Excellence is the key.

Music was God’s idea—a luxurious gift to human beings, which has enriched our life since earliest times. In the Old Testament God melded music and worship, a glorious union still stable today. Of all the religions of the world, Christianity has contributed most to the great music of the world. God takes music in the church seriously. But does anyone else in the church today?

Even the casual observer would conclude that the state of music in American churches is mixed. On the one hand, music is enjoying an unparalleled acceptance. Increasing numbers of young people are entering vocational music ministries. Many prospective ministers of music are seeking a theological as well as a musical education.

Moreover, the sheer quantity of sacred music that is published and recorded each year is staggering. The graded choir program is on the upswing. Instrumental music is rising. New hymnals with greater depth, breadth, and balance are appearing from both the denominational and non-denominational publishing houses (see Minister’s Workshop, p. 40, for a how-to on hymnal selection). Training schools for the performing arts are being developed in many larger churches. The concert series as a means of community outreach is finding a place in the music ministries of many growing churches.

Although certain geographical or ecclesiological pockets in the country may be insulated or isolated from some or even most of these trends, the tremendous growth and vitality of church music today is positive and encouraging. On the other hand, there are many aspects of church music that aren’t quite so encouraging or positive. Much contemporary church music is shaped more by secular values than by theological principles. Commercial interests rather than spiritual objectives motivate much sacred music. Church music is often aimed at satisfying a popular musical taste at the expense of a balanced ministry designed to meet a variety of spiritual needs. Many of the basic (and unbiblical) assumptions and objectives of the entertainment industry are eroding an already thin concept of ministry through music.

Moreover, a nagging tendency towards the trite and the superficial only serves to point up the avoidance and neglect of real substance and depth in much of today’s church music. Quantity substitutes for quality, as mediocrity surges over excellence. Few people in the church take church music seriously enough to think about it biblically and theologically. Music remains a major area of church life to be largely uninformed by biblical theology. That should make evangelicals uneasy.

We must give serious thought to the importance of the music ministry in the church. Almost half of a church service is music. If we are giving that much time to it, we need to use music as thoughtfully and as wisely as possible. If we look at the Bible we discover the real importance of music in the church. God set aside the Levites as priests and musicians. He determined the goals of music, its functions and its songs. Yet four prevalent approaches to church music have no support in Scripture.

The first approach is that which is rooted in musical taste. The goal here is maximum pleasure for a particular audience. The quality of the composition or the theological solidity of the text matters little as long as a majority of the congregation like the way it sounds—a seduction of the ear. When a church chooses music based primarily on certain tastes it is on a weak biblical foundation.

A second popular approach uses music that expresses cultural values and ideals. Here the preservation of the church’s heritage of musical art treasures is paramount. Churches pride themselves on performing nothing but the great music of the church. Although many churches could benefit by upgrading the quality of their music and by honoring the rich heritage in sacred music, the fact remains that Scripture will not allow us to make the primary function of church music an expression of musical-cultural values.

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Equally unbiblical is an approach that views music as primarily a form of entertainment, albeit sacred. Churches who use this approach want to divert the congregation from the problems and pressures of life. It is a form of escape from reality—a process that has little or nothing in common with the functions and responsibilities of biblical religion. On the contrary, the church is concerned with helping people face the problems of life. Therefore, music in the church that is primarily sacred entertainment must be carefully scrutinized and challenged. Although there is a place for entertainment, it may not be the church.

Finally, any philosophy that views music as an end in itself—art for art’s sake—is in theological trouble. Everything in the church must have a purpose rooted in something greater than itself.

What, then, is a biblically defensible role of music in the church? The role of music in the church is nothing more than, nothing less than, nothing other than the work of the church: ministry to the Lord; ministry to the body of Christ; and ministry to the world for which Christ died. Our ministry to the Lord has been expressed in worship. Our ministry to the body of Christ has been expressed in fellowship, nurture, and education. And our ministry to the world has been expressed in evangelism, missions, and social ministries.

In music we minister to the Lord through hymns of praise and love. We minister to our fellow believers through songs of instruction, fellowship, and encouragement. We minister to the world through songs of witness and proclamation. In Ephesians 5:19 Paul describes the New Testament practice of music ministry and “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” Today’s church must take seriously the need for a biblical perspective on the proper role of music in the church.

Once we understand the biblical perspective, we need to set biblical goals. It is not enough to perform sacred music. Nor is it enough to want to bless people. That kind of generality is as immature as our familiar prayer, “God bless the missionaries.”

In our ministry to the Lord our ultimate goal is to glorify him. The goal of worship is not the delight of man but the pleasure of God. “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. This will please the LORD more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs” (Ps. 69:30–31). Thus the ministry of music in worship must be primarily concerned with pleasing and glorifying God. In worship God is the audience.

We have different goals in our ministry to the body of Christ, the ultimate objective being maturity in Christ. Paul summed up the goal of this area of ministry in this way: “for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12–13). Ministry to the body of Christ through music must be directed toward these same biblical goals.

The other persons-oriented ministry is to the world. Here the objective is to convert people to Christ. And that’s the goal of this area of music.

