The Church, Worship

Worship 101: A Practical Theology of Music in the Church

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How should churches choose music for congregational worship? It’s not an easy question. It’s so tough, in fact, that the subject has been famously dubbed “the worship wars.” Maybe more than any other issue within local body life, music in the church feels deeply personal to everyone involved. Whether it’s because of genre, style, or message, everyone has particular songs that feel worshipful to them, and others that not only don’t but that actually even offend or repel them.

As a result, it’s common for God’s people to feel stifled, ignored, hurt, offended, or even as if a church is in sin if the worship music isn’t what they want it to be or think it should be.

When this really becomes pronounced is when the congregation is made up of people from different cultures. It’s easy when everyone in the church prefers the Gettys, or what’s in the hymnal, or CityAlight, or Bethel and Hillsong. And we’re not saying anything for or against any of these at this point. We’re simply making the point that music in the church is easier when everyone is on the same page culturally, and tougher when some are a little more country but others are a little more rock n’ roll.

“Maybe more than any other issue within local body life, music in the church feels deeply personal to everyone involved.”

Hard-to-Define Music Criteria

“Biblical”

The most-common proposal, not only as a solution but as a matter of principle, is to pick music that is “biblical.” And you can just imagine how many answers you’d get if you ask 10 random Christians to name a song that is “biblical.” In fact, debates between Christians about songs, artists, genres, etc. invariably consist of two people defending the ‘biblicalness’ of their particular song, or artist, or genre. And if you’ve ever had a debate with another brother or sister over something like this, you know what I’m talking about.

In other words, while it’s good and necessary to choose church music that is “biblical,” identifying what exactly that means is easier said than done.

“Appropriate”

Or what about “appropriateness”? For example, as I’ve heard many times, some music might be fine around a campfire or on the radio, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for church. But here again, what is and isn’t “appropriate” is going to depend on who you ask.

These are just two examples, but the point is clear: when it comes to worship music in the church, opinions, conscience, preferences, and undefined, shoot-from-hip criteria abound. All are as numerous as Christians themselves.

At the end of the day, we need a definite set of principles, grounded in the all-sufficient Word of God, that enables us to wade through the issue in a way that is wise, reliable, and that is driven by grace from beginning to end. And here already, we are at risk of adding more subjectivity to the matter. This ‘driven by grace,’ however, is crucially important when it comes to church music; by it, we mean the abundant grace which we are to extend to our brothers and sisters in the Lord in this area, but also that we are seeking to promote the edifying grace of God in the hearts of God’s people (Rom. 16.25, 2 Cor. 3.18, Heb. 13.9, 2 Pet. 1.5-8, 3.18).

What is the Church for?

When trying to understand the place of music in the church, the best place to start might be with an understanding of the church itself.

Our conviction is that “the church is for the Church.” In other words, the assembly of the people of the Lord Jesus is primarily for their worship and edification as opposed to outreach and evangelism to the unsaved (Ac. 6.1-7, Eph. 4.11-16, 1 Cor. 14.1-5 ff.). In fact, according to the Bible, outreach and evangelism happens in the church most effectively when the church has a “believers-first” priority in how it orders the assembly (1 Cor. 14.24-25).

In no way does that this mean that we don’t want non-Christians in our assemblies. On the contrary, there is no better place that a non-Christian could be on Sunday morning (or any other time, for that matter) than in a faithful, biblical, New Testament church.

It is to say, however, that, by divine design and intent, the church is for the people of God. More than any other time or activity in which God’s people could engage, the Holy Spirit is at work in the assembly of believers in a special way to grow and mature them and to make them more like Christ.

What the Bible Says About Music in the Church

When it comes to the particulars of worship music in the assembly—genre, style, form, and even content—the Scriptures are surprisingly short-winded.

What we do have in the New Testament, however, is three specific statements about music, all of which are made in the context of the corporate body life, and the first of which occurs in the course of explicit instruction concerning the local church:

1 Corinthians 14.26 — “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up [the church].”

Obviously, there’s a need to talk about revelations, tongues, and interpretations, but that is for another time. Right now, we will suffice it to say that all of these things Paul mentions are aspects of actual church services, and Paul is explicitly clear about the singular purpose of all those aspects: they should all be done for the edification of the church.

The second two verses on church music are parallel statements occurring Colossians and Ephesians:

Ephesians 5.18-19 — “…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…”

Colossians 3.16 — “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

In these two similar passages, Paul respectively exhorts the Colossian and Ephesian churches regarding music. There are a number of things that are implicit here, but the most obvious is that music in the church needs to be—wait for it—biblical. That is, it should be spiritual in content (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”).

Three Verses, Two Principles

From these three verses (the only three that talk so explicitly about music in the New Testament), there are two definite principles we can draw:

1. Music in the church is a form of communication that instructs the people of God (we are to “teach and admonish” one another by means of music).

2. Music in the church is an act of sincere, spiritual worship (that is, our singing should be an authentic expression of thanks and praise ‘to God with our hearts’).

Putting It All Together: Music in the Church is “Congregational”

Factoring in all that we’ve looked at, what becomes clear is that music—right along with everything else that is done within the context of the local assembly—is for the instruction and edification of those who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus.

In other words, in the mind of God, music in the church is essentially, fundamentally congregational.

Music in the church exists to facilitate the corporate worship of God by his people and to build them up in the truth into greater degrees of likeness to the Lord Jesus. Therefore, a church’s worship music ministry—if it is to be consistent with the Scriptures—should exist to point people past itself, past the musicians, and to the Lord Jesus and his Gospel (cf. Col. 3.16).

Congregational worship isn’t a personal, private moment where I as an individual believer get alone with God. By the very nature of the case, it isn’t about “me,” but about “us.”

“A church’s worship music ministry should exist to point people past itself, past the musicians, and to the Lord Jesus and his Gospel… By the very nature of the case, congregational worship isn’t about ‘me,’ but about ‘us.'”

What This Means For Us

God’s design for music in the church is that it be congregational—but what does this mean for us practically? Well, it means a lot of things, but the most obvious and important is this: above all other things, the music we use in our congregational worship should be both clear and true.

In the next article, we’ll take a deeper look at what that means.

church leaders Pastor Tony

About the Author

Tony de la Riva is an elder and pastor at Firm Foundation Bible Church and is earning an MDiv at The Master’s Seminary. He is originally from Fresno County, CA, and he and his wife Beki have been married since 2007 and have four children. More from Tony ⟶

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