The Church, Worship

Worship 104: Beauty and Excellence in Church Music

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In the last article in this series, we talked about the place of genre and style in church music. In this article, we’ll discuss two aspects of church music that are connected to each other—namely, beauty and excellence—and how they relate to congregational worship music.

Redemption and the Mind, Will, and Emotions

As those who believe in biblical, New Testament Christianity, we affirm the doctrine of total depravity. Total depravity doesn’t mean that human beings are as bad as we could be, but it does mean that, because of the fall, every part of our being is marred by sin and bound to corruption. This not only includes our physical body, but also our mind, will, and emotions (Rom 8.7, 22–23, 1 Cor 2.14).

Yes, the Gospel is a message of objective, propositional truths that must be embraced by the will and assented to with the mind (Rom 10.9, 1 Cor 15.2–4). However, through redemption, God has redeemed the whole person—not merely the mind and the will—and he is in the process of fully conforming us to the likeness of Christ. One day he will complete that process in full (Rom 8.21–23, 29, 2 Cor 3.18, Eph 4.13, 1 Jn 3.2), including the renewal of our bodies (1 Cor 15.42–57).

In other words, while our complete redemption is still future, our internal redemption—namely, the renewal of the inner man—was fundamentally accomplished when we were born again (1 Cor 2.12, 16) and is actively on-going as long as we live (Rom 12.2, 2 Cor 4.16, Col 3.10).

The main point at which we are driving here is simply this: Our emotions are part of what is being redeemed; our feelings are an aspect of the redemption process.

Mind vs. Feelings: How Emotions Work

By default, human beings are enslaved to what we desire. What we want determines everything from our conduct to our conscience. We do what we want, and we don’t do what we don’t want, and how we feel about moral issues determines what we believe about right and wrong.

Human beings are creatures of desire. This is true even of the regenerate person, which is precisely why we always end up doing exactly what we want to do, even when we don’t want to do it (Rom 7.15–23). As my old pastor used to say, “Brothers and sisters, as Christians, we don’t want to sin anymore, but until then, we do.” For the unsaved person, he or she is literally a zombie: dead in sin, but animated by the voodoo spell of feelings.

‘But it must not be so with you.’ For the believer, God does not want our feelings in the driver seat; rather, he wants our feelings to follow the truth and to be shaped by the truth. Rather than being led around by the urges that naturally arise out of our personalities, temperaments, and glandular mechanics, the Christian—with our emotions that have been and are being redeemed—is driven on, and must be being driven on, by a will that has been transformed by the truth of God.

“God does not want our feelings in the driver seat; rather, he wants our feelings to follow the truth and to be shaped by the truth.”

Words touch the mind. The whole function of communication is to engage our mental, rational, cognitive faculties. This is why God’s Word is given to us in the form of communication, which must be read and which must be engaged on mental, rational, cognitive grounds.

Emotions, however, influence the will.

This is why feelings are such a controlling force in our lives. They shape what we want, which in turn shapes how we live—in our relationships, our entertainment, our food choices, the way we spend our time and money, what we think is right and wrong, etc., etc.

Emotions are a tremendously powerful influence in our lives. This is why the shape and the shaping of our emotions is so important.

Art Shapes Our Emotions, Desires, and Conscience

The function of art—of which music is a category—is to reach and influence the emotions. That’s what art does, and that’s what music does.

In the world at large, the shaping influence of art has been largely negative, and that is because the medium of art has overwhelmingly been used to commend messages and suggestions that are at best empty, and at worst false and destructive. Wrong ideas are presented to people through the vehicle of captivating imagery, poetic language, and beautiful sights and sounds, and as a result, we are drawn in and mesmerized. When people are not discerning, they are led astray by their emotions in favor of those bad messages and wrong ideas.

In American society, for example, children’s movies have been a primary driver of this very dynamic for a full century. Consider some of the messages that the last four generations have been nurtured on:

  • Follow your heart.
  • Be who you are on the inside.
  • Your dad and tradition are the enemy because they’re obstacles to your “authenticity.”
  • It’s right for you to rebel, defy, and lie because your cause is virtuous and sincere.
  • You have a moral obligation to force others to conform to your idea of right and wrong.
  • etc., etc.

And that’s just the children’s movies. We haven’t said anything about the broader film industry, or music, or literature, or architecture, or every other art form out there—to say nothing of philosophy, education, secular science and technology, and on and on and on.

When you consider just how saturated our entire society has been with the above-mentioned messages for the last several centuries, it is no wonder that we are now dealing with something as delusional as transgenderism. We have bred an entire civilization—for many generations now—on ideas that are wrong, destructive, narcissistic in the extreme, and that cut across the very face of reality itself. And because they have been so winsomely and compellingly presented, the poison has all been swallowed down wholesale with the sugar.

Art influences the emotions, which in turn become the drivers of our entire view of ourselves, reality, and the world. If we are not discerning, any ol’ message that’s presented in an attractive way so that it feels good and seems right is going to win us over.

And it is precisely at this point that we discover the role of music in the church.

The primary function of music is to reach that emotional part of our inner being for the very purpose of shaping and influencing the emotions for the truth of God. Or, to put it another way, the goal of music in the church is to conform our emotions to the emotions of Christ by tuning them to the truth of the Word of God.

Music: The Convergence of Art and Communication

As Christians who are theologically conservative, we rightly reject emotionalism. However, emotionalism is not what we are talking about here. Rather, we are talking about properly attempting to influence our emotions—to direct them, not to follow them—with beautified, truth-saturated communication.

Music is communication, but it is beautified communication (i.e., art). Congregational music, therefore, is the beautified communication of the truth of God.

