in love and good works. Songs that don’t encourage us in these three areas have no place in Christian meetings. Songs that do encourage us in these areas must be in our meetings—because we are people made to sing.

Spirit-filled singing (Eph 5:18–20)

And this moves us on to ‘Spirit-filled singing’. Please turn with me to Eph 5:18–20, for here the relationship between music and the Holy Spirit is made clear for us. Paul has just warned the Ephesians to shun drunkenness and the alternative is laid out in verse 18, ‘Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit’. Then we are given one very long sentence with five participles which flesh out how being filled by the Spirit expresses itself.

The structure of the passage looks like this (slide):

Do not get drunk with wine, ...

But be filled with (by) the Spirit,

speaking to one another

with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,

singing and making music with your hearts to the Lord,

giving thanks to God

for all things

in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
submitting yourselves to one another

in the fear of Christ,

wives to husbands

The key command is to be filled ‘with’ the Spirit. Men are said to be filled with wine when completely under its influence; so they are said to be filled with the Spirit when he controls all their thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. So we read of Jesus being ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ in Luke 4:1; and Stephen in Acts 6:5 described as ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’.

We may also translate verse 18 as ‘be filled by the Holy Spirit’. In which case, the Spirit is the agent of the filling, not the content. We are not filled with the Holy Spirit but by the Holy Spirit—he is the one who does the filling again and again. And the one whom we are to be filled is God—and more particularly, Jesus. But since the Holy Spirit is the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (Rom 8:9; 1 Pet 1:11).

We mustn’t make too fine a distinction. It is the Spirit who does the filling and he fills us with the Spirit of Christ. So Paul is saying here what he's been saying in the past five chapters of Ephesians: imitate Jesus, grow into the likeness of Jesus, have Jesus dwell in your hearts, be filled with the fullness of Jesus.

And what will flow from that? Teaching, admonishing one another, and singing with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. There is no command to sing here. There is only one command in the passage, and that is to be filled by the Spirit—and God does that to you. Just when people are drunk with wine there are behavioural consequences; so when God's people are filled with Jesus, among other things, they will spontaneously and inevitably sing.

some practical observations

Here are three short observations which arise from the three dimensions of church, the nature of praise and living a  Spirit-filled life.

music needs to be ‘demystified’

Music has a great power over us and that power should not be confused with spiritual experience. In some circles, music has become a barometer of spiritual authenticity. The more you are affected by the ‘praise’, the more you are in tune with God.

This is not a helpful way of thinking about things. The Word of God, prayer and love for one another are the spiritual content of our Christian meetings. None of these three dimensions is made more valuable by music, although music can make, and does make, a useful contribution.

Music needs to be made less mystical and appreciated for what it is: a good, enjoyable and a useful gift from God. Ephesians 5 tells us that singing is for every believer—it is far more than a performance down the front of the church that we watch and enjoy. There is a warrant that every Christian sings because singing flows from being filled with the Spirit. The replacement of congregational singing with a performance-based model of music is unscriptural and robs us of personal joy that comes through song.

music must be ministry

Next—music must be ‘ministry’. One of the great problems of finding good Christian musicians is finding people with a servant-heart. Musicians must be happy not to be the centre of attention. Musical talents are valuable to the Christian meeting only if the musicians genuinely desire to serve others. Musical talent alone does not make one a good musician for church. A desire to work with a team—a desire to serve the congregation—and the requisite technical skills are required.

Many a church has suffered because of conflict in the music team. I would prefer to have no music at all rather than wrangling with musicians each week who unwilling to serve. It is a pastors nightmare to try and unravel rebellious musicians. Give me one faithful organist over lots of contemporary instruments—if this is the only way of having godliness in our church musicians. When a musician's heart is set upon hearing God, responding to him and loving one another, his or her service will always be welcome.

the tyranny of tunes

Lastly, the tyranny of tunes. I am yet to find anywhere in the Bible which privileges some tunes over other tunes. We have freedom in this area and wee must use our freedom wisely—and lovingly. Since the content of our songs are important, then at the very least we must be able to hear the words we are singing –and arrangements which drown out the words with loudness or with undue complexity are not needed.

With this proviso—whether it’s a traditional hymn, a slow song, a fast song—a slightly louder song—a softer song. Each has its role in our church services. To reject the musical testimony of the past saints is to reject the heritage that God has handed down to us. Likewise, a wholesale rejection of contemporary songs is a failure to allow the Spirit of God to witness to the present generation in categories they can understand.

I don’t like peas and I don’t like coffee. I can barely stand trifle. But I know that other people aren’t like me and that’s OK because a world full ‘me’ would be particularly boring. You might not like one tune—others do. Here above all else, we need to love one another—understanding that although I dislike a tune—others will not. But what are the words saying to me? What’s truths am I learning? What am I saying to you in song? Pray for those who select songs—that they music we sing will reflect our joy in the Lord and the truths of the gospel.


Summing up. Thou shall sing! Thou shall sing with all thy heart, all thy soul, and all thy might. Thou shall sing fearlessly, ignoring the possible wandering glances of your neighbours. They would like to sing with you if they had the nerve, and they will possibly join in if you continue singing. Thou shall sing joyfully, in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains’ (Isa. 49:13). Thou shall sing reverently, because music is a form of prayer to God.

Thou shall not forget the words of the psalmist, ‘I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live’ (Ps. 104:33).

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