Music in the Church

Music in the Church (part 1)

MAN instinctively senses the value of music in his efforts to glorify God, and he has made it a part of his worship since Creation. . .

-Chairman, Music Department, Andrews University, at the time this article was written

MAN instinctively senses the value of music in his efforts to glorify God, and he has made it a part of his worship since Creation. In the words of one writer, "Church music is the peculiar means given by God to His children to return unto Him their praise and adoration in a way that has been one of the unique characteristics of the worshiping community from the first times when people gathered together to worship God." 1 The Christian needs the poetic aid of hymns and the exaltation of music to make Christianity come alive with splendor. Who, for instance, has not experienced the deep emotions that are evoked by the beautiful religious music of Christmas? The good news of the life, death, resurrection, and promised return of our Lord finds its most lofty expression in the glorious music and thankful hymns of our church.

Music has a communicative power that surpasses that of speech. It is possible, of course, to communicate desires, longings, hope, beliefs, joy, sorrow, and a host of other feelings by words alone. But to speak freely concerning his very personal emotions is not easy for man, and so he turns to music, for often music gives him an emotional freedom that is not easily achieved in any other way. Because it modifies his natural reserve, it causes him to be more receptive to the messages of the Holy Spirit.

The role of music in the religious life of man is to help him make and communicate discoveries about the meaning of life. From the standpoint of man music provides an avenue to truth. God, too, has a purpose for the art of music. "It is to find man and call him back to Himself." 2 The composer, the per former, and the listener each has a responsibility to discover and reveal meaning and truth as found in music. The greater the music, the more adequately is truth conveyed.

"Christ's message, in all its richness, must live in your hearts," Paul writes to the Colossians. "Teach and instruct each other with all wisdom. Sing psalms, hymns, and sacred songs; sing to God, with thanksgiving in your heart." 3

What Is a Hymn?

How can hymns be defined, and what are the criteria by which they may be evaluated? Augustine, in his commentary on Psalm 148, wrote, "Do you know what a hymn is? It is singing to the praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you utter no hymn. If you sing and praise not God, you utter no hymn. If you praise anything which does not pertain to the praise of God, though in singing you praise, you utter no hymn." 4 Augustine's statement, which has long stood as the classical definition of a hymn, has more recently been amplified as follows:

A Christian hymn is a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshiper's attitude toward God, or God's purposes in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it.5

The following six criteria are based upon this concept of a hymn, as developed by William Reynolds in his book A Survey of Christian Hymnody. 6 These guiding principles in hymn evaluation refer to the words.

A hymn must be faithful to the Scriptures. Hymns based on Scriptural texts should not distort the meaning or insert ideas contrary to textual content. Those hymns that are not based directly on Scripture, but on Christian experience, should avoid the insertion of ideas not in keeping with scriptural content.

A hymn must be reverent and devotional. The style and tone of the hymn should be lofty in character, in keeping with liturgical propriety, and befitting public worship. Triviality and banality should be carefully avoided.

A hymn must be a poetic, lyrical expression. A hymn is a poem and the finest qualities of poetic expression should be evident. It should be simple in form, with ease and smoothness in movememt. The ideas should be immediately apparent rather than subtly hidden in vagueness and complexity.

A hymn must express spiritual meaning. A hymn should deal with those experiences of the Christian life that are meaningful to the individual. The health and energy of Christian life should be strengthened by hymnic expression as an aid to constant Christian growth and development. Anemic, trite, or sickly sentimentalism make no contribution in this regard.

A hymn must have structural soundness. The lines of the stanza and the stanzas of the hymn should have organic unity.

A hymn must be based on mutual experience. To be appropriate for congregational use, a hymn must be based on an experience or an idea common to the entire congregation. Expressions related to an extraordinary Christian experience peculiar to one individual, however true, are inappropriate for congregational use.

Important also in the evaluation of hymns for church use is the music to which the words are set. When we refer to quality in hymn tunes, the implication is that some of the tunes are musically superior to others. In the Church Hymnal there are hymn tunes that are works of art, while there are others that are not musically profound.

Time Changes Depth of Appreciation

As we mature, our appreciation of both literature and music changes. The poetry we learned in elementary school, while it may still be enjoyed, does not give us the satisfaction that it once did. An adult mind requires the stimulation of literature with more depth of meaning than can be understood by a child, and the same is true in music. A tune that brought us much pleasure in our childhood is no longer musically stimulating, except, perhaps, as by association it reminds us of happy occasions. So as a Christian grows in age and in spiritual sensitivity, his growth will be reflected in the hymns and tunes that he will choose. For example, "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" is more satisfying to the adult Christian than is that perennial favorite of children, "Jesus Loves Me."

