The great Advent movement was born out of the birth pangs of the disillusionment of a delayed entry to heaven. In those cold October days long ago, protoAdventists found in music the solace they needed to keep going. After the Great Disappointment, they sang and sang about heaven until it came down in the form of sanctified community with fellow believers. If they couldn’t quite get there soon, they were determined to create heaven here and now with music.
The idea that heaven and earth are intertwined was central to Millerism and later to Seventh-day Adventism. In the area of music, this can be seen in the inclusion of the Millerite hymn “What Heavenly Music” in the first Adventist hymnal published in 1849. Little did James White, the hymnal’s editor, know that the notion of “heavenly music” would have a lasting impact on Adventist worship until the end of time.
As an apocalyptic movement that sees heaven as a confirmation of its raison d’être [reason for existence], we continue to strive toward that elusive heavenly music. From the inception of Adventism, there was great care in the choice of music. The imminence of judgment that sparked the movement continued to influence our musical and worship practices. While Adventist hymnody was in the style of the evangelical hymns of the nineteenth century, it was mostly done a cappella or, at most, accompanied by the organ. But such heavenly music would not waft unchallenged in the annals of Adventism.
Adventists soon realized that our apocalyptic worldview often translated into emotional worship. And ever since the noisy worship style of the Indiana camp meetings in 1900, Adventism has struggled to make peace with music. Because of what transpired there, we have, for most of our history, viewed music and musicians with suspicion. It’s been a love hate relationship.
Today we hear renewed appeals for a cleansing of our musical practices. This new iconoclastic impetus is redolent of the days of inverting long-play records for hidden satanic messages and kicking out musicians who played drums and guitars in church. But, sadly, most of these seemingly pious calls are couched in the same approaches that backfired in the past.
The obvious reason for the failure of these campaigns is that they generate more heat than light. Often the revivalists who call for the abolition of certain musical styles and instruments drink from the wells of biased, questionable, and plainly false information about music. This has been pointed out time and time again by many in Adventist musical academia. But the worship wars rage on.
WHAT TO DO?
In this article series, I will offer some suggestions that may help church leaders and musicians navigate the treacherous waters of the worship wars in our churches. In Part 1, we will look at the place of music in worship.
To address this issue, I propose here a reductionist approach to church music. What does this reductionist approach mean? It means we will reduce music to a lower level of importance than it has had in order to get some perspective on its role in worship. For far too long, we have espoused superstitious views of the role of music in worship and in general. Music has been put on a pedestal of importance in worship that it should never have had. It has been raised to the level of a sacrifice that we offer to the deity in order that our worship service may be accepted. We think that the quality of our music earns points with God. Worship is accepted or rejected in terms of the music quality; the worship of God is confused with the idolatry of music. A reductionist approach removes music from such an improper place in worship.
Why is music a unifying element in worship when it also divides us? Having spent much time on the front lines of the worship wars, I’m convinced that the divisiveness in music stems from our unrealistic expectations about its place in worship. Our perfectionistic tendencies in Christian living suffuse even our expectations about music in worship. Such idealism has given music a centrality and importance in worship that is unique to Adventism—and quite problematic.
This should really be the first discussion in churches on the verge of being divided by the worship wars. Before we jump into arguments about which musical style or instrument is appropriate for worship, we need to reassess the place of music in worship from a theological standpoint. What is the function of music? Why do we need music in worship at all? How does music contribute to worship? These are some of the questions that need to be addressed.
For example, we could start by discussing how “human” church music really is. Despite our highest aspirations about hearing heavenly music in our worship services, making music this side of heaven is an organically human activity. Music is the fruit of the human experience. It springs from it and is enjoyed in it. We use earthly bodies, earthly instruments, and earthly languages as we sing and make music.
