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By Roydon Frost.
Please see the Video and Podcast above. The transcript is below
I am uniquely unqualified to give this talk; there’s not a musical bone in this body. More than that, I’ve taken a look back into my heritage, and it looks like music fell out of my family tree a long time ago (if it was ever there).
But that’s not the end of it. My lack of talent was, for a long time, matched only by my lack of interest.
I was that guy. The guy who comes to church for the sermon, who treats the music as a signal to start thinking about taking your seat… in the next 20 minutes or so. Who treats music as chip and dip, while we wait for the meat to braai. For me, music was almost on a par with notices. Not quite, but almost.
So I’m a recent convert to all that is music ministry… but maybe that can be to our advantage.
I’m fully expecting to think your thoughts after you (in some cases decades after you), but maybe I can think them out loud with the enthusiasm of a new convert. Maybe you can be reminded of your first love when it comes to music ministry. In fact, that’s my goal.
I want to strip it all right down to the basics, to first principles, so that we end this session with praise in our hearts to the God who gave us music as a way to serve. And since this is the first ever session on music at Synod, that seems like a worthy goal.
Let’s get into it.
One question I want to answer: Why music ministry?
The old me would have needed convincing that the question is even worth answering, that this stuff matters. There might be someone here in that frame of mind, so let’s hear from Stanley Hauwerwas:
“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.”
He could be over-reaching just a bit.
If you don’t like hyperbole, I’m afraid Martin Luther isn’t going to help:
“…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…. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvellous creation of God, must be a clodhopper… and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”
It seems our singing matters. If you don’t think so, either you are going to kill your best friend or spend eternity listening to warthogs on repeat!
Let me give you an example that’s close to home. In 1928, Bishops of the Church of England published a new prayer book. It was the product of rising Catholicism on one hand and theological liberalism on the other. It was a relatively controversial move, and the English dealt with it the way they always deal with controversy: they formed a Commission. The stated policy of the Liturgical Commission was “to use forms of words which allow of different interpretation”. In other words, in an attempt to be inclusive and embrace everyone, they were deliberately obscure and ambiguous.
Ashton and Davis trace the impact of these concessions, and they conclude:
“There is an abundance of new liturgy, but no doctrinal consensus at its heart… the Bible was no longer authoritative… the revised services have not been successful in attracting people back to the church; and with every year that passes, the Church of England plays a less significant role in the country”.
Then they issue this warning:
“If it is ever to play a part in English national life again, the Church of England has to recover its spiritual reason for existing. God has promised to bless the preaching of Jesus Christ. He has not promised to bless denominational distinctives. If Anglicans continue to preach Anglicanism and not the gospel, Anglicanism will continue to die.”
When they wrote these things, they were writing about liturgy and music. What we do when we gather matters, down to the very words we choose to sing. It matters to how we live in the present. It matters to our very future in the purposes of God.
Singing matters. But why?
To answer that, we have to start with a prior question:
What is singing, that it matters so much?
What is singing? What is music? Why has God given us these gifts? What is unique about them?
Let’s start with the mechanics of it:
We see in Genesis that everything God creates is at first formless. God creates and then he orders. It’s not as though he’s in some sort of mythical struggle with chaos. He simply decrees, and there is order, there is form. As the pinnacle of that process he creates a being in his image who also has the capacity to bring order from chaos. Then he issues that being with a mandate to carry on the work of ruling creation and forming the formless.
Now let’s consider music:
The building block of music is sound. Sound is part of the created order. God created gas, liquid and solid in such a way that they could vibrate. God created human beings with the capacity to perceive those vibrations and interpret them. Sound is a medium of communication connecting disparate parts of creation with each other. But if the sound is disordered or formless, all it communicates is mere existence. Music involves the forming of formless sound into patterns that communicate meaning.
Think about it: one sound unrelated to another is just noise… Step; Shout; step; crash; siren; step. That’s your kids. Noise. But order those sounds; place them in a sequence, a pattern… Crash; shout; step step step; siren. All of a sudden you have meaning. Formless sound can be formed. When we do that we have music, melody, harmony.
Yehudi Meuhin was one of the great violinists of the twentieth century, and he put it like this:
“Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.”
The Bible shows us that the process of ordering sounds in this way is an exercise in dominion, it is obedience to the cultural mandate that God has given us. Right at the outset of the human story, in Genesis 1:26, God tells man to go and do what I’ve been doing: give form to the formless.
So making music is a profoundly human thing to do. In fact, it’s one of the first things we did east of Eden. When Jubal is playing the lyre and the pipe in Genesis 4, he’s fulfilling the cultural mandate; he’s exercising dominion; he’s forming the formless. His problem, like the architects of Babel, was that he played to make a name for himself. But the ability to play was God-given for the sake of God’s name.
We make music because we are made in the image of God. And at the most basic level what music communicates to us, the meaning it conveys, is that we live in a universe that has form.
