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Correcting Categories, Part 8 – Music and Emotion in the Church

A Radical Change

Protestants have historically been suspect of Dionysian forms of music, especially in sacred contexts, because they recognized that spiritual life resides in the affections and not in the physical feelings. They did not want to stimulate artificial experiences of the senses but rather nurture biblical affections through the mind and spirit. Presbyterians, Puritans, and Baptists especially warned of such dangers, which led them to formulate the Regulative Principle of Worship in order to keep extra-biblical Dionysian elements like icons and drama out of congregational worship.1

Charles Finney was one of the first to significantly promote using Dionysian forms of music in the Church. Because Finney believed that conversion could be produced by human means,2 he sought to create certain experiences in his services that would lead people to accept the claims of Christianity. In his Revival Lectures, Finney insisted that “there must be excitement sufficient to wake up the dormant moral powers.”3 Ian Murray explains the connection between Finney’s theology of conversion and the means he employed:

If conversion was the result of the sinner’s decision, and if the inducing of that decision was the responsibility of a preacher, assisted by the Holy Spirit, then any measure that would bring the unconverted ‘right up to the point of instant and absolute submission’ had to be good.4

Finney found pop music as the perfect tool for creating such experiences because it was immediate, it stimulated excitement, and people naturally interpret such feelings as spiritual. Finney urged those writing and leading music in his meetings to look to the advertisers of the day for inspiration.

Those earliest forms of pop music may seem innocuous to contemporary ears, but that philosophy began a trend to use pop music to create emotional experiences in the Church that continues to this day. Later Revivalists followed Finney’s lead5 and progressively adopted the newest, most exciting forms of pop music in their services in order to create sensual experiences. One popular early Revivalist song leader taught that “Creating the proper atmosphere for the character of the meeting to be held is an important office of the director.”6 He taught song leaders how using certain songs and directing methods could create the right “emotional conditioning.”7

Thus the contemporary philosophy of worship and music really finds its roots in Revivalism. Godfrey observes,

If we step back a minute and really look at the character of contemporary music, what we will find is that it is just a new stage in the evolution of revivalist hymnody. Revivalist hymnody, that came to be more and more prevalent in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, was music that was more upbeat, more lively, and more enthusiastic. It also often had a declining level of theological content in the texts of the hymns.8

This method created a source for making money, too. Following the lead of secular markets, Christians began forming publishing houses in order to produce more sacred music that would appeal to the greatest number of people and keep them coming back for more.

At certain points along the way various groups believed that lines were being crossed with the newer music. Especially with Jazz and Rock, some groups refused to follow the trend. However, these groups continued using the outdated Dionysian music to which the current culture was now desensitized, leaving them using music that was neither relevant nor truly spiritual. They began to defend such music as the standard of conservatism and grasped the music out of nostalgia and reaction against worse forms, not because it truly nurtured Christian affections. This is where many fundamentalists find themselves. They rightfully reject modern, more overtly offensive forms of pop music, but some fundamentalists fail to recognize that the music they defend is no different in kind; it is only different by degree. The underlying characteristics of their sentimental music is no different than sexual music. In both cases the aim is the creation of a sensual experience.

With the Charismatic Movement came the first theological defense of Dionysian music in the Church. Since they are continuationists, they believe that external, physical signs accompany true, spiritual experiences. Charismatics inexorably link physical feelings and responses with spirituality. As John MacArthur notes, since charismatics believe that baptism of the Spirit is an experiential event occurring after conversion, they believe that

those who get this baptism also experience various phenomena, such as speaking in tongues, feelings of euphoria, visions, and emotional outbursts of various kinds. Those who have not experienced the baptism and its accompanying phenomena are not considered Spirit-filled; that  is, they are immature, carnal, disobedient, and otherwise incomplete Christians.9

If affection is defined as physical feeling, then it is only natural to use means to create such experiences in worship. As Godfrey notes,

If there is a somewhat dramatic shift that took place in music leading to contemporary Christian music, that shift probably took place with the rise of Pentecostalism. The Pentecostal movement in its drive for religious experience and religious energy and religious excitement did indeed think in new ways about music and sought to take the revivalist tradition of hymnody and make it even more exciting, even more engaging.10

Now pop music in church had a cross-denominational, theological defense, and  the Praise and Worship movement was born. Precedent for using pop music in the Church had been set long before with Revivalism, but with charismatic theology came a defense based less in Pelagian pragmatism and more in worship theology.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. See Scott Aniol, Who Regulates Worship? (Greenville, SC: Religious Affections Ministries, 2008). []
  2. “A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means—as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means.” Revivals of Religion (CBN University Press, 1978), 4. []
  3. Charles Finney, Revival Lectures, (reprint, Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, n.d.), 4. []
  4. Murray, Revival, 246. []
  5. Murray notes, “That Charles G. Finney took a considerable part in the great change which was occurring in protestant America in the 1820s and 1830s, is indisputable.” Revival, 255. []
  6. Homer Rodeheaver and Charles B. Ford. Jr., Song Leadership (Winona Lake, IN: Rodeheaver, 1941), 8. []
  7. Ibid., 30. []
  8. W. Robert Godfrey, “The Psalms and Contemporary Worship” in The Worship of God (Taylors, SC: Mentor, 2005), 104. []
  9. John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1993), 29-30. []
  10. Godfrey, “Psalms,” 104. []