I think the entire evangelical world ought to put a moratorium on any kind of instrumental music, and just chant psalms in their worship services--for the next ten years.*
I’ve been amazed since becoming an elder in a local church just how dependent many Christians are on a certain style of music, or certain level of excellence in music. How many times have you heard someone say, for example, “I just can’t worship in that church.”? Or “I just don’t feel like I’m connecting with God there.”
Of course there can be a lot going on there, but I think that many times if you press in on statements like that, what you find behind it all is not very far removed from “I don’t like the music there.” People don’t put it that starkly, mainly because if you do it sounds silly. But I think that’s a lot of what people mean when they say, “I can’t worship there.” The reality is that a single flat-back piano just doesn’t gig their emotions as much as a full electric band does. They don’t get that “transcendent feeling,” so they get discouraged and end up saying they “can’t worship.”
I wonder if the whole “excellence in praise and worship music” phenomenon we’ve seen over the past few years--for all the good it’s done--hasn’t also had some less-than-desirable effects on young Christians. I wonder if it hasn’t created a generation of functional mystics who gauge their relationship with God by emotional experience rather than the objective reality of redemption.
When I was a sophomore and junior in college, I went to a few of the Passion conferences when they were held in Texas. Those were formative and amazing experiences for me. John Piper “Reformed” me in one earth-shaking sermon from Romans 3, and that has--in one way or another--shaped the trajectory of my life ever since. And the music was excellent--truly wonderful in every way. We sang loud, hands in the air, eyes closed and full of tears sometimes, and I believe I worshipped God through it all.
But then I went back to New Haven, Connecticut. The praise bands were gone, I didn’t have a group of people who’d gone with me and shared that experience, and the churches had a piano and thirty people singing Isaac Watts hymns. That forced me to learn how to stoke the fires of worship with truths and words, and not just with excellent music. I’ve learned how to be emotionally affected by the excellent words of hymns whether they’re played and sung “excellently” or not.
There’s a whole generation of young people out there now, though, who aren’t emotionally affected by words, whose fires are only stoked when those words are accompanied by great rhythms, skilled instrumentation, and a certain well-recognizable mood that typically accompanies Christian “praise-and-worship.” And the result is that you have young people church-hopping around town, and one of the main criteria of their shopping is “the worship,” by which more often than not they mean “the music.” You have young Christians feeling discouraged because--despite the fact that they sit under faithful preaching of the word Sunday after Sunday--they say they haven’t “felt close to God” in so long. Maybe there’s something important going on there. But there’s also a good chance, I’d argue, that they just haven’t had a good endorphin rush since the last conference they attended.
I am really afraid that we’ve managed to create a generation of anemic Christians who are spiritually dependent on excellent music. Their sense of spiritual well-being is based on feeling “close to God,” their feeling close to God is based on their “ability to worship,” and being able to worship depends on big crowds singing great music.
Just as bad, think about how many church fights and divisions are rooted in disagreements about music. People leave churches because they don’t like the music. Christians who believe exactly the same things about Jesus worship in different buildings next door to each other because they can’t countenance one another’s musical style. Churches split because one faction wants “contemporary” music and another wants “traditional” music. It’s not the words that are at issue; it’s how the words are sung, and to what instrumentation. The thing even has its own name--the “Worship Wars,” which when translated with a little honesty is really “the Music Wars.”
The bottom line, I suppose, is that it would do every Christian well to do some honest heart-searching about what makes them feel “close to God.” Can you feel close to God just by reading or saying the words, “In Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”? Would you be able to function in a church that’s great in every way except the music? If not, you probably need to give some thought to whether your spiritual life is dependent on something it should not be dependent on.
*I'm being facetious with the title of this article and the call for a moratorium on music, of course. The Bible tells us to sing. God gave us music precisely because it affects our hearts and emotion, and that is a good thing. But every good thing can be and will be misused by sinful humans. My sense is that "excellent music" has become something of an idol. No, we don't worship it. But a lot of people need it to worship, and that may be just as bad. Music is a part of our lives as humans; in a certain way we'll always depend on it. But as I see it, there's ample anecdotal evidence out there to suggest that for many Christians, the dependence has become unhealthy.
Greg Gilbert is senior pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and contributing writer at 9Marks Ministries and the 9Marks blog, Church Matters. After graduating from Yale University, Gilbert earned his Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he served as the director of research for the president’s office.
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