What Do You Say about Church Music?

By Randy Gariss

Within the American church, few topics have brought out more absurdity, immaturity, and blind passion than the discussion of “what shall the music in our worship services be like?” Of course, there are exceptions, but if one listens to the discussion in blogs, small groups, church hallways, and around Christian family dinner tables, let’s just say our finest behavior is seldom on display when we are discussing worship music.

Why has the style of music in a worship service been such a lightning rod for disagreement? What has caused this issue to tower over the landscape of church life, when other issues—vital issues like discipleship or lost people or poverty—should demand our attention? And worse yet, how has it grown past the stage of congregational discontent to something even more repugnant, a prime cause for broken relationships within a church?


Quite a Collection

First, let’s recognize that music in worship is a “collection issue.” When you find a magnet in a drawer, you’ll likely find quite a few other things attracted and attached to it. Worship is the same.

A discussion of worship brings with it not only our understanding of God, but also an assortment of other complex ideas and emotions. This “collection” may be harder for us to identify and articulate, but even more than our theology, it explains why we think on this issue as we do.

One item in the collection is the assortment of deep emotions shaped out of our past experiences. A young woman, for example, may forever have the hint of tears come to her eyes when certain songs are played or sung, because she had sung those songs as a 12-year-old at Christian camp, when she was first beginning to grasp God’s love for her. Her grandmother may have a similar reaction to different songs, of a far different style, for she too has memories shaped in her heart decades before her granddaughter was born.

Each of these believers has a unique musical “heart language.” Our musical heart language for worship is usually acquired at that time in life when we first came to know what it means to trust and love the Lord. We may learn many other styles of music, we may even enjoy and be fluent in multiple expressions, but there remains something very special about a heart language.

Illustrated another way: I have a pair of friends, a married couple, who are fluent in many languages. They use those languages for various purposes, and are enriched because of them, but whenever they want to express their deepest emotions to the other, they go back to their first language, their heart language, the language they both knew when they first fell in love. They can communicate several ways, but they communicate deepest one way.

When worship music is being discussed, something far more than just a preference is involved; we are talking about the inclusion or exclusion of an individual’s heart language and of the deep emotions that music evokes.

A second item that attaches itself to worship music is the role music styles play in group identity. Look at the cultures around the world; most every group has “markers” that help the group establish its distinctiveness and help the individuals know their place within the group.

It may sound odd for this discussion, but consider gangs and their “colors,” prisoners and their unique tattoos. These two examples are extreme caricatures of a normal life pattern. We may pretend not to notice, and pretend that we are above it, but we each want to belong somewhere and to know our place in that group.

Music has long been a marker. Do you remember high school? Did you recognize that country music did not pull together the “cowboy crowd”? Rather, the people were friends, and country music was a marker. Their knowledge of the same songs, their shared life, with the radio on in the background, was all a part of their group identity.

So what happens at church when you don’t know the songs, you don’t recognize the rhythms, and everyone else seems to be doing what they do, but you don’t feel like you fit? The question quickly moves from music to something much deeper. You wonder if this is your group. Am I in or out? Do they want me? Do I belong better in a group somewhere else?

That question will occur to the young adult who hears music in the church unlike the music she chooses throughout the week. It will also occur to the elderly couple in a church that seems to be abandoning the music that has connected them to God and others of their generation for decades. No, music style in the church is not just a theological issue; it is also an issue of “am I wanted?”

Personality is another part of the collection. Some individuals crave change and delight in it, while others feel safest in the secure routine. Therefore, a variety in music feeds the hearts of some, but unsettles others. Both groups may attend the same Sunday morning event, but have very different experiences.


What Do You Say?

So what do we do with all of this?

Here are five possibilities:

• “I must have my heart language and my style of music. Give me my music or I will go somewhere else.”

The problem with this answer is that, while God is collecting to himself a people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9), we’re saying, “Not here! At least not until you change your heart language to mine.” We might be on shaky ground there.

• “The majority rules. Whoever can collect the most votes wins!”

That seems democratic, but consider the multiple passages in Romans and Corinthians about not pleasing ourselves. Instead, each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself (Romans 15).

• “We who were here first should have our music. We’re entitled because we paid for this place.”

(A good argument, but see the previous paragraph.)

• “The old people have had their time, and it is up. It is time for younger generations to have their shot at advancing the kingdom.”

While that sounds progressive and for a good cause, remember the Pharisees claimed to be doing kingdom good as they “dishonored” their parents. Jesus used words about them that frighten me. And it seems a bit unloving to tell Grandma there is no longer any place in our gathering for the music and lyrics that gave expression to her faith.

• “Here, let me make room for you. Not just room in this row, but room for you in my praise of the King who redeemed such a motley bunch. Our singing may sound a bit ‘international’; you will hear a variety of heart languages used here. I want to sing some of mine, but I want to sing more of yours . . . for when we gather, I want to celebrate more him, more us, and less about me.”

