Church music: a wicked sin?

16 July, 2014 — 24 Comments

I’ve never really felt comfortable with what seems to be an over emphasis of singing songs in what gets defined as “worship” in church services, and now I’ve found an ally: one of the early church fathers, [Saint] Augustine of Hippo from the 4th century.


About a week ago I was driving when Radio New Zealand was playing an excerpt from Davinia Caddy’s book “How to Hear Classical Music (The Ginger series).” It was one of those moments that shed light on some of the church service things I think about. Caddy writes:

Augustine, like his Christian brothers, believed that music could hold sway over the emotions.

In a church service, songs, hymns, and psalms could enhance the religious experience, helping to revive tired souls, increase passion and piety, and further the praise of God.

But the intensity of emotion aroused by music caused Augustine some concern. Feelings of pleasure and joy may well arouse the congregation, especially the weaker spirits among it, but they may also paralyse their minds. Enjoying church music without attending to the meaning of the words being sung, gratifying the senses, without applying the mind, this was a grave danger, a grievous sin, as Augustine writes.

It was a sin that Augustine felt compelled to confess, asking his readers and God himself for pity and for mercy.

You will no doubt recognise the tension Augustine describes between listening for pleasure and listening for some sort of intellectual or spiritual improvement.

Augustine’s confession

Here’s an English translation of what Augustine wrote in his Confessions work:

I am inclined – though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion on the subject – to approve of the use of singing in the church, so that by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood. Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing.  Chapter 33 (pg 146 of the online PDF translation by Professor of Theology Albert C Outler) 

The church service singalong

Many twenty-first century [Baptist] church services have a singalong component to them, usually including musical instruments such as a band or organ. Considering the proportion of time given to this singalong component, in my experience about a third of the time the gathered faith community spend together, church music appears to be very important. However, I have never heard anyone offer a warning about church music such as that above from Augustine, that it might in fact cause someone to sin wickedly.

Is it really worship?

Is all of this singing in church services actually “worship” or for some people could it be something else?

I admit to sometimes getting bored in the singalong part of church services. Sometimes I look around to see what other people are doing. I have noticed all sorts of things from people seemingly moved by the singing, to those who look like they’re just patiently waiting for it to end. Occasionally I see someone on their smart-phone and I feel a sense of solidarity.

Music is good

I’m not against music, or feelings and emotions caused by it. I still consider myself a musician, and in the past I have played the trumpet and keyboard in church bands during the singing part of church services. Most of the time I enjoyed it and had a good time – practice times were a fun way to hang out with other church people. I even went touring as 2nd Trumpet in a horn section of what could have been described as a Christian ska band.

At home I usually have music playing in the house.

Nothing makes me happier than being at a Herbie Hancock concert while Chameleon is being played (I’ve experienced this twice), and U2 concerts are pretty amazing times that bring feelings of pleasure, joy, and wonder. I believe that my response to this music has something to do with me being created in the image of God, and that my response to this music could be a God connecting thing, which has the opportunity and potential to be an act of worship. This has been my experience.

I believe music and worship can go together.

My discomfort

But I still have discomfort with what to me seems like an over emphasis of singing songs in what gets defined as “worship” in church services. I like that Augustine had some concerns with it too. I also like that I heard of Augustine’s concerns on our national radio station via a music lecturer at one of our universities.

Lets not call it “worship”

Church music that makes us feel good (pleasure and joy) without engagement with the words (paralysed minds) is probably not what people intend when they refer to the singalong part of church services as “worship”.

Let’s just call it singing from now on, with the hope that some people in the gathering will be worshiping God because of it. And let’s make the singalong bit shorter and find other ways to worship God as we gather together. Sometimes let’s not even have singing when we gather for worship – give the musos a break and find other ways to worship God together.

A resulting benefit

Music can be a very dividing thing. At the church I’m currently part of people generally choose which of two church services to attend because of the music on offer. A byproduct of having less (or no) music in our church gatherings might be the enabling of more cross-generational diversity as well as more artistic creativity.

“The music was great today”

The next time you hear someone say after a church service: “The music was great today”, or even: “The music was pretty average today”:

  • Think of Augustine and his own church music confession.
  • Wonder how else the gathered faith community at your place might worship God together.

