Music in the Worship of God, Part 1

Download MP3

(If you would like to receive Pastor Harris’ weekly sermons via e-mail, Click Here)

(If you would like to download the PowerPoint presentation for this sermon, Click here)

Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
April 10, 2016

Music in the Worship of God, Part 1
Selected Scriptures

I approach this morning’s message with some fear and trepidation because there is no greater area of opinion driven by emotion that can be discussed than music. The only other area I have found that people can be more touchy about is to talk with them specifically about how they are raising their children.

Selfish Opinion vs. Humble Worship

Everyone has an opinion of what is good music and what is not, and it is usually based on their preferences in style. There are relatively few that have studied music enough to give a careful critique of what makes up truly good music and what is just noise that some people like. The criteria for judging music, like all other forms of art, have descended into what an individual likes regardless of what it may lack in form and balance and how decadent it may be. People also identify themselves with their preferred style of music to such a degree that any criticism of that style is taken as personal criticism of them as well.

When it comes to the use of music in the worship of God, the problems actually compound. As I have mentioned in previous sermons, one of the great misconceptions about worship is that so many people consider the musical portion of a worship service to be the worship. They then judge the worship of the church by whether they liked the music or not.

In the twenty-five years that I have been here, we have had a lot of people visit. When I first came, I used to send out a visitor questionnaire in order to get a sense of what our guests believed by asking them to rank the factors that were important to them in choosing a church home and how we did in those areas. This helped me not only evaluate what ministry that we might have to them, but also helped identify areas we could improve. Most people who returned the questionnaire responded that the clear teaching of the Bible was their top priority and the spiritual quality of the leadership was second. The music program was usually marked as being a mid-level priority and things like the appearance of the grounds were a very low priority.

I was able to follow up with a number of the people that finally decided they would make another church their home. Their verbal comments did not match what they marked on the survey. Their comments were both fascinating and troubling at the same time, for quite consistently they told me that they really “liked” or “enjoyed” my sermons, but they also said that they were not able to worship as they wanted. Many were specific that they had come from church backgrounds where the music was different from our own and they did not like our music. One man even said he thought my preaching was great, but that our worship was “dead.” Keep in mind that in those early years here that we only had pianists and an organist though we wanted other musicians such as guitarists and bass players.

I appreciated them being honest and frank, but their comments revealed that they were confused about worship and not true to their own stated priorities since I also knew the churches they were now attending. Intellectually they may have understood that clear teaching of God’s word and Biblically qualified leaders are more important than the style of music, but their actions proved that having music in the style they preferred was more important to them. They judged the worship occurring here based on their preferences in music.

Scotty Smith, a pastor in Franklin, Tennessee, made this point some years ago in an article in Worship Leader magazine entitled, “Are We Worshiping Worship More than We Worship God?” He gave two sample dialogues about people responding to styles of worship. In the first, a change in music format resulted in the following comment by a parishioner. “Oh, it’s great! We don’t sing many of those old, boring hymns anymore. We are into some of those really neat choruses. We even got rid of the pipe organ and replaced it with a rhythm section – you know, a guitar, drums, bass, and the most incredible rack of synthesizers you have every heard! We have a blast every time we worship now. By the way – have you every lifted your hands when you sing to the Lord? It’s great! It makes me feel so good. I could never go back to that old way of worshiping. You should visit one of our worship celebrations. You’ll be glad you did.”

Another church also made some changes resulting in the following comments. “Well, finally we have awakened to real worship! We got over our fixation with those mindless choruses, and are once again thinking when we sing. I was so bored with those little ditties they called music. And our pastor is, at last, dignifying the pulpit by wearing a collar and robe. It makes me feel so good to see him each Sunday now. I actually look forward to worship each Lord’s Day now that we have made all of these wonderful changes. And we also installed kneeling benches in our pews. It makes me feel so warm and close to God when we read The Apostle’s Creed while on our knees. You ought to worship with us. You’ll really like it.”

Two completely different styles of worship, but both advocates have the same problem. The topic is the worship of God, but all of their comments are based in themselves. It is what they like, how they felt, and what they enjoyed. The tragedy is that this has become normal. People may claim the word of God is their top priority, but what they really want is their “ears tickled,” as Paul warns in 2 Timothy 4. Their true interest is “what is in it for me” rather than “what am I giving to God.”

