Worship Music

Question: For whom does the church sing in worship?

Answer: a sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him the victory (Ps. 98:1).

As we turn our attention to music we come at last to the most divisive issue in the so-called worship wars. While there is some debate over the other elements of worship — does the offering offend “seekers” or should the sermon be replaced or supplemented with drama? — the heart of the current debate lies primarily in the selection of music. In large measure the “worship wars” are really music wars, with sides divided between “traditionalists” and advocates of “contemporary music.” A visit to representative Presbyterian and Reformed churches will indicate who is winning this war. Increasingly, contemporary choruses and praise songs are replacing psalms and traditional hymns.



This debate is understandable because the church has long understood the role of music in worship. Luther said that music was a gift of God that had “the natural power of stimulating and arousing the souls of men.” In music the congregation sings its theology, he noted, and so to sing in worship is to gain a theological education. Calvin likewise stressed the power of music: “We know from experience that song has great force and vigor to arouse and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.” He went on to warn that music must be selected with great care. “Wherefore that much more ought we to take care not to abuse it, for fear of fouling and contaminating it, converting it to our condemnation, when it was dedicated to our profit and welfare. If there were no other consideration than this alone, it ought indeed to move us to moderate the use of music, to make it serve everything virtuous, and that it ought not to give occasion for our giving free reign to licentiousness, or for our making ourselves effeminate in disorderly delights, and that it ought not to become an instrument of dissipation or of any obscenity.”

What the churches are fighting over, then, is something that is an important part of worship, and something that is vitally connected to our theology. Neither side is disputing the importance of song in worship. Both sides want to sing “with grace in the heart.” So neither is violating the regulative principle (assuming that the regulative principle permits music other than the psalter). For this reason we need to exercise Christian prudence and discernment in determining what is proper song in worship. This is why we have waited so long in our series before raising this issue. Proper reflection on music in worship takes place only in the light of the principles of Reformed worship.


Before we review those principles, a word about psalmody might be in order. The prevailing illiteracy over the psalter in today’s churches is a testimony to how much of our Reformed heritage we have abandoned. Reformed worship ought at least to embrace frequent or even preponderant psalmody. How many of us can claim that we know the psalms well enough or that we sing them often enough?

The command found throughout Scripture to “sing a new song” has been misunderstood and abused. It is important to understand what these words mean. These words are not proof-texts for contemporary music, nor do they mean that the church must always be experimenting or innovating in its song. We should not privilege the new because it is new. On the contrary, a wise approach would be to currently evaluate anything that has not stood the test of time. Instead, to “sing a new song” is to make sure that the hymnody of the church accurately reflects the fulness of God’s words and deeds in all stages of redemptive history. As the mighty acts of God unfold in the salvation of His people, the people of God respond with song. There were songs at the exodus (Exod. 15) and at the conquest (Deut. 32). This pattern recurs throughout the Psalms (33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 149:1), and it will characterize worship in the consummated order at the end of time (Rev. 5:9; 14:3).

To sing only the psalter then requires a better understanding of the Old Testament and how it reveals Christ. To be sure, this is not easily done. But the early church did sing psalms, and therefore it is possible to sing them from the perspective of redemptive-historical fulfillment. Whatever we sing, our music must reflect the proper response to God’s redemptive and self-revelatory acts. Our songs should link together promise and fulfillment, and so the psalter becomes the pattern for our hymnody. Hughes Oliphant Old put it well when he wrote that hymnody at its best “springs from” psalmody; it “comments on, interprets, and continues the psalmody.”

It is easy to detect worldliness in the lyrics of our songs. Songs about romantic love or our favorite sports are clearly inappropriate in public worship. But what about the “music text” to our songs? As fundamentalist as it sounds, there is such a thing as worldly music. Music that is performed at rock concerts, or sung in lounges and bars, and even music performed in symphony halls is worldly. That is, it is the world’s music. It is designed for appreciation or consumption in worldly settings. Some of it may be better than others, but the world’s music should not be the model for the church’s song.

The purpose of the church is discipleship and not merely soul-winning. Therefore, our music should edify the people of God. We should not use music to attract outsiders or to appeal to the unchurched. We don’t lower our musical standards in order to bring in outsiders but we raise them so that God’s people will grow in the faith.

Worship takes place on the Sabbath, a holy day set apart from the rest of the week, for activities that should be different from what we do on the other six days. This includes our music. We should not expect to listen to, much less to sing, the music that we enjoy during the week (a point that applies wherever our tastes may lie, from country to classical to “contemporary Christian music”). For this reason, Calvin hired musicians to compose tunes that were fitting for congregational singing on the Lord’s Day. Several of Louis Bourgeois’ tunes are still in Presbyterian and Reformed hymnals. Churches today would do well to follow Calvin and to commission music especially for public worship. Reformed worship is reverent. Godly fear should characterize our deportment, both in words and melody. We need to ask whether we can cultivate the sensibilities of reverence, along with self-control, discipline, or moderation through the idiom of contemporary popular music. One recent commentator on contemporary mass culture argued that its forms are at odds with what American Protestants used to identify as Christian virtues. Those virtues were “responsibility, fidelity, sobriety, and other badges of maturity.” On the other hand, “the cumulative message of the rock culture” consists of “sexual and narcotic gratification, anarchism, self-pity, and other forms of infantalism.” Do our tunes contradict our words? How can music inspired by rock ‘n roll, whether hard or soft, be fitting for the worship of God?

