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Pagan music vs. Christian music

Calvin Stapert makes the following observation about the difference between Jewish worship music and pagan worship music:

goldencalf_filippinoJewish psalmody was word-oriented, a characteristic that set it apart from the music of the sacrificial rites of the Israelites’ pagan neighbors. Pagan sacrificial music typically featured the frenzy-inducing sound of the loud double-reed instruments and the rhythms of orgiastic dancing. Words were superfluous. Temple music was different from pagan music in all these respects: words were primary in it, and they governed the rhythms; instrumental accompaniment was by stringed instruments that supported the monophonic vocal line, perhaps with some heterophonic embellishments, but never covering or distracting attention away from the words; instruments were used independently only for signaling purposes, as when trumpets and cymbals signaled the beginning of the psalm and the places at the end of sections where the worshipers should prostrate themselves.1

Stapert makes this observation in the context of view of the early church, which he argues were similar when compared to the pagan worship of Greece and Rome.

What comparisons and application could be made from these observations to music in worship today?

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 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. A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 153. []

29 Responses to Pagan music vs. Christian music

  1. It seems that a lot of our worship today involves music to get people excited about worshiping God. It has upbeat rhythms and catchy phrases – or no words, just la-la-la or yeah-yeah-yeah. This is an imitation of the music that is popular in our culture. The lyrics are shallow and the song is more about the instrumental music than the words. This does sound suspiciously like the pagan music that Stapert talks about in his book. We do not need to ‘call God down’ like the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings. God reveals himself to us and our worship is our response to him. Every church needs to seriously examine their worship music and learn to evaluate it according to the Scriptures. It is also necessary to look back to what early tradition taught about worship. We have strayed away from these teachings and we need to turn back to them.

  2. Many would argue that much of CCM music today reflects that of the pagan worship music practices such as “frenzy inducing sounds” and “rhythms of orgiastic dancing”. While there is obviously a difference between a rhythm section playing “Amazing Grace” and the same song being played from a piano, there is a fine line between what music would be considered to have the above mentioned characteristics. For example, If I were to lead a certain song such as “Mighty to Save” with a rhythm section at my church, some would say that music is not word centered, has frenzy inducing sounds, etc.. and would immediately draw parallels to pagan music. Others would describe that same situation as word focused, orderly, and music that is very tasteful to enhance the text and function in worship. I believe that qualities such as orderliness, modesty, and text driven are important characteristics of music used in Christian worship today. It is obvious today that people have different views on what musical styles reflect these characteristics.

  3. I agree with the idea that music should not over take lyric. Today CCM is very catchy; even when CCW singers or worship teams re-arrange hymns, their instrumental accompaniment is so cathy. The word catchy is very subjective.
    A particular song writer or arranger, when he or she writes or arranges the music, he or she might not have the intention to use music to stimulate worshipers’ emotion. To be stimulate by music is individual choice. Just as Augustin expressed, if the music simulate his emotion, he would rather not use music. As church music leaders, we have the responsibility to communicate this to the congregations.

  4. Brandon, you make an interesting point: people have different opinions of what “orderliness, modesty, and text driven” means. I agree that there is some gray area. However, I think there are plenty of things we can talk about with certainty. Here’s one example, what about the excessive repetition of the chorus or last line of the chorus? What is the “worshipful” purpose? We keep repeating it over and over until we don’t even have to think about it anymore. If we have to think too much about a song, we can’t let our emotions (read passions) go and really worship. This is just orgiastic emotionalism that has been made respectable by calling it “loving Jesus.” This used to just be common practice in charismatic churches, but now we see it all over, even in churches that refute charismatic doctrine. As Dr. Aniol taught us in Worship class, every aspect of our worship needs to match our doctrine. In reality, we are a pleasure-loving, pleasure-seeking society, just like the Romans; this kind of worship feels good, so we embrace it, without considering the implications.

  5. I totally agree with Stapert. This topic makes me think of something Dr. Aniol taught in class this week. He mentioned that today many people have the misconception that 21st-century America is a Christian culture. It is hard for me to understand how we could be so blind. Perhaps it is because I was born in 1959, and I have watched a significant deterioration of our culture. If we could only spend enough time in God’s Word, we would understand that we do not think, act, or look “Christian!” I believe if all of our worship leaders would seriously examine their worship practice in the understanding that much of CCM looks like, sounds like, feels like the world, many things would necessarily change. So much of what we practice in worship is like the world. The world is certainly not trying to imitate us. Why would the world want to look like the church? God’s Word even tells us the gospel is foolishness to them. SO, if we would realize that we are not worshiping in a way that is set apart from the world, I believe we would not be providing the entertainment that our pleasure-seeking society seeks.