Augustine had some concerns about church music, I have a discomfort about its dominance in church services, do you have any thoughts about it?

Images: Tools of church music, Mike Crudge 2010.

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  • dalecampbell

    Mike, thanks for this, I resonate 110%

  • Mark Simpson

    “..However, I have never heard anyone offer a warning about
    church music such as that above from Augustine, that it might in fact cause
    someone to sin wickedly..”

    Music is such a part of most cultures. Music and song has influence on the
    environment one is in, its atmosphere and outcomes. One can be influenced as to
    whether one stays to make a defining decision or to confuse the cognitive
    process altogether. Have you ever gone to a store so desiring to purchase what
    you need or want yet had multiple choices and there was loud music not to your
    taste blaring out that made you leave without buying anything? Or you have had
    to work in a factory doing mindless mundane work and had to listen to some
    Lileth-Jezebel inspired stuff coming over the radio?

    Does anyone remember Bill Gothard’s Basic Life Seminars? He was quite
    outspoken about the role of music and song in the church service. His
    teaching was mainly directed against the then contemporary Christian
    music industry (late ‘70s and ’80s) seeing the dangers of commercialising the sacred. I was attending a Pentecostal church at the time and he did not go down very well. He taught about over-emphasis of beat over melody, metaphorically calling the beat (drums) as being the ‘flesh’, the rhythm being the ‘soul’ and the melody being the ‘spirit’ of the song/music. An overemphasis of the beat made it ‘fleshly’, an overemphasis of rhythm ‘soulish’ and a melody could be ‘sick’. He felt that the contemporary church music backnthen was not a bridge in, it was a bridge
    out from the church, doing nothing for the spiritual development and healing of
    wounded spirits. I wonder what he thinks today? If I recall, the teaching also
    singled out some hymns as being inappropriate. Maybe being “..too sentimental..” as John Wesley said of some of his brother’s Charles’s hymns like “Jesus Lover of My Soul” (Yes – Darlene knows a good line). Or what about Wesley’s hymn that ceased to be used around the time of the trench warfare of World War One:

    “I waited patient for the Lord,
    He bowed to hear my cry;
    He saw me resting on his word,
    And brought salvation nigh.

    He raised me from a horrid pit,
    Where mourning long I lay,
    And from my bonds released my feet,
    Deep bonds of miry clay.”

    (Wesley using Psalm 40 before U2’s anthem)

    Sadly,the music side of worship has had wars against those bringing God’s Word
    and physically takes up much room in the building as well as the calendar so
    often zealously defended and even jealously offending. Like you, I too am a
    lamenting musician and agree Mike, it can become very divisive and unwise – or the wrong sort of wisdom – earthly, rather than the wisdom from above as the writer of James gives discernment [3:13-18]. His words I am not prepared to discard – only to hold to. I wonder how many people have their daily prayer and scripture devotion before they go to church on any given Sunday as other days?

    • Hi Mark. You add interesting points to the conversation.
      The shop music…
      An example I can think of where music is intentionally used to manipulate is in film soundtracks – they do a great job of creating tension/joy/etc, or communicating and supporting something for the viewers ears to interpret that might be more subtle if there was no music at all. I’ve occasionally used soundtrack music in church services to help shape the environment in particular ways – being aware of the manipulative nature of it.

      I’ve heard of Bill Gothard but I’ll need to look him up on wikipedia…

      I’d like to think Augustine’s concerns could be given a fresh airing and discussed among church music leaders and groups.

  • You and Augustine and me…we’re bros’s! But its an uphill and un-winable battle to have the Church in the West pull the juggernaut of CCM off the road for a look at how its travelling. Like Mad Max it just has to keep on rolling. too many people are riding on it…

    • Dystopia now, utopia the other side of the eschaton?

      Speaking of Contemporary Christian Music, I’ve just this week put some google ads on the right side column of this blog – where google chooses what ads to show, within broad accepted categories I have selected. I just noticed the latest Hillsong album being advertised on my blog! Irony, or a sign of my diversity?

  • Churchgoer: “I didn’t really feel the worship today Pastor”
    Pastor: “That’s ok, we weren’t worshiping you”

    For all the thousands that are put off by the noise of contemporary music, thousands and more and drawn in. And maybe while they’re drawn in, they might just be exposed to the gospel, and the love of God.

