Music and worship

Praise and participation, not performance, must characterize worship music.

Lyell V. Heise, senior pastor of the La Sierra Collegiate church, Riverside, California, writes both as a worship leader and as a musician

Music has always been an integral part of my ministry, which has centered in large Adventist institutional churches—churches in places where Western culture and traditions form the backdrop to the worship-music discussion.

Such churches face a continuing paradox. They are among the best placed of all Adventist churches to bring talent and training to worship music and to foster the continuation and development of the "grand traditions" 1 of worship music. But large sections of their congregations—and not just the youth and young adults—feel that the "grand tradition" should not necessarily be the preferred style in worship music. Many say that a more eclectic approach, even a total preoccupation with contemporary gospel music, would better suit their worship needs.

As a pastor of several such churches, I have felt the sharp edges of the paradox. I have suffered with both musicians and congregations through difficult times in coming to consensus. This article reflects some things learned during those times.

Adventist worship encompasses enormous cultural and stylistic variety. Caleb Rosado reminds us pointedly that in discussions of worship and music, for "Adventist" we need to read "multicultural" much more often than we do.2 To his insights we need to add those of countless sociologists and church researchers who remind us that in our fast-changing times, various socioeconomic and age groups in Anglo culture differ as much from each other as they do from other ethnic groups.3

Spiritually, Adventist worship desperately needs to reestablish two priorities. First, it needs to seek the presence of the Holy Spirit. Second, and intimately connected with the first, it needs to focus on experiencing and proclaiming the everlasting gospel. From these priorities must then flow the dedication of our best talents and energies to the worship leadership task. Great worship engenders great preaching!

Don Hustad, esteemed Christian leader and musician, identified the role music should play in worship: "I have become convinced that church music should be approached as a functional art, and judged by whether or not it fulfills its best function. This should not be understood to imply that it may be used for unworthy functions, such as excessive manipulation in worship or evangelism. It simply means that music in church is not a free art, an end in itself. It is art brought to the cross, art which is dedicated to the service of God and the edifying of the church." 4

Music's contribution to worship

So how does music function in worship? Robert H. Mitchell lists five contributions music makes to Christian worship:5

First, music brings to worship an opportunity for participation. The primary instrument in worship music is the congregation. If your congregation spends more time in observation than it does in participation, then your music program is falling short, whatever your preferred style of music. Participation in worship music offers opportunities for learning, remembering, and reinforcing gospel truth.

Perhaps even more significant, participation in music offers the congregation a more direct opportunity for worship than does participation in any other aspect of the service. As worshipers lift their voices in praise to God (not about God, or about each other or each other's spiritual experiences), praise, prayer, and adoration all fuse together, and the worshipers experience intense intimacy with heaven.

Second, in worship, music functions as commentary. Instrumental music can serve this purpose when it suggests specific texts. But vocal music fulfills this function better.

Mitchell says, "When both composer and interpreter operate with a high level of skill and inspiration, this exposition of the text by the music can be remark ably effective." 6

Think, for example, of musical presentations of the theme of the resurrection. Who can fail to be stirred and to have his or her hope in the resurrection strengthened when hearing Bach's "Credo" from the Mass in B Minor, or that ringing affirmation "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from Handel's Messiah? There is something profoundly supportive of the sentiments of the words in the music itself. A high degree of competence on the part of composer and performer makes for the most effective use of music as commentary.

Third, music is a means of exhortation. "There is a group of solos, quartets, and anthems whose objective is frankly exhortation. These have developed in the context of mass evangelism. They combine expressions of personal testimony with the invitation to the listener to enter into a similar experience with Christ. At this point the singer or the choir is actually sharing in or doing the task of preacher or evangelist.'' 7

Fourth, music establishes mood. It is true that using music to create mood does risk leading a congregation to value feelings rather than the faith that ought to induce the feelings. This danger only makes it all the more important for musicians to favor using music that contains objective points of spiritual reference. A musical arrangement may carry significant, deeply personal, even emotional associations for a worshiper, but ideally, it also carries in the lyrics an objective reference point that anchors the congregation to the God who acts in history.

