Why do we use music in worship?
This may seem like an odd question. Most — if not all — churches have music, don’t they? This is just how it has always been, right?
I think this is a very important question because how you answer the question is one of the factors that will determine your overall philosophy of music and worship. If you answer this question wrongly, you won’t necessarily have unbiblical music, but I think wrong answers to this question are at the heart of wrong music.
Why do we use music in worship? I think the most common answer to this question goes something like this: sacred music is right truth packaged nicely. We take good, doctrinal truth, and we set it to something we enjoy so that it will be memorable and so that we can learn the truth. There is some truth to answers like this, but I think such an answer is inadequate.
The reason this kind of answer is inadequate is that it completely misses the primary reason that we have sacred music. The people who answer this way focus only on the words of sacred music and give no consideration to the actual music itself or even to the poetic form of the words. The danger with that kind of view is that it leads to the philosophy that as long as the words are biblically sound, we can use whatever musical forms we enjoy.
I am going to argue that the purpose for music in the church goes beyond simply the words. The reason we have music involves more than just a nice setting for teaching and affirming biblical truth.
In order to answer the question of why we use music in worship, we need to first answer the question, what is worship?
What is Worship?
The primary text that explains to us the essence of worship is in John 4. In this passage Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. In order to change the subject off of her sin, the woman asks Jesus about the proper outward forms of worship. The Samaratins say we need to worship on Mt. Gerazim, the Jews believe we must worship on Mt. Zion; so what is the proper way to worship? Jesus replies in verse 21:
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. 23But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. 24God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
Both the Jews and the Samaritans were preoccupied with the outward forms of worship, and for good reason. God had established very specific forms for Jewish worship in the Old Testament. But Jesus replied that with his coming, the outward rituals were no longer necessary. Instead, he focused on what the essence of worship has always been — response of the spirit to truth. When believers understand truth about God, and they respond rightly in their spirits.
Now what did Jesus mean when he referred to response of the spirit? He was de-emphasizing the physical manifestations of worship in favor of immaterial, spiritual responses — that is, response of the heart; response of the affections.
Now, we need to stop for just a moment and consider this notion of the affections, because it is often misunderstood today. When I say “affections,” I am not referring to merely physical feelings, things like butterflies in the stomach, goosebumbs, tears, or exhilaration. Affection may be accompanied by physical feelings, but the feelings themselves do not define the affection. And just because you have the feeling does not imply that you have the affection, because people are often stimulated to feel certain ways without any thought.
Remember, when Jesus speaks of response of the spirit — response of the affections — he is speaking of a response to truth, so intellectual thought is necessary. Physical feelings can often be stimulated without any thought. I’ll give an example.
The difference affection that results in feelings and feelings that are merely chemical responses to a stimulus is like the difference between laughing because you’ve been tickled and laughing because you get a joke. When I tickle my son and he has certain feelings that result in laughing, nothing is going on in his mind intellectually. He is merely responding to a stimulus. However, if I were to tell you a joke, you would have the same physical response of laughing, but it would be because you have intellectually comprehended the punch line.
So when Jesus says response of the spirit, and I say that He means responses of our affections, I am talking about a response of our hearts after we have understood and affirmed truth, and it may or may not be accompanied by physical feelings.
Jesus is saying, therefore, that the essence of worship, regardless of the outward physical forms, is spiritual response of our affections to truth about God as revealed in His Word.
Therefore, anything used for worship — whether personal worship in all of life or congregational worship — must facilitate proper responses of the spirit to right biblical truth. In other words, anything sacred must do two things: it must help a believer understand more biblical doctrine and help him properly respond to that truth.
Now when we think in terms of congregational worship, we can easily list elements of a service that accomplish the first goal, teaching truth. Scripture reading, reciting confessions of faith, the texts of hymns or other music, and the preaching all help to teach right, biblical truth to believers in the service.