If God is not the center of your worship; if He is not the one filling your mind and heart; if what He has done is not the reason for your emotions; then do not kid yourself. What you have is a religious exercise and not worship of the Creator of the universe. True worship is not something you passively wait for. It is not some emotion that fills you while those up front entertain you. In true worship you must be active. It takes work to block out all the stuff you have been dealing with and concentrate on the Lord. There is labor involved in keeping your mind focused to sing a new song or on the message preached and to consider how it applies to your own life.

Yet, the very reason for most of the debate about music in worship is because people are focused on themselves, not on God. The arguments back and forth about hymns verses choruses; organ and piano vs guitar and synthesizer; choir vs. “worship team,” etc., revolve around style, not substance. And the debates gets heated because people are arguing about what they want rather than what is honoring to God. And what honors God? Praise given from a humble heart. Let me put it this way, there would be more true worship if the two worst singers in our congregation did a duet making a joyful noise that arose from their hearts in awe of God than there would be if we had some popular vocal artists who hit every note perfectly but whose thoughts were on their honorarium and their next gig.

Form vs Substance

Music itself is not worship, however, it can be a powerful force in true worship, or it can be its biggest obstacle. Don & Dave Wyrtzen make the point that music is form, not content. Content is the message you want to communicate. Form is the manner by which you communicate that message. Content is what you say. Form is how you say it. Unless the proper form is used, the content will not be communicated clearly. The form can overpower, confuse or even hide the message.

I have read many writings from people that strive to prove that certain forms of music are evil in and of themselves. The same thing was being done in the middle ages because form and content were confused then too. The scholastics of the middle ages argued that the augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) were evil and so were called “the devil in music.” The result was that this type of chord was not used by church musicians, and since that time tri-tones have been used extensively in the church. But where in Scripture can we find even a caution against certain sounds, i.e., “Thou shall not play too many notes together that they may not clash.” Yet consider that most of what is common to the middle east seems a bit discordant and noisy to our ears trained in western style music.

What does scripture say? Psalm 33:3 tells us to “Sing unto Him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise” (KJV). Psalm 66:1 says to “Make a joyful noise unto God” (KJV) as does Psalm 81:1; 93:4; 95:1-2; 98:6 & 100:1. “Noise” is “Teruah” or its root, “ruah” which is used to describe the sound of trumpets blaring, people shouting in triumph, joy or alarm and for a war cry. Psalm 98:4 says “to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth” and then adds, “make a loud noise.” This is the word patsach which is used to describe the sound of something breaking. That does not describe the sounds of harmonious music, yet it is pleasing to God. I think it should be clear that there is no such thing as a “devil” chord or a sound that is itself inherently evil. All types of sounds, loud and soft, clear and noisy, harmonious and discordant are to be used to praise the Lord. It is the context of usage and purpose that brings about any evil associated with forms of music. It is the message conveyed that is evil, not the form itself which is non-moral and can be used for good or evil.

Some have also argued that certain instruments should not be used in worship. This is often because of those instruments being associated in their minds with something evil. In the recent past it was guitars and drums that were often singled out because of their use in rock and roll and bar room music. The argument here is and has always been weak. The very people that would claim a guitar or drum to be evil claim the organ to be sacred, yet it was the organ that was used to provide music in ancient Rome while Christians were being killed in the coliseums. I tend to think music to enhance murder is more negative than tunes to encourage drunkenness. Let me add as well that the organs still used in many churches are those acquired after the silent screen gave way to talking movies and the theater organs were sold. Yet those who consider that organ as a “sacred instrument” are often the same folks who also consider the theater as evil. It is best to be careful about applying guilt because of association, or your own hypocrisy will be evident.

What does scripture say about musical instruments? The Bible mentions quite a few various instruments as being used to praise the Lord. There were idiophones which were instruments made of naturally sonorous materials. These were things clanged together – metal most often. These would include cymbals of various types as in Psalm 150:5 – “Praise Him with loud cymbals; Praise Him with resounding cymbals.” There were things that rattled such as beads placed in a gourd and shaken. Bells were crafted for making sound. The High Priest even wore gold bells on His robes while serving in the temple.

Another type of instrument are membranophones, i.e., drums of various sorts. The “top” (Hebrew) or tumpanon (Greek), which is often translated as a “timbrel,” was a piece of leather stretched over a hand held frame. This instrument also occurs in Psalm 150 as well as in Exodus 15:20 when Miriam and the women of Israel played it and danced for joy over the Lord protecting them from Egypt’s army at the Red Sea.