Reformed liturgy, moreover, is covenantal and its music must observe the dialogical principle. God speaks, and singing is part of our response to His Word. As Psalm 98:1 tells us, we are to sing our songs to God. Because God is our audience, our song is not a performance to people. What does this say about choirs and soloists? Is the choir singing to God for the congregation or ministering to the congregation on behalf of God? We must reflect more carefully on how special music fits within the dialogical principle of Reformed worship.

Finally, acceptable worship does not come naturally to sinful people. worship involves habits and appetites that are acquired over time by believers as they mature in the faith by exposure to the means of grace. Just as Israel in the wilderness preferred the diet of Egypt, so we may yearn for the music of this world. But our yearning does not justify its use. Growth in grace will actually elevate our understanding of music as we are better able to discern what songs are appropriate for the assembly of the saints in worship.

All of these Reformed principles that come to bear in our worship remind us that worship. contrary to much public opinion, is not a matter of taste. It is a matter of theological affirmation. In song we give musical expression to the faith we confess.


But some may object to the notion that there is appropriate music for worship. What constitutes good music? Isn’t it hard to apply Paul’s standards of purity, loveliness, and excellence (Phil. 4:8) to music since those characteristics are not readily evident in melodies, harmonies and rhythm? Doesn’t it all boil down to personal preference? To appreciate how dangerous this common claim is, consider its application in a setting very different from worship. Multiculturalism is a popular doctrine that denies that there are any standards left for what is good or true or beautiful. In English literature departments of colleges and universities across the country, for example, Shakespeare is being abandoned because he is a dead white European male. and in his place students are reading a host of new authors. These formerly silenced voices include women, minorities, gays and lesbians, whose works, it is claimed, need to be rediscovered because students today who are women or minorities or homosexual can identify with them, and by reading them find themselves affirmed and empowered. The criteria for good literature, according to this logic, are not aesthetic or literary, but the therapeutic and demographic ones of the reader’s physical identity. Good literature doesn’t transcend race, class and gender but is rooted in them.

When traditionalists counter that these alternative works are simply not as good as Shakespeare or Milton, they are labeled as elitists who are illegitimately forcing their standards of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” upon others. The dogma of multiculturalism insists that there are no longer any objective and non-arbitrary criteria for valuing some works of literature above others.

Generally, conservative Protestants are on the side of the cultural traditionalists in these debates. They defend the traditional canon, the traditional family, and other traditional values. They make William Bennett’s books on virtues bestsellers, and they oppose political correctness and multiculturalism. They wage this defense vigorously for six days of the week. But when they gather for worship, something very different happens. They suddenly manifest the same hostility for tradition and for aesthetic standards that they deplore in the secular world.

Worship for most Christians today, in other words, becomes a license for aesthetic relativism. For them, good music doesn’t transcend generation, gender or region, but instead churches should use music that appeals to their demographic niche. There may be standards for truth and for morality, but there is no disputing taste. You go find a church where you are comfortable, and I’ll find one where I am comfortable.

All of this is not to deny that cultural considerations come to bear on our music. The forms that the elements of worship take, music included, are shaped by our cultural setting, but not for the reasons that we are accustomed to think. The church chooses particular forms not to adapt to the customs, preferences, taste, or comfort level of the worshipers. Rather. it is in an effort to discern in what ways the church is confronted with worldliness, how it can distance itself from the world, and how it can promote holiness. We must establish in the song of worship, patterns of behavior that do not inflame these forms of worldliness, but rather that equip our people to be resistance-fighters against these and other expressions of worldliness.


As we noted, advocates of praise and worship choruses encourage their use in the church because it is more intelligible to a younger generation of worshipers. But ironically, much of this music does not measure up even to this standard. The vague spirituality of these choruses fails the test of intelligibility. It is far easier, for example, to understand what the “Ebenezer” is in “Come Thou Fount” than the river that flows in the chorus of “Shine Jesus Shine.”

Furthermore, most of what falls under the label of contemporary worship music is not even contemporary. john Frame notes this in his book Contemporary Worship Music when he acknowledges that the new music most resembles the “soft rock of the early 1970s.” Such “easy listening” music is part of the arrested adolescence of the aging baby boomer generation, and is not an effort to reach younger generations. This assessment is shared even by its most enthusiastic proponents. In his recent book, Reinventing American Protestantism, Donald Miller notes how the leaders of so-called “new paradigm churches” are wary of music that is truly contemporary: “In spite of the stress on cultural currency, several people we interviewed noted the difficulty of incorporating some music styles, such as punk rock, into worship. Both Chuck Smith and John Wimber stated that the sensuality and violence that characterize music of the last decade are simply not congruent with Christian values.” This is, to say the least, a striking concession, and these voices are sounding suspiciously traditionalist.