The beauty and power of music is an echo of the beauty and power of the Creator, who made a universe that has form and can be formed. We see this at the deepest level of reality in God himself: God is unity in diversity. He is a harmony. Music is beautiful because He is beautiful.
Non-Christian thinkers bump into this truth all the time. Plato said: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe.” In other words, music is stitched into the fabric of our reality and it speaks of something that transcends that reality.
What we are saying is this: when we make music, man, the image of God, leads the rest of creation in singing God’s glory back to him. At least the music is doing that that whether the man likes it or not, because creation won’t be silenced. The very fact that sound has been ordered insists on God’s glory.
Now when we overlay the truth of God proclaimed by creation (orderly sounds) and the truth of God proclaimed in his Word (biblical lyrics), the compound effect is a powerful proclamation of God’s glory.
We encounter this idea all over the bible. One beautiful example is in 1 Chronicles 16:28-34. The ark returns to Jerusalem and David appoints the Levites to lead praise and thanksgiving, and this is some of what they sing:
31 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,
and let them say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!”
32 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
33 Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.
34 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Man leading the rest of creation in singing God’s glory back to him. This is what music is. This is what it does. Man exercising dominion over sound and word to the glory of God. Those are the mechanics, the keys and the chords.
Let’s step back see how they function in the overture of salvation history.
The Bible tells us about a song which starts in Genesis 1. Many have said that Genesis 1 is a song – a love song. We hear God creating and then singing the goodness of what he’s created. As we read on, we find creation singing back the goodness of God; the earth rejoicing, the fields exulting, the trees singing for joy, the heavens declaring the glory of God. And so the Bible records a kind of antiphonal song between Creator and creation: the Creator announcing his love for what he has made, and the creation responding in thanksgiving and praise.
But there is one part of creation who will not join the song: Adam. He was made to lead the response, but he refuses. He sings out of key, he sings his own tune, he sings to make a name for himself, rather than to glory in the in the name of God. His makes an unruly noise to try and drown out the creation song. He goes on and on and on… banging his gong, until God sends a new Adam.
The new Adam not only joins the creation song… he leads it in a worship-melody of obedience, thanksgiving and praise so beautiful that, one by one, those who were clanging their symbols in raucous tantrum of independence, put their weapons down and file meekly into his choir. Jesus restores the harmony. He is our worship song.
We’ve made a start.
What is music? The forming of sound into meaning.
Why do we make music? To lead creation in communicating the glory of God.
When you get more specific and you ask the question, ‘why do we as the church make music?’ there are normally two answers given:
1) To worship God, OR
2) To build each other up.
Worship OR Edification.
In the broader church, as you know, there are those who stress the first, and those who stress the second.
It’s complicated, but these are the stereotypes: The charismatic churches tend to emphasise worship to the point where the word ‘worship’ has taken on a technical meaning. If you say ‘worship’, you are referring to the musical component of the Sunday church gathering – that 45 minutes of the week is ‘worship’. Again, as you know, there has been a strong reaction that stresses the Aseity of a transcendent God who does not need our worship, and that when we gather it is for our benefit, for what he has to say to us, and not the other way around.
To navigate this controversy, I think the first thing we have to do is define worship. But that’s easier said than done. Worship is something we understand intuitively, but struggle to pin down in words.
As always, Carson to the rescue. With his usual pith and economy, he has come up with this bumper sticker definition:
“Worship is the proper response of all moral, sentient beings to God, ascribing all honor and worth to their Creator God precisely because he is worthy, delightfully so. This side of the Fall, human worship of God properly responds to the redemptive provisions that God has graciously made. While all true worship is God-centered, Christian worship is no less Christ-centered. Empowered by the Spirit and in line with the stipulations of the new covenant, it manifests itself in all our living, finding its impulse in the gospel, which restores our relationship with our Redeemer-God and therefore also with our fellow image-bearers, our co-worshipers. Such worship therefore manifests itself both in adoration and in action, both in the individual believer and in corporate worship, which is worship offered up in the context of the body of believers, who strive to align all the forms of their devout ascription of all worth to God with the panoply of Dew covenant mandates and examples that bring to fulfillment the glories of antecedent revelation and anticipate the consummation.”
You got that? He spends 50 pages explaining and defending that monstrosity so we are not going down that road. We going for the gloss: “Worship is all of life.” We know that from Romans 12:1-2 and the rest of the bible.
But where does that leave church music?
Well, church music is part of life, so church music is worship. It’s not something outside of life. It’s true that worship can’t be confined to church music, but worship does not exclude church music. To say that what we do when we sing is not worship is an over-reaction. That is to run from one trap into another.
When we sing, we worship God. But if that’s true of all of life, are we saying anything meaningful about singing? Is church singing just like the rest of life? Is worshipping God in song the same as worshipping God in your work, or on the sports field, or in your marriage? Or is there something unique about the church worshipping God in song?
We’ve started answering this, but let’s go further. To do that there is one well known verse that is particularly helpful to us; Colossians 3:16.
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you,
with all wisdom teaching and
admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
This ethical section of Pauls letter is summarised in 2:6-7.