There were also various aerophones – wind instruments – pipes, flutes, and horns made from various materials. They too are mentioned in Psalm 150 as well as in many, many places throughout scripture. We wait for the sound the trumpet of God to announce the return of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:17). There were also various types of chordophones – stringed instruments. There were lutes (strings stretched along a neck attached to a resonating body similar to a guitar or violin). There were harps, which have the neck at an angle to the body, and lyres, which have a body with two arms joined by a crossbar, the strings going from the body to the crossbar. It should also be pointed out that all these instruments were common in the surrounding cultures and were used in pagan rituals, yet they were also used in the worship of God.

If we are going to classify things as being evil themselves simply because evil people use them for evil purposes, then we will have to get rid of most everything. Every kind of musical instrument has been used by evil people for evil purposes. But those same instruments can and have also been used to the praise and honor of God. Musical instruments are no different from our tongues in being able to be used to bless or curse (James 3:9-10). Ammonium nitrate can be used as a fertilizer to help crops grow, or as an ingredient in a bomb to cause mass destruction. It is not the instrument, but it is what you do with it.

I have also read articles in which certain rhythms were attacked as being inherently evil. Our lives are filled with all sorts of rhythms – clocks tick, electric motors hum, machines clank, bees buzz, your heart beats and you walk at a pace. Again, the context of its usage is the determining factor. Hitler used carefully calculated repeated shouting of “Sieg Heil!” to stir up the crowds, but the same rhythm is used in sports events to encourage the home team to put forth extra effort to win. Alexander the Great used a march cadence to get his troops to go great distances, but so has every other army including the Colonial Army of the American revolution. Joshua used a rhythmic shouting to bring down the walls of Jericho according to the Lord’s instructions. There is no “devil’s beat” just as there is no “devil’s chord.” The form is itself non-moral. The question is not the form itself, but how its usage enhances the message being communicated, and the message that is being communicated.

Cautions on Communication and Form

The form used does affect the message and blends with it, for form does have an effect on human emotion for various reasons. In the field of what is called “psycho-acoustics” which studies the effect of sounds on human behavior, there is ample evidence showing that certain rhythms or beats used repetitiously and played loudly tend to have negative effects on us while other rhythms used in thematic melody lines played softly can have positive effects. My favorite example of this was a study subjecting plants to growing conditions that varied only in what music was being played in the greenhouse. Those that were subjected to classical music thrived while those subjected to rock music died. The driving vibration of the rock rhythm was destructive to the cell structure. But this should not surprise us, take a group of teenagers to a classical music concert one day and then to a rock concert the next and compare their behavior.

Consider as well that composers spend a great deal of time and energy in trying to produce music that will move you emotionally in certain ways. They know that the various elements that make up music can stimulate different moods within most people. Certain music we classify as “upbeat” and “exciting” while others are “calming” or “serene.” But even with all this we must be very careful not to label certain sounds as evil in and of themselves.

Paul writes in Romans 14:14, “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” This is really just a brief comment based on the Lord’s teaching in Mark 7:15-22, “There is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man (15). . . “for from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness (21-22).

John Murry well states concerning this passage, “This principle is the refutation of all prohibitionism which lays the responsibility for wrong at the door of things rather than at man’s heart.” Don & Dave Wyrtzen comment “It would be much simpler if some musical sounds were evil in themselves. Just eliminate the evil sounds and the entire moral problem in music would be solved.” They added, The morality or immorality of the sounds needs to be located in the hearts of the composer, the performer, and the listener, not in the music itself.”

The problem is not in the sound, but in the evil hearts of men. Evil people will take sounds and arrange them in a particular way with the purpose of striving to promote evil. Because such people understand musical form, they are able to use it to accent their communication. They are shrewd in using music to enhance their evil message. If that is done long enough in a particular society, that particular style of music or the particular melody of a song becomes associated with the evil message and then wrongly thought of as a promotion of evil too.

Here is an example of this. There used to be a radio station I enjoyed listening to that played orchestral arrangements of popular songs. Then one day they changed format and started playing the original versions with the lyrics. I listened for awhile longer because I had become accustomed to the tunes and had enjoyed them. However, the longer I listened, the more I was able to figure out the words to the songs, and my enjoyment of the songs rapidly diminished. I was shocked, for the lyrics were often crass, selfish and glorifying of evil which was opposite to the emotional pleasure I had felt listening to the melody line. The change in association of the melody with the lyrics also changed my emotional reaction to the melody. In this case it was a negative change, but the possibility for it to go the other way is also there. In fact, there are hymns that are set to the tune of what used to be popular drinking songs, but a change in the lyrics eventually made a change in how the tune of the song was perceived.

