Worship 103: Genre and Style in Church Music
March 2, 2021
In these next two posts in our series on music in the church, we want to look at four important aspects of music—namely, genre and style, which we’ll talk about today, and beauty and excellence, which we’ll cover in our next post. More than that, we want to gain a practical understanding of the proper place of these things when it comes to congregational worship.
Without any further ado, let’s jump into it.
According to Oxford, genre is defined as “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” And even as we begin, what becomes immediately obvious is that genre is something that is very culturally specific.
Take, for example, some of the major genres on the American music scene: country, jazz, pop, rock, hip hop, and classical, among others. We are not commending or condemning any of these at this point; rather, we are simply making the observation that each of these genres are borne out of a particular culture. To varying degrees, some of these genres and aspects of their influence are more common in the broader culture at large, while others are more specific to particular subcultures.
Now, some of you who are reading might already be uncomfortable by the mere mention of some of the genres we just named. Some of you, no doubt, depending on your background, find one or more of those genres to be repulsive, obnoxious, or even downright offensive.
And really, this fact alone teaches us something: when it comes to congregational worship music, genre should not offend. Rather, it should commend and endear the music to as many people in the congregation as possible.
“When it comes to congregational worship music, genre should not offend. Rather, it should commend and endear the music to as many people in the congregation as possible.
This does *not* mean that we should aim to please the crowd, or that choosing the right genre is our ultimate priority. (Quite the opposite; we’ve already explicitly said that edification and worship are the main things, therefore clarity and truth—and not genre or style—should be the controlling features of all congregational music.) What it does mean, however, is that I should never choose music that is going to be so far out of a congregation’s broader cultural comfort zone that it offends or repels. Rather, I should aim for genres that are as inoffensive and appealing to as much of the congregation as possible.
In just really practical terms, this means that things like what sphere of Christianity I’m in, where I’m at in the country, or where I’m at in the world are going to carry a lot of weight (at least they should) when it comes to the genre of the music we do as a congregation. Something that may be worshipful for a body of believers in one place might be inaccessible or even offensive somewhere else. We need to be mindful of those we serve so that we don’t trip people up on peripherals and distract them away from the centrality of Jesus and the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
By “style,” we mean something different from genre and harder to define. What we’re referring to here are those aspects of cultural and/or personal individuality that influence how music is performed or delivered.
At Firm Foundation, for example, we have two gifted and gracious people in our congregation who serve as our primary accompaniment. One plays the piano, is a classically-trained musician as well as a music teacher, and has a background in traditional and modern church music. The other plays the guitar, has a garage-band background, has more of a gritty, soulful sound, and has spent most of his time in churches that have a less-formal approach to worship.
By nature of the case—because of culture, personality, etc.—each of these two dear people are going to have a certain sound and elements in their music that are going to be entirely unique to them. Even “Amazing Grace” is going to come out differently, depending on which of them is playing.
And both styles are great, by the way. We’ll touch more on this later, but it is our conviction at Firm Foundation that things such as differences of style—especially when they are so obviously the fruit of personal and cultural differences and preferences—must not be allowed to be sources of conflict in the assembly of God’s people. Rather, these are opportunities for all of us to love another, to put one another first, to set personal preferences aside, and to seek the edification of others (Rom. 15.2-3).
That said, while style is less important than genre, it’s similar to genre in that it should not offend. Congregational worship is not the place for “me to do me” and for the congregation to deal with it because “this is who I am.” Style should enhance, influence, and adorn, not dictate, control, or offend. It should never push the congregation to the limits of their comfort zone; rather, it should adorn the truth of God to his people in a way that commends and endears it to them.
All articles in this series:
Genre & Style and Our Responsibilities to Each Other
For the record, we are persuaded at Firm Foundation that musical genre and style are demonstrably matters of conscience, preference, and even personality. And the Bible is clear on how we are to approach one another when it comes to those kinds of issues: we must work to maintain unity by loving one another, putting no stumbling block before each other, setting self aside, and putting others before ourselves.
Practically speaking, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this has two major points of application for us in the church:
For Worship Leaders
If I’m rubbing people the wrong way so that they’re focused on the peripheries of genre and style rather than on Christ and the edifying, sanctifying truth of God, I’m not loving them, and I’m not helping them grow. In fact, I’m destroying the work of God in their lives for the sake of externals that are ultimately inconsequential (Rom. 14.20).
God’s people need to grow and mature, and part of that is learning to see that congregational worship isn’t a spectator sport where I get to have my ears tickled by what I like best or think is best. Rather, it’s a special time ordained by God where we, the body of Christ, focus together on who Jesus is and what he’s accomplished. In other words, they need to grow beyond genre and style, to see and to love Christ in the music. But as the one who is responsible for congregational worship, I need to be sensitive to where people are at so that I can remove stumbling blocks for the very purpose of pointing them past genre and style to the One they came to see and need to behold (Jn. 12.21, 2 Cor. 3.18, Heb. 3.1-2).
For the Congregation and Worship Team Members
For the rest of us who are either in the pew or part of the supporting worship-team cast, we also need to be gracious and forbearing. Because genre and style are matters of preference and not principle, we are obligated to put others first when those things are not what we want them to be. That includes not only my leaders who are responsible to lead, but also my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in the pew around me. After all, I’m serving on the worship team, not bending the church to conform to my musical will.
Hopefully our leaders are doing the same, and if I feel like they’re not, I should go and talk to them about it—humbly and submissively (Heb. 13.17), assuming the best and not the worst, of course (1 Cor. 13.7), but honestly and directly. But be that as it may, my responsibility to love others is not a 50/50 proposition: I am obligated before God to put in my 100%, and whether or not they do theirs is between them and the Lord. So at the end of the day, I must be ready to set my “rights” aside and put others first for the edification of the body.
Up Next: Beauty and Excellence
In the next post in our series, we’ll look at beauty and excellence when it comes to music in the church. Here’s a hint in advance: some of it may sound familiar…
“Congregational worship isn’t a spectator sport where I get to have my ears tickled by what I like best or think is best. Rather, it’s a special time ordained by God where we, the body of Christ, focus together on who Jesus is and what he’s accomplished.
About the Author
Tony de la Riva is an elder and pastor at Firm Foundation Bible Church where he has served since March of 2020. He is an MDiv student at The Master’s Seminary, and also runs his own studio, de la Riva Brands, which specializes in branding and web development. Tony is originally from Fresno County in Central CA, and he and his wife Beki have been married since 2007 and have four children, Chloe, Daisy, Manasseh, and Israel.
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