While taking a tour of one of our denominations larger churches, the Pastor of Visitation, an older, semi-retired man, showed us the newly enlarged and renovated sanctuary. When asked what all the sound equipment was on the platform area, he responded, 'All that stuff is for the Sunday morning contemporary worship service.' I replied that it must be a real energetic service from the amount of equipment. I asked how well was it attended. He said, ' It is probable 60-40 early and late service with regards to attendance. But, the only reason so many people come to that contemporary service is so they can get home early. I just can't stand that service. That kind of music should not be heard in the church.' Gee, I though, why don't you tell us how you really feel!
Conversations like the above as well as the attitudes displayed are found in many churches in the U.S. today who are trying to bridge the gap between church tradition and cultural relevance. Many see this as a new problem to the church and blame it on the worldliness of the 'young' people or the fact that the 'old' people are totally out of touch with reality. The debate on just how contemporary music should be in the church is an age old one which keeps reoccurring. The problem is that we have not learned from our past. Santayana once said 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it' (Miller, 119) This, I believe, is the foundation of our current contemporary Christian music debate in out churches.
It is the intent of this paper to show that this is not a new problem. I will do this by surveying the history of church music and by examining the beliefs and practices of the key figures in each period.
The Early Church Period
The Psalter, or Psalms, was the hymnbook of the early Christian church. Paul, in 1 Cor. 14:26 mentions the importance when he says that 'when you come together, each one has a Psalm.' Paul also shows their importance in Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19 for their use in worship. Paul seems to have improvised in Psalm singing, possibly the spiritual songs of Col. 3:16. This was evident, according to Hugh McElrath, in the jailhouse singing of Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25. (McElrath, 142).
However, the early Christian church was surrounded by a pagan society which also used music for it's ritual worship. It's music was often sensuous in nature and was often used in religious orgies. (McElrath, 142) It is not surprising them to find that the early Christian did not use musical instruments in general and that they stayed away from music that was too closely related to the pagan religious culture around them.
Generally, the music of the early church was Psalmic in nature, and unaccompanied. It was comparatively simple and was used as a modest vehicle for praise to God. It seems the early church had much awareness of the struggle of the worldliness affecting the holiness of God's people.
The Patristic Period
The first important era of growth in church music was in the period between Constantines Edict of Milan and the beginning of the papacy of Gregory I . This Edict of Milan made Christian worship legal and this made worship open and caused it to expand. By the time of Ambrose, the songs of the mass included Psalms and hymns which caused tension in the church.
Hymns were written by those supporting the Gnostic and Arian heresies during this time and the 'true' church had to respond with hymns of 'orthodox' doctrine. This was seen in the hymnody of Ephraem Syrus (307-373). What Syrus did was adapt the music of the Gnostic and Arian hymns to more orthodox words. (Miller, 109) It is interesting that this period often saw the 'orthodox' borrowing from the 'heretical' and this was deemed OK by the church.
Ambrose, himself, introduced an new ' metrical ' hymn into western worship but the Council of Laodicea (343-381) prohibited all non-scriptual hymns. But as the clerical singers were given free rein, the hymns were sung anyway. (McElrath, 145)
Of even greater tension was the use of instruments in worship. The early church fathers had to comment on something that was Scriptural (there are numerous references to a variety of instruments used in worship in the Bible) but also worldly (the frivolous and sensuous use of instruments by the theatrical world). They had to be cautious in admitting their use in the church. (McElrath, 144) Justin and Clement of Alexandria among others were is support of the use of instruments in the church. While, Gregory of Nazianzen, Augustine and Chrysostom were strongly against their use. The latter won out and the use of instruments was prohibited from church use until around 1000. (McElrath, 145)
The Medieval Period
Church music would once again see a change under the papal leadership of Gregory I. Gregory I laid the foundation for the enlargement of the use of music in the church. He developed the Gregorian Chant which modified the scales and all voices sang in unison. All musical instruments were banned during this time and only men were allowed to sing in worship. (Miller, 110) The Gregorian Chant gained it's final form under the rule of Charlemagne and became know as 'sacred' music, the official music of the church.
Attempts were made to enlarge to base of church music and by the 13th century the age of polyphony had dawned. It was professional in nature and was restricted to professional choirs and was not sung in church by the people. Perhaps most important was the introduction of the Motet to the church music repertoire.