The caution needed when considering the message and the form in which it is communicated was addressed very well some years ago in a very thought provoking article Chuck Fromm wrote in Worship Leader magazine entitled, Taking Music Off the Throne: Acknowledging the Z-factors. The article repeated and expanded on some of the cautions Zwingli gave during the Swiss reformation of the early-1500’s. Fromm calls his cautions, the “Z-factors.” Zwingli, among the three major reformers (he, Luther, and Calvin who followed Zwingli in Geneva), was the most musically inclined for he had been a professional musician. He feared so much the power of music that he banned musical instruments from use in worship. He even insisted that when Paul said in Ephesians 5:19 about “making melody in your hearts” he meant just that: make melody in your heart only and not with anything else.

Zwingli, like most good musicians, understood that music can move us emotionally in very strong ways. If it was used correctly, it could enhance worship, but if used incorrectly, it could destroy it. Fromm’s first Z-factor caution applies here. “Music often hides rather than reveals truth. It is prone to enchantment, not communication.” If the form does not match the message, the message is garbled or lost. And this works both ways. A good message can be lost and a bad message can be encouraged.

Because a specific sound, genre of music or particular melody may be associated in a society with what is predominately an evil message, there are good reasons to be very cautious about using them in the worship of God within that society. However, being cautious does not mean being reactionary. We do not want our message distorted by unintended associations that would block the truth that is being proclaimed, yet neither do we want to condemn a particular sound or tune itself as evil because they are not.

Related to this is the hiding a bad message by communicating it in a form that is well received. Many people are ignorant of the effect form can have on content to mask the message. They simply want to hear what is pleasing to them for whatever reason they like it. In that situation form and style drive the music instead of the message. A song is judged to be good by whether the tune and the way it was played was liked in near disregard for the lyrics being sung. Inane and even heretical lyrics are hidden by a catchy tune. This is a problem with much of contemporary Christian music. Good melody hides lousy lyrics. Fromm’s Z-factor here: “Contemporary choruses have reduced corporate singing to mindless babble, making light of the Scriptural injunction to ‘sing with the mind also’ (1 Cor. 14:15).”

There are lots of examples of this in which some simple phrase is repeated over and over again into near mindlessness mantras. “Jesus, I love You” is repeated 15 times followed by the second verse which is, “I love You, Jesus.” That is more Eastern mysticism than actual worship of God. The Beatle’s song, “My Sweet Lord,” was popular among Christians for awhile until someone bothered to listen carefully and figured out that last verse lyrics were “Hare Krishna.”

Another problem is that you can’t be sure what the lyrics are actually trying to express. I understand poetic license, but that is usually referring to metaphor, hyperbole and analogies, not wondering what is the subject matter. The “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs are notorious for this because the song could be sung to a boyfriend and the lyrics can even be more accurate in that context. A classic case of this is “You Light Up My Life” which became very popular among Christians as a supposed song of worship, but the lyrics include, “It can’t be wrong When it feels so right “Cause you, you light up my life.” Is there some sort of question that worship of the Lord Jesus Christ is not wrong because it feels right to do so?

Sometimes a catchy tune can get you singing along with things that are contrary to what is in Scripture and even rank heresy, which is very dangerous because songs teach theology. This is not just a problem with contemporary worship songs. A hymn sung often even in most fundamental churches in #336 in our Hymnal. That hymn includes the lyrics, “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunge beneath that flood Lose all their guilty stains.” The problem is that there is no such fountain. Christ’s blood was shed and it spilled out on the ground at the cross so that our sins could be forgiven by God’s grace based on faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. His blood was not supernaturally vacuumed up and placed in a fountain in heaven where you can spiritually take a bath in it and get cleansed from your sins. That is closer to Catholic theology than our Reformation heritage. Tragically, there are people that believe just that mythology because they sing it in the hymn. Thus they have a doctrine developed from a hymn instead of the Bible.

It is extremely important that the music used in worship be carefully considered before it is used. We do not want to use a song with a pleasing melody if the lyrics are heretical, and that is a real danger, but neither do we want to eliminate a song with good lyrics just because it is not in a more popular style or is difficult to sing. We need to make the necessary changes so that the music we use enhances the worship of God instead of masking it or substituting it with man centered entertainment and sing-a-longs.

From the positive side, the form in which a message is communicated needs to be considered in order to make sure that it is enhancing the message or is at least neutral to it and that it is not hindering it. From the negative side, the message needs to be carefully considered to make sure it is orthodox and glorifies God.

I will continue on this subject next week for there is still much to say. I will close today with this challenge from Scott Smith’s article.