  6. I realized that many of my statements came across as universal. I know that we have worship leaders who are intentionally providing a worshipful experience that is set apart from the world. The worship settings to which I was referring are too many in number.

  7. While I definitely see some CCM used in “worship” today as inducing frenzy, I would say that as more accurate assertion is they cause the participant to zone out. As Sarah mentioned, repetition is used to such an extent that the words no longer become the focus as the song continuously drones on. Surely this is a vast difference from frenzied, orgiastic dancing but to the same degree of distraction.

    Brandon, I was seriously just thinking about that song today as I was thinking through this very subject! I really see that besides the repetition, the song could be considered text-centered. This would definitely be a song I’d lead today with less choruses and bridges. You are definitely right about the differing opinions.

  8. Through reading the article, it remind me of what we learned in class, the importance of the text centered in Christian worship. I totally agree with Stapert’s point, and the comparison of Pagan music and Tempo music he has made. It really made me to rethink and reflecting on our today’s worship music. More people today focusing on how the music sounds like instead of pay attention to the text first. The melody, rhythm, and instruments becomes the tool to stimulate our emotions. From the history examples, just as the point in the article, we really need to examine our worship music and evaluate them through the Scripture.

  9. Contemporary music almost seems like pagan music style. Obviously, temple music was different from pagan music. The primary thing of the Pagan music is the rhythms section and the way it the instruments sound, but the primary thing about Christian music is the words. It shouldn’t be governed from the rhythms or the sound. In our worship time we care about the atmosphere or mood than word in song to God. We should turn back to original temple music and emphasize the words of the song.

  10. I agree with some of the others that sometimes that contemporary music almost seems like the pagan music style. However, it seems to me that some of the contemporary songs have returned to a more God focused song compared to the gospel songs of “When We All Get to Heaven.” The problem that I see in contemporary worship songs is the ideology that we need drive the music to give people a “worship experience”… What this means for many people is to drive peoples emotions to an emotional response that is not really worship. We have to be very careful of this as minister of music.

  11. In the U.S. there are many churches do not take Stapert’s argument seriously. It seems like many pastors do not realize that how much music could influence their church members. I think Stapert made a really good argument in his book, that “it is not just music”. I strongly agree with this point that the music people use in worship today, is not “ just music”. When a church decide to allow some kind of music appear in their service, in some way, it is telling the congregation that the worship leaders agree with the lyrics, as well as the music that underneath it. In this way, it will be very dangerous for young people to have a false understand of music for worship. I think Dr. Aniol quoted a good biblical example from Paul’s writings, “1 Cor. 10: 23 We are free to do all things, but there are things which it is not wise to do. We are free to do all things, but not all things are for the common good”.

  12. When we think about today’s worship music, it seems that we pay more attention to the music itself rather than the text. As we learned in class, the important distinguish between Christian worship and pagan worship is the text centered in Christian worship. I totally agree with Stapert’s points on difference between Jewish worship and pagan worship: “words were primary in it, and they governed the rhythms;instrumental accompaniment was by stringed instruments that supported the monophonic vocal line, perhaps with some heterophonic embellishments, but never covering or distracting attention away from the words.” Today’s praise songs somehow driving our attention away from the words, which is not a good sign. As worship leaders we should consider more before we choose songs to lead the congregation.

  13. The current Contemporary church music is very dangerous.
    We think we are in the Christendom but we are in the Worship wars.
    I do agree with what Dr.Aniol stated that every church music should be the “Word” center and focus on the Christ.

  14. A lot of CCM today is like the pagan music of ancient times. While we may not label music “frenzy-inducing,” the contemporary worship today is geared to getting everyone on some sort of emotional high. Many average Christians today have been fooled into believing that this emotional high is actually worship. They will sing during the service, waiting for that one song that will really move them. Unfortunately, that’s where they start worshipping the feeling contemporary worship gives them, rather than worshipping God Himself.

  15. Leyi, you are absolutely right about pastors not realizing the influential role music has on people. My former pastor certainly did not. He actually said to my husband, “Throw the people a bone,” because Chris was being stringent about what music he brought before the congregation and rejecting most of the new songs people were bringing to him. I strongly believe we need to re-institute a worship class for non-musicians here at SWBTS.

  16. Sarah, I totally believe that a worship class for all students should be re-instituted. This would give them a biblical foundation in worship that many pastors do not necessarily have.

