Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.

Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing.” Thus David sang, and through the ages that call to devotion in Israel has not gone ignored in the Christian Church.

Unfortunately today, however, in the ministry of music, there is too often the pagan rhythm of modern jazz, in place of the highest praise of which the Church is capable. Yet no medium, aside from the preaching of the Word of God, has greater potential value in presenting the Gospel.

Throughout the centuries, the Bible and the hymnal have ministered to the spiritual needs of man and have assisted him in his worship. But just as the Church has suffered periodic declines in spiritual power, so has church music. There are evidences of such decline today.

In many areas, provincialism has invaded the Church and has muted the effectiveness of Christian music by substituting the light frothy song for the great devotional or worship hymn. Tin-pan-alley musical settings to skimmed-milk tests, delivered with flagrant exhibitionism by a keyboard personality or a “blues” singer, reveal a startling lack of reverence.

More than one minister, deploring the trend in church music today, would say with the words of Dr. Vernon McGee, pastor of the Church of the Open Door, Los Angeles:

The spiritual level of the church today is recorded in the type of music and the character of the songs that are sung. If that’s true, then the present-day church has hit a new low. Today the catchy tune is the thing which is popular, and frankly you can dance to some present-day church music. On the radio you can’t always be sure whether it’s a ballad, boogie, bebop, or the latest chorus of the church. Several song writers are getting rich writing this low type of music, a type which appeals to the flesh. It’s like taking dope, the more you hear it, the more you want to hear it until you become addicted to it.

How this demoralization creeps into the church and what it does to it has been described by Bishop James A. Pike, formerly dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, and now head of the Episcopal Church in California:

When a juke box or TV gets us off to a somewhat less than reverent start, the result is a vulgarizing of holy things. Perchance these songs will lift up some to the living God. But for many more it downgrades Him to the commonplace. It is an ersatz religion, without awe, without mystery, without reverence, without judgment, and in the end, without reality.

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But the condemnation of such music does not come only from ministers. Secular musicologists are alarmed by the trend and are saying so. In an article entitled “Popular Tunes Help Corrupt the Child,” Irving Sablosky, recent Chicago Daily News critic, writes:

Popular music is helping to corrupt the youth of America. I’m not accusing the lyrics, I’m accusing the music itself of lowering the whole moral character of our growing generation.… The mind can work both ways: if it is trained to think on a high level, it will have no use for banalities; if it is given spiritual nourishment to begin with, it won’t tolerate emptiness.

Where Christianity ought to be worshiped in the highest sense of the word, it has too often fallen far short of the glory of God through the failure of its music. Where entertainment becomes the goal, it is no mystery why we have a perverted expression of the Christian faith, for the goal of the entertainer and the goal of God’s messenger are inherently different. With one, it is what the people want; with the other, it is what they need. We are as guilty in our singing as in our preaching if we declare not the whole counsel of God.

A Godly Standard For Singing

We may ask, “Since standards of church music vary and everyone seems to be setting the standard for himself, is there a Christian basis for determining a standard for singing?” Scripture gives one basic principle which certainly applies. We are to “walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit” (Rom. 8:1). We therefore are not to render music in the power of the flesh, but in the power of the spirit, not to give a carnal thrill, but a spiritual impact.

If we keep it well in mind that music in the church is not an end, but a means to an end, we will have less difficulty in charting our path. The end sought is the glory of God, and not the glory of the performer or of his music. Music as a choral setting can open the door of our understanding so that the message of God enters our intellect without hindrance and captures our wills with its power and beauty. Music without textual association can, when properly selected, be a blessing to the worshiper and enhance his communion with God, for often it enables him to reach out to God for the fulfillment of his own personal need.

To be consonant with God’s standards, church music must be dedicated to the highest possible cultural plane. Pity the man who, having developed complicated esthetic sensibilities, hungers for a message of God in praise and finds it clothed in undignified musical rags. He is the forgotten man in much of today’s evangelism.

