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How important is the style of music a church sings?

hymnal23I read a post yesterday from a blog of a popular ministry that attempted to answer a question from a reader: “How important is the style of music a church sings?”

The answer? “The style of music a church sings is relatively unimportant.” After making several simplistic points, the post concluded, “In short, what we sing is far more important than how we sing it.”

Yet this blog’s ministry makes a big deal about how we preach, how we plant churches, how we organize churches, and how a pastor leads his church. Does style not matter in these matters?

Furthermore, I wonder if the individual who wrote the blog posts would say the same about how his children speak to him. Would he agree with a disrespectful child that what he says is far more important than how he says it? Would he say the same thing about how a husband addresses his wife? Would he say the same thing about how we speak to God?

The simplistic answer of the blog post also makes a common but rather modernist assumption that form and content are easily separated. Aesthetic form, in this way of thinking, is merely the neutral packaging for what’s really important–truth.

Yet, James K. A. Smith is exactly right when he insists in his book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, “The point isn’t that both form and content matter. The point is more radical than that: in some significant sense we need to eschew the form/content distinction.” He warns what will happen if we adopt the simplistic thinking that style doesn’t matter:

Worship innovations that are inattentive to this may end up adopting forms that forfeit precisely those aspects of worship that sanctify perception by forming the imagination. Hence wise worship planning and leadership is not only discerning about content–the lyrics of songs, the content of a pastoral prayer, the message of a sermon–but also discerning about the kin/aesthetic meaning of the form of our worship. We will be concerned not only with the what but also with the how, because Christian faith is not only a knowing-that but also a kind of know-how, a “practical sense” or praktognosia that is absorbed in the “between” of our incarnate significance. Because meter and tune each means in its own irreducible way, for example, the form of our songs is as important as the content.

The ironic thing is that one of the points this blog author makes in his answer is that one of the purposes of music in worship is “to assist the heart to emotionally engage with the truths being sung, so that one’s emotions properly conform to those truths.” He even acknowledges that “different styles may do a better or worse job of helping people properly conform their hearts to the truths being sung.” And so style doesn’t matter?

Yes, style does matter. It matters in Christian song just as much as it does in preaching, church organization, leadership, or how a child speaks to his father. Style matters exactly because truth matters, and truth is never separated from form.

I conclude once more with Smith’s insightful words:

Worship wisdom requires that we be attentive to the practical sense of aesthetic forms, lest we end up singing lyrics that confess Jesus is Lord accompanied by a tune that means something very different. Similarly, because our words mean more than their propositional content–and because worship is intended not only to inform the intellect but also to recruit the imagination–we will want to be attentive to the poetic and metaphorical power of words to evoke the world to come, thus resisting temptations to flatten our worship words to the utilitarian pragmatism of the marketplace. In these and countless other ways . . . Christian worship is more than its content and means more than it says. Worship that intends to be formative . . . must be attentive to, and intentional about, the aesthetics of human understanding.

For more on this, read the following:

“Practice Makes Perfect: Culture and the Liturgies of Life”

“Preserving Truth in Our Worship”

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

26 Responses to How important is the style of music a church sings?

  1. Hey Scott, I think you know that I agree with you that form is not inconsequential. But I do wonder how far you’d take the statement, “the form of our songs is as important as the content.”

    So, are you saying that a Watts text set to a “Christian pop” style tune is morally equivalent to heretical lyrics set to a Bach tune?

  2. Establishing exact moral equivalency is a bit difficult, of course, when comparing one form of communication to another. But in general I would say yes I am, in the same way I would consider my son telling me he hates me morally equivalent to him speaking to me as if he does. (He’s never done that, by the way. :) )

  3. I’m assuming you’d agree that a child’s non-verbal expression of hatred is far more clear and universally interpreted by serious, devoted parents, than is the meaning of musical form among serious, devoted Christians, would you not?

  4. We’re comparing two different categories of communication again, but actually, no I would not agree that non-verbal communication is any more clear and universally interpreted than musical form.

    Both are non-discursive, both are often misunderstood, both have multiple layers of meaning, and with both we determine meaning by comparing to universal human emotional expression.

  5. Oh, I’m not talking about non-verbal communication in general. Just the specific analogy you made with a child’s non-verbal expression of hatred—the “how he says it” you alluded to. IOW, I think it’d be pretty clear to just about everybody when your child is speaking to you as if he hates you, even if he doesn’t use the words.

    Again, I agree with you that form matters. Christians need to exercise informed judgment regarding form. I think our judgments are relatively close—almost certainly closer than the vast majority of our conversation partners over the years, in the places where we’ve been and where we are.