The motet was a secular form of popular music that had found its way to be used in worship with the Gregorian chant and other polyphonic music. It was a real mixture of the sacred and the secular in worship. (McElrath, 147) Not unlike what is what is happening in current church music practice.
During the end of the 14th and 15th centuries the professionalism of church music developed to a much greater extent. Only professional choirs sang in the churches worship services and the common folk were extremely limited in what musical participation they had. This contributed to their desire to sing religious music outside the church. During this period the development of the secular Folk Song was prominent among the commoners both Christian and pagan. So, taking their example from the 12th century troubadours men like Francis of Assisi wrote simple songs of devotion and praise and these sprang up as important parts of the religious life of the common Italian people. (McElrath, 147) The penitential communities in Italy and Germany invented their own simple songs. This was also seen in the Spanish cantigas and in the English Carols. It was inevitable that the church would have to adopt these forms into their service. Even back in the Middle Ages, there was the need for the people to sing religious songs in ways that were familiar to them. Again, this is not unlike the situation today.
In some senses the Reformation was not only one of theological reform but also of musical freedom. This musical reformation began with John Huss (1373-1415). He opposed all polyphonic and instrumental music and only would support the singing of devotional and simple songs in unison. He stated that unison makes all men equal in worship. (McElrath, 151) I believe Huss took a step forward in the use of popular songs for the common people, but by rejecting the use of polyphony and instrumental music he took a step backward in music's overall influence on the church. The Bohemians, Moravians and followers of Huss put such an emphasis on popular praise in music that in 1504 a hymnbook was published for use by the common people.
Luther, however, took a position of adapting the use of popular, secular tunes with the truth of Scripture. He also believed that there was room in the church service for the use of instruments, especially the organ, polyphonic choir singing as well as congregational singing in the venacular. (Norman,) Luther said ' Please omit all new-fangled court expressions, for to win popularity a song must be in the most simple and common language.' (Miller, 113) Luther got his inspiration for his music from the popular German ballads of his day. The tunes were borrowed from German folk songs. (Leupold,196) Luther was not so concerned with the associations of origins of the tunes as he was with their ability to communicate Biblical truth. (Miller, 113) Luther went as far as to say ' The devil has no need of all the good tunes for himself.' He further stated that 'For the youth's sake we must read, sing, preach, write and compose verse, and whenever it was helpful and beneficial I would let all the bells peal, all the organs thunder and everything sound that could sound'. (Miller, 114) Luther cared only to communicate biblical truth and to set hearts on fire for the Lord. Is this not the cry of those who support the use of a variety of instruments as well as musical styles in church today?
Others did not agree with Luther. Zwingli reacted against the use of any instruments that had association with the Catholic church. Calvin went even farther in his opposition to Luther's 'liberal' use of music in worship. Calvin felt that instruments were only tolerated in the Old testament because the people of God were only infants then. He opposed the use of instruments and the singing in parts. He also eliminated any lyric not found in Scripture. He allowed only the singing of the Psalms in worship. (Miller, 116) (Norman)
The Post-Reformation Period
Two strands of church music, that which is 'sacred' resulted from the reformation: Germany followed Luther in the singing of hymns and the use if instruments while England and Scotland followed Calvin's psalm only singing with out instruments. John Bunyon's attempt to introduce hymn singing into his church resulted in a split and at his death in 1691 the church finally agreed to s compromise. Those who opposed to hymn singing could either sit in the vestibule or sit quietly through it until that part of the service was done. (kind of like what happens today during the choruses singing.)
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) returned from church and complained to his father that the Psalm singing was boring. His father challenged him to compose something better. And did he ever! He wrote over 750 hymns and psalms and had such an impact and influence on hymnology that he is called the 'Father of English Hymnody'. (Miller, 120-121) Watts advocated the use of hymns of human composure as opposed to Calvin's strict 'Scripture only' position.
Watts was not so readily accepted. There were those who though he was placing his own human words above the Word of God. There were also those who felt poetry used in any sense was evil as it aroused the sensual pleasures of man and was too worldly to be used in church. Churches split, pastors were thrown out of their churches and many people were enraged over Watts hymns and their use in the church.