6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.
It’s a call to Christian maturity in a lot of the same language that we see in our verse. It’s a call to walk in Christ, and a call to be built up in Him.
How does that happen?
Part of the answer is in 3:16.
Our head verb is to ‘dwell’. The same verb is used elsewhere in the New Testament of the Holy Spirit. Here in Colossians 3:16 it is the word of Christ that makes its home in us.
Paul gives an example that word in Colossians 1:15-20. The word that we cherish proclaims Jesus…
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: 16 For by him were all things created…
…and so it goes.
It’s interesting that this particular word of Christ in 1:15-20 comes to the Colossians in the form of a hymn. So when Paul says that the word must dwell in them and he goes on to speak of psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs – it would make perfect sense. It wouldn’t be a strange idea that the word of Christ should be sung – they had an example in the same letter, just a few chapters before.
Paul says that this word must ‘dwell’ in us, inhabit us, no doubt by the Spirit of Christ, given the choice of verb. It must do so richly and in all wisdom. In other words, we must appropriate the riches of Christ’s word in a way that changes how we live.
Next, we have the three participles stacking up on one another, each one of them unpacks what it looks like for Christ’s word to dwell in us:
There will be ‘teaching’, ‘admonishing’ and ‘singing’. In fact, since the teaching and admonishing is done in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; they are the substance, and singing is the form. We are to teach and admonish in song. It’s not the only way, but it’s the way in view here.
Now we are ready to come back to our question:
what is unique about worship in song?
There are at least seven things.
First of all, it’s a word ministry.
That’s true whether you want to include teaching and admonishing in singing or not. It’s the word of Christ that rules and informs both. Singing is a word ministry, so that separates it from worshipping God in acts of kindness, or in your work.
Second, worship in song is directed to both God and man.
The purpose is both worship and edification. The direction is both Godward and man-ward. This is not an either-or decision between worship and edification. Both sides of the argument tend to make it that; singing is for worship OR singing is for edification. Both are wrong. Here we see the two are thoroughly integrated, in the same way loving God and loving your neighbour are integrated.
We are teaching and admonishing one another (horizontal axis)… as we sing to God (vertical axis).
In this verse you have the same antiphonal pattern we described earlier. There is a word from God, a word of loving rule in Christ. Then there is a word from man to God in response, a word of heartfelt thanks in Christ. Christ is both a word from God to man and a word from man to God. As this antiphonal song is sung, the church is formed. Christ is our life-changing word to each other as we give thanks to God. Singing is both worship and edification at the same time. That makes it different from other acts of worship that are oriented to God but not necessarily to other believers.
Third, church singing is corporate.
All the personal pronouns and the participles in verse 16 are in the plural. This is something we do together for each other and for God. By its very nature it is something we can only do when we gather.
Fourth, church singing is participatory.
We can gather and listen to the sermon, but the onus is primarily on one person (except maybe in the case of Southern Baptists). Church singing is for everyone. When you listen to it, you might not feel it should be for everyone, but it is. This is a part of the gathering that really gives expression to something we cherish as Reformed Protestants: the ministry of all believers. When preachers preach we are responsible for our words. But when we sing we are putting words in the mouths of our people – words they use to praise God and gospel each other. That is a grave responsibility. It’s also a glorious opportunity.
Fifth, not only does music engage one with the other, but it engages all of each one.
It engages the whole person like very few other acts of worship do. We are to sing with thanksgiving in the heart (v16). The heart is the seat of the whole person. We know how this works from experience: when we sing it raises our voices, it stirs our emotions, it sets our minds on fire. It may even, in moments of reckless abandon, cause our bodies to move. Music is a kind of worship that engages the whole person in a way that few others can.
Sixth, music, because it is art, has an unusual power.
Francis Schaffer said art adds power to the world view it conveys. He added that the better the art, the greater the power. He gave the example of nihilism: we all see nihilistic messages scrawled in public toilets or on public transport – the messages are there, but they have very little impact. Communicate the same message in Zen poetry or in Nietzsche’s “Thus spoke Zarathustra” where the artistry is exceptional, and the message takes on a whole new power. This is related to the previous point; music can capture the imagination and access parts of the human being that other forms of worship simply cannot.
Now, let’s put it all together:
Music is a word ministry, directed to God and man, that involves corporate participation, and engages the whole man with the power of art.
Seventh, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The cumulative effect of all of those distinctives mean that music is a unique form of worship.
Why does the church make music?
Well, because God has given us this extraordinary gift – this unique way to worship him with the rest of creation as we build up the church.
Perhaps a better question is why would we not make music?
When the word of Christ dwells in us richly, the church will lead the rest of creation in making music. It will be for God’s glory and for our good, and the two will be deeply integrated. It’s a wonderful gift, for which we should sing his praises.
I close with this excerpt from C.S. Lewis’s book ‘The Magicians Nephew’, which describes the dawn of the new creation:
“In the darkness, something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it . . . Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale; cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one as on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out . . . If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.”