What type of music is appropriate for church worship services? While the question is simple enough, the answers given are often both complex and controversial. Yet, the question is a crucial one to consider because music is a central part of Christian worship. If our music does not please the Lord, neither will the worship that music is intended to produce.
So how can churches be God-honoring in the music they use? In order to answer this question correctly, we must begin by looking to the principles of God’s Word. Neither personal preferences nor cultural trends can be our guide. Even in the area of music, Scripture must be our authority.
Below are ten questions that pastors and church leaders (along with the congregation as a whole) should ask about the worship music they use. Drawn directly from biblical principles, these questions may not answer every specific case, but they do provide a theological checklist for examining church music.
1. Is Your Church Music God-Focused?
Without question, true worship must be God-centered (Ex. 20:3–6) for He alone is worthy of our praise (Ps. 148:13). He deserves our most fervent devotion and our highest priority. He is our exalted King and He must have center stage. Anything short of God-centered worship is idolatry (cf. Jer. 2:13, 27–28), and false worship is clearly unacceptable (Deut. 12:29–31; 16:21–22; Gal. 5:19–21).
Because the purpose of church music is to provide a vehicle for worship, it must be God-focused rather than man-centered (cf. Ps. 27:6; 150:3–4). Any other purposes or priorities are secondary. From the style and performance to the audience and their reaction, nothing should ever usurp God’s place as the supreme object of our affection. Because biblical worship demands a God-centered focus, church music (if it is to legitimately be called worship music) must begin and end with Him.
2. Does Your Church Music Promote a High View of God?
It is not enough for church music to merely focus on God, if the view of God presented is inadequate. Too many Christian songs come dangerously close to violating the commandment, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Ex. 20:7) by treating Him in a common, almost mundane fashion.
Music that is worthy of our Savior must promote an accurate and exalted view of who He is (cf. Is. 40:12–26). Throughout Scripture, all who encountered the living God were radically changed (Moses in Ex. 33–34; Isaiah in Is. 6; Peter, James, and John during the Transfiguration in Matt. 17). There was nothing ordinary about the Lord they saw or the trembling worship-filled response they had. Our music then, if it is to facilitate heartfelt worship, must clearly convey the majesty, glory, and honor of God (cf. Heb. 10:31; Rom. 11:33–36; Rev. 14:7).
3. Is Your Church Music Orderly?
The God whom we serve is a God of order. This is most clearly seen in His creation of the world, where He brought form and function out of a watery mass (Gen. 1; cf. Rom. 1:20). It is no surprise, then, that the Apostle Paul commands the Corinthians that “all things [in the church] must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Cor. 14:40).
Along these same lines, Ephesians 5:18 commands believers to continually be under the control of the Holy Spirit at all times. Church music, then, should never encourage participants to exchange the control of the Spirit for the control of some other force—be it emotional, psychological, or other. Rather, church members are to be under the influence of the Spirit-empowered Word of God (cf. Col. 3:16). Mindless emotionalism, often hyped up by repetition and “letting go,” comes closer to the paganism of the Gentiles (cf. Matt. 6:7) than to any form of biblical worship.
4. Is the Content of Your Church Music Biblically Sound?
While instrumental music is certainly appropriate during the worship service (cf. 2 Chr. 5:13), most church music includes lyrical content. At the very least, these lyrics should be both intelligible and biblically accurate—readily conveying Scriptural truth to all who sing them (cf. Eph. 5:19–20).
Beyond accurate, lyrics should also be clear and in keeping with the biblical context. For example, songs that come from the Old Testament (even when the lyrics are directly cited from a passage) should not be made to apply to the church today if they only apply to Israel before Christ. (An excellent example of this is when Psalm 51:11 is sung without any explanation of the context.)
Lyrics should never be trite or flippant in their treatment of great biblical themes. Instead, church music (no matter the style) should deepen the biblical and theological understanding of the congregation. A song that is inaccurate, out-of-context, or trite only hinders the spiritual growth of those who sing it.
5. Does Your Church Music Promote Unity in Your Church?
As noted above, the primary goal of church music is worship. Yet, Scripture also speaks of Christian songs as a form of edification (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19–20). Because the church is a body (1 Cor. 12), our worship toward God includes our service towards others (Rom. 12:1–9).