    But if you’re elevating convictions about form to the same level of priority as convictions about divine revelation (song content), that’s where I just can’t get to where you are. I’m trying to figure out if that’s actually what you’re doing. To do that would, I think, be pretty dangerous.

  6. I would elevate form to the same level of content because divine revelation is BOTH form and content. There is no such thing as content without form. The revelation God inspired in Scripture includes its various forms, does it not?

    What would you think it dangerous to raise form to the same level as content?

  7. The same or a similar website published these Barthian lines:
    “God doesn’t judge music.”

    And worst of all:
    “In short, any construct that even suggests an equation between Truth (absolute) and beauty (variable) walks into a theological morass.”

    God is beautiful. At least to me. If you don’t see it that way, it’s OK. What kind of conception of God lurks behind those conclusions?

  8. Scott, I agree with Ben. It is frightening to say that form is on the same level as content. Then you even take this up another notch and compare form to divine revelation!! This is all in the context of style of music as compared to the text of the song. Frankly that is frightening! First, you would have to be able to show from Scripture what form or forms are acceptable. We can do this with the text because Scripture tells us what we should believe. You cannot do that with the music (I say this being fully aware you think you can). Second, God’s divine revelation is Scripture. To elevate the music to be on par with Scripture is frightening to put it very mildly. Are you really saying the music is on par with the content of God’s revelation?

    BTW, the 9Marks post did not say that style doesn’t matter (you quoted them above and then said “And so style doesn’t matter?”) That is a mischaracterization of what they said. You even pointed out that he said it is useful for a couple of reasons. What he did say was that style was relatively unimportant because style is passing. That is not the same as saying that style doesn’t matter. And, he is 100% correct. Surely your church does not sing in the same style as the early church, or even further back in the same style as David did. Styles change. Is your church wrong because they do not sing in the same style as God’s people did centuries (or millenia) ago?

    Writing on a blog is tough communication so don’t take this as sarcastic criticism. We just need to think through these things Biblically, and this seems to be going outside the bounds of Scripture. Thanks for listening (reading) and considering.

  9. Hi, Rick. I very much appreciate the push back and interaction!

    The fundamental flaw with your concern is that you assume divine revelation doesn’t have form. That’s impossible! Divine revelation was delivered in particular aesthetic forms, and those forms are just as authoritative as the content. As I said in the post, quoting Smith, our modernistic form/content distinction is untenable.

    It is exactly because we have been given divine revelation in aesthetic forms that form is essentially important.

    Yes, cultural forms change, just as how we articulate biblical truth changes. But just as we would agree that Scripture itself imposes limits on the degree to which our articulations of truth change, so I insist that Scripture itself imposes limits on the degree to which our aesthetic forms may change.

  10. I don’t see any of what you are saying indicated in Scripture. Is this Biblical or is it an opinion? Let’s assume though that what you say is true: “Divine revelation was delivered in particular aesthetic forms, and those forms are just as authoritative as the content.” How does that translate to music? How do you make the logical leap from God delivering Scripture all the way over to musical style?

    In your last paragraph, you say “Scripture itself imposes limits on the degree to which our aesthetic forms may change.” Where? It is not good enough to say there are limits and not define the limits, and it doesn’t matter what you or I think those limits are…does Scripture define them?

  11. 1. Forms communicate a message that either honors God or does not.
    2. Musical style is a form.
    3. Therefore, musical style communicates a message that either honors God or does not.

    To support the first proposition above:
    a. The Spirit placed poetry and metaphors in Scripture because those forms, apart from the propositions, sends a message.
    b. Nadab, Abihu, and Uzza were killed because they violated particular forms, not because they exchanged true propositions for false.
    c. Even eating and drinking sends a moral message (1 Cor. 10:31).
    d. All things including art and culture and musical styles are to be brought in subjection to Christ (1 Cor. 15:27; Col. 1:18).
    e. If that syllogism is not true, then we must conclude that death metal will be in Heaven. Since we all know that it won’t, then we all really do “know” that the syllogism is true.
    f. If authorities mean anything, Sproul teaches this first proposition in his series on beauty and the arts.

    If we can agree on that syllogism, then we can try to determine Scripture’s guidelines for aesthetic judgments. But without agreement on this first presupposition, what is the point of going any further? If we do agree, then both sides have to give objective standards by which they prove a musical style is beautiful. The burden of proof doesn’t lie on a few, 1950’s-loving conservatives, but on every Christian.

  12. Seth, there is Christian Death Metal available on the www. Sorry to lay that on you.

    The point about Nadab and Abihu is particularly salient, I think.