In a strikingly up-to-date comment on the mode of celebration in worship, Mitchell suggests: "We would do well to be guided here by the dictionary definitions of 'celebration,' which place the emphasis upon remembering rather than upon feelings. Scripture is full of this kind of celebration. ... To celebrate in these terms ... is to remember who God is and what He has done. It is the remembrance of His mighty acts and the fresh awareness of their meaning for today that, if given opportunity, lead to confidence and hope, courage and anticipation, excitement and joy, and true peace." 8

Fifth, music becomes a means of revelation. Of itself, music will never be a vehicle of special revelation in the same sense that Scripture is. Nevertheless, Christians believe in a general revelation observed in nature and human experience. With Mitchell I contend that through music "the transcendent, the ineffable, the incomprehensible, may be encountered as God's Spirit brings revelation to our human spirit." 9

Music appropriate for worship

What music is appropriate for worship? First, and most important, we must note that participatory music will always be the most appropriate. What ever their preferred style of music, congregations err when they tilt too far in the direction of an elite corps of per formers, however dedicated and committed those performers may be. As James White, one of our generation's more insightful observers of and contributors to the worship renewal discussion, has said: "We need church musicians far more than ever before, but their role is changing drastically from primarily that of performers to that of enablers. . . . Singers glorify God best by helping the congregation offer their praise." 10

Rephrasing our question, we ask, What is the appropriate style of music for worship? I resist the temptation to lay down a list of preferred composers, or even to do what well-meaning Adventist consultants have sometimes done—offer lists of preferred harmonic or rhythmic patterns beyond which the Christian should not stray. I prefer rather to echo the words of Don Hustad, who, while confessing that he prefers music from the cultivated tradition, suggests that "evangelicals should be open to a broader experience in musical expression." 11 He calls for greater breadth at all points of the worship music experience.

Hustad has developed six standards for evangelical church music that pastors, musicians, and congregations should take very seriously:

1. Both the text and the music must express the gospel in ways that the culture for which they are intended can understand.

2. The music must be our best, and it should be offered in love, humility, gratitude, and grace, without arrogance or shame in comparing it to the offerings of others of either the same or different cultures.

3. It should express and enhance the best Christian theology.

4. It should express and support the best Christian activities related to the group's beliefs worship, fellowship, and outreach, with due consideration of the musical needs of each.

5. It should speak from the whole person to the whole person, carefully balancing the physical, intellectual, and emotional.

6. It should be genuinely creative, shunning the hackneyed and trite as well as the elitist and abstruse. 12

What about music for congregational participation? The apostle Paul encouraged Christians to sing songs of praise, relating this practice to the Spirit's presence in the life: "Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. In stead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:18-20, NIV).

Structuring worship music experiences

The following suggestions for the structuring of worship music experiences spring from my belief in the primacy of the use of music for and by the congregation:

1. Make every experience of singing special. Don't have your congregation "sing a hymn or two" while people are being seated.

2. Plan your worship singing systematically. Coordinate Sabbath school and divine worship and even midweek meetings so that worship leaders don't stumble haphazardly onto the same selections week after week.

3. Monitor your congregation's total hymn and song repertoire. Develop a long-term plan, listing the hymns and songs you would like to use during the forthcoming year. Allow for repeats of new hymns and songs.

4. Don't be tied to the traditional expectation of three hymns only, in predictable places. The tradition of a hymn of praise, one of reflection or meditation, and one of commitment does have appeal and value. But other patterns of hymn singing can be even more rewarding.

Why not, on occasion, sing a cluster of hymns on a theme of praise or the theme of the morning worship? Use carefully selected stanzas, clustering hymns in a progression of keys and ascending levels of energy. Couch the morning prayer experience in a well-selected collection of hymns and songs. Offer a song as a prayer, or include a song in individual or group prayer, or conclude the prayer with a song.