In short, music is a complex issue. As such, it serves as a primary litmus test for the maturity of a great number of believers and churches. Will the leaders incorporate multiple “languages” into our gatherings? Will the believers fight for the unity of the many or will they fight only for themselves? Will our music be a marker that celebrates our diversity or our exclusivity? Will our music reflect our unity or our divisiveness?


Randy Gariss serves as preaching minister with College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri. 

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  1. Ken Read
    August 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Well said, Randy. Your explanation of heart language and markers was easy to grasp and helped to diffuse a divisive topic. And your five options of application are clear and helpful. I very much agree with your conclusion. I have described the non-inclusive approach as catering to immaturity rather than calling ourselves to unity. Thanks for writing.

  2. August 2, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Really good look at many of the subtle factors that have caused (and perhaps will always cause) the questions of music in worship to involve great investments of passion and loyalty. The meta-message of inclusion (or its sad opposite of feeling ignored, unwanted, or unappreciated) as it relates to music is a great insight. This needs to be discussed among all the leaders of a church.

    The challenge, as you suggest, is to choose intentional inclusion of both young and old. A primary part of this is listening to some of the groups that feel somewhat ignored. What are the songs or styles that would make them know they belong? And, of course, helping people to put effort into learning music outside their comfort zone.

    Part of the challenge also involves our musicians. Songs written for four-part harmony and piano are sometimes very difficult to reproduce with the instruments of a modern praise band. The progressions of chords are often unfamiliar and awkward. Musicians, like everyone, do not enjoy music they find foreign and awkward. On the other hand, they also have their own favorite styles and sounds. The great challenge is to encourage them to think from the congregation’s point of view, and not their own. To listen to worship music we do not care for is a challenge. To plan and play and lead worship music that includes music the musicians do not care for is an even greater challenge.

    Randy’s insights, particularly coming from his perspective in preaching and leadership in a large, dynamic, multigenerational church long enough to both see and experience the ups and downs of changes in worship music are important. This needs to be widely read.

  3. August 3, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I grew up attending a very traditional church with a gospel choir, and for that reason, I tend to lean more toward choir-type music when I choose what type of worship service to attend. However, I don’t think there’s any reason at all for there to be an argument or “disagreement” regarding church music—-as long as we’re praising God, I think the music takes a back burner to the message we’re portraying to churchgoers.

  4. Paul
    August 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Why is it that we place so much emphasis on music, when we should be focusing more on prayer and the reading of scripture? Worship comes in so many forms and I do understand that music and singing are the easiest way to worship, corporately but are they really the BEST way to worship corporately?

    Prayer – Communing with God (Including asking for prayer)
    Reading of Scripture – God communing with us
    Sharing of a meal – Communing with the local body (Communion is a major part of this)
    Reading the letters of missionaries – Communing with the ‘foreign/distant’ body
    Giving of tithes and offerings – increasing our trust and faith in God

    These are the things a true worship service should focus on; not what hymn should we sing next or what song the worship band should play.

    I find it a shame that worship has been bogged down to, “3 songs/hymns, 30 seconds of fellowship, 1 minute of prayer, two more songs, Communion, 1 song, Offering, special music and a closing song after the sermon…

    I believe that the first century Church would be appalled at our idea of “worship”.

  5. Doug Olson
    August 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm


    After twenty years in music ministry, this is the best article I’ve read on this issue.

  6. Jerry Pernell
    August 6, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    It looks like there’s a simple explanation to me as to why there is so much disagreement about this subject. If everyone would actually read and then understand what God has said about singing during worship, it looks pretty plain to me that all we should be doing is SINGING. I don’t read anywhere in the New Testament about any incorporating any “music” during worship. THAT is the root cause of this issue. Simple as that. When people start doing whatever they want during worship services, THIS is what happens EVERY TIME.

  7. Paul
    August 6, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    Jerry, music isn’t the problem. There are a good many issues that the New Testament doesn’t cover. To say music should no longer be used in worship is to say that God dislikes music, something we see time and time again used with other forms of worship in the Old Testament sometimes it is required by God to accompany other forms of worship.

    Music does not degrade worship. Just because we do not see it specifically used in the New Testament does not mean that it should not be used.

    Worship is about God; not us. If it is done with the right heart and frame of mind then I do not believe that God would reject anything we do as worship.

  8. Judy Davis
    August 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    At our church, a Christian Church in the same city as yours, Randy, we do both traditional and popular types of music and it seems to work well. We have had naysayers and have encouraged folks that feel a melody and rhythm aren’t particularly speaking to their “heart language”, to try to focus on the lyrics instead. We always choose songs with a message, usually pertaining to the sermon topic, and there is much to be gleaned from just listening to the words and/or reading them off the screen. Sometimes, I just like to be quiet and listen to my church family sing while I concentrate on the message of the song. Our multigenerational approach has been very successful. Pleasing God with our praise and worship is our focus.

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