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Preludes, Postludes and Offertories

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series

"Some Things To Consider Including in Your Worship"

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Artworks are valued for what they do but not for any immediate function. Art is far from “useless,” even though its distinctive value is realized only when it serves no immediate function, when the viewer or listener gives up any immediate self-centered demands on the work and, instead, gives him- or herself up to the work.  – Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music?

Our culture typically uses music as a means to achieve something else. As Johnson says elsewhere in his book, most everyday uses of music function as background to some other activity. However, music has the potential to be closest in nature to worship itself: an activity we do not as a means to some other end, but to enjoy the beauty of the object of our affection.

Churches have mimicked this cultural tendency. Purely instrumental music in corporate worship becomes nothing more than a means to an end: to cue the noisy talkers that church is about to begin, to smooth over the awkwardness of passing the collection plates, to get people to be ‘worshipful’ (whatever that is) before the sermon, or to signal to all that the service is over and chatting may resume.

These are not entirely evil uses of instrumental music in church, but if these are all it is used for, it is a goldsmith’s tool being used to hammer in a nail. Music has the power and nuance to shape our affections and desires, and awake men to transcendent beauty. If it is used as a mere time-cue, a good wolf-whistle might as well substitute. If it is nothing more than ‘prepping for the sermon’, a minute’s silence before or after might be just as effective. If music is simply ‘setting the mood’, then some fragrances and pretty pictures could do the trick. For as long as pastors see music as nothing more than a neutral means to some other end, they will perpetuate the problem of musical relativism. For people only begin to consider the meaning of music when they are called to do nothing else except listen to the music for its own sake.

Instrumental music in worship services is to be more than decorative. It is to be formative: a shaping encounter with beauty in the setting in which beholding God’s beauty is our aim. To consider the shape and form of a beautiful melody, an ingenious arrangement and a skilful performance are not unspiritual ends. They are not some effete aesthetic snobbery far removed from the meat-and-potatoes of preaching the Word – and I say that as a preacher. Instrumental music in corporate worship is taught by Colossians 3:16, and supported by Old Testament example. The Psalms seem to make it clear that beautiful music offered in worship, glorifies God. “Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.” (Ps 33:3)

Yes, there are risks. In a culture that uses music as entertainment, ‘wordless’ music tends to raise only two questions in the average listener: 1) How does this make me feel? 2) How well was it performed? And in keeping with this, all too many church offertories have become nauseating displays of flamboyant and inappropriate musical acrobatics. Too many instrumentals are just chord-changing games to help the swaying, closed-eyed worshippers with their quest for intense emotion. Hence, the pastor concerned with a vertical focus in worship all too often rushes to fill those times with projected words on a screen, or to dispense with them altogether. In so doing, we cut off a vital part of worship, and perpetuate a consumeristic approach to worship’s most exquisite tool.

Of course, overcoming a whole cultural tendency is not a task to be sniffed at. Moreover, clumsy attempts to encourage a thoughtful consideration of music may end up distracting worshippers and raising all kinds of objections about the place of art in the church. We had best approach this knowing that most worshippers are expecting nothing more than mood-music, and will resist calls to apply their thinking to music itself. And yet, as men concerned with doing more than making church seem familiar, we ought to be obedient to Scriptural example, and seize this opportunity to shape the affections of our people.

I suggest that preludes, postludes, offertories, or other forms of special instrumentals be announced, either by someone leading the service, or on a bulletin or projection. Stating the name of the piece and its composer at the very least draws attention to the music as an object: a work of art made by someone for someone. If possible, some remarks can be made about the form of the music: the shape of the melody, its harmonies, or a remark which draws attention to the music. This does not have to be done every time (I would say it should not, in fact), nor do the remarks have to be so technical as to invite criticism that they are pretentious. A simple gesture toward the music will suffice, helping people to not simply use the music for a personal mood-change, but to consider the music until its meaning and beauty come home to the worshipper, regardless of mood and feeling at the time. And then, we don’t need to be embarrassed about this exercise, and show slides of waterfalls and mountains with Psalms quoted at the bottom. Yes, we really can let people do nothing but listen to music for several minutes.

