What should the songs we sing and play in church be like?
First, they need to be fitting for the occasion. One may have an eclectic taste in music ranging from Gregorian, baroque and classical to ragtime, blues, and rock and roll, but not every genre is appropriate for worship. Neither ragtime nor baroque are good vehicles for hymnody.
Consider this example: a minister may enjoy a glass of merlot but it would be disrespectful for him to bring it with him into the pulpit on Sunday whereas it would not be irreverent to have a glass of water on the pulpit. The purpose of having a glass of something to drink on the pulpit is to wet the whistle while speaking, and water is appropriate for that whereas the function of red wine is to enhance the taste of a good meal.
Beverages—water, wine, coffee, or another—are designed to perform certain functions. Similarly, music is designed to perform a certain function. It is not true that any piece of music can be performed for any occasion. When King Saul was depressed, David’s quiet, soothing music of the harp would revive him. When the little children of Jesus’ day wanted to dance they would blow on flutes. When the prodigal son returned home, his father ordered up such a party that the music could be heard out in the fields.
Tone and mood vary with the occasion, and so the kind of music we play must vary. We have access to an impressive range of styles of music to suit different occasions. The problem with much worship is not the music but the kind of occasion many seem to think worship is. There is a difference between the corporate worship of God and flipping hamburgers on the back patio.
Hebrews 12:28 & 29 says, “… let us … worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” As John Calvin said somewhere, our songs and music should have a certain weight and majesty.
Ragtime is not suitable for a wedding march. Imagine the bride and her father coming down the aisle to Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer. Intricate opera would not be suitable for congregational singing. Baroque music would not succeed in getting the crowd pumped before the team skates on to the ice. There is music for parades, weddings, funerals, a quiet evening at home, and for hockey games.
Music needs to fit the occasion just as clothing does. If you are going to change the oil in your car, you are not going to put on a tuxedo or an evening gown.
The architecture around us fits the occasion. There is nothing as beautiful as a medieval cathedral but it would not be your first choice for eating your breakfast and reading your morning paper.
So music needs to fit the occasion. And what is the occasion of worship? In worship one approaches God, Creator, Redeemer, and Judge. This needs to be done with reverence and awe.
See also “Worship Music and Propriety” in Douglas Wilson’s Mother Kirk, Canon Press, 2001.