Thursday, September 22, 2022

Burning Down the House

No, I’m not going to break into the Talking Heads’ 1983 pop hit.

I’m tempted, but I’m not going to. You really don’t want to hear me do that.

But nothing raises the temperature in a local congregation faster than any suggestion we change the music. Countless battles have been fought, and whole congregations have divided over that sort of thing.

That’s really a pity.

A Story

So there was a church. It had a lot of older people in it, but also a lot of younger people. The elder folks who ran the show looked around at what was going on in other congregations and saw how many churches were losing the younger generation. This worried them.

The signature problem always seemed to be music. Invariably, the younger people wanted to move to modern instrumentation and arrangements, and the older generation wasn’t comfortable with that.

The oldsters got together. “We have to do more for our young people, and find a way to make church real for them,” they decided, “but it’s going to be hard, because we’re going to lose our old, familiar hymns, and with them a lot of important doctrine.” So what to do?

They got the young folks together for a big meeting. “We care about you and want you to have what you need in order to become the next generation of committed Christians,” they said, “so we’re going to let you bring in the new instruments and some of the new music. All we’re asking is that you remember us and keep some of the old stuff we cherish so much.”

“Wow”, responded the young people. “Do you mean you care about us that much? We couldn’t possibly say no; but we’ll tell you what — why don’t we have both? We’ll add in a few new songs that you like, and we’ll make a place every week for some older hymns as well.”

And so the older people showed charity to the young people, and the young people showed charity back to their elders; and everybody continued in church together in peace and mutual respect.

True story. Not a fairy tale. It happened, and I can name the congregation. It just doesn’t always play out that way in every local church.

Of course, the point is not to have new music or old music: it’s to have the right music. But who knows what that is? After all, doesn’t everyone have different tastes in music?

Maybe. But the question is not one of taste, but rather of scripture. We need to care more about having the right kind of music than about having the music we prefer. That’s the Christian attitude.

Right Singing

Fortunately, the Bible does not leave us at sea on the question. In my last post, I listed two important features that the right Christian music for congregations always has: firstly, it is celebratory — it rejoices; and secondly, it does so in the truth — that is, it expresses good content with the good music.

“Rejoicing in the truth”: that’s the little phrase I suggested sums up the right focus. Singing is supposed to be an exercise of mind and intelligence. It’s a form of teaching. While its primary focus is on rejoicing, it is always about rejoicing in something particular — and hence it must be true to the word of God. But singing is also an exercise of the heart. It’s a form of thanksgiving and praise. Singing must also be pleasurable and delightful to our hearts. Sad singing is not usual in the biblical pattern. Singing is ordinarily intended to come from a thankful, rejoicing heart. Enjoying our music is not evil — it is intended by God.

And really, who could argue with that?

Songs Without Substance

Well, apparently some people could. Some people still think that one or another of these two features is actually dispensable.

Let’s start with those who value the sound of singing above the substance. Afterward, let’s think about those who prize the substance but forget the sound.

I’ve noted a common practice in some congregations of singing songs which are not directly wrong or heretical, but which are insubstantial in content. There is certainly a vogue in our day for “praise songs” which excite emotional enthusiasms but deliver little or no intelligent substance.

Now what people who promote such songs need to understand is that the hymns that we ask the congregation to sing must express some real truth about the Lord’s character or deeds, not merely excite our emotions by meaningless repetitions of “praise words”. To fail to recognize this is not merely wasteful, it is actually dangerous. What we must understand is that rejoicing is normally a product of something. We rejoice because something has happened.

I admit it is possible to generate excitement over nothing at all. But I would add that it is very hard to sustain enthusiasm that is not tied to any particular thought. Those who love enthusiasm for its own sake soon find themselves seeking new means for inducing excitement, and the tendency is to wander into false doctrines that may be rich in sentimental energy but are also deficient in truthfulness.

In the absence of sound-minded doctrine, enthusiasm will attach to well-intended but false ideas. For example it is common for people become drunk with enthusiasm over immoderate notions of the Lord’s humanity, and sentimentally attribute fallibility to him. Reinforced by emotional experience, these disastrous doctrinal notions become unassailably locked into the affections of the Lord’s people.

The weak and young of the church are particularly susceptible to this mistake. Sometimes the young love the doctrines that make them weep but ignore the doctrines that demand careful thought and emotional control. And the song leader who stokes enthusiasm without content leads the Lord’s people down a short road to error.

Bad move.

Words Without Passion

On the other hand, one of the mistakes of older congregations is to prefer hymns that might be fairly sound, but in which not much attention is given to the quality of the music. Their thinking seems to be that if the words are right the music does not matter.

But they’ve failed to grasp the celebratory contribution of good music. Indeed, why sing at all, if words alone matter? Why not simply read or chant? I think that the answer is that the Lord wants us to express our gratitude from the heart as well as from the head, and music has a wonderful power to consolidate the affections and to focus them on the Lord.

