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What music should be used when planting indigenous churches in . . . the United States of America?

It seems as if several themes have been reoccurring on this site, Paleoevangelical, and a few other places over the last few weeks. These themes have to do with musical associations, indigenous church planting, and musical universals. Here are the posts I’m talking about in case you need to get caught up:

I think all of these lead to what I think is the most important practical questions for us to consider: what kind of music should we use when planting indigenous churches in the United States of America?

There are two primary options, of course:

  • Some will argue that by the very nature of “indigenous,” we must use the musical styles with which most people in America culture are familiar. So we use pop/rock forms with rock instrumentation and rock “ethos.”
  • Others, believing rock to be a sinful communication medium, and believing classical forms to be superior, will instead argue for the use of choirs, orchestral accompaniment, operatic vocal solos and ensembles, etc.

As Ben Wright has rightly asked, however, are these the only two alternatives?

Let’s return to the question of indigenous church planting for a moment. In my mind, there are three absolute principles we must consider when deciding what musical forms we will use in an indigenous church plant.

  1. We should not transplant Western, “classical” forms to cultures that have absolutely no connection to such forms.
  2. Instead, we should seek to package biblical truth in forms with which the culture is familiar.
  3. However, we must always be aware that not all cultural forms are compatible with biblical truth. So, we must diligently search for those that are, or we must develop new ones if necessary.

So let’s apply these principles to the culture of the United States of America:

  1. There are exceptions, but most Americans have absolutely no connection with “classical,” “operatic” musical forms. For many unbelievers and new Christians, such forms can actually present a distraction. I’m not denying the superiority of these forms or even that we shouldn’t set them as a goal for a developed church. But in most cases, to plant a church with these forms would be equivalent to transplanting Western “classical” music to South Africa. It may be acceptable in an established church, but probably not a church plant in most cases.
  2. In a broad sense, Americans are familiar with Western tonal music with lyric melodies. The specific styles within this category that they prefer leads to our next principle:
  3. Most Americans are familiar and comfortable with the pop/rock styles of our day. But since, in my opinion, these styles are incompatible with the gospel, what alternative do we have?

I would argue, as Ben suggested, that the best musical choice in planting would be to eliminate all forms of performed “special music.” The very nature of performed music implies that it is songs arranged with certain music styles and performed with certain instrumentation. So at that point you have to decide if you will use classical forms or pop forms. Either decision would be unwise for most church planting situations. Remove the performance category, and you won’t have to make that decision. Why is it that we think that in order to be a “grown up” church, we have to have a vocal solo before every message?

Instead, focus on singing only songs that were written to be sung by congregations. And do so with very simple instrumentation (like a piano and/or guitar) that serves to simply support the congregational singing (or have no accompaniment at all). And you must choose songs that are not written using pop cliches, because that ties them to a particular time. This includes most Praise & Worship Songs and most Gospel Songs (the P&W of the turn of the century). Your songs should not sound like the latest pop album, and they should not sound like Vaudeville or Stephen Foster.

Most hymns, sung with simple accompaniment, would be familiar enough for a new convert to benefit from. I’m not appealing to the lowest-common-denominator here, and I’m not sacrificing objective value. Songs like that done simply are valuable in and of themselves. It’s also not about making an unbeliever or a new convert “comfortable.” It’s about worshiping in the language of the times, yet without using forms that are incompatible with the gospel no matter how “familiar” they are.

If we’re going to plant indigenous churches, then we’ve got to use indigenous forms of music. We must make sure those forms are compatible with biblical truth, and if none exist for a given culture, we may have to get creative. But in modern American culture, simple, tonal, melodic hymnody is both good and indigenous.

There is also another reason, though, why it may be wise to get rid of performed “special” music, even in an established church. As I argue in “Worship That Cannot Be Touched,” and as Ben referenced in “Sensationalism,” worship isn’t about some kind of physical sensation. In my opinion, the reason most people like pop music is that it gives them a physical sensation that feels good. The same is true for Christian pop music. But the same is also often true for those who need a large choir and orchestra in order to “feel” like they’re worshiping. In each case there is a tying of sensationalism to worship that I believe is unbiblical.

Why is it that we feel like a church that doesn’t have a choir or special music or a band or and orchestra is somehow inferior? “Oh, they’ll grow up some day.” “When they get more talented people, then they’ll have better music.”

No. Simple congregational singing, along with preaching, giving, praying, and Scripture reading, is all you need to worship.

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.