The funny part of all this was that even though the acceptance of Watts hymns was slow, it did happen. When hymn singing was fully embraced by the church in Europe as well as in the US, tradition set in and no other type of song should be sung in the churches by Watts hymns. It seems Santayana was correct once again.
The Wesleyan Revival
John Wesley was the spiritual father of Methodism. He preached about having a vibrant and exciting relationship with Jesus Christ. He was evangelistic and highly energetic in his preaching. His brother Charles was the musician in the family. His hymns were influenced theologically by John's arminianism and the Anglican's churches freedom of accepting new musical and worship styles.
In relation to the Psalm singing of the old Puritan tunes, the music of Charles Wesley was considered 'pop' . Wesley's music is tuneful, with dance like melodies which were often taken from improvisatory instrumental music. (McElrath, 157) Much of his music had secular origins and influences. He adopted new melodies from the popular opera and English folk melodies. (Miller, 125) Wesley had no problems mixing the secular and sacred when it came to writing songs to communicate a biblical message.
Gospel Songs of the 19th Century
The gospel songs of the 19th century had it's beginnings in the revivalist camp meetings in rural America. The camp meeting songs were characterized by phrase repetition and choruses. (Eskew, 171) The term gospel hymn or song was popularized by the Moody-Sankey revivals in 1875 in England. D.L. Moody had been called the greatest evangelist in the 19th century and he believed that singing played a vital role in evangelism. He said :'If you have singing that reaches the heart, it will fill the church every time...Music and song have not only accompanied all scriptural revivals, but are essential in deepening the spiritual life. Singing does at least as much as preaching to impress the Word of God upon people's minds. Ever since God first called me, the importance of praise expressed in song has grown upon me.' (Miller, 130)
Moody realized that he needed something new as the rural camp songs would not reach the urban people he was targeting. So he found Sankey. Moody and Sankey clothed sacred songs in a style that was indistinguishable from popular tunes. They found that this enhanced the power of their ministry.
Again, not all were impressed with Moody and Sankey. The Scots were deeply entrenched in the Psalm singing of Calvin and had even rejected the wonderful hymn writing of their own Horatius Bonar. The Scots considered organ music to be of the devil. Someone once said that if Moody kept singing songs like he was doing, pretty soon he would have the people dancing. (Miller, 133) In the end, the music of Moody and Sankey was to have a incredible influence on the revival in Scotland and England.
The Salvation Army and William Booth
William Booth (1829-1912) had a burden to reach the common people of England who were not churched. He resigned his position as a Methodist minister and began to work among the poor in London. His work eventually became known as the Salvation Army. Unique to Booth's music was his use of a wide variety of instruments: violins, viola, concertives, brass instruments, drums and anything that would make a pleasant sound before the Lord. (Miller, 134)
Salvationists brought their instruments together and formed 'Hallelujah Bands' Not unlike the 'Praise Bands' today. Most of the people he wanted to reached, the unchurched, didn't know the church tunes popular at his day. So he took tunes from the local music halls. He used secular tunes and added Christian words. Booth wanted songs that were simple and in the language of the people. Songs that would stick in the minds of the people when they left his meetings. He saw thousands saved who never had never stepped foot in a traditional church.
Again, however, not
all saw these innovations as positive. Many Victorian clergymen, the press
and local officials saw this type of music as offensive and distasteful.
Others felt that the secular tunes would remind the people of the
secular words and lead them to sin. This didn't happen and the songs caught
on like wildfire. Booth made this charge to his soldiers in the band:
'Music has a divine effect upon divinely influenced and directed souls. Music is to the soul what wind is to the ship, blowing her onwards in the direction in which she is steered...Not allowed to sing that tune or this tune? Indeed! Secular music, do you say? Belongs to the devil does it? Well, if it did, I would plunder him of it, for he has no right to s single note of the whole gamut. He's a thief!...Every note and every strain and every harmony is divine, and belongs to us...So now and for all time consecrate your voices and your instruments. Bring out your harps and organs and flutes and violins and pianos and drums and everything else than can make melody! Offer them to God and use them to make all hearts about you merry before the Lord.' (Miller, 136-137)
The late 1960's saw the beginning of the Jesus Movement in the US. This movement saw the antiestablishment of the culture seeping into the church. With this came the need for a new music style was free from the tradition of the established church. Music that was more experiential and subjective and that was concerned with expressing how the individual felt in his relationship with God was what was being sung during this time. Most in the tradition church thought it a fad but they were mistaken.