  13. Rick, you said, “I don’t see any of what you are saying indicated in Scripture.” That statement alone reveals that you don’t understand the nature of aesthetic form. It’s not that Scripture “indicates” that aesthetic form is important, although I think it does. Rather, Scripture IS aesthetic form. It employs aesthetic forms and aesthetic devices in its communication of God’s truth. Scripture uses forms such as poetry, narrative, parable, allegory, metaphor, hymn, tautology, and so much more. These forms are not merely decorative; they are essential to the truth itself, for they communicate aspects of the truth that could not be communicated otherwise. And if we believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, then we must believe that God inspired not just the ideas of Scripture, but also how those ideas are articulated in the putting together of words and sentences, the aesthetic devices used, and the forms employed. These forms, then, provide boundaries by way of example for all aesthetic forms

    I’ve asserted that form is just as important as content, but I don’t even like to say it that way because in reality, there is no such thing as content without form.

    Can you tell me anywhere in Scripture where we find formless content?

  14. Let me address Nadab, Abihu, and Uzza first. I actually think this works against your argument. These three men were killed because they disobeyed very clear commands of God. They had every good intention, but they disobeyed God’s explicit commands. This argument about style is not an explicit command of God but an assumption of what God wants by well-meaning people.

    I was going to address your post point by point. I’ll just summarize by saying I can agree with some points but have strong objections to others. However, I don’t feel it necessary to address them because your last paragraph points out the huge and glaring problem with the argument made about style, and this is the major fault with many if not most of those on your side of the fence. You give a syllogism in order to form our thinking so we can then take it to Scripture. You state that we must agree on the syllogism and then we can go to Scripture. THAT IS THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF WHAT WE SHOULD DO! Scripture is what is to form our thoughts and our beliefs. We don’t impress our preconceptions onto Scripture!! Lots of reasoning reasoning and more reasoning and then we go to Scripture to try and support the reasoning. Shouldn’t we go to Scripture first in order to form our reasoning?

    I have no doubt that like Nadab, Abihu, and Uzza that you have the best of intentions, but you are adding to what Scripture says. Ultimately it makes zero difference what you or I believe…what does the text say? Go back to Scripture, leave your preconceived ideas at the door, and let Scripture tell you what style is right and what style is wrong. (That will be a very long study indeed because Scripture doesn’t say that a style of music is wrong. The heart of man is the issue and is what is sinful…not a style. Forms and styles are simply tools in the hands of sinful people that can be used for good or bad.)

  15. Rick, What was the command that Nadab and Abihu broke. Why was it given? Just an arbitrary caprice, do you think?

  16. Scott, no one is saying that form is not important….it is a useful tool. You are indicating thought that there are styles in music that are prescriptive for the church and some that should not be used. 9Marks was saying (and I agree) that it is a totally secondary thought. Scripture doesn’t prescribe a particular style so it really is secondary to what we are singing.

  17. Rick,

    A few observations:

    Where does Scripture say that form is a useful tool? I can’t find that verse, and I have Bible software. Is the word “giraffe” a useful tool? Is Benjamin Franklin a useful tool? Is mosh-pitting a useful tool? How about the Elephantine Papyrii? Is blasphemy a useful tool?

    And where does Scripture say that useful tools should be used for things beyond crafting objects? I can’t find that verse either. Can I use useful tools to stop nosebleeds? To prevent dogs from using my garden as a toilet? To make the Illiad less boring? To rename mountain ranges?

    Does Scripture say we can’t use cat’s blood and stinging nettle leaves as communion elements? I can’t find any verses forbidding that anywhere in my Bible. It must be OK.

    After I failed to find answers to these, I even broadened my search to include the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, and then, finally, the entire Gnostic corpus. After all, there isn’t a Bible verse telling me which books are canonical. If God didn’t bother to tell me what books are in vs. out, it evidently doesn’t matter.

    I may broaden out my understanding of ‘canon’ to include James Herriot’s works, the entire run of Mountain Bike UK magazine, and my daughter’s finger paintings. They all speak to me, so they must be canon.

    I’d pray about these matters, but there isn’t a single Bible verse telling me who is or isn’t in the Trinity, or whether there is a Trinity. I’m not quite sure how to address my prayer anymore, but I deduce that I’m free to pray to whomever, as long as I suspect he/she/it is divine.

    In celebration of my newfound freedom, I was going to get dressed this morning, but I realized that I couldn’t find a single Bible (whatever THAT means) verse that told me I had to wear pants. Look up the word “pants” for yourself! Not a single verse! Not one! I am free to skip that binding cultural form today! And no one can judge me, not even the town’s police officer! And I will tell him so if he tries!