The purpose of beautifying the truth by means of music is to adorn and accentuate the truth in order to attract us to it. Just like children’s movies have been doing for a over a century with bad ideas, so music in the church does with the truth: it wins us over to the truth in our emotions, and influences our desires and our will for the things of God rather than the things of man.

“Congregational music is the beautified communication of the truth of God.”

No less than John Bunyan acknowledged as much. In his preface to The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of his justifications for the allegorical style of his book was the special impact that truth has when presented in the form of art:

“For truth, I find, dressed in the swaddling clothes of art, informs the judgment, clarifies the thinking, enhances the understanding, softens the will, and entrenches itself in the memory by the ways in which it excites the imagination. Beyond all that, it has a special way of appeasing our troubles.”1Tony de la Riva, The Pilgrim’s Progress: Translated and Adapted (manuscript, Prescott, AZ: Good Lamp Publishing, 2024), 3-4.

When the truth is artistically beautified, it is driven down into our souls in a way that the bare recitation of truth typically is not. As Bunyan pointed out, it captivates the mind, arrests the focus, stirs the imagination, inflames the emotions, and sears it into our memory as with a hot iron. It brands the truth onto the heart, and it moves us to feel a certain way about it. This is one reason why, for example, God’s people will often sing to comfort themselves when they are in the midst of suffering (cf. John Huss and the apostle Paul).

Congregational worship music should be beautiful in order to adorn the truth of God, because the truth adorned touches the whole inner man—our minds as well as our emotions. The result is that we are impacted in a deeper, more comprehensive way than we might have been if the truth was simply recited to us in the form of propositional statements.

If that is not the role of music in the church, I do not know what its role is.

The Bible as Communication through Art

When it comes to music as beautified truth—or truth in the form of art—we have both a model and an example in the very Word of God itself.

We’ve written about something like this elsewhere, but just consider the fact that God has not given us his Word in the form of bare, theological statements like you might get in a systematic theology book. Rather, he has given it to us in the form of different types of literature—poetry, narrative, personal letters, apocalyptic visions—all from and about real people living real lives, all reflecting real history and real human experience.

Take, for instance, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. To read a bald, historical retelling of the account is one thing, but it takes on an entirely different mood and touches us at a far deeper level when we read Jeremiah’s poetic eyewitness record of it in the book of Lamentations. (Somewhat to our point, there is a reason that the classic hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is taken from Lamentations 3 and not Jeremiah 52.)

Or, as another example, we could read Wayne Grudem’s articulation of the doctrine of the atonement in his Systematic Theology. While obviously not inspired, it is nevertheless outstanding. But a systematic, doctrinal articulation is not the form in which God has given us the doctrine. Rather, he has given it to us in a personal, impassioned letter from Paul to a group of wavering Galatian Christians in a section in which he retells for them a conflict in which he, Peter, and Barnabas were embroiled—a conflict that had scandalized the churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, and, evidently, regional Galatia (Gal 2.1–3.14). He has also given it to us in another of Paul’s letters in a lengthy, detailed theological exposition to a church that was evidently mature and sound in the faith (Rom 1.16–3.26). He also gave it to us 700 years prior by the prophetic pen of Isaiah, who did not present it as the central theme of a historical conflict or as a theological treatise, but in the haunting, dream-like word picture found in the ancient Hebrew poetry of Isaiah 53.1–12.

In other words, God gave us his truth in the form of literature, not in the form of raw propositional statements.

So even in the Scriptures themselves, we have a precedent and an example of the truth of God in the form of art.

Excellence in Congregational Music

When it comes to the corporate gathering, Paul commands the church to strive for decency and orderliness in all things (1 Cor 14.40), and that includes the music (1 Cor 14.15, 26). Whatever our music looks like—style, personnel, etc.—we should aim for the highest level of execution and technical skill possible.

In other words, our congregational worship music should be as good as it can be given the people and the resources available to us.

The reality, of course, is that many churches simply are not going to have the talent or expertise required for musical excellence. What do we do in that case? First, we need to remember that “on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty” (1 Cor 12.23). Whatever our church lacks in musical skill, we’re going to need to make up for it in patience, reasonableness, and flexibility. We need to be ready to be gracious and to help one another do the same. Less-than-ideal musical execution is an opportunity to love others and extend grace.

But secondly, in the humble opinion of this present writer, if a church does not have any sufficiently-capable accompaniment musicians, but they do have someone with a pitch-perfect voice, it would better to not to use instruments at all and just go a capella (just like the overwhelming majority of Christians have done throughout history).

It’s great to have music that’s done with true excellence, but the real standard is, ‘Do the best with what you got.’ And if you don’t got it, don’t try to force it. It’s better to do a little bit well than to distract the entire congregation Sunday after Sunday with a musical train wreck up front. At that point, no one is paying attention to the content, which is the main thing; instead, everyone is rubbernecking and focusing on the collision.

The bottom line is simply this: As it is with genre, the goal when it comes to excellence in worship music is to adorn and amplify the truth, not steal the spotlight for itself.

Conclusion

Congregational worship music should be compelling in its beauty and excellence (as opposed to repulsive in its lack of those things). That is because the aim of music in the church is to beautify the truth of God in order to win and shape the affections for the truth, driving it down into the hearts and minds of God’s people in a different and deeper way. Musical beauty and technical excellence should enhance and magnify the content, not steal the show and draw attention to themselves, either positively or negatively.

We might put it like this:

Congregational music is a lot like the alternator in your car. If you’re thinking about your alternator instead of the road in front of you, it’s probably because your alternator isn’t doing what it should be doing.

Or, to put it another way, when congregational music is good, it’s a lot like fresh breath on a first date. It’s not the star of the show, but it sure makes things pleasant. In fact, it actually heightens the whole experience and even improves your estimation of the person you’re with—which, again, is why it’s so crucial that your date be a person of character, and that your congregational worship music be true.

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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