I would argue that because of this we should give very careful attention to the quality of the music. It should be so chosen and so performed as to enhance the words in every possible way. So, for example, a careless, quick tune can hide the solemnity of profound words — and in just the same way, a slow, miserable tune can rob joyful words of their joy. The lyrics must be enhanced by the music, not hidden or contradicted by it. Some words should be sung slowly, perhaps even without accompaniment. Others should be sung with verve and enthusiasm. It all depends on the words.

Form Follows Function

We need to remember that new songs are not all evil, nor are old songs all good. Good songs are those which teach the truth well. When the music and the lyrics are working for the same purpose, then singing is working the way it should.

Beautiful words should be beautifully sung — at least as far as our means allow. But music cannot be beautiful if the arrangement selected is too far beyond the abilities of the congregation.

Whatever music we choose should be functional for the people who will sing it. Some music is pretty but awkward in pitch, timing or sequencing. Hymns that are hard for a group of normal folks to sing should be reserved for personal singing, not inflicted on the congregation. The goal is for all to be able to sing with unity, conviction and passion.

In the End

Music rightly holds an important place in our gatherings. It is a divine gift for the unifying of the saints in the truth and for the outpouring of their gratitude to the Lord. It is fully deserving of our greatest care and our most enthusiastic participation.

It also has a unique ability to raise strong opinions. And having strong feelings is okay, so long as we remember Whose house we are, what we’re supposed to be doing in light of that, and who these other people around us are to him.

Yes, together we Christians are the Lord’s house. We’re his people, his bride, his beloved. And all that we do is to glorify him and edify our brothers and sisters, with whom we will spend eternity. Fortunately, the Lord has not left us without the principles to make our music what he wants it to be. So we really needn’t fight. We can just turn to scripture and see, and reconcile over that.

We don’t have to burn down the house.


  1. "There is certainly a vogue in our day for “praise songs” which excite emotional enthusiasms but deliver little or no intelligent substance."

    Can you give an example of a popular praise song used in church congregations today that you feel falls in this category?

    "....must express some real truth about the Lord’s character or deeds, not merely excite our emotions by meaningless repetitions of “praise words”."

    The only repetitious praise words that I can think of have to do with "the deed" that Christ performed on the cross of Calvary so I'll ask again for you to provide an example of this "meaningless repetition" that you speak of?

    "To fail to recognize this is not merely wasteful, it is actually dangerous. What we must understand is that rejoicing is normally a product of something."

    Well, duh. I think I already covered what the "product" is. This entire section of your post seems to me to be "meaningless repetition" of words in general and are "dangerous" if you want to get specific.

    8Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness.

    Let the whole world know what he has done.

    9Sing to him; yes, sing his praises.

    Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds.

    10Exult in his holy name;

    rejoice, you who worship the Lord.

    11Search for the Lord and for his strength;

    CONTINUALLY seek him. 1 Chr 16:8-11

    "....rejoice because your names are registered in heaven." Luke 10:20

    Now, there's two examples of "particular thought" that we can "sustain enthusiasm" over, don't you agree?

    I anxiously anticipate those examples of actual praise songs you consider so dangerous!!!!

  2. Sure, Micah. I could easily give quite a few.

    Of course, I have no knowledge of what you sing in your congregation, and perhaps (let me give you the benefit of the doubt) your group has done all the diligence it needs. But yes, I could easily do that in the case of my own congregation, and for those I know. Nevertheless, I find myself asking, "Should I? Or would doing so just draw attention to particular contentious cases and away from the two general principles for which I've been plugging?" And I think I want to leave the power in your hands, and let your discernment do the work.

    You see, I'm really not interested at all in picking out particular songs or becoming the censor for anyone's selection. A major point I would wish to make in these articles is that music is a spiritual activity, and as such requires discernment according to Scriptural standards to be exercised by every congregation.

    So I would rather supply right general criteria, and leaving it to each person's own particular discernment and to the particular musical pieces they favour. For It's between them and the Lord whether they think the criteria I've been pointing out are biblical or not. If there's a problem in their hymnology or they have become cavalier in their doctrine, they will never answer to me for what they decide to sing. And if they have not been letting this slide, then nothing in this article applies to them anyway.

    Look back, and you'll see that so far I've plugged for only two criteria:

    1. Songs that speak truth about God.

    2. Songs that are of good musical quality.

    Now if you have an objection, then to which of those criteria is it? Or are you irritated by the very suggestion that discernment is appropriate in musical matters -- for I don't see that I've said more than those things. I have not insulted the hymnology of your congregation (since I do not know what it is), nor have I spoken unkindly of any of your "praise songs", (since I don't know what yours are) and certainly not of the idea of "praise" as such (since I wholeheartedly approve of praise that conforms to the above criteria).

    "Exulting?" Check. "Continually?" Check. "Biblically, as in 1 Chronicles?" Check. "Rejoicing?" Check...

    Consequently, I really cannot quite understand what's offending you. Can you explain?