On the other hand, it would not be good judgment to do away with all hymns that are not musically superior. People seldom hear hymns as music alone, because there is so much of memory wrapped up in them. When I was a boy of six, "Standing on the Promises" was my favorite hymn. Since our family was geographically isolated from other Seventh-day Adventists, our Sabbath school was conducted in the living room, with two or three short, straight rows of dining room chairs serving as pews. At these Sabbath school sessions I frequently asked my parents if we could sing my special hymn. These home services linger in my memory. They were precious times when our family was drawn especially close, as together we enjoyed the Sabbath days. Because of these associations, "Standing on the Promises" remains one of my favorite hymns. Even though as a musician I now recognize that the hymn tune is inferior to many others, yet when I hear the music, or even when it comes to my mind, I experience an emotion that is priceless to me.

A Catholic priest who left his Protestant church as a young man told of his appreciation of a particular hymn. " 'In the Garden' may be good music, it may be bad music, but I wouldn't know," he commented. "All I know is that it is the first hymn I remember as a little boy, it is the hymn that was sung at the funerals of my brother, my mother, and my father. How I feel about it is totally unrelated to its merits as music." 7 We should all be permitted to cherish certain hymns that have special meaning to us. However, this is not to say that we should be unwilling and unhappy to learn new hymns as we continue the process of growth and maturation.

Hymn singing should usually be a happy activity. The Bible has much to say about true happiness. "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine" 8 is a proverb that needs constant application to everyday situations. It is significant that most scriptural references to music refer to it in terms of joy, gladness, victory, and praise, although there is also a place in the life of the Christian for somber and solemn singing. Again and again the Psalmist exhorts us to sing joyfully, loudly, and victoriously. "Let the saints be joyful ... let them sing aloud." 9 "Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise." 10 "Make a joyful noise unto God all ye lands; Sing forth the honour of his name; make his praise glorious." 11

Hymns are usually thought of as songs of praise to God, and it is through them that Christians "sing forth the honour of his [God's] name: [and] make his praise glorious." But there is another type of song that is also meaningful and important in the religious experience. In contrast with hymns of praise such as "My Maker and My King," there is gospel music that tells of personal experience. Gospel singing is comparable to a testimony meeting in which common trials and victories over temptation are shared with others for the purpose of encouragement. An example of this kind of song is "I've Wandered Far Away From God, Now I'm Coming Home."

The Merit of Gospel Music

Among church musicians there has long been a controversy concerning the relative merits of gospel music as compared with hymns. In the music of the church there is a place for the testimony of gospel songs as well as for the more sublime musical expressions contained in hymns. There are, however, certain problems in the selection of gospel songs. Since many gospel songs demand little or no commitment, describe without too much discernment, and sometimes discourse without finding truth, their exclusive use may tend to be a substitution for some of the finer graces of a life of worship and may lead to directionless churchliness. 12

In spite of these weaknesses, much good for the Lord has been accomplished through gospel music. Robert Stevenson says:

Gospel hymnody has been a plough digging up the hardened surfaces of pavemented minds. Its very obviousness has been its strength. Where delicacy or dignity can make no impress, gospel hymnody stands up triumphing. . . . Sankey's songs are true folk music of the people. Dan Emmitt and Stephen Foster only did in secular music what Ira D. Sankey and P. P. Bliss did as validly and effectively in sacred music.13

According to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, "Folk song may be defined as the musical repertory and tradition of communities. ... It develops anonymously, usually among the 'lower classes,' together with artless poems dealing with the various phases of daily life." 14 When it is given a religious theme, it becomes gospel folk music.

The Effectiveness of the Folk Gospel Song

If it was possible for folk music to be used effectively in the nineteenth century as a "plough digging up the hardened surfaces of pavemented minds," would it not then be possible, one might ask, for the folk gospel music of the present decade of the twentieth century to be used with equal effectiveness? One cannot ignore the fact that folk idioms are here, are being used in many Seventh-day Adventist churches, and that they possess force and validity as musical styles and as reflections of powerful currents of thought and action in con temporary life. The question is, Is it possible for the church to use these idioms in any way, and can it find some kind of procedure or guide for their use? The problem of finding an answer is complicated by the necessity of considering both the words and the music in any discussion of the problem.