    IMO, church music in the style of Jazz/Funk would be awesome.

    • Hi James! Good points. I’ve met someone recently who found Contemporary Christian Music a significant part of drawing them into the church/faith community.

      And yes: Let the funk be free!!

    • Mark Day

      I agree that Jazz/Funk church music would be sweet. Ska-punk would be the ultimate if we’re talking personal preference :P

      While I don’t disagree with the logic that some kinds of music might appeal to people and therefore might draw them to a place where they can hear about Jesus, I can’t bring myself to agree with the ‘thousands drawn in’ argument, and here’s why:

      What we have to give people is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is attractive to people because of who he is and what he did. Part of what he did is to establish a community whose primary responsibilities come in the form of the first commandments: to love God, and one another as themselves. Jesus says people will know that we are his disciples if we have love for one another (Jn 13:35) and he makes it very clear that this means giving up ones own life; being a servant. Paul unpacks this love further in terms of mutual affection (Rom 12:10) – and again in Phil 2 – ‘look not to your own interests.’ This requirement of the Christian community saturates the New Testament. It seems to me that too often in church music arguments, there is an implicit assumption that one set of people must do the submitting and another set should get their way, often for the sake of the mission. But my question is this: what then are we trying to draw people into? A community which proclaims Jesus with it’s words but refuses to acknowledge his explicit commandments and his example, when it comes to ordering a worship service.

      Now, of course, in order to make decisions about what to play, and how, and at what volume etc etc, some people are not going to get their initial preference. So in practice it will work out that some peoples submission is more mutual than others, so to speak. Maybe the missional/attractional angle has a lot of weight in that discussion because we ought to be outward focused. But it cannot be a weapon used to demand submission out of someone else, because then we are declining our responsibility to be a people constituted by self-giving love. Even if the music works and lots of people come along, we won’t be drawing people into the kind of community that Christ wants us to be.

  • Jeannie Cochrane

    It took me many years to come out from under an unspoken but subtle belief passed on to me that Charismatic type worship was the best and highest form of worship. I have since come to discover that there are many ways to worship, some spoken and some unspoken. Singing can be one expression yet for me it’s not often how I most authentically worship God. I know for some people it is. I like your suggestion of not necessarily calling the singing time “worship”. And wouldn’t it be great if the church in general had a much wider concept of what worship looks like and named other aspects besides singing as worship.

    • Hi Jeannie – it’s good to hear of you experience with worship.

      I like to think of “worship” as an offering to God – which fits in with what you describe as a much wider concept of what worship looks like. I really like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message of Romans 12.1

      “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him…”

  • Mark Day

    The primary question I find myself asking is this:

    How does our practice in this area shape us as followers of Jesus?

    Within that I want to ask these kinds of questions:

    Does this music teach good things? (what is the doctrinal content of the songs we sing?)

    Does it encourage patterns of thinking in us which are helpful, or harmful? (for instance is the music always so positive that there is no space for lament, pain, or grief? If there is no room in the Christian life for those things, what does that teach the congregation about God?)

    Who is the subject and object involved in this music? Is it egocentric? Ecclesiocentric? Christocentric? Is it all about “me & God” in our inward selves? Us (as a church) and God? Me towards God? Us towards God? God towards us?

    Now leave me alone Mike, I have things to do.

    • Mark Day: so many questions! There’s a thesis there in a Master of Applied Theology degree…

      I think your question “How does our practice in this area shape us as followers of Jesus” would be good to ask of so much we do as the church – in a regular ‘audit’ kind of way. However, theological reflection isn’t usually easy or quick.

      In terms of your questions around the content of church music, you may be interested in my post next week where I will share my theory about who actually engages with the content of church music… (that’s a teaser!)

  • Dave

    “Let’s call it singing from now on”. That’s what I’ve been calling it for ages but it hasn’t caught on :) I wouldn’t quite call “enjoying church music without attending to words being sung” a grievous sin and like you I find music can help me worship (often while listening to so called ‘secular’ music) in a similar way to tramping in wilderness does. Anyway there are many church songs out there that when I attend too closely to the words I find theologically dubious so I just keep playing the piano, shut up and enjoy playing and hope that the music I make is helping some people in some way worship. As a musician I would often prefer less or no music. However, as tradition is what binds social groups together, it seems that the tradition of the singalong segment of a Baptist meeting is deeply ingrained in many congregations and many would be at a loss as to what to do to fill in the time. The Anglican Church down the road has some other options for how to fill in the hour, so when I get the opportunity I go join the friendly vicar and her congregation to worship with them through their liturgy and readings.