Have we become those who worship worship more than we worship God? Do we enjoy our own “forms” more than we fear God? Do we show more passion in defending our “style” of worship than we do in obeying and serving Him? Are we more agitated by what other Christians “like” about their worship than we are grieved over our own sin and foolish hearts? Are we more resolved to control the worship service in our churches than we are to be controlled by the Holy Spirit in our relationships? Is it God that we adore or simply ourselves that we serve? Let’s ponder these things, long and hard. The glory of God is all that is at stake.

Sermon Notes: Music in the Worship of God, Part 1
Selected Scriptures

Selfish Opinion vs. Humble Worship

Most people judge music based on their ________________tastes and preferences

Too many people think the music is the _______and judge the service based on whether they liked the music

Many people claim to have the right priorities, but their _______show that personal taste, not truth, controls

Scott Smith, Worship Leader Magazine – Are We Worshiping Worship More than We Worship God?

True worship demands that God is the center of it and that takes _____work – it is not passive entertainment

Most of the debates in music in worship are about personal __________________, not the glory of God

Form vs Substance

Music is not worship, but it can be a _______________force in true worship or its biggest obstacle

The Scriptures do not warn or even caution against certain ____________

Psalm 33:3; 66:1; 81:1; 93:4; 95:1-2; 98:6; 100:1 – Noise: Teruah / ruah = trumpets blaring, people _______

Psalm 98:4 – loud noise – patsach = the sound of something _______________

_________________ of sound can be used to praise the Lord – there is no “devil’s chord.”

No musical instruments is evil itself – People like or dislike instruments based on __________________

Idiophones: _______________, rattles, castanets – bells: Psalm 150; 2 Samuel 6:5; Exodus 39:25

Membranophones: ______________, timbrel – Exodus 15:20; Psalm 81:2; 150:4

Aerophones: ___________instruments – pipes, flutes, horns – Psalm 5; 150:3-4

Chordophones: lutes, harps, _____________- Psalm 92:3; 108.:2; 150:3

Musical instruments are no different than the ___________- it can be used for good or evil – James 3:9-10

There is no “devil’s beat” – life is filled with all sorts of rhythms – ______of its usage determines its purpose

Cautions on Communication and Form

Psycho-acoustics = the effect of sounds on human behavior. Some sounds can be _________, some positive

Composers use sounds in the effort to affect your __________________

Romans 14:14; Mark 7:15-22 – the evil is in the ___________of men – not a particular instrument or sound

Evil people use music to enhance their evil message giving that music an _________association

Evil Lyrics can give a lovely melody an evil association, but ___________lyrics can enhance the tune

Chuck Fromm, Worship Leader Magazine, Taking Music Off the Throne: Acknowledging the Z-factors

    Zwingli, the reformer that had been a professional musician, feared the ___________of music in worship

Z-Factor: Music often _________rather than reveals truth. It is prone to enchantment, not communication.

There needs to be ________to not distort our message, but we should not be reactionary to condemn sounds

Most people simply want to hear what is ______________to them and therefore are ignorant of the dangers

Z-Factor: Contemporary choruses have reduced corporate singing to _______________babble . . .

Repetition comes near to being mindless _____________- more Eastern mysticism than worship of God

Poetic license stretched to _______________about the meaning of the song – “Jesus is my boyfriend” lyrics

A catchy tune can ______________what is contrary to Scripture and even rank heresy

________consideration must be given to the songs used in worship lest we sing heresy to a pleasing melody

Use form to enhance the message of __________, but never to obscure what is contrary to God & godliness

Let us not become those who worship ______________more than God.

Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up later. 2) Count how many references are made to music. Talk with your parents how music affects your worship of God. Search the Bible to see how many different musical instruments are used in worship.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. What are your preferences in musical style when you worship God alone? When you are with other believers? How important is that style to you? Can you worship God when a different style is used? Are you trained in music? What is the central aspect of worship? Why? What is the difference between form and substance? What role does music actually play in worship? How can music be beneficial in worship? How can it be detrimental? What kinds of sounds were used in the worship of God in the Psalms? What different instruments were used in the worship of God in the Psalms? Are there such things as a “Devil’s chord” or “Devil’s instrument”? Why or why not? What effect does form have on communication? What makes music evil, negative, neutral, positive, good? In what ways can music hide truth? In what ways have you seen contemporary Christian music reduce corporate singing to mindless babble? What cautions do churches need to take in choosing and using music in congregational worship

(If you would like to receive Pastor Harris’ weekly sermons via e-mail, Click Here)

Grace Bible Church Home Page || Sermon Archives

For comments, please e-mail  Church office