It has not only lasted
but that grown and matured to the contemporary Christian music we have
today. And the traditional church is still fighting against
it. Some see it as a fresh moving of the Holy Spirit while others see contemporary
Christian music as a blatant compromise with the world. Not unlike what
we have experienced throughout the history of the church. Those in favor
and support of this movement see churches utilizing this musical format
as the fastest growing segment of the church today. They see innovative
pastors utilize contemporary Christian music in their worship services,
youth services and evangelistic outreaches all with great success.
In fact, even Billy Graham has utilizes Christian pop singers in his crusades.
Opponents say that what appears good on the surface is a thinly veiled disguise of Satan trying to weaken the structure of the church. It shows the total lack of discernment and an embrace of all that's worldly by the church at large. They want a return to the traditional pattern of church hymnody. Personally, I would like to ask them which traditional pattern of hymnody are they talking about, but that is another matter.
It has not been the intent of this paper to come up with an answer to the contemporary Christian music problem. It has been my intent, however, to make people aware that this debate has gone on for centuries. I hope to have shown both sides of the issue, that there seems to be a pattern that develops.
1. Separation: This involves one form of music gets firmly entrenched
in the church.
2. Integration: This involves bold, creative innovators who are convinced that the old forms are outdated and not meeting the
peoples needs come up with new forms of music that is culturally relevant to the common people.
3. Conflict: At this point, there is a charge from the traditionalists that this new form of music is contaminated by the world and
is a compromise to it.
4. Renewal: Although music is not the only force in the change, it is a strong and powerful one. This part sees the acceptance
of the new music and the church music is finally once again in the language and style of the common people.
5. Traditionalized: The music which was once new and fresh becomes standard and traditional and put in the hymnbook and
is now considered sacred. During this time the popular style of the people is rapidly changing and the pattern reverts back
to step #1. The cycle begins again. (Miller, 142-143)
We need to learn from history so that we will not continue to repeat it. The church is in the word and therefore it's message must be culturally relevant. We removed the old English from the King James, we removed Latin from the service yet we are tied down by the weight of traditional hymnody. We need to be like William Booth and reclaim music for the Church! We need to be like Luther and say that the devil should not have all the good tunes!
According to Mark Shaw's , 4 Marks of the Church it seems that anytime a particular type of music is ingrained into the church and all else is excluded, we are living deeply in the traditional style of the church. However, we must be careful how far we venture in to the world to bring the music of the church culturally relevant. For we tread the waters of the trendy church when we go to far.
What is therefore, the classic pattern for music in the church? It would seem that it is music that is: Scriptually sound, understood by all and accepted by all, promotes holy living and is Christ centered. Is this found in the church today? Perhaps in some more forward thinking churches. Can this be found in all churches today? I don't believe so. There will and there has always been those who are overtly trendy and traditional minded when it comes to church music.
The best we can do is not to let the controversy develop in our own churches to the point of a split as it has in history. We need to work closely together to find a compromise that will keep us all true to the Word of God and to our personal convictions. I pray that this is possible.
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2. Edgar, William. Taking Note of Music. Great Britain: Holy Trinity Church 1986
3. Eskew, Harry. 'Music in the Baptist tradition'. Review and Expositor. No. 69 Spr. 1972 pgs. 161-175
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13. McElrath, Hugh. 'Music in the History of the Church' Review And Expositor No. 69 Spr. 1972 pgs. 141-159
14. Miller, Steve. The Contemporary Christian Music Debate. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers. 1993
15. Music, David W. 'Getting Luther out of the Barroom' Hymn No. 45 October 1994 pg. 51
16. Norman, Edward. 'Christian Music: A Modern Dilemma' Crux Vol. 28 Je. 1992
17. Shaw, Mark. R. 'Building Classic Churches in Trendy Times: Studies in Church History. Revision 5. History of the Church
in the World class notes. 1991 (Class notes)
18. Westermeyer, Paul. 'The Present State of Church Music: Historical and Theological Reflections' Word and World
Vol. XII, No. 3 Summer 1992. pgs. 214-220
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