  3. I just want an example of this dangerous praise singing that has apparently permeated the Christian church these days. I want you to define what it looks and sounds like so I can alert all the Christ-centered congregants in my area.

    "I have not insulted the hymnology....." Nobody suggested you insulted hymnology because it's not the subject matter. Why would you try and deflect from my disagreement with your assessment of "praise songs" and their inherent dangers by bringing up hymnology?

    So seriously, is it Jeremy Camp, Israel Houghton, Plum or Third Day that has dangerously and with perilous intentions invaded the Christian church with repetitive nonspiritual verse? Oh I know, it must be Matt Redman. He's from the United Kingdom and has written many songs performed originally by numerous Dove Award winners. If you're unfamiliar with the Dove Awards you might want to Google it and familiarize yourself with the people who know how to stoke enthusiasm WITH content.

    I have no problem with you making significant clarifications about the things which you have bloviated about and that I wholeheartedly disagree with. The reason you won't give examples of this dangerous situation churches have gotten themselves into is because it's not true. I believe you are highly intelligent and wouldn't allow yourself to associate with the type of things you write about here.

    Tell me this, what is your musical background?

    1. Wow. 323 posts over two calendar years, many of them concerning subjects like ISIS, Islam, feminism, homosexuality, casual sex and all manner of doctrinal divisions within Christendom, and THIS is what gets an intense response?

      Talk about irony. IC’s post – the subject of your objection – start with this very statement: “… nothing raises the temperature in a local congregation faster than any suggestion we change the music.” So you’ve proven IC to be a prophet in that respect, Micah.

      I’m not going to get in the middle of this except to point out that you seem to have misunderstood what it is IC called “dangerous”, at least the way I read it.

      You’ve used the word this way: “ ‘praise songs’ and their inherent dangers”, “dangerous praise singing”, “this dangerous situation churches have gotten themselves into” and “dangerously and with perilous intentions” as if IC has argued that the praise songs themselves are inherently dangerous or that their writers and singers are motivated by nefarious intentions, or that a few babbly praise tunes in isolation will be the end of a congregation.

      But the one and only time IC actually used the word “dangerous” in his post was when he said this: “To fail to recognize this [“this” being that hymns ought to be based on truth, not merely emotional and meaningless] is not merely wasteful, it is actually dangerous.”

      When I read that statement, I get the impression that he’s saying that it is *lack of discernment* that is the danger, not the hymns themselves or their writers and proponents.

      If we’re going to disagree, we may as well do it over what he actually said, rather than about your inadvertent mischaracterization of it.

  4. Tom's got me right, Micah. The word "dangerous" in my post refers to lack of discernment, not to "praise songs" per se. I don't know what I can say more than that.

  5. I want an example of "words without passion" that Christian churches use in their praise and worship segments of a typical service. IC writes as if he has first person knowledge of this phenomenon and I don't believe it.

    I'll ask again, what is your musical background?

  6. Well, I hate to be blunt, but you're way off base, Micah, on a number of points. And I think there's not much I can say to you on this topic that you're ready to hear.

    But if you are, then you can easily note that I made no arguments that depend on things like the results of the Dove Awards, or the names of your favourite artists, just as I did not criticize 1 Chronicles, nor present my own music knowledge and credentials as a reason to believe me -- although I think I could satisfy you on that point if I chose to do so. But that too would be pointless.

    In my articles, I pointed you to the facts about what Scripture teaches: music must be such that we can celebrate the truth through it. I see nothing in that to which you could possibly have a reasonable objection.

    I have already explained that I will not present myself as the authority to judge your individual taste in music, nor tell you what the Spirit of God wants you to do with particular pieces. Quite honestly, I think that's just a distractor from what really matters here -- Scripture.

    So I will only tell you what the Scripture says. You, and you alone, will have to do the discerning here. If that causes you to doubt that I have reasons for saying what I say, then so be it; you may have your doubts. You are entitled to them.

    All that matters is this: what do the Scriptures actually tell us to do about our music? If I've answered that question well, then you can forget everything else I said, or you wish to misperceive me as having said. It's not about me, about my tastes, my preferences, my music background, or even my personal intelligence. None of that matters to me, none of it should matter to you, and none of it has anything to do with the argument I've put forth.

    You seem a nice person, for the most part, so no hard feelings -- but I'm going to stick by what I wrote in the three articles, and let your belief chips fall where they may.

  7. IC, I love almost everything you write, but in this case I believe it's you who is way off base. I discerned and responded to what I believe were several unsubstantiated and naked assertions made by you. I simply wanted an example of those assertions so that I could wrap my feeble mind around what you were getting at. I don't see so those forthcoming so let's just agree to disagree as to whether there are Christian churches using their praise and worship time to use "words without passion" and unspiritual repetition.

    God bless you and Tom, thanks for sharing.

    1. Those who ask eventually get what they wish for. See

      To everything there is a season...but the time of the original three posts was not the season for specifics. The right time was some period after people had had time to process the original argument.

      I trust this squares us with your expressed concern.