Most churches rightly focus on this important part of worship. They make certain that right biblical truth is being clearly taught. But what about the second goal? What about helping believers respond properly with their spirits — with their affections — to truth about God? You see, it is not enough simply to understand truth about God and mentally assent to it. That is not worship. According to John 4, God is worshiped in spirit and truth, that is, responses of the spirit to truth. Many problems exist today in churches, I believe, because many churches rightly emphasize sound doctrine and righteous living, but they fail to emphasize right affections. Churches today are filled with people who know the Bible, but live controlled by unbiblical passions. We need to acknowledge that just like our beliefs need sanctification and our morals need sanctification, so our emotions need sanctification. We often feel wrongly, and we need to learn to feel rightly about God and His truth.
So how does a church help believers respond to truth with right affections, then? Certainly truth and righteousness are at the root of biblical affections, so teaching and preaching does help a believer respond correctly. But the fact of the matter is that emotion simply cannot be adequately put into words. If I want to tell you what you should believe, I use words. If I want to tell you how you should act, I use words. But If I want to tell you how you should feel, words are inadequate. Furthermore, words are not only incapable of telling you how you should feel, but they are also inadequate as expressions of how you feel. Any husband knows what it is to be unable to adequately express with words the love he has for his wife. No wife is satisfied with an occasional, “I love you” — only words to express what can better be expressed by other means. Sometimes a look or a touch does more to express heartfelt affection than any words can. Or this is why we have love poems — they help us express love in a way that cannot be expressed with just words. Likewise, Christians need another language than just words to both prescribe the affections they should have for God and describe the affections they do have for God.
That other language is music.
Using Music to Mature the Emotions
If churches want to help believers respond to truth with right kinds of affection, then they need music. God has given man music as a tool to help him express right emotions. Any casual reader of Scripture will recognize the clear connection between music and emotional expression. Here are just a few examples:
How did Moses and the people of Israel express their joy in being delivered from Egypt? “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD : “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted” (Ex 15.1)
When the Israelites defeated the Canaanites in Judges 5, they sang a song: “”Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I will sing to the LORD, I will sing; I will make music to the LORD, the God of Israel.
When David wanted to express a broken and contrite heart to the Lord, he did so through music in Psalm 51.
In Psalm 108, David specifically says that he will sing and make music with his soul, linking music and the expression of emotions.
Psalm 147 says that we should express our thanksgiving through song.
And of course the Psalms are filled with commands to express our affection and praise to the Lord through music.
Ephesians 5.19 says that we are to sing and make melody with our hearts to the Lord.
In Acts 16 when Paul and Silas were in prison and probably fearful for their lives, what did they do? They sang hymns to God.
James 5.13 says: “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.”
And the fact of the matter is that we will be singing as an expression of our affection for God for all eternity (Rev 5.13)!
Scarcely is there a mention of music in the Bible without some connection to emotion. If anything is clear from the Bible’s discussions of music, it is that God thinks that music is important. So should we. Music provides a language for a right expression of emotion, and good music actually educates our emotions so that we feel about God and His truth rightly. This is why those who say that the purpose of music in the church is simply to teach or affirm truth are completely missing the function of music. Certainly sacred music can do this to a certain extent, but if our only purpose is to teach truth, then there are many far better ways to do so. Preaching, teaching, reciting doctrinal statements, etc. are far better suited to expressing propositional truth than poetry and music. This confusion may be the reason music is viewed with so much indifference in churches. If our only goal is to teach and affirm truth through music, then to most people music seems to fail — and they are probably right. But music is not incidental; music is not just something nice that we have to accompany truth. We should view music in the church as that which helps us express our affections and that which teaches us what are affections should be.
So the power of music is that it (1) helps us express affection when we can’t put it into words and (2) it actually teaches us what we should be feeling. Let’s unpack these two purposes of music with specific reference to sacred music.
