In the first part of this series on winning the worship wars, we looked at the place of music in worship. Considering the strong relationship of Adventist history with music as well as the many myths about music and worship being propagated in our midst, I proposed that the first step in winning the worship wars is the “reductionist” approach to church music. This method encompasses at least two aspects: (1) church music should not be viewed as having “heavenly,” mystical, or supernatural qualities but, rather, be viewed as a product of the human experience; and (2) as such, music should be viewed as a tool for human communication and not be given a “spiritual” role in worship.
I recognize that at first glance, this “reductionist” approach may seem to consider music as an unimportant element in worship. So, in Part 2 of this discussion, with the view of music’s primary function as a language, we can now briefly look at how music communicates in worship.
Although worship music should not have a central spiritual role in worship (in the sense that its perceived quality or lack thereof impacts the acceptability of worship before God), as a tool for communication, it provides distinct advantages in worship. Singing and music-making are, in fact, mandated throughout Scripture from the psalms to the writings of Paul. How dreary and dark worship would be without glorious, collective singing accompanied by musical instruments!
As a language, music makes a real and positive impact on the worshiper. Excepting some neurological condition (such as amusia, the inability to respond to or make sense of music), human beings are innately sensitive to music. The contours of a song’s melodic line, the combination of pitches to form harmonies, the rhythm, its dynamic changes and loudness or softness—all reach the auditory cortex as sound waves and create a physiological effect.
Not only are human beings sensitive to music, we are also susceptible to it. In general, we respond personally to music. More than any other art form, music elicits a visceral reaction from the listener by affecting the emotions and engaging the brain in a plethora of ways. Musicians are known to develop many untapped areas of the brain. On a much deeper neurological level, music can even heal, as the growing interest in music therapy attests.
For these reasons, music is a perfect fit for worship. It is soothing and inviting. It enhances engagement, responding, and surrendering. When coupled with sacred words, music enriches their meaning and enlivens in a unique way sublime spiritual aspirations that open the way for personal transformation. As the famous music theorist Rousseau (1712–1778) explains, “Music does not merely imitate, it speaks; and its language, inarticulate but vivid, fervent, passionate, has a hundred times more energy than words.”1
So music is very effective in worship because of its ability to engage the worshiper in a unique way. How does this relate to certain discussions of the worship wars in our midst? It does so in at least two ways.
First, although music is intrinsically built to elicit a response from the listener, the intensity of the impact of a piece of music on the listener depends on whether he or she makes a conscious decision to allow such music to cause said impact. Contrary to some views being currently advocated in our churches, the power of music is not “occult” or mystical; neither is it irresistible.
A certain piece of music does not have supernatural powers to control the listener and to inexorably move people to make moral decisions, good or bad. Music stirs human emotions and as such, is responsible for encouraging moods such as joy, sadness, tranquility, agitation, excitement, or ecstasy. Music’s emotional impact helps to create a pathway for the message of the words. But a hymn or worship song does not lead immediately to a decision based on its message; it merely facilitates the communication of propositional truth to which the listener must consciously respond.
Second, we hear much about not bringing music that “we like” to worship God but rather, music that “God likes.” Support for this notion is sought in the story of Cain and Abel as an example of offering what God asks and not what “we like.” But applying the morals of this biblical story to church music is exegetically incorrect. The story has nothing to do with using a certain type of language in worship, it relates to a specific request to “sacrifice.” This misunderstanding fuels erroneous views of music as a sacrifice in worship that must be “acceptable” to God. Ironically, this argument is used to condemn music we do not like, while the music we like is acceptable. Traditional, classical music is usually considered the type of music “God likes,” while contemporary music is what the “worshiper likes.” To put it more bluntly, “If I don’t like it, God doesn’t like it either!”
This myth must be dispelled because liking a piece of music is directly related to whether it has the desired effect on the listener. We worship best when we sing sacred songs we like. Corporate worship is not necessarily interrupted if a musical style is not to our liking. God is not concerned about our personal artistic sensibilities in worship. In fact, He may not even like any of our worship music if He is not at the center of our worship experience (Amos 5:23-27).
Effective worship music invites participation and, to reach this goal, the music must be attractive to the listener in his or her own religious-cultural milieu. Adventist churches that cater to younger generations must be allowed to use music that is pleasing to the audience while providing a richly spiritual, transformative experience. Such music may involve drums, percussion, electric bass, and syncopated rhythms. Churches that prefer classically-oriented church music must be allowed to cater to a community that appreciates this medium; it may involve a pipe organ, harps, or antiphonal choirs. Better yet is a blended worship style that incorporates the best of both worlds. The point here is keeping music as a tool for communication and musical tastes distinct from moral or spiritual principles.
In summary, music is a marvelous tool for the communication of divine truth in worship, in many ways more powerful than the spoken word. Although it should not be given a central spiritual role in worship, it is a very important dimension of worship renewal in Adventist communities today.
In the next article, I will address the issue of which type of music may communicate best in corporate worship.
1 Rousseau, Discours, 416.
André Reis has degrees in theology and music and is finishing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Avondale College. This article first appeared in Best Practice, January 31, 2016. It has been lightly edited for Elder’s Digest. Used by permission.