The goal of corporate worship then is to glorify God while serving others. With this in mind, the right approach to church music never selfishly demands personal preference, but always looks out for the interests of others (Php. 2:1–4). Moreover, if something we do tempts a fellow Christian to fall into sin, we must proceed with great caution and care (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8).
6. Is Your Church Music Performed with Excellence?
Church music, along with everything else we do, should be done for the glory and honor of God (1 Cor. 10:31). As our perfect Master and loving Father, He certainly deserves the very best that we can offer. To give Him anything less falls far short of what He demands. Even Old Testament Israel was expected to give the first and the best to the Lord (cf. Lev. 1–7; Num. 18:32).
Needless to say, if it bears His name, it’s worth our best. While a church may not have the resources to hire a full orchestra or recruit a large band, the music should still be done whole-heartedly and with excellence. Music that is not sincere, from a pure heart, is not worship (Ps. 24:3–4; Amos 5:23). And music that is done without excellence is usually distracting, thereby taking away from the God-centered atmosphere essential to true worship.
7. Does Your Church Music Prepare Your People for the Preaching of God’s Word?
Second Timothy 4:2 commands us to “Preach the Word!” Just a few verses earlier, the Apostle Paul expounds on the sufficiency of Scripture and its importance in our lives (2 Tim. 3:16–17). It is only through God’s Word that we learn about Him; it is only through the Bible that God reveals Himself to us. The Scripture, therefore, must be the centerpiece of corporate worship—providing both the construct and the climax.
For this reason, times of singing (when God’s people speak to Him) should never overshadow or eclipse preaching (when God speaks to His people through His Word). Instead, worship through song should compliment the proclamation of the truth. Church music that takes place before the sermon should prepare the congregation for what the Holy Spirit wants them to hear. And church music that follows the sermon should be an appropriate response to what has just been received (cf. Col. 3:16–17).
8. Does Your Church Music Adorn the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
The New Testament model of church life implies that the local assembly is to primarily function as a place of worship and edification (cf. Acts 2:41–42). Evangelism, on the other hand, is expected of believers “as they go” throughout the rest of their daily activities (Matt. 28:18–20).
This being said, the local church (as an assembly of Christians) must still present a good testimony before a watching world (cf. 1 Cor. 14:23–25). After all, Paul commands us to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect” (Titus 2:10), and Peter exhorts us to “proclaim the excellencies” of God (1 Peter 2:9). Church music, then, should be a wonderful witness to the greatness of our Lord and Savior. It should never tarnish His reputation or confuse unbelievers as to what the gospel teaches.
9. Does Your Church Music Promote Passionate Worship?
As noted earlier, church music must be God-focused, reverently presenting Him in all of His majesty. At the same time, it should never be boring, dry, or stale. After all, God is not boring. And heaven (where the primary occupation is worship) is also not boring (cf. Rev. 4–5).
While maintaining a proper respect for God, biblical worship is always brimming with personal passion and Christ-exalting emotion (cf. 1 Chr. 15:29; 16:4–6). Of course, the expression of this passion will manifest itself differently in different congregations. Furthermore, this passion must be expressed in an orderly, Spirit-controlled manner. Nonetheless, passionless worship—sounding more like a lullaby than a glorious anthem—is not really worship at all (John 4:23).
10. Is Your Church’s Philosophy of Music Based on Biblical Principle?
Although numerous preferences and opinions exist, your church’s philosophy of music must be based on biblical principles. Church leaders should not simply adhere to certain standards because they have always done so. Nor should they blindly permit any type of music to be played in their church services. Instead, they should search the Scriptures (like the Bereans of Acts 17:11), determining the biblical principles that undergird a right philosophy of music in worship.
Once the principles have been established, the music leader has the liberty to apply those principles in different ways depending on the specific needs of his congregation. In the end, pastors must be careful not to exalt personal preference to the same level as biblical principle, or to ignore biblical principles under the assumption that everything about church music is preferential.(This article was originally written by Nathan Busenitz, for Pulpit Magazine, and was later republished as an addendum in John MacArthur's Fool's Gold? [Crossway, 2005]).