13 Responses to What music should be used when planting indigenous churches in . . . the United States of America?

  1. I agree with choice #3. :-)

    The church (not just the pastor or music pastor) should determine what selections best declare the whole of the gospel in the dialect that makes sense to that culture. I didn't say *their* dialect, because music should always have a gently educational function, too, especially when it's bearing the gospel.
    So it would be a mistake to assume that ANY church should get a cookie cutter repertoire – from either extreme. To do so is to idolize a particular strain of culture and to fail to love the body of Christ appropriately. The music – just like the actual *presentation style* of the preaching – should be an ongoing discussion that takes best advantage of the existing desires, gifts and needs of a particular congregation.

  2. I agree with you, Will. The problem is our global culture. No church exists in a vacuum. Added to that is that fact that in order to acquire any performance music for the church, you probably have to go to a publisher that is publishing for the "market."

  3. Scott,

    I don't think we should be relating music to church planting. Church planting is what? If we look at scripture it is actually evangelism. The apostles didn't "go start a church," they went and evangelized and organized churches. We teach these saved people what worship is. We show them how that music must fit into what God wants. We can know what God wants to hear. And then that becomes the music of our church.

    I think this idea that we start a church is the problem. Of course, Jesus starts churches. He does that by saving people. We don't consider what music "won't turn them off," since music has nothing to do with someone being converted. The gospel is a miracle that occurs in their life that operates in absolute contradiction to everything in the world. See the Sermon on the Mount—they must become poor, hungry, mourn. These are all contradictory to any church starting. The culture should become compatible with God. We don't take God and make Him compatible with the culture. I don't agree with Will.

    People who are saved will want music that God wants to hear. If they don't, then we've got a problem with their allegiance to Him. The culture of Jesus' day believed that a man should be able to go bury his father and have a place to lay his head. Jesus challenged the cultural norm with his own standard. God is seeking for true worshipers. Worshipers who demand a style that they like? That is contradictory to a scriptural understanding of worship. Why should we consider the culture at all when it comes to worship form?

  4. Some good thoughts here.

    Regarding special music, however, I don't know that I'd entirely agree that the best course is to eliminate it entirely. Instead, I'd suggest that at least some of the problem, in many of our churches, is that "special music" has nothing at all to do with the gathered worship of God's people on that day.

    So, for instance, the "worship calendar" is put together a month or two in advance, and you see that you're name is on to sing/play a song for the offertory or for the prime spot just before the sermon. You prepare a piece based loosely on your ability level, with likely some thought given to the meaningfulness of the text to you. And on the designated day and moment, you perform.

    Likely, there is no connection between what you've done and anything else at all that was happening in the surrounding moments. And that is a problem, and I would suggest it is one of the main reasons that special music takes on a performance orientation.

    If the services are planned, however, so that the congregation comes together to worship, I may plan in advance to have someone sing this song with piano accompaniment (I don't think I need to sacrifice your goal of simplicity here) as part of the worship.

    In that way, I think special music has a real and useful place.

  5. What is special music? Special in what way? Special to whom? I hope not like special education, but sometimes I think that is all too common the case. I see in the psalms that some music was not congregational. It was for the soloist or the small group. My understanding is that in these instances, it was worked on and practiced so that God would get some skilled praise, praise done by people who were singers, who could really play instruments well. He deserves that. To leave out special music, what are we saying? "Folks, we don't think that God is worth getting some really skilled stuff. Instead, we'll just give him a lot of people who can't necessarily sing very well, all singing together!" What does that teach the new group about special music? If it's a problem, it's a problem because people don't understand what it is about. I would say that a man could establish what that is very quickly and then once he has skilled people, start doing that.

  6. Kent, (1) Of course I don't believe that the purpose of music in worship is to draw people in; (2) Of course I don't believe that we should eliminate good things because it might "turn people off;" (3) Of course I believe that it is Christ who builds his church. Those things are not in focus here.

    But I do also believe that a congregation should worship using the languages of their culture, AS LONG AS those languages are fitting for the worship of the Word-revealed God. So that's the issue I wrestling with in this post.

    Michael, you make some great points. Would you see a distinction between a church plant and a mature, established church in this issue?

    I, of course, do see value in prepared music as well, though. I plan to post some thoughts on that this week as well, to provide a counterpoint here.

  7. Americans actually have a rich heritage of classical forms, though perhaps not as rich as Europeans, for example. However, most Americans have practically severed their ties to classical culture through revisionist understandings of history.

    While being unfamiliar with western classical forms, most Americans still have a western mindset. This western mentality makes western music more intuitive to us than it would be to an Easterner or African. Although it will take patience, it is not as long a path to classical forms for Americans as it would be for people of truly different thought patterns.