Music as Expression of Emotion
As we saw earlier, words are unable to adequately express what we feel. Sacred music — that is, poetry and music — provides us with the language we are lacking in the expression of our affections. So in a church service as we contemplate truth and goodness, we use music to help us take the next step and respond with our affections. We believe in the holiness of God, but when we put that truth to a fitting tune, we can express how we feel about that truth. We believe that Jesus sacrificed for us on the cross, but when we put that truth to a fitting tune, we can better express how we feel about that truth when mere words wouldn’t be sufficient.
Now, emotion for its own sake is not what we’re after. Many contemporary churches have it right when they insist that expression of emotion is a critical part of the church’s work. However, they often have a misunderstanding of emotion and end up focusing on emotion for its own sake apart from the necessary connection to biblical truth. I’m afraid that many churches that have excellent doctrine but are using pop music with that doctrine are doing so because they confuse the physical feelings with true, biblical responses of the spirit — true affections. They end up focusing on the feelings themselves instead of the truth. Our emotions must be connected to biblical truth.
Fundamental churches have historically erred in the opposite direction, viewing expression of emotion as somehow inferior to the intellect or morality. We must view emotion on the same level as truth and morality. Did not Christ say that the greatest commandment was expression of affection to God? But even here emotion is intricately connected to truth and goodness, for if we love God, we will keep His commandments. So while we must move toward a better focus on our emotional maturity, we must be careful that our emotions are connected to biblical truth and moral goodness.
Music as Teacher of Emotion
So music helps us express right affection for truth when we cannot adequately put it into words, and second, music actually teaches our emotions.No passage better illustrates this point of music as a teacher of the emotions than Colossians 3.16:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
Notice that it says that we should teach and admonish each other with music.1 Now I do not doubt that the teaching here involves using the words to teach truth and goodness as well. But I believe that the primary part of man that is being taught by music is his emotions. This is evidenced by the phrase, “with gratitude in your hearts,” emphasizing the internal aspect. Also the parallel passage, Ephesians 5, “sing and making music in your heart.” The word translated “sing” is used for vocal music, and the word translated “making music” is used for the playing of a stringed instrument. In other words, what these verses are talking about refers more than just music with words; it refers to music without words as well. So music helps us actually teach believers’ emotions.
We can see this kind of thing evidenced in Scripture. When Saul was in a terrible emotional state, David used music to change and mature his emotions (1 Sam 16.23). When Paul and Silas were in prison, they used hymns to lift their spirits (Ac 16.25).
Just like we need teaching to correct our wrong thinking and our wrong acting, so we need teaching to correct our wrong feeling. And music is just that teacher. Our society today is filled with such wrong feelings. Accidently cut someone off and the rage rises right to the surface. But Christians have the same kinds of wrong feelings. And when we fill our lives with music that expresses rage, we are doing nothing to help our problem. We are not helping to teach are emotions.
I think one of the biggest problems in churches and especially with young people is an have a unbiblical, sentimental, sensual view of love. Again, this view of love is more about the feelings themselves than true, biblical affection. One of the factors that has lead to this, I believe, is filling our lives with music that may not seem overtly evil, but it expresses a sentimental, smarmy, light, fluffy view of life and love. And then, even worse, we bring the same kind of music into the church, and our view of love for God is equally wrong.
Instead, we must view all music, and sacred music in particular, as a tool to help us teach ourselves how we should be feeling — how we should be responding with our affections to truth.
So this is why we use music in church: First, we use music to help us express right affection to the Lord. When we respond to truth, music helps us respond with our affections when we might not otherwise have the right words to say. Second, good music educates our emotions, and tells us what we should be feeling. When we don’t know what kind of affection we should have, or when we actually have the wrong kinds of emotions, good music can teach us what kind of affection is right.
We can draw several very important implications from these truths about the purpose of music in the Christian’s life, and more specifically, in the life of our church:
1. Just as we should be striving to think more rightly and act more rightly, so should we be seeking to feel more rightly toward God. We rightly make much of striving to grow doctrinally and in holiness, but we also need to make emotional development a priority as well. We should make this a priority for our children. It is a tragedy that music education has been largely removed from the schools. Music education used to be mandatory, because people realized that music helped develop the whole person — mind, will, and emotions. But our society has lost that vision. Therefore it remains for the church to take up this responsibility and educate our families in music.