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The loftiest sentiments of the Christian faith have found expression in the great hymns of the Church, and we have spiritual fellowship with those who have walked with God in centuries past. Great testimonies to saving grace have been set to music, outstanding devotional verse has been united with distinguished hymn tunes, and the scriptural passages have been interpreted for us in music by masters.

But not all of Christendom benefits from this heritage largely because true worship has been ignored. And worship we must have. “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God.” Our evangelical hymnals do not contain a sufficient number of devotional hymns to give scope and depth in worship. So many are filled with songs that fail to lift us above ourselves and our own religious experience. This is not to say that a gospel hymn, properly chosen, has no place, for it does. But certainly believers in the church who overemphasize the subjective experience are in danger of worshiping experience and not God.

It is a real mistake for a church to confine itself solely to the Gospel song. Unfortunately, for some that seems to be the only one with a “message” in it, for any other fails to give the “subjective kick.” But this attitude ignores man’s obligation to worship God.

We note that the Psalmist expresses a great deal of subjectivity, but it is always linked with the objective source of the blessing. “He is my rock and my salvation.… My soul thirsteth for God.… I will bless the Lord at all times.”

Some churches have lost the great hymns because they left them behind in their denominational hymnals at the time they became independent. They took with them only the Gospel songbook that had been used in the Sunday school room. But there are encouraging signs today that some are returning to the great hymns of the Church, and some publishers are including them in the new hymnals.

Where provincialism has barred us from the great hymns, let us rediscover those that are a witness of our faith. Our satisfaction in that experience will eliminate unworthy hymns. Expression of our faith in hymnody should keep pace with our spiritual growth. That song which is light and joyous does express the faith and joy of a new Christian, but if he is alive, he will grow, and if he grows, it will be reflected in his praise.

Christians should live up to their spiritual capabilities, and we are not doing that if we choose hymns on a level below our spiritual understanding. Why must it be that we sing a type of song typified by “I’m So Happy and Here’s the Reason Why,” when we ought to be singing “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts.”

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And too often we are exhorted to sing loudly. For instance, young people sing the rhythmic Gospel choruses on their outings when it would be wise to sing secular fun songs, saving devotional singing for more appropriate occasions. Jesus himself pointed out the danger of mere noisiness: “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8–9). The Apostle Paul expressed an attitude for our conduct: “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Cor. 14:15).

Musical Reformation Needed

What is the remedy? We must give intelligent leadership to the coming generation. In his book, The Pattern of God’s Truth (pp. 80–81), Dr. Frank Gaebelein offers this solution:

The call is for Christian education to lead the way to higher things. But that call will not be fully answered until our schools, colleges, and seminaries espouse a philosophy of music befitting the Gospel. So long as the lower levels of an art so closely linked to man’s emotions are cultivated at the expense of the best, we shall continue to have Christian leaders, many of whom are deaf to the nobler elements of spiritual song. Evangelicalism is due for a musical reformation. The reformation will come only when Christian education, having set its face against the cheap in this greatest of the arts, seeks to develop in its students response to a level of music worthy of the deep things of God. Here, as in so much else, we do well to listen to Martin Luther, who called music “a noble gift of God next to theology,” and even went so far as to say: “We must teach music in schools; a schoolmaster ought to have skill in music … neither should we ordain young men as preachers unless they have been well exercised in music.”

The musical practice of evangelicalism needs to be examined in terms of textual content, musical setting, and method if the members of the Church are to grow in spiritual power. An example must be set not only for youth in churches, Sunday Schools, and colleges, but also for those who are being trained to lead our spiritual enterprises. The trend toward spiritually vigorous church music is already evident in many churches. Let us be certain that the glory of God is the foremost objective in the music of the faith.


Edward A. Cording is Executive Director of the Conservatory of Music and Chairman of the Division of Fine Arts at Wheaton College. He is a former president, was one of the founders, and for five years was secretary of the National Church Music Fellowship, a movement whose membership includes representatives of evangelical schools and churches.

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