It may be that as a result of these instrumental offerings the worshippers will be better prepared to sing, or pray, or listen to the Word. If so, fine. However, this is not why we ought to include these. We want a Scripturally-prescribed encounter with beauty, skill, order, and glory in the presence of corporate worship.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (M.A.T.) and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

10 Responses to Preludes, Postludes and Offertories

  1. Good thoughts to consider. Something I have been pondering of late as well. My wife and I have been discussing the use of “classical” music, which is beautifully done, but has no sacred text. For offertories, we point our attention to the words of the hymn played, so that all can enter into the worship with the instrumentalist. obviously with classical music, though beautiful in nature, and often reflecting God’s common grace through the composer, there is no text to ponder. Any thoughts on the use of classical music in a worship service type of setting?

  2. Here are my thoughts on this, for what it’s worth.

    In our entertainment-soaked culture, it’s very hard for people to listen to purely instrumental musical without a spectator/entertainment mindset. This makes using pure “classical” music in worship difficult.

    However, I’m not principally opposed to it, and actually I’ve found that it can be used quite well as long as (a) a given congregation appreciates it for what it is and (b) the music is appropriate for corporate worship. Not all “classical” music is, of course. But if the piece expresses noble affections fitting for the service, then it doesn’t “need” a text.

    This is particularly true if the church has a well-structured liturgy. If a purely instrumental piece is placed in the liturgy at an appropriate point, that liturgical context gives the congregation the doctrinal framework to which to attach the affection(s) the piece expresses.

    So in our church we have purely instrumental music on occasion (usually Bach on the organ; we also had a classical guitar once as well), but since (a) our people have been well taught and don’t expect to be entertained, (b) the pieces were well-fitted to the service, and (c) they were placed within a gospel-liturgical context, they work very well.

  3. Yes, I would largely agree with Scott. I would add that countering the consumerist, entertainment mindset is not only done by drawing attention to texts and Scriptures. In fact, this may exacerbate the problem, leading people to believe that unless we have a text to meditate on, the music is too subjective to be useful for the act of worship. This reinforces the artificial distinction between form and content.

    While avoiding the performance mindset, we would do well to cultivate a love for beauty in the context of worshipping God. As long as what we do falls within the limits of what God has prescribed, I do not see why we have to label everything we do in corporate worship with some discursive teaching or some Scripture text. This ends up feeling quite pedantic and patronising, and assumes the power of what is beautiful will have no sanctifying effect on people unless we quickly stick a Scripture on it. If we are leading people away from passivity and consumerism in worship, they will come to see the edifying power of what is beautiful.

  4. Ok, so let me think out loud for a minute. How would the use of classical music fit in with texts such as Colossians 3:16 or Ephesians 5:19 with the use of music in times of corporate worship? Songs, hymns, or spiritual songs, either vocally or instrumentally would seem to be outside of those bounds. Am I thinking incorrectly or applying those texts incorrectly?

  5. Well, part of the answer is that the words translated ‘making melody’ are from the Greek psallontes, which is literally, strumming. While someone may argue that this is metaphorical (‘in your heart’) that slices both ways – we are to sing in our heart as well. It seems Paul is saying we are to be singing and strumming from our hearts (with full sincerity).
    Strumming psalms, hymns and spiritual songs opens up a fairly vast array of instrumental choices, many of which would be called ‘classical’ – though it is this very category that is probably tripping us up here. Is a liturgical piece by Bach a ‘classical piece’ or an example of a spiritual song?

  6. Admittedly, I use the term “classical” in a broad, generic way, as an accepted term encompassing a broad variety of composers from the past (classical, baroque, romantic, etc). I guess my quandary is this, while men like Bach and others wrote music for the glory of God, it is not generally known as being “sacred” music. Though beautiful in nature, is it appropriate to integrate such music into a worship service, apart from lyrics (realizing that some tunes have been wedded to sacred texts, i.e. Joyful, Joyful, etc), simply for its aesthetic value, or should that be something that we can teach our people to do personally or as a family, to help cultivate the proper affections, so that when they come to corporate worship, the beautiful will be more readily recognize and appreciated?

