The Power of Music in Church

kinnon —  October 30, 2006 — 13 Comments

We watched a profoundly disturbing report on CTV’s W5 yesterday about a church in Hamilton, Ontario – the Dominion Christian Centre. (CTV is one of Canada’s national broadcasters.)

The D.C.C., as it’s known, is no ordinary church. No hymns here. Every Sunday service begins with a one-hour rock concert – complete with power vocals, driving guitars and pounding bass.

The man on the drums is the pastor. Peter Rigo came to Hamilton, he says, “on a mission from God.”

The report was disturbing on so many levels – I recommend you watch it for yourself. What I found interesting was my own reaction to the music. I liked what I was hearing. It appealed to the rocker in me. And it was attractional to my two teenagers who watched the program with Imbi and me. The band was tight, the crowd was hopping and it looked like “fun.”

Music has incredible power to affect us. Martin Luther, half a millennium ago, said:

I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.

The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…

Perhaps String Theory explains why “it controls our thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits…” Roy Williams writes,

Listen to a group of physicists talk about String Theory and it will slowly dawn on you that they’re explaining the entire universe as nothing but the quivering, dancing echo of the voice of God. “Let there be light.”

String Theory describes energy and matter as being composed of tiny, wiggling strands of energy that look like strings. And the pitch of a string’s vibration determines the nature of its effect.

In essence, String Theory describes space and time, matter and energy, gravity and light, indeed all of God’s creation… as music.

Could it be that, we don’t just resonate with music, we are, in fact, music. Our physical reaction to music (toes tapping, body swaying, hands clapping, people dancing) is just a function of how we’ve been constructed. Which would explain both the power of music in the church, and the reason there’s so much discussion and disagreement about it.

I’m a reasonably good rhythm guitar player with a relatively good singing voice. (Or so I’ve been told.) I’m married to a gifted musician (keyboards, violin, vocals) and we have three musically gifted kids. Imbi and I have been music leaders in different churches (on and off) for the past 20+ years. (Imbi grew up in a very musical church, was the pianist for a “killer” Estonian youth choir and is from a wonderfully musical family.) We have strong and definite opinions about church music.

These opinions actually cause me to not attend the Sunday morning services in the church I profess to love. Much too often, obscure hymns leave the congregation voiceless – or drowned out by an overpowering organ. (In spite of the fact of not coming to any kind of faith position until my mid-20’s, I grew up attending Anglican services on Air Force bases around Canada and Europe and have a good knowledge of hymnody.) The contemporary worship songs used are mostly in the “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” vein, played ad nauseam. The evening service, however, is normally led by a gifted musician with a varying music team – and the music covers a wider spectrum of music (leaning contemporary but away from the J-I-M-B dreck). I attend that service.

Some would argue that the style of worship music is “not about you, Bill.” I would disagree. I’ve been wired by my Creator to respond to music – perhaps to be music, if Roy Williams’ interpretation of String Theory is accurate. My engagement in the worship of God is affected by the style and quality of music played.

Let me go back to the CTV report mentioned at the beginning of this post. I would suggest that the most attractive aspect of this church for the young people who attend is the music. It appeals to them – resonates with them, if you will. It’s a great hook to draw people in. In a healthy church, I would have little problem with this style of music. In a church that might be more cult-like, the music can be simply addictive.

In a traditional church model (physical plant focussed), the style and quality of music has a major impact on who attends. If you desire to be inter-generational and cross-cultural, then the music needs to reflect this. If you want to engage thinking people, then your music choices need to reflect substance over style. (J-I-M-B style songs, written as I, IV, V chord progressions, with endless repetition are not appropriate for sentient humans, in my not so humble, but accurate opinion.)

The style of worship also needs to be seen as a part of the missional nature of the church. If God’s call on your church is to work in an Afro-Cuban context, then 18th and 19th Century hymnody will not cut it. Nor will 20th and early 21st Century J-I-M-B “contemporary worship.”. The gorgeous melodies and rhythms of Afro-Cuban music will need to inform the worship style of your church (and please, can you let me know where your church is, so I can visit!). Who you are called to minister to and with whom should inform your choice of music.

This isn’t an issue of being seeker-sensitive. It’s a call to be reality sensitive. Too many church leaders ignore the impact of music on their church family. If the leader likes it, “well, that’s good enough.” No it’s not.

I look forward to your comments.

This post was prompted by an ongoing discussion of worship at Rob McAlpine’s blog, which I’d recommend you read. (I also look forward to the publishing of Rob’s Post-Charismatic book in 2007.) I added a quote in the comments on Rob’s post from Stanley Hauerwas that Gideon Strauss pointed out – which also helped to prompt this post:

“One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.”

Fortunately, my best friend lives in Pittsburgh. He’s safe for now.

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

13 responses to The Power of Music in Church

  1. I didn’t see show, but my daughter did. What was scary for her was that one of her friends from high school is involved – scary.

  2. Bill the “connections” keep adding up… some are obscure: my son is in residence at Tartu [bloor near spadina] – it’s estonian in it’s roots!

  3. Music is powerful. [I’ll try not to get sidetracked into the discussion of how many have redefined worship to be the same as music – other than to say, yes, music is a large part of worship, but it is not all of worship.]

    I like the quote from Luther, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…

    And I think you may be onto something when you bring in String Theory. We do resonate with music. I am not a fan of country music… and yet if it’s good toe taping C&W… I end up toe tapping!

