In this third post on music and church I intend to reflect on the potential pitfalls of both choral and praise-team-led music (or, slightly differently, for traditional and contemporary music) in church. We’ll look at this from two angles:

1) the similar negative possibilities of each

2) the problem that comes from having strictly one or the other of these options in church

Negative Possibilities

We would be naive to think that one type of music in church is prone to problems/dangers, while another is immune. Sometimes this is the impression we might get from those who find “contemporary” or “praise team-led” music to be a problem. The problem that usually gets pointed out is that the music becomes noisy and distracting, because of either loud electric guitars or banging drums. By contrast, it is assumed that more traditional forms of music have no dangers.

But these kind of dichotomies are almost never entirely fair. Everything we do comes with its own potential pitfalls. Because of sinfulness and misdirected hearts, anything can become a danger. It’s not cynical to say this (I am not one who thinks very highly of cynicism) but simply honest. Our hearts can always go astray. Even the best things, if they become an end in themselves, can become troublesome and can pull us away from God.

We can see this in a historical example. In the Reformation era, some significant leaders contended that all instrumental music was a danger, and had become an end in itself–a distraction from the Word of God. So these leaders insisted that no instruments be used in church to accompany the congregation’s singing. Can you imagine that? I mention this example not because I agree that it’s a good solution–I absolutely don’t–but to point out that we should certainly examine the role music plays in our churches, and try to be as honest as we can about our own hearts. (Additionally, this story is a good reminder that well before the contemporary era with its drums and guitars music has been a contentious issue–some things never change!)

So what are the dangers? If the worry we have about drums-and-guitars and worship bands is that church worship can start to look like a rock concert, we should remember that it’s also possible that we can become spectators and an audience for a choir.

Another example: I have attended services at a church in which at the end of the service the organist played a lengthy (and very showy) postlude. It was expected that no one would move until he was finished. At the end everyone applauded his performance before they left for the day. That kind of thing is inappropriate, because a performance has become the focus. I have also attended services in which there is a lengthy electric guitar solo in the middle of a congregational song, and everyone listens intently and in awe at the performance of the guitarist. That is just as inappropriate as the other situation. Why? Because something intended as congregational worship was turned into a performance.

But music in church–whether led by a choir or a praise team–is intended to facilitate congregational singing. Choirs and praise teams are both able to do this. And when they do, wonderful! We come together to worship God, which includes singing his praises. We don’t come together to listen to either a rock band or a choral concert. We come to join our voices together and sing, and we can be thankful for the choir that leads us and for the worship leader or team that leads us. That’s what we’re there for–to be led to sing ourselves.

(But please note: At the same time, there is definitely a place for ministries of music–by choirs in their anthems and by others who might have a different form of music to share–within the worship of the church. I am regularly blessed by choir anthems in our church and by those others who share a song with the congregation.)

To summarize this first point: the danger of either choir-led or praise team-led music comes when they become the focus of our attention, something for us to listen to during the congregational songs. We are supposed to follow them and sing ourselves with more gusto!

The Problem with only Choosing One

The second potential pitfall I want to mention today is of only choosing one kind of music for a congregation to use. If I haven’t made it clear enough, my view is that this should not be turned into an either/or decision.

Why? Because most congregations are made up of a mixed group, with a mixture of tastes or make-ups when it comes to music. If we think of each of us having a “music language” that makes sense to us, we will also understand that we need to give everyone an opportunity to “speak their language” in the music of the church. If we have multiple “music languages” in the church, we should find a way to speak each other’s language out of love and care for the others, even if it’s never going to be the language we’re most comfortable with. It’s just as important that young people learn to sing a Charles Wesley hymn in their worship as it is for older people to learn to sing a Chris Tomlin song in theirs. By doing that, we send a powerful message, once again echoing the point of my first post: we will not be divided again on the basis of any categories like old/young, traditional/contemporary; Christ has broken those divisions through his death on the cross.

In our particular church, we have a wonderful mixture of old and young, of those (old and young) who love hymns, of those (old and young) who love contemporary worship songs. Out of simple concern to let every voice and language be raised together in a diversified unity, we can aim to use more than one kind of music in our worship to the Lord. This is not about privileging one over the other, but of learning each other’s languages so that we can grow together for the Lord and make a joyful, wonderfully varied (but always respectful) sound for his ears.