2. Just as church leadership has the responsibility to teach the congregation in areas of truth and goodness, so it has the responsibility to teach them concerning their emotions. The pastoral leadership of a church makes decisions regarding what kind of truth and what kind of holiness they will teach. But they also must make decisions concerning what kinds of emotions they will teach, and this primarily has to do with what music they choose. The congregation, then, should submit to the leadership’s decisions regarding truth, goodness, and emotion and strive to grow in these areas. Another great tragedy that has occurred in our society is that we do not insist that pastors be musically trained. This has not always been the case. In fact, the great reformer Martin Luther said, “Neither should we ordain young men as preachers, unless they have been well exercised in music.” Luther was scornful of those who “want to be theologians when they cannot even sing.” One of the biggest reasons church music in our society is shallow and debauched is that most, if not all, pastors are completely ignorant when it comes to music. We need to mandate music training in Bible college and seminary because pastors are just as responsible for the emotional maturity of their people as they are their people’s doctrinal and moral maturity.
3. Just as not all emotion is appropriate for expression to God, so not all music is appropriate. Not all forms of emotion are appropriate for expression to God. Our affections should be connected to truth and they should be right and wholesome. We would never express love for our spouse in the same way that we would express love for our dog. Likewise, we should never express love to God in the same way that we would express love for our spouse. The same is true for many emotions, and each of us is responsible to think through what kinds of emotions are appropriate for God. And it is especially the responsibility of church leaders to make decisions about what emotions are appropriate for worship. Since music serves as an expression and teach of emotion, it is therefore true as well that not all music is appropriate. We should use only that music which helps us express right emotions and teaches us to have better affection for God.
4. Singing in church is not optional. Listening to preaching is not optional. Reciting doctrinal statements or reading Scripture is not optional. Being holy is not optional. Loving God is not optional. Neither is singing optional for believers. We should be concerned about our minds, wills, and emotions. Therefore, we should listen attentively to preaching and teaching, we should participate with eagerness when we read Scripture or recite doctrinal statements, and we should strive to educate our emotions through the music in church services. Our churches are filled with people who do not know how to rightly express affection to God because they refuse to participate in the music of the church. Someone who has doctrinal and moral maturity but no emotional maturity is an immature Christian. This is a great need in our churches.
5. The music we consume outside the church is also important — it, too, shapes our emotions. We’ve talked much about sacred music, but all music shapes our emotions. This is why we must be concerned about what kind of music we listen to and perform at any time. If you have as your musical diet music that debases your affections, then you are disobeying God’s commands to mature your emotions. You must be very critical of the music you listen to. You should only perform and listen to music that actually helps your spiritual walk and matures your emotions. You should choose the best music that teaches you what kinds of emotions you should have as a mature believer. This is the main reason many people have difficulty with good music in churches today. If all people listen to six days out of the week is debasing music, then it’s no wonder they cannot appreciate good music that expresses right emotion. Rock ‘n Roll, jazz, and Country Western music contain debase emotional expression that Christians should avoid. On the other hand, legitimate folk music and classical music can educate a person’s affections and make them more mature.
The essence of worship is response of our affections to biblical truth. If we want to worship God rightly, then we need to express right affections to Him as we understand His truth. Music is a tool to help that happen. We need to be sure that our doctrine is right, or teaching of holiness is right, and our music is right. Music is important to God; it should be important to His church as well.
- Some debate exists as to whether “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” qualify “teaching and admonishing.” However, the grammatical structure favors this interpretation. See David F. Detwiler, “Church Music and Colossians 3.16,” BibSac 158: 631 (July 2001), 358. “To assign these datives to ‘singing’ would create an overload of qualifying statements and destroy the symmetry of the two participial clauses. Also to assign them to ‘teaching and admonishing’ is consistent with the unambiguous parallel of Ephesians 5.19 . . .” [↩]