5. On occasion, teach the congregation some simple harmonic parts. Use the choir or competent lead singers to assist the congregation.

6. Have soloists sing stanzas with congregational backing.

7. Use variety: provide varied harmonies and tunes for familiar words, or sing stanzas with or without instruments.

8. Use new material. The resources available to congregations today are almost overwhelming in their breadth and variety. Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs sound forth from every publishing house!

Conventional wisdom suggests that the average hymnal remains effective for about 40 years. With the accelerating rate of change in society and in communications I predict an even shorter life span.

I am not saying that the recently published Seventh-day Adventist hymnal is already passe. It contains a great treasury of the past and some fine music from the present, and congregational singing in my church is solidly based on it. Nor am I saying that everything that purports to be worship music is of lasting value. But with the new comes an important reflection of our times, our concerns, our idioms. Our willingness to use fresh material opens us up to the creativity of people in our congregations.

Of innovations in congregational music a prominent churchman wrote: "It's too new, worldly, and even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style.

Because there are so many songs, you can't learn them all. There is too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances, making people act indecently and disorderly. The preceding generation got along without it. It's a money-making scheme. Some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose." 13 The clergyman, Thomas Symmes, was a New England Puritan pastor anxious to promote musical literacy in his congregation through the new practice of singing from musical notation. He wrote this parody of the objections he encountered in 1723! Some, if not all, of these objections can be heard even today.

Introducing new music

How can you avoid a stir of controversy as you plan congregational music that includes both old and new?

1. Don't neglect the great hymns of the past. The Christian community draws strength from a sense of continuity With the past. God has done mighty things as the God of salvation history; these hymns keep this awareness alive. And it is because they are great music and because they facilitate great worship that these hymns have lasted through the centuries.

But in an age in which enormous energies are directed to making fresh translations of the Scripture, how I wish the editors of the new Adventist hymnal had applied a more uniform and contemporary standard to the editing of the words. A recent publication that has done this with great success is Hymns for Today's Church, 14 a hymnal that has generated a wide following among Anglicans in England and Australia. By seeing to it that their profound sentiments are communicated in an up-to-date way, we can guarantee the continuing value and impact of the great hymns of the past.

Raymond Holmes addressed the same issue. He made the point in connection with prayer and preaching, but his words are just as relevant to singing: "A new people with a new life and a new hope singing a new song, ought to sing it in a new language." 15

2. Choose new hymns and songs that are worthy of your time, then introduce and use them carefully.

What factors can we use to judge the worth of new material?

First, the words. Make sure they speak to the great themes of Christian faith. When they are well-crafted para phrases of Scripture, they are highly effective.

Be sure also that the words retain a sturdy objectivity. Avoid at all costs a drift into mere sentimentality. Words offering praise to the Godhead—Father, Son, and Spirit—demonstrate the essence of Christian worship.

Then there is the music. Repetitive and uninteresting tunes abound. Of course the same is true of hymns of the past—how many of the thousands of Wesley and Crosby hymns do we sing today?

To find which tunes will most likely last, watch for those with interesting melodic flow, with small leaps rather than large leaps in intervals, with a sense of drama and climax, and those that marry well with words. Remember that congregations learn more easily rhythms that are not heavily syncopated.

How can you best introduce new music? Remember that congregations cannot absorb large amounts of new material in a short time. Homespun wisdom says "Do the new in an old way, and do the old in a new way.'' For example, when you select new songs, present them to the congregation in a familiar instrumental style. New songs don't require new and threatening instruments to refresh your worship.

As you begin to introduce new songs, start with those that are most reminiscent of the familiar hymn style. And be sure to plan for musical variety in those that you choose. Some devotees of the newer worship music use songs of the same musical style for everything the congregation does. When one makes that mistake, the music loses its freshness and interest—"new" though it is.

My congregations have appreciated having the old presented in a new way. For instance, using an overhead projector has made a remarkable difference in the effectiveness of our singing so much so that now in our worship we sing all hymns, new and old, from the screen.

