What questions should we ask about our music? Most people, because we are naturally self-centered, start with the question, “Do I like it?” This is usually answered with a snap judgment of whether the music makes us feel good, sticks in our head, or reinforces our mood. Beyond that, we ask questions based on our background. For instance, a trained musician may question the technical composition, and a music studio executive wonders if the song will sell.
But these are all the wrong questions—at least the wrong starting questions. If we desire to be consecrated followers of Jesus, we must evaluate music with a different set of questions: Does this music glorify Jesus? Does it draw us closer to Jesus? Does it make us more like Jesus?
I write on music choices, not as a musician, but as a pastor who has studied what the Scriptures say about music. Over the past twenty-five years, as I have endeavored to lead our church to develop a heart for God, I have sought music that is consecrated and encourages our church to live with holiness and sanctification. We simply cannot build spiritual lives with carnal tools. Thus, it is vital that we use spiritual music that encourages genuine spiritual growth. How can we discern what music will help us to grow in the Lord?
Preaching Is Central to Worship
We start by recognizing the proper role that music should play in a church service. In the hearts of many Christians and churches, music has (wrongly) become the center of the worship service. In fact, many people choose a church simply because they like the music, not because the teaching is biblically sound. While right music is vital to a Christian’s growth, God made preaching central in effective worship. “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Even for those who are already saved, preaching should be the key ingredient in the church service. Godly music can encourage and edify, but biblical preaching changes lives.
Music in the Bible
The purpose of music in the Scripture is worship, not entertainment. God’s people worshipped Him through heartfelt songs of joyful praise. Worship music is not culture-driven but Christ-driven.
The Bible gives many types of expressions centered around God. With music, we give thanks (Psalm 147:7), rejoice in the Lord (Psalm 98:4–5), consecrate ourselves (Psalm 139:23), edify one another (Colossians 3:16), evangelize the lost (Psalm 40:3), and preserve the faith (Psalm 145:4–5).
The Bible commands us, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). Hymns are songs of praise, which elevate the person of Christ. Spiritual songs reflect our new nature. They strongly contrast with our carnal, old nature which was crucified with Christ. Obviously, the words to these songs should be consistent with the doctrinal truths of Scripture. But what about the music itself? Can melodies, harmonies, or rhythms be spiritual or carnal?
The Emotion of Music
The claim of Contemporary Christian Music industry advocates is that music is amoral, like the alphabet. If this is true, someone needs to tell Hollywood. They have been paying composers for years to manipulate the emotions of their audience through music. Fear, happiness, pain, struggle, confusion, love, and silliness are all produced through musical scores without a single word being sung. Musical notes may be letters of the alphabet, but the way they are arranged can send drastically different messages.
For instance, in 1 Samuel 16, King Saul was troubled by an evil spirit. His servants begged Saul to get help by hiring a musician. David came, played the harp, and the evil spirit left Saul (1 Samuel 16:14–23). David’s music brought peace.
Not all music, though, is peaceful. Contrast David’s music with the music in Exodus 32. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving God’s law, the Israelites were back at camp diligently breaking every command. They made a new god and held a party in the golden farm animal’s honor. God told Moses before he and Joshua returned to the camp what the people had done, but the first hint of their pagan display was the music. Before they even reached the camp, Joshua, who traveled with Moses, noted, “There is a noise of war in the camp. And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear” (Exodus 32:17–18). Joshua was too far away to understand the words, but he understood the message of the music. Their music was both a reflection and amplifier of their sinful hearts.
In our church, we have carefully chosen songs by both their words and their music. The accent patterns of natural rhythms are orderly, unified, and support the melody. In contrast, music with heavy syncopation and accents on the offbeat are often crafted to sway the flesh. There is room for preference, and we must be careful to use discernment. An occasional off-beat rhythm does not make a song “rock” (even the “Hallelujah Chorus” contains some syncopation), and good, fundamental pastors will have disagreements on where the line is drawn. I believe Christian grace is in order when good men differ in these slight areas.
A New Song
We love the old hymns at Lancaster Baptist Church. They often have a strong doctrinal message with good arrangements, and they tie together several generations of Christians. Our church has also been blessed by several new songs with good lyrics and melodies.
Although much of the newer Christian music feeds the flesh, we must not assume that the only godly songs were written by men and women who have been dead long enough to squelch any controversy. Most of the composers of our loved hymns would not likely grace our pulpit today because of doctrinal differences. Just because something is new does not mean it is wrong. I’m thankful for godly music that helps us worship the Lord with the “new song” spoken of in Psalm 40:3. In this day, God can give us fresh music which offer praise to Him.
My heart as a pastor is to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit for our church and to touch men’s hearts. We emphasize traditional hymns and Gospel songs, and we occasionally use fresh, Christ-honoring music and to reach people with the Gospel.
While we all may be tempted to evaluate our music by our own preferences and feelings, the ultimate goal must be that our music would honor Christ. Is it spiritual? Does it edify believers? Does it lift up the name of Jesus? These are the ultimate questions in discerning Christ-honoring music.
This article is adapted from a recent message titled, “We Stand for Christ-Honoring Music.”