Some are asking if the folk music style presently being introduced into many church services is in deed folk music at all. Music publishers have found a new gold mine in the religious folk music interest. They are busily propagating the idea that folk songs used in worship spring spontaneously from the people, and are therefore an authentic expression of the religious experience of the common man. An analysis of most of the recently published folk music reveals, however, that these songs are not by the "folk," but are by well-paid song writers who try to make them folk-like in the interest of in creased sales.

There are those who point out, and correctly, that Martin Luther used folk song tunes for many hymns. Is this sufficient justification for the wide spread use of folk song idioms in present-day services? It was Luther's intention for Christians to sing a new experience for most of them, since they had come out of Catholicism, which did not foster congregational hymn singing. The use of familiar secular tunes (although Luther had refined the music and provided new harmonizations) made it easier for the formerly mute Christians to sing. Perhaps a similar situation exists today, and some may argue that in order to get our young people to sing their faith, it may be necessary to cease emphasizing only some of our commonly used hymns and anthems and replace them with music that is associated with the trends of the new generation. On the other hand, if new music is to be learned, why does it too often have to be composed by amateur musicians who pride themselves on little or no musical background?

Of all the hymn tunes used by Luther only the superior have survived. Likewise, only the best of the new hymn tunes that are now being introduced will survive. It may be difficult at the present time to determine which of the new tunes are musically effective enough to continue to be used by succeeding generations, but an educated guess is that there will be very few. Yet to reject all folk music would be as unwise as to accept all of it unquestioningly. We ought to be willing to accept the finest examples of the newer songs that seem to speak with eloquence to so many young people. At the same time, those who have been using the old standard hymns for decades cannot and should not be expected to suddenly abandon something that has been meaningful to them in their Christian growth.

Since the medium in today's folk music often seems to be of nearly equal importance with the words and music, the guitar, as an almost implicit part of the folk-style gospel music, cannot be ignored. The guitar, together with its predecessors, has an honored place in the history of music. Many of the world's renowned composers wrote for the guitar, and the instrument has served both as an outlet for the feelings of the common man and as an interpreter of profound classical music. But to accept the guitar does not mean that there must be a rejection of other types of music or performance. There is serious doubt that the guitar can ever replace the majesty of the organ in the worship service, but more than one style of music may be appropriate in worship, and one must recognize the varying cultural levels of church congregations. As someone has aptly observed, "the worshiper whose concept of high musical art is the Lawrence Welk Show is not likely to respond to Bach or Sowerby."15

It would seem that the point of Psalm 150 is that all musical instruments may be used to praise the Lord. However, the matter of association does present a problem for some worshipers. My personal feeling about guitars in a church service corresponds rather closely to an opinion expressed in the Lutheran-oriented journal, Church Music:

In my own case, great works such as the St. Matthew Passion speak the Gospel more sharply and more profoundly than any number of spoken words. By the same token, the guitar songs that are so much in vogue just now say nothing to me at best and, at worst, convey vapidities which cheapen when they do not distort the Gospel message. But here we enter into the area of taste, tradition, preconditioning, age level, and many other variables. It would seem to me to be one of the many difficult tasks of the church musician to know those whom he seeks to serve so that, like the apostles on the day of Pentecost, he may speak to many (musical) tongues and languages each in his own tongue. Our fathers had to learn that English can carry the weight of the Gospel as well as German. We may have to learn that guitar music can carry the weight of the Gospel as well as more traditional forms. 16

(To be continued)


1. R. C. Pankow, "The Role of Church Music," The Hymn, October, 1968, p. 104.

2. Carl Halter, God and Man in Music, p. 69.

3. Colossians 3:16, Good News for Modern Man.

4. Carl F. Price, "What Is a Hymn?" Papers of the Hymn Society, VI, 1937, p. 3.

5. Ibid., p. 8.

6. W. J. Reynolds, A Survey of Christian Hymnody, pp. 130, 131.

7. D. Francis, Our Sunday Visitor, October, 1964, p. 3.

8. Proverbs 17:22.

9. Psalm 149:5.

10. Psalm 33:3.

11. Psalm 66:1, 2.

12. See James L. Sullivan, "Music and Religious Education," The Church Musician, February, 1965, p. 5.

13. R. M. Stevenson, Patterns of Protestant Church Music, p. 162.

14. Will! Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music, p. 274.

15. P. E. Elbin, "Fanny Crosby and William H. Doane Have Had Their Day," The Hymn, January, 1970, p. 16.

16. John Strietelmeier, "The Layman, Church Music and the Musicians," Church Music, No. 2, 1970, p. 37.

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-Chairman, Music Department, Andrews University, at the time this article was written

June 1973

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