    A church plant is the best place to start with the right forms. An established church already has a level of comfort with that which is established. If we start with something besides classical forms, should we really expect that we would ever get there? If music has anything to say to the affections, it is able to express its message across cultures. That is not to deny different culturally conditioned tastes or associations, but rather to affirm that all of mankind was created by a common Creator with common set of "emotions." I do not need to understand German to feel the forceful passions of a Beethoven Symphony. There is a cross-cultural element which is inherent to music.

    I see the "packaging" of truth as "marketing" and reject the notion altogether. Our audience is God, not those we are reaching. We ought to teach our congregation from the very beginning not to cater to our own preferences, but rather show them the ideals that God sets forth.

    However, we must always be aware that not all cultural forms are compatible with biblical truth. So, we must diligently search for those that are, or we must develop new ones if necessary.

    The development of new forms is certainly an option. As our understanding of God increases, so should our forms reflect the deeper understanding.

    As for special music, I might not go as far as to throw it out altogether. Some Lutheran churches have their special music performed from the back of the sanctuary. Perhaps if we are to have special music, it ought to be "performed" out of sight so as not to encourage performance mentalities. The same could go for choirs and orchestras. However, I view special music (when done rightly=classical forms) as a wonderful opportunity to develop the taste of the congregation further in the right direction. Perhaps it will take some time and effort to properly train the special singers and in the mean time, the best option may be to minimize special music, though I see no reason to exclude it permanently.

  8. Scott,

    I don't know what your philosophy of church growth is and perhaps you don't know mine. And even if we have a right philosophy essentially, fragments of wrong philosophy can creep in. This is why this is good to discuss and question. I don't think in a discussion we should assume anything. I'm sorry if you may have been offended by that. You say that it isn't what is in focus here. Yet, I think that it is foundational to this discussion. You do seem to be still sorting through what you think a church plant should do related to special music. The philosophy of church planting is huge in this. If someone goes out and thinks that church planting is scheduling services to invite people to, whoever they may be in the area, then he might think that his music has something to do with whether the church gets started or not. This matters in the focus.

  9. Jeremiah, thanks for your comments. They certainly resonate with me.

    Keep in mind that when I say don't use performed music and stick with only hymns, I am still talking about using particular (good, in my opinion) forms of music, upon which a solid philosophy can easily be built. So I readily recognize the power of being able to "start from scratch" philosophically and progressively teach a new congregation what is good. I, too, see good performed music as a wonderful teaching too. So I do recognize the tensions here.

    Kent, my church growth philosophy is actually revealed clearly in what I am proposing. I would not want someone coming to my church because of our music, whether it be good or bad. I want them to come (1) because they have been converted by the proclaimed gospel, (2) to hear the Word of the Lord clearly proclaimed, and (3) to worship with a likeminded congregation. I wouldn't want someone to come to a church because our church had hip, cool, pop music (which I would never do), but neither would I want them to come to my church because I had an "impressive music program" with large choir and orchestra.

  10. Kent, either you've gravely misunderstood me, or I've misspoken. While I agree with your general contrarianism on the whole issue, your assumption that I am saying "We take God and make him compatible with culture" doesn't seem to be based on anything I actually said.

    I may have failed to record accurately that the culture of a local church will always be a dialogue between the Spirit and the members of that body. But while you have followed up my comment with the helpful reminder of God's role in determining this culture, you insinuate the following wild and crazy suggestion:
    "People who are saved will want music that God wants to hear. If they don’t, then we’ve got a problem with their allegiance to Him."
    What?!? Either I'm following the wrong God and need to discover this fascistic, robot-programming God you mention, or we're not accurately discussing the messy, human (read: image-bearer) nature of a believer's working through of the appropriate culture for his/her life. This sort of "automatic writing" relationship to God has never occurred and can't be a useful model for groups of believers either. God will certainly work among people to create and cooperate with desires for particular manifestations of culture. Particularly if they desire him to. But to remove the human element and assume that believers will automatically want "music that God wants to hear" (and what is that, exactly?) makes 2 mistakes:
    1. It forgets the brokenness of the fall is still with us
    2. It morphs God into a genie who downloads music into our mental iPods
    Neither evokes the God of the Bible and his record of interacting with humans on issues like this.

    Again, let me say, I appreciate most of what you've had to say here and agree with it. Also your willingness to challenge accepted norms in Christianity which are not necessarily biblical. A helpful trait. These two statements I've called out, though, are troubling.

    all best!

  11. Scott,

    Although this is an old thread, may I add the observation that singing as a group or congregation is inherently a foreign activity to many in our culture. The nature of pop music is individualistic, so for a group of people to sing together is itself counter-cultural. Maybe Christmas carols are an exception, but karoke is more a norm than group singing. The Biblical requirement of singing together in gathered worship is itself an unfamiliar activity for many in our culture, regardless of the selection or performance style.

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