    Or perhaps another example would help. Would, for instance, a replica or print of the Mona Lisa be an appropriate piece of art in a church facility, in order to help train the people in what is beautiful, even though it has no spiritual connotations? Again, just thinking out loud, as my wife and I have been wrestling through this issue ourselves.

    I am not arguing against what you are saying, just trying to clear up things in my own mind.

  7. I understand your concern, and share the pastoral impulse to beware of leading people away from the centrality of Scripture. I would not include a Mona Lisa type artwork in a church facility because the facility is, in many ways, a consecrated space. Nevertheless, the beauty of the facility itself would speak volumes, without attaching Scriptures from Exodus and Leviticus to every section.

    Probably more to our discussion would be poetry, since it is one of the required elements of worship. Should we have a beautiful poem with no relation to Scripture or worship read out in worship, simply because of its beauty? My impulse would be to say no. Economy of time, the narrow focus of corporate worship, the abundance of Scriptural and sacred poetry would be among the reasons. However, I could see the validity of reading sacred verse (not a hymn) by Herbert or Rossetti – especially at a special service such as Christmas or Easter.

    Music is more abstract, so the discernment needed is greater. All the issues already mentioned come into play, as do matters of association, familiarity, and the way we use music today as an accompaniment or background to do something else. I would think the baby-steps would be the use of instrumentals that a semi-culturally literate congregation would recognise, such as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. From there, one could steadily build up a recognisable repertoire.

  8. Right, I agree with David concerning the “making music” term being justification for pure instrumental music. I also agree with him that since music is less concrete than a visual painting, it more appropriately fits a sacred context than the Mona Lisa. A Bach Prelude can express affections easily supportive of Christian worship, while the Mona Lisa doesn’t really, despite its beauty.

    This is well-worth thinking through, however, and I’m always encouraged by pastors who do so!

    I would also say that to err on the side of not using pure instrumental music wouldn’t be wrong, and that teaching the congregation would need to be a prerequisite in many situations before using pure instrumental music.

  9. thank you both for your input in this. I have appreciated the dialogue. I seek, with the Lord’s help, to build a conservative ministry here in NH, but it is not easy. Blessings to you both.

  10. May I jump in?

    This is a difficult issue with which to deal- especially in our quasi-musically-illiterate, self-centered culture. (Does Rom. 12:2 fit here??)

    Congregations, including so-called ‘worship leaders’ and pastors need discipling. (Note that I did not use ‘teaching’ or ‘training’.) I’ve really appreciated Pastor DeBruyn’s and Dr. Aniol’s exploring over the past years of the “Beauty” component of God’s ‘good’ creation; and the example of Pastor Joos’ working-it-out in the life of the Flock he serves.

    Frankly, I do not think that way, and it is hard work for me to grasp the principles; but I humbly recognize the Truth in what you say. Thank you all for discipling me along that line.

    But as those who ‘keep our finger on the text’, and who understand the basic unity of the entire canon, we should not ‘disciple’ using our own human thoughts, no matter how biblically sound they are, without pointing those we serve to what God says so that we all can ‘bring every thought captive’ and ‘grow together into the fullness of the stature of Christ.’

    The first reference to music in formal, corporate ‘worship’ is the requirement to use instruments (Numb. 10:1-10). Interestingly, it was apparently the last ‘commandment’ given before God’s People left Sinai.

    There were no words associated with the blowing of the trumpets; their use was symbolic. In fact, the use of words in the expression of corporate worship was not ‘sanctioned’ until centuries later in David’s obedience to “the hand of God upon” him (I Chron. 22-28, esp. chapter 25, and 28:10-19); the music part fully realized in Eph. 5:18-19 and Col. 3:16.

    I applaud what you all are doing in your congregations,and encourage us all to “teach them to obey whatsoever I have commanded you”- even if it means going against the pressure of the conforming world.

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