    There are models of “church” which are very targeted and so use a fairly narrow spectrum of worship music. There are also “clone” models, which simply use what everyone else is using. [as another aside, I wonder if Christian radio and the wide availability of worship cd’s has reduced our understanding and entering into worship – worship music is the new background music!]

    To be intergenerational and cross-cultural is a not more work. I don’t think it’s a matter of simply using a mix of older and newer music [I don’t like the hymns / chorus language – because a good percentage of newer worship songs are hymns, not choruses.] Nor, is it a matter of using a different instrument mix or ethnic mix on a worship team [although these are all part of what needs to happen]. These things are all surface. What, I think, is needed, is real discussion among the church family about what worship is and how different styles and musical approaches ministers to and enables different parts of the body to worship; and to move beyond personal taste and preference to giving preference to other parts of the body [I think I’ll stop there before I start preaching!]

    Thanks Bill for an excellent post.

  4. How to respond? … You are right Bill!

    Music touches us beyond our emotions. It is more than the words. The rhythm means something beyond our toes tapping. On occasion, I’ve gone into a phase of listening to John Coltrane’s late work from the mid-1960s. It is pure emotion, lacking the structure that was indicative of modern jazz a decade earlier. The random expressiveness touches a part of me that needs scratching about once a year. Then I’m content to revert back to the music of Monk and Miles.

    In our church, we are multi-cultural, yet without any acknowledgment that rock music exists. In essence, we are blending world folk music with traditional Protestant hymnody. And it works. Why does it work? Because the music is not an end it itself. It is intended to take us somewhere else, in church it is into our worship of God. If it doesn’t, then the joy and reverence that we should experience is lost in the music being just another commodity that we acquire when we go to church. And our pastors and music director understand this.

  5. Bill,
    Some good thoughts. Thanks for the post. I do have a question, however. How do you reconcile the thinking “it’s a great hook to draw people in” with “this is not being seeker sensitive”? If a major purpose of your music is to draw people in then what would you call it?

  6. Wow. What an interesting commentary and some great comments.

    Luckily for me, I happen to quite like most of the music at my church. If I don’t like it, then, oh well, somebody else does and hopefully they will be blessed. If the music isn’t moving to me, I just look around at the congregation and see the many different people there all coming together to praise and fellowship. That ought to move a frozen mountain.

    I think we need the body of Christ – music or no music, whether we like the music or not. Going to church should be just as much about giving to everyone there as it is about receiving anything. That’s just my opinion and I wouldn’t condemn anyone who disagreed. 🙂

  7. Before I respond, I want to point you to the Gideon Strauss response to this post.

  8. Bill,
    I dont believe music is the hook in this case: it is only the bait and the music itself may be just fine (though not everyone’s taste). The hook is pride coupled with fear. The music gets people in the door, but the ones who stay are those who are “hooked” by the pride inherent in believing you are right and everyone else is wrong, and the fear of not being right. It is a lethal double-barb and one all cult leaders use – some with more skill and finesse than others.

    I am so sorry to learn of this happening. It is heartbreaking. May God graciously deliver all those who have been “hooked” and my He also mercifully bring to account the one who is leading all these people astray, for as Peter wrote in his second letter, “These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.” If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.” 2 Peter 2:17-20

    This is serious business.

  9. Brian,

    I’d say my sentence “a great hook to draw them in” was not meant to be an endorsement of using this kind of hook – a poorly crafted paragraph on my part. I have no problem in churches using music that resonates with the community they are called to work within – I do have a problem with music being used as a hook – as a way to sell people something. Or as “bait” as Susan puts it.


    I don’t disagree with you. We do need the body of Christ – each other. And the music shouldn’t be a barrier. However, I do believe that we need to recognize the power of music and be both prayerful and intelligent in how we “harness” that power. There’s a great conversation going on at the Boar’s Head Tavern on the topic of music in church, partially triggered by this post.


    Your daughter has written a very good response to the DCC story and I’ll link to it again. And regarding your point of “giving preference to other parts of the body”, I’d say “preach it brother.”

    A church leader I was once close to said, if over a four week period of attending the church he led, you didn’t experience music that you could identify with, they were doing something wrong.


    In spite of my rock and roll tendencies, a steady diet of that would drive me out of my mind. I do believe that we are called to engage our culture in a language they can understand. Music is one of those languages. And I’m not adverse to being taught another language – as long as you also attempt to communicate with me in my own.

  10. Bill,
    Thanks for replying. I agree–both about churches using music that resonates in a community and having a problem with using it as a hook.

  11. Hey Bill…

    I am filled with many thoughts regarding your music post. I just mentioned this article in my blog as well. Music is a force and a special one at that. I wonder however if the church in general limits music and its implications in the worship gathering…

  12. I admidt that the W5 program showed a very whacked view of the church but I have seen what didn’t air – what was left on the cutting room floor – and in seeing the whole thing… in context… it’s not as “scary” as they were painted out to be.

    A lot of partial truths and misconceptions, enough to get people to tune in and in effect – tune out. Since the airing, I’ve been down to the church on many occasions and have seen with my own eyes the good they are doing for their church people and community.

    You’re right – the music is good – actually great and that’s the way it should be in church. We serve a creative God – music was one of His creations and it’s not all pipes and harps!!

  13. Sorry, Shash, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me that CTV skewed their edit in such a way as to tell a false story. And I have had just a little experience editing.

    A great church doing a wonderful job in the community doesn’t fill a studio with angry former members and concerned parents.


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