We continue this short series on the place of music in Adventist worship. In part 1, I proposed what I call the reductionist approach to church music. This view removes music from an inappropriate pedestal of importance in worship and brings it down to the level of a language used for communication. In part 2, I delved into how music impacts the human being and thus aids in the communication of a particular message. In this article, Part 3 of the series, I will discuss which type of music may communicate best in the context of corporate worship.
COMMUNICATING WITH MUSIC IN WORSHIP: THE PROBLEM OF EXTRA-MUSICAL ASSOCIATIONS
As we look to refresh worship through new approaches to
church music, it is important to pay attention to the problem
of extra-musical associations. This is perhaps the most serious
obstacle to the introduction of new music in church. Misunderstanding
the implications of extra-musical associations
has caused most of the controversies around music’s use in
Adventist worship today.
What is an extra-musical association? An extra-musical
association may be defined as non-musical imagery prompted
by a piece of music; for example, the music of a national
anthem evokes images of home, country, classrooms, and
patriotic parades. These images are not musical per se, but
their continued association with a certain style of music (in
this case, a patriotic tune) prompts them.
Extra-musical associations should not be confused with
intra-musical associations, which are ideas conveyed by the
music itself; for example, a minor key is generally associated
with sadness, darkness, or introspection, while major keys
are associated with light, happiness, and hope. Likewise, a
slow tempo is relaxing while a faster tempo is energizing.
Intra-musical associations are not dependent on any context;
they spring from the musical grammar, so to speak, much
like the intonations of the human voice which are universally
Extra-musical associations, on the other hand, occur
because music has the power to attach symbolic meaning
to a specific context, event, time period, etc. As Harold Best
explained it, “the more a piece of music is repeated in the
same context, the more it will begin to ‘mean’ that context.”
1 (The example of the national anthem speaks clearly to this
tenet.) So the issue of associating musical styles with specific
secular or even non-secular contexts can pose a challenge to
Adventist worship music.
Others have dealt with the issue of extra-musical associations
In this article, however, I’d like to propose
a more nuanced approach to the matter of extra-musical associations
in music by creating a distinction between
hard extra-musical associations.
Soft extra-musical associations should be self-explanatory:
these associations are “soft,” i.e., not strong enough to
cause conflict between their original, secular context and a
new context—in our case, a worship setting. The style of music
that we now officially call Contemporary Christian Music
(CCM) is, in most cases, an example of soft extra-musical
association. It uses modern instruments, the melodic lines are
similar to acceptable popular musical forms, and the overall
feel is more “folky” than “classical” or erudite. In most
cases, although it is close to pop music, it avoids the most
extreme elements of certain pop styles such as heavy metal
or punk rock. CCM is accessible to the majority of worshipers
because of its familiar musical language. It can be considered
a natural evolution of church music and therefore, is an acceptable
form of current Christian art.
On this point, it is important to point out that, because
of the vast amount of borrowing and interchange that has
occurred between sacred and secular music throughout the
centuries, I believe soft extra-musical associations in church
music are inevitable. Whether we are dealing with traditional
church music from the nineteenth century (which mimicked
secular classical styles) or folk styles borrowed from American
folk music (which we hear in contemporary Christian music),
we are dealing with a human phenomenon of musical desensitization
that is quite ingrained in the human experience.
Rather than fighting and resisting this musical evolution, the
church would be better off accepting it as a fresh renewal of
artistic expression that is so vital to organic, relevant worship.
Conversely, hard extra-musical associations occur with
musical styles whose secular “feel” is severe to worshipers
in their respective cultural
milieu. Such hard associations are
difficult to overcome as the music will most likely overwhelm
the message of the words or the meaning of worship and
cause cognitive dissonance between its primary, secular context
and corporate divine worship. In America, for example,
these would be hip-hop and heavy metal; in the Caribbean
islands, this may be salsa or reggaeton. However, it is important
to note that the problem of musical cognitive dissonance
varies in different parts of the world and to different people in
Having briefly considered aspects of both soft and hard
extra-musical associations, I believe it is much harder to argue
in favor of hard extra-musical associations in a corporate
worship setting. The introduction of a musical style that is
drastically different from customary styles and expectations
of a certain community can be very disruptive to most worshipers.
