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The Best Way to Use Music in Church

On my last Sunday at Saint Barnabas, where I led music for almost 27 years, the new music director asked me to share my philosophy of church music with some key instrumentalists. It was a good occasion to rehearse what to me is the role of music in biblical worship.

First, be eclectic. Select the best from a variety of styles and sources. This is fundamental to being the church.

The Christian church exists almost everywhere because, as missiologist Andrew Walls discovered, Christianity has been far more culturally adaptable than other religions. Yes, I know the horror stories of Western missionaries imposing insipid Victorian hymns on African and Asian converts. But I also know about missionaries—from Baptist to Jesuit—who have helped new groups of believers cultivate worship in their culturally unique musical vocabulary.

To worship as part of a global church, we must find small ways to incorporate music from other cultures. At Saint Barnabas, we recently sang a Tibetan arrangement of the Lord's Prayer, the multilingual Xhosa-Zulu-Sesotho hymn "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("Lord Bless Africa"), and an Old Church Slavonic chant.

The Christian church has culturally cross-pollinated its worship for almost two millennia. Egeria, a fourth-century Spanish pilgrim, wrote an eyewitness account of worship practices in Jerusalem. Those practices became the basis for the emerging liturgical year. In the sixth century, after retaking the Italian peninsula from the Ostrogoths, Emperor Justinian appointed three popes. The result was "blended worship," a mix of East and West that brought the Hebrew Halleluia and the Greek Kyrie Eleison—"Lord, have mercy"—to our common ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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The Best Way to Use Music in Church
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May 2014

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