    Sola Scriptura really is the way to the future.

    Romans 1:20-22

  18. The syllogism just crystalizes a lurking presupposition. Since we all have basic beliefs that control what we do with evidence, I thought it best to put that on the table at the beginning.

    Of course, I would love to just go to Scripture first, but I doubt that would be persuasive to someone who has already postured himself against what I consider to be foundational.

    Why should either of us take time to write Scriptural exegesis if we have good reason to believe that our audience’s presupposition will always find ways to reject our Biblical conclusions? In short, without starting where I started, we can silence Scripture’s voice on this subject without realizing it.

  19. Thanks Seth. I believe what you said gets down to the root of the problem. Why do we believe that Scripture will not persuade? It is quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. My opinions and beliefs are fallible. That’s why we need to go to Scripture first. If we have to go to a book or determine what we believe before going to Scripture then we are asking for trouble. Is Scripture sufficient to cover aesthetics and style?

    I’m bowing out of this. I’ll refrain from posting here again as well. I’ll take the sarcasm in the one post above as an invitation to refrain from posting again since it is from a contributor on this site. Thank you to the rest of you for your consideration and courtesy.

  20. I can appreciate that response, Rick. You caused me to rethink how much dependence I do place on Scripture.

    So then, let’s go to the great standard. As one among many passages that touch on a Scriptural aesthetic, Rom. 12:2 clearly forbids many cultural forms in worship. God is angry when a pastor or church “copies the behavior and customs of this world.”

    To many, that’s sufficient. To me, that is overwhelmingly clear. To the man I am training to be the next elder at our church in an African village, he found that verse alone to be explicit enough to forbid certain styles of music. He arrived at the conclusion, and told me at one of our recent elder training meetings. T. David Gordon thinks that verse is clear. Abraham Kuyper (cf. Lectures on Calvinism, pages 73-77, Eerdmans) would have seen that as clear. The unconverted John McWhorter thinks this is clear (cf. Doing Our Own Thing, pages 98-101).

    But my hunch is that you will not find this verse so clear. Will you accept that this verse closes the discussion about punk rock, death metal, rhythm and blues, and rap the way I and a number of other men do?

  21. Rick, all:

    Forgive me for my tone. I overstepped the bounds of charity in my above remarks. Gentleness is a gentle art often forgotten when we are trying to “approve the things that are excellent” (Philippians 1:9-10), and there is a difference between sarcasm to make a point and sarcasm to wound a person, which is what I am confessing. For this, I ask forgiveness of all.

    As Abraham Lincoln once said, “if you talk bad about my mother, I’ll punch you in the face.” In this case, I think Mr. Lincoln was wrong: he should have stayed within his expertise and concentrated on his leaflet campaign against the Visigoths.

  22. Rick,

    Please explain what you see in Scripture that shows that Nadab, Abihu, and Uzza “had every good intention,” as you put it in one of your earlier comments.

  23. Scott,

    Some weeks ago now you asked me, “What [why, perhaps?] would you think it dangerous to raise form to the same level as content?” in response to this statement from me:

    “To [elevate convictions about form to the same level of priority as convictions about divine revelation] would, I think, be pretty dangerous.”

    Let me try to be a little more precise.

    You rightly point out that “Scripture uses forms such as poetry, narrative, parable, allegory, metaphor, hymn, tautology, and so much more.

    So let me grant your argument that Scripture is inspired in diverse forms that are perfectly appropriate to the divine intent for the revelation. My concern regards elevating convictions about uninspired forms to the same level as convictions about divine revelation—which, as you contend, would include literary forms.

    But to get to the issue that prompted your original post, which musical styles did God inspire when he inspired Scripture?

  24. Hey, Ben. Yes, I agree with you that when we begin to make applications from divine Scripture and make assertions about contemporary practice, we must be careful. However, I would suggest that the same care is necessary for doctrinal extrapolations as well. In both cases (form and content), inspired Scripture serves as the standard, and all convictions concerning contemporary articulations of doctrine and form are secondary, potential to fallacy, but nevertheless important.

    So I stand by the original statement: convictions about form are just as important as convictions about doctrine.

    To you final question: first, we have many examples and precepts in Scripture concerning the kind of music God approves for expression of reverent worship. Instruments prescribed by David for Temple worship, for example, give us models for the character of music that expresses reverent praise. The examples we find there, for example, are modest in expression, driven by the text, and distinct from the pagan forms.

    Second, aesthetic principles cross disciplines. So by studying the aesthetic literary forms that God inspired give guidance for all aesthetic forms, including music.

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