If the music has heavy, negative, secular connotations,
worship will be affected because of the noise in the
communication of the gospel. It will be hard for most worshipers
to concentrate on the words of a song if the music forcefully
calls attention to an idea foreign to corporate worship!
Again, this may be more severe in some cultural contexts and
to some people than to others in corporate worship. What
style of sacred music one listens to privately falls under other
criteria which is beyond the scope of this series.
In light of this, it is reasonable to propose that soft extra-musical
associations as we see in traditional hymns and
much of contemporary Christian
music and contemporary
gospel music are usually acceptable,
while hard extra-musical
associations may need
to be avoided in corporate
worship or used with careful
intentionality. Again, the decision
of what music has hard
associations will have to be
made while taking into consideration
local cultural sensibilities.
A style that would
be disruptive in a particular
geographical region may not
be a problem in another. Even
a local church may have different sensibilities from the church
Ultimately, worship music requires that whatever the style,
the music should support the high ideals of worship and protect
its purity from foreign ideas, feelings, and emotions. Worship
music should take advantage of the most desirable musical
elements available in any particular style: those that are
most likely to be universally appreciated in order that music
may faithfully carry the message of the words without unnecessary
interference with its meaning.
With the above in mind, we can ask: How do we introduce
new musical styles in worship? Below are a few principles to
keep in mind when dealing with a transition from traditional to
contemporary worship style.
First, we should agree that the mere use of modern instruments
in church music does not immediately cause hard
extra-musical associations. Musical instruments are amoral;
their effectiveness in worship depends on how they are used
to support worship or to detract, cause noise, and manipulate
Second, we should accept that music with a beat and
syncopated rhythms has a different meaning to younger worshipers.
From Baby Boomers to Millennials, a beat and drums
have no immediate negative associations; they are part of a
musical language that these age groups have grown to understand
and appreciate. They are part of their own personal
Third, change is necessary for renewal. Doukhan writes,
“Change will happen anyway . . . we should become a part
of it, and make it happen in a responsible manner.”
planter Robert L. Bast found that churches that transitioned
from traditional to contemporary music experienced growth.
Fourth, tolerance and patience will be essential in this
process. New musical styles may cause conflict because
most Adventists have associated worship music with nineteenth-century
hymnody, accompanied by the organ and
other “classical” instruments. This classical style has come
to mean worship to them; new music may sound foreign to
worship. Tolerance and patience are essential for members of
the musical “establishment” as well as for the new generation
Fifth, we should avoid demonizing new music in worship
just because it is different. This is a major problem for
Adventists. We are too quick to read diabolical intentions into
innovations. Tradition has become a sacrament in Adventism.
Eric Fife writes, “It is so easy to have prejudices and
call them principles.”
Often what is simply a matter of taste
can quickly escalate into a satanic conspiracy to destroy Adventist
worship. Walls are erected between those who value
“good music” and “true worship” and the “subversives”
who are looking for a show. (I will elaborate more on this in
the conclusion of this series.)
In the din of the many voices arguing for the Adventist
style of music, I believe that musical eclecticism is the only
way to keep Adventist worship alive. We need to allow for
the “cross-pollination of music” in worship, i.e., allowing diverse
styles of music to co-exist in our worship. Adventist
music must live perpetually within the tension of continuity
with tradition. Removing all traditional musical landmarks
will represent a diminished worship experience for most Adventists;
refusing to add the new will dry up the bones of
a new generation of worshipers. In other words, let’s add
instead of taking away. Let’s offer worship that is collage-like
rather than dualistic, appealing to head and heart, tradition,
The effectiveness of new music in Adventist worship
should be judged by its fruits and by whether or not it engages
the congregation in the act of worship. It is hard to
argue against any style of music that elicits vibrant congregational
singing. Worship planners need to look objectively
at whether a certain hymn, praise song, or instrumental
piece—regardless of its style—will be conducive to engaging
and transformative worship.
In our last article, I will offer some conclusions on this
1 Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1993), 154.
2 See, for example, Lilianne Doukhan, In Tune with God (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2010), 65-69.
3 Ibid., “Historical Perspectives on Change in Worship Music,” in Ministry (September 1996), 7-9.
4 Robert L. Bast, The Missing Generation (New York: Reformed Church Press, 1991), 157, 158.
5 Eric Fife, “The Stubborn Dilemma of Church Music,” in Ministry (July
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