    • Hi David – I think your comment about tradition is helpful (I might even use it in my next post which will also be about church music.) Traditions need to be challenged as they perhaps become more about comfort than purpose.

  • Andrew Meek

    Since this is a blog on communication, I’m interested Mike in your thoughts on outsider perceptions of church music. I would hazard to say that singing would be one of the defining traits of the church- other than concerts and European football matches there are few places where a mass of people will sing together. Yet common perceptions of church music would range from slow, droning organs to gospel choirs and “happy-clappy” dancing. I know from inside the church there are expectations around so-called “worship” songs which leave little chance for imaginative expressions and isolate those to whom church and group singing are a foreign concept. Does our over-emphasis on emotional church music hinder our effectiveness at church mission or does it help us reach lost and broken people?

    • Hi Andrew and good questions. I don’t have enough information to be able to answer your questions, and there have been a few different opinions expressed in the comments below about church music drawing people outside of church toward God.

      In my PhD research, one person I interviewed who had never been Christianised, made a negative comment about one church building setup he had seen inside when picking up his cousin, he said it looked more like a theatre due to its flashy technology and performance, that to him provoked the sense that money was being used for the wrong things, he thought it was like “going to Theatre Royal to watch a show”. I think his expectation was for church money to be spent helping the poor etc…

      In the “9 perceptions” of the church I gleaned from my the interviews with people outside the church, none of them had stuff to say about church music:

      That doesn’t answer your question. I personally wonder if things like hospitality, friendship, care and support, expressed through the gathered faith community, would have more effectiveness on reaching lost and broken people than music, and if these things were genuinely happening, any new people to the community would learn to participate with other perhaps weird things within the church subculture that are what we would call “worship”.

      I’m not suggesting no singing at all, but rather that we consider a more holistic view of worship when we are together.

  • not a wild hera

    This is so helpful, thanks, Mike (and not just because I agree with you :) ).

    I think another good thing about calling it ‘singing’ is that to call it ‘worship’ for many people reduces the category ‘worship’ and equates it only with ‘singing’. So when a leader says ‘we’re now going to move into a time of worship’ they’re saying ‘the sermon, the sharing of news, the eating together, the communion, the giving of money – none of that was worship’. Problematic. I’m with you on Romans 12.

    • Yeah, totally. AND “your sleeping” – a good nights sleep as an offering to God – it sounds like something Mr Pyjama would say to Curley Vasco.

  • Mark Campbell

    Absolutely Mike. You have said exactly what Ive been saying
    in my circle for 15 years or more. Just as the church may complain about
    redefining marriage, we’re guilty of redefining worship and making it much
    smaller and less deep than the models we can observe in scripture. Often we
    have grabbed ideas from scripture that do not relate to a weekly Sunday service
    and used them as evidence to prop up the “music is worship” theology. What this
    has done to a generation of Christians is skew their view of experiencing God
    and the work of his kingdom.

    I trained YFC touring teams and volunteer staff for some
    years and did sessions on worship highlighting issues you raise. One exercise
    we did was take 2 statements such as “He worships the ground she walks on” and “He
    worships his car” and brainstorm all the reasons why someone would say that.
    They came up with comprehensive lists which did not include that they sang
    songs for 30 minutes to their girlfriend or car once a week! That got the point
    across. Language needs to be used rightly.

    I agree with Augustine where he is somewhat suspicious of
    musics power to move people. Frequently “God experiences” are simply the
    mysterious and wonderful power of music to create atmosphere, emotions, power
    and take one out of oneself. That’s not all bad but we need to be aware of it
    in a similar way to how we sometimes warn young people about the dangers of
    puppy love being seen as genuine real deal “I will love you forever” Keep challenging
    us Mike

    • Thanks Mark. I really like the idea of getting people to unpack those two statements you mention – it sounds a great inductive way to approach the topic of worship.

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