Another characteristic feature of newer praise choruses is the predominance of the first person singular pronoun. ‘T-“me”-“my” is the prevailing perspective of the singer. Older hymnody displays a balance between individual and corporate expression of piety. In newer collections of praise songs, the overwhelming stress is on the individual, solitary ecstatic experience. This is a far cry from worship that embodies the corporate solidarity of the people of God as they march to Zion.

Along with the abandonment of communal piety, the focus of many newer songs shifts from God-centeredness to man-centeredness. Michael Horton has noted that the emphasis in the psalms and older hymnody is on the work of God, specifically His faithfulness to His covenant. As he writes in In the Face of God, “the biblical text never gives us the subjective (my experience or my offering of praise or obedience) apart from the objective (God’s saving work in Christ)…it never concentrates on what we are to do before establishing what God has already done.” By stressing the subjective experience, much new music eclipses the objective basis for our coming to worship. This is reinforced by the characteristic repetition in the lyrics that atrophies sustained theological reflection on God, on His attributes, and on His works. By contrast the psalms engage in limited repetition, they are rich in content, and they stress the objective work of God in the salvation of His people (which is a reason for singing more psalms).


One critic prophesied about the damages attending the triumph of contemporary music in Presbyterian churches. “We shall in the end have a mass of corrupting religious poetry against which the church will have to wage a sore contest.” That critic was the Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney, writing in 1876. Dabney objected to the popular gospel songs of the late Victorian era, especially the works of Dwight L. Moody’s musician, Ira Sankey. As Dabney predicted, these songs have found homes in most 20th century hymnals, eventually crowding out many hymns and psalms of earlier hymnals. The danger, Dabney warned, “is that of habituating the taste of Christians to a very vapid species of pious doggeral, containing the most diluted possible traces of saving truth, suitable to the most infantile faculties supplemented by a jingle of ‘vain repetitions.’” These words remind us that the decline in the church’s music is not entirely new. It didn’t happen after 1960 nor with the arrival of drums on stages. Nor is the problem restricted to tunes with a Nashville copyright. American evangelicalism has long been vulnerable to the vulgar influences of popular culture.

What criteria can we apply then in order to make sound judgments in our worship music? In a recent article in the Westminster Theological Journal. Terry L. Johnson offers four tests:

1. Is it singable? “The Reformation rightly restored congregational singing to the life of the church, replacing specialized choirs and vocalists,” writes Johnson. So we must ask of our music: can it be sung by untrained voices and can it be played by amateur musicians? Many ch urches have discovered how difficult the new praise choruses are. Originating as performance music, these tunes are for the expert musicians and for trained soloists, duets, or choirs.

2. Is it Biblically and theologically sound? Songs containing errors about God and His attributes, His works of creation, providence and redemption have no place in worship that seeks to please Him.

3. Is it Biblically and theologically mature? The grandeur of Reformed theology must be reinforced by maturity in our song. Wrote Calvin: “There must always be concern that the song be neither light nor frivolous but have gravity and majesty…And thus there is a great difference between the music which one makes to entertain men at the table and in their homes, and psalms which are sung in the church in the presence of God and His angels.”

4. Is it emotionally balanced? There is a difference between emotion and emotionalism, and a strong emotional appeal in our music without accompanying theological content is manipulative.

Hebrews reminds us that we need solid food to reach spiritual maturity. So Johnson writes, “it is crucial that the church’s songs be substantial enough to express accurately mature Christian belief as well as the subtlety of Christian experience…Simplistic, sentimental. repetitious songs by their very nature cannot carry the weight of Reformed doctrine and will leave the people of God ill-equipped on occasions of great moment.”

To alter the food metaphor slightly, pop music can be compared to fast-food. It is quick, it is easily consumed, and generally tasty. But it is not nutritious. Are we offering forms of worship that provide nourishment to the soul? The experience of the people of God in the wilderness teaches us that good things do not happen to God’s people when they abandon the manna that He has provided. Are our songs more like pop-tarts or broccoli?

Singing is popular in churches today. For this we should be grateful. but also careful. How often do we look forward to an evening cantata, so-called because the service will lack a sermon? Why do we think of those services especially as evangelisticopportunities to bringin the unchurched oras occasions to relax, sit back and enjoy aperformance. These are all common ways and wrong ways to think about worship music. We have forgotten that we are to “sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things.” In the worship wars. it is not just a question of new music replacing old but of music replacing the Word We are not fighting over the ministry of the Word (that is. what God says to us). Instead are we fighting over what we like and what we think others will like? The contemporary confusion about music calls us to greater discernment in worship, an appropriate topic for us to finish our series next month.

D.G. Hart is librarian and Associate Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). He serves as an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).