Why sing all hymns from the screen? Musically, it makes better sense for the singers to have their heads lifted high than buried in the hymnal. In addition, the members of the congregation are more unified with each other and with the music leaders when all are focusing on the same point in the sanctuary. The use of projection makes possible well-planned, unobtrusive transitions in music and worship. And other worship materials, such as Scripture readings, litanies, and children's stories, adapt well to overhead projection.

Of course, use of copyrighted music in transparencies or in any other form requires scrupulous observance of copy right provisions. Fortunately, there are organizations to assist you. 16

So what shall we do about church music? Above all let us lead our congregations in experiencing it as worship music. In my opinion, church sanctuaries can and should be used often as concert halls for sacred music. But the worship service—whether the music be in the grand tradition, contemporary style, or better still a mixture of both—must provide for believers a path that runs to the gate of heaven. In our worship we must harness every talent and artistic skill for the noble cause of extolling the God of the universe and helping human hearts to respond to His astounding grace. 

1 By the "grand tradition" I mean the timehonored
tradition of church music based on clas
sical forms, and including the great hymns, the
great oratorios, and the accompanying music of
organ, orchestra, and choir. I am indebted to my
friend and colleague Chuck Scriven, pastor of
Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church, Takoma
Park, Maryland, for this useful term.

2 Caleb Rosado, "Multiculturalism: A Chal
lenge for the Church," Music Ministry, January-
March 1989.

3 The Valuegenesis study has given sobering
accounts indicating that both Adventist schools
and churches are offering religious programming
that fails to meet the cultural needs of academy
students.

4 Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate! Church Music in
the Evangelical Tradition (Carol Stream, 111.:
Hope Pub. Co., 1981), p. x.

5 Robert H. Mitchell, Ministry and Music
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), pp. 79-
93. Mitchell's work is highly instructive for
Seventh-day Adventist pastors, musicians, and
congregations. Addressed to the interface between
worship and music, the book "is an attempt to
identify common ground where the biblical/
theological orientation of the pastor can meet the
musical expertise of the musician" (p. 7). Be
cause Mitchell's background is the free-church
tradition, his insights are particularly helpful to
Seventh-day Adventists.


6 Ibid., p. 83.

7 Ibid., p. 84.

8 Ibid., p. 87.

9 Ibid., p. 91.

10 James F. White, New Forms of Worship
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), p. 130.

11 Hustad, p. 39.

12 Ibid., pp. 38, 39. I understand Hustad to be
using the term "evangelical" to describe a
particular group within Protestantism, and, in a broad
sense, to describe the group's way of life and
worship as well as its theological orientation. I
found his approach helpful and relevant to many
of the broader issues within Seventh-day Adventism.

13 Leslie Flynn, Worship: Together We Celebrate
(Wheaton, 111.: Victor Books, 1983), p. 75.
Flynn has paraphrased more extensive remarks by
Thomas Symmes. For a more exact quotation and
a statement of historical context, see David P.
Appleby, History of Church Music (Chicago:
Moody Press, 1965), p. 127.


14 Michael Baughen, consultant editor, Hymns
for Today's Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton,
1982). This hymnal's three prefaces (a con
sulting editors preface, a "words" preface, and a
"music" preface) explain the philosophy of worship
and music underlying the production of the
hymnal. They make compelling reading for those
who value the retaining of the grand tradition of
worship music while communicating to a new
generation.

15 C. Raymond Holmes, Sing a New Song!
(Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press,
1984), p. 153.

16 Our church has been using the services of
Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc., 6130 HE.
78th Court, Suite C-ll, Portland, OR 97218-
2853. This company acts as a broker between
Christian publishing houses and church congregations.
After paying a minimal fee, a local congregation
can use on overhead transparencies, in
church bulletins, and on song sheets, music from
the list of publishers provided. The company then
provides royalty payments to the publishers on
behalf of the congregation.


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Lyell V. Heise, senior pastor of the La Sierra Collegiate church, Riverside, California, writes both as a worship leader and as a musician

October 1991

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