Further, as we engage in these preliminary conversations about music in worship, it is imperative that those with a vested interest in music and worship be in agreement about some very basic premises concerning worship and music and art in general. First of all, regardless of our different personal aesthetic tastes, I think we can all agree that art—be it music, poetry, color, lighting, architecture, buildings, temples, and so on—must not be at the center of worship. These are educational tools that we use to communicate corporately with God and one another.
presence of Yahweh in their midst. It housed the Shekinah so that He could be with them. The tabernacle was not to be worshipped as an end in itself but was a means to an end (See also the story of the Nehushtan, Moses’ bronze serpent, to which the Israelites were burning incense. [2 Kings 18:4]).
This is a difficult concept to grasp for some in our pews. As a performer, writer, and teacher of music, I often apply this reductionist approach. I begin by teaching the rudiments of music theory and history as a way of removing many of the superstitions around church music. I have found that removing music from the “supernatural” realm and placing it in the great stream of the human condition is a liberating experience.
This does not in any way mean that music is not important or that it can be done lightly. I often say that music communicates best when it is done well. Music done badly is closer to noise than to music, and one cannot communicate well in noise. And yet, while striving for excellence in music, we need to constantly keep it in the realm of a language lest it assume roles it shouldn’t. A reductionist approach to music will help address the exaggerated fixation many of us have with it.
To gain perspective about church music, we need to step back from overly exalted views about it and move from the “heavenly music” end of the spectrum to the other side of the argument, the one that sees music as a tool for communication. As a tool for communication, music acquires many of the qualities of a spoken language. If we see music that way, then we can agree that just as there’s not one “preferred” spoken language to worship God, there’s not one particular style of music that God likes more. Just as He does not like Latin better than German, God does not prefer medieval music over against contemporary Christian music. God is more concerned with whether we are keeping Him at the center than with our musical tastes.
So, just as we use language to communicate, music as a language in worship is meant to facilitate our conversation with God. To illustrate, we can ask, What conceptual difference does it make if I say “O Lord, You are my God” or if I sing “O Lord, You are my God”? There is no difference to God because in both cases, I’m simply worshipping Him. The difference is in the mode of communication. In the song, I changed the pitch of my voice. I elongated the syllables and took more time to say it with music. And if I really like the song I’m singing, the statement of worship to God is reinforced by the emotional effect that the intervals of the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm of the words have on my brain (more on this on the next article). But ultimately, saying and singing something in worship have qualitatively the same weight.
In this sense, a hymn or a song is merely an alternative to the spoken word. No doubt a song offers certain advantages from the emotional aspect of human communication, but these advantages remain in the realm of engaging the human worshipper in the experience, not necessarily impacting the divine. God looks past the art and goes straight to the heart (Amos 5:23). To Him, it makes no difference whether we sing or speak. Music is an alternate mode of communication with God in worship. Music is akin to the frame of a picture: it carries a message, but it is not the message.
To further illustrate, we could address this question from a music history approach by looking at the varied classical styles of church music. We could travel from Gregorian chant to the French motets to the music of Bach, Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Rutter, to name a few. Some of these styles differ dramatically from one another; some are a cappella while others use unique instruments, languages, harmonies, melodies, tonalities, etc. Which of these styles should be considered the “preferred” worship music? I will say more on this later, but, for now, we can say that all these styles were and are effective in communicating the message of words through music.
The point is that when we view music as a tool for communication, our concerns about musical styles, instruments, etc., will be secondary. Once we agree on this principle, worship organizers will be able to choose music for worship that best communicates what needs to be communicated without unrealistic expectations regarding what music does in worship. We will be able to select music that helps the congregation communicate with God and, thus, worship Him.
I’ll stop here, trusting that I have given you enough food for thought as you struggle to keep music in its correct place in worship. Identifying this problem is the first step in winning the worship wars currently raging in Adventism.
In our next article, we will talk about how music affects the worshipper.
Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (HarperOne, 1993).
Lilianne Doukhan, In Tune with God (Hagerstown, MD: Review And Herald, 2010
This article first appeared in Best Practice, Nov. 29, 2015. It has been lightly edited for Elder’s Digest.
André Reis has degrees in theology and music and is finishing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Avondale College. He contributed two chapters to En Espíritu y en Verdad (In Spirit and in Truth), a book on music and worship published by Pacific Press in 2013.