  17. I completely agree that “Worship” should be common core at SWBTS for more than just music concentration. I can also agree with Matt that worship music nowadays is an entity that cannot seem to survive without driving instrumentation. Though lyrical focus has been altered for the better, this continued surge of driving style begs to question how much thought is put into the entertainment value of a song rather than the glory of God. Like the textual content, if the focus of the style is not subservient, it will compete with God in the focus of our minds.

  18. Sarah I agree with you. Repetition of phrase is inappropriate if worship is about teaching doctrine because repletion of phrase limits the doctrine that suppose to be taught. I grew up in charismatic church. I had the experience that repetition of phrase really stirs emotion. In this case repetition of phrase is inappropriate for stirring emotion.

  19. I agree with the idea of re-instituting a class on worship for non-musicians. If not, we will continue filling church positions with people who are simply without understanding of the appropriate ways to worship.

    While I agree that too much of our worship music today is not text-driven, is performed with distracting instruments, and works people into an emotional frenzy, we must remember that we can use appropriate music and be so pleased with ourselves for worshiping appropriately that our hearts are still not truly worshiping God. In other words, we must be careful that we do not allow our obedience to become an idol.

  20. Yes, I believe every seminary students should have worship class, so that they might build up a general idea about music in worship. Texts are important, but congregational not justing reading texts during the service, they sing. If pastor and minister in church only care about texts and do not consider, know, and realizing the influential role music has on people, the music ministry is unhealthy in that church.

  21. To further comment on the issue of repetition, I do realize that repetition is characteristic of pagan music, but I have heard others say that repetition is also a characteristic of Christian music. They have brought me to the various response passages in Psalms as well as the examples of the angels endlessly proclaiming Holy, Holy Holy. I do see how repetition can be used to stir up the emotions, but are there any good uses for repetition in christian music?

  22. I think that Matt is exactly right about some of today’s worship music. There are some great lyrics being written that do focus on God. It’s the music itself that we expect to give people an experience – whether it’s an upbeat experience or a reflective one. How important is it that people have an ‘experience’ during worship? Music does affect our emotions so how do you discern what is correct?

  23. Debbie, maybe it’s not so much that we expect the music to give an “experience,” but we more or less expect the music to set the mood or tone? Just wondering.

  24. These days youth group worship style is getting more and more the same as pagan music style. After song time it doesn’t focus on the word of God. I think it is a big problem. One of the primary things in worship is the focus on God during worship. Church leaders have to help them do this, for it should be clearly distingushed between Pagan music and Christian music.
    I agree that pastors have to realize the influential role music has on people. I also believe that we need to reinstitute a worship class for nonmusicians who will do God’s ministry. `

  25. I also agree that is necessary for seminary students to take worship class. I think it is important just like music students have to take theology courses. As many already mentioned that some pastors only focus on texts, and ignored the role of the music, and not knowing the big influence the music have. I also have seen some musicians in the church cares only about the music. I think both kinds are not healthy. The congregations need to have the correct concept on worship. Worship leaders and pastors have the responsibility to guard and to deliver the right message on worship to the congregations.

  26. In my opinion, Christian should not ignore the music style in our culture. Unless a musical style is not for devil music, we could use it in the worship service because musical style or instruments are neutral. Only what I concern is how the musicians sing or play hymns. If they do it with all their heart, and Holy Spirit works among them, it is the true worship. One more thing I would like to mention is that if a musician (no matter what he plays) truly worship to God, the musician helps congregation to open their mind to God.

  27. Music has two folds of operation. It can be helpful to remove cancer or can kill someone. As worship leader, we both need to understand and the consequences of using music to lead people into truth.

    Here is what I put in order:
    1. Driven by the “word”.
    Choose the songs that reflects the word/sermon

    2. Musical elements and styles are important.
    I believe that musical styles and harmonic structures and forms are very important as well because no matter the word is true, if we don’t deliver the text in right way, we might off the target.

  28. I think it can be quite useful to produce the kind of worship music that we advocate. Scott, you’ve done so and thus I plan to purchase a copy of ‘God Himself Is With Us’. Thank you for another interesting discussion.

  29. When we are talking about the pagan music, I think I do not have a clear understanding of the difference between the pagan music and folk music in today’s world. When we are talking about “borrowing” music from pagan music, many questions raised in my mind, “who borrowed whose music?”; “is it really wrong to borrow some good music that fits the biblical worship?” and “is it the music, the melody, the accompany or the way of how people use the music?”.

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