Pastors and church musicians today must give more attention to the spiritual functions involved in ministry, and how those functions are embodied in texts and expressed through music. It seems elementary to suggest that there is a difference between speaking to God and speaking to man. Yet in many evangelical churches the music used in worship shows that not enough people know it. In worship we speak to God.

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Moreover, it is equally important to understand the variety of spiritual functions involved in worship. In the Psalms alone there are dozens of different words and expressions used for worship. And the differences between praise and petition or between thanksgiving and confession are substantial. Music should reflect these aspects of worship.

The same is true for ministry to the church and to the world. In these ministries we address two different groups of people, and the functions involved are different from those involved in worship. When ministering to believers we are concerned with such functions as instruction, exhortation, fellowship, edification, and encouragement. Ministry to unbelievers involves witness, testimony, proclamation, and invitation. For music to fulfill these goals, minister and musician must work together to develop the music program along biblical lines.

The Bible is our message but it also tells us about methods. For example, the biblical principles of stewardship can help a congregation be realistic about its music program. Just because a big church across town has a banjo choir your church need not have one, too. There is a lot of imitation taking place in church music today, much of it unnecessary and unhealthy. The pressure to jump on a particular bandwagon does not always produce good stewardship—or good music, either. The music program of the local church should discover the musical gifts within the congregation, train and refine those gifts, and encourage people to use them within and without the church. That is good stewardship.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to get people involved in the music program. Jesus told his disciples to pray for laborers. Too often prayer is the last thing the minister of music tries. Also,’ the Lord sends the laborers. Jesus never hinted that volunteers be sought to do the work of the Kingdom; volunteerism is not a biblical notion. To choose, to appoint, to call, and to send—that is God’s method. Any music program that circumvents this biblical method will always depend on its own creativity to invent one recruitment gimmick after another to find volunteers.

Church musicians must maintain and develop their spiritual lives by regular and diligent study of God’s Word and by prayer. Individuals who have had an impact on the church and the world have had a deep relationship with God. They constantly grew as Christians. They knew the Bible. Church musicians should emulate these people.

James 3:1 tells us, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” These words must be carefully considered not only by those who teach through words, but also by those who teach through music. Musicians are given highly influential positions and opportunities in the life of the church, not only in services and concerts, but also through recordings and tapes. We need to be reminded that God holds such teachers through music accountable for their lives. This is no small matter; it deserves a great deal of thought in the evangelical music world.

Church musicians must also be open to the influence of people within his congregation. The lone ranger mentality should be resisted. The church does not need a musical star system, whose pattern comes not from Scripture but from Hollywood. Rather, the church needs musical servants.

If we are to have informed, committed musicians, seminaries must lead the way. Earlier I suggested that a reason to think seriously about music in the church lay in the fact that God officially established music in the Old Testament. The accounts in the Chronicles, together with the many songs and song fragments and musical references in both Testaments, plus the material in the canonical hymn book (The Psalms), constitute an extensive body of material that ought to be studied as seriously as the rest of biblical content.

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Evangelical seminaries are failing today’s churches here. It is curious if not unreasonable that the seminaries that are committed to the Holy Scriptures and that would fight to defend the authority, the reliability, and the infallibility of those Scriptures, at the same time exclude large portions of biblical content from the purview of their study and teaching.

It is axiomatic that no lasting growth, no spiritual maturity, and no biblical and theological integrity will come to church music without a serious commitment on the part of the seminaries. Pastors need to know how to teach their congregations to speak to God through song as well as through prayer. They need to understand the biblical and theological foundations of the music ministry and its proper place within church life.

Also, there is a desperate need for ministers of music to have the appropriate training in theology to go along with their training in music. Too many church musicians have a limited understanding of, and appreciation for, the true nature and work of the church.

Taking church music seriously demands that we be committed to excellence. There is no justification for mediocrity in church music or in any other ministry of the church. Excellence is a theological term—an attribute of God. Perfection is the supreme expression of qualitative excellence, and God is perfect—perfect in his essential nature (Matt. 5:48), perfect in his work (Deut. 32:4), perfect in his ways (Ps. 18:30), and perfect in his will (Rom. 12:2). In Matthew 5we are commanded to be perfect. This is a goal that, impossible as it seems, must shape the direction of our lives and ministries. He whose name is excellent and who does all things well does not call us to a life of mediocrity in ministry. It is the master’s well done” that we are to long for and strive after.

In the Old Testament God set up an exacting standard for sacrifices. In the case of animals a perfect specimen was required—one without spot or blemish. In the New Testament era the sacrifices became acts of praise and thanksgiving to God. The forms have changed but the standard is nowhere revised. Thus, God’s expectation for all gifts offered to him is a continuing standard of excellence. According to Romans 12, all of the Christian’s life is to be seen as “a living sacrifice to God.” In the music ministry of the church we must make a definite break with mediocrity and commit ourselves to excellence.

The people of the church must get serious about music—pastors, musicians, theologians, laymen, and Christian educators alike. Making music to the glory of God involves everyone in the church. The imperative to “sing to the Lord” is for all believers. To use music as a tool and to offer music as a gift involves understandings and commitments that are theological and practical, as well as musical.

D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the Fine Arts department at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York. This article is taken from his 1976 lectures on Christian Life and Thought, delivered at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

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