Holiness in Worship Music

Man Gets Lost on Way Down Aisle to Receive Christ Due to Fog Machine.” That’s the title of an article from the Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian news site. The article describes this poor guy’s attempt to go to the front of the sanctuary so he can learn how to be saved. He gets confused, and ends up wandering around aimlessly; eventually, the service is over. “Oh, well,” he says to himself, “there’s always next week.”​ This is an obviously (funny) fictional story, but it’s supposed to illustrate an important point: many churches have gone so far in implementing contemporary methods into their worship services that it may actually be a detriment, rather than a help.

​In the last 50 years or so, Contemporary Christian Music has drastically changed the landscape of church music. Churches have shifted to a more seeker-sensitive model of worship that purposefully imitates the secular music culture as closely as possible. The reason for this is understandable: by changing to a method of worship that is more palatable to the world, we will bring more people into our churches. This is undeniably true; the churches with the highest quality praise teams and most elaborate worship services typically have a higher attendance.

​At this point, the arguments for and against CCM have been repeated ad nauseam. Churches that still hold to a more conservative form of worship (like mine) are certainly the minority. It is not my intention or desire to demonize those that use CCM; I know many churches that are doing great things for God and use CCM in their churches. It’s also important to note that the term CCM covers a lot of styles, everything from Matt Redmond and Chris Tomlin to Christian metal music. There have been great songs come out of CCM, and not every style or change introduced by the CCM movement is harmful. However, I do believe that there are some ways in which the CCM movement (not to exclude more conservative churches, which can also be guilty) tends to lose sight of an important principle: the biblical requirement of holiness.


The Bible Commands Christians to be Holy

Consider First Peter 1:14-16, 

“As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.”

​We are to be holy in “all manner of conversation (lifestyle)”. All manner of conversation would certainly include our music, and the way we worship. Pastor Wayne Hardy of Bible Baptist Church in Stillwater, OK (where I grew up) wrote an excellent book called The Great Exemption. This book deals with a problem that many Christians have in their thinking when it comes to music: they assume that only those verses that specifically deal with music can be applied to music.

​If this was the case, we would have little biblical guidance regarding music. However, there are many verses, like the one above, that give no specific application. As Pastor Hardy says in his book, that means we either must apply these verses to nothing or to everything.

​Everything includes our music. We would apply these verses to our dress, speech, entertainment (and rightfully so); so why would this principle not apply to music as well? It does apply. These verses make it clear that we ought to be holy in our music.

​So what exactly is holiness? Holiness is sacred. Morally pure. Upright. Something that is holy is set apart from sin and to God. Therefore, the command to be holy requires that our music be morally pure, upright, sacred.


What Does Holiness Look Like in Worship Music?

Here’s where things can get murky; what does a holy worship service look like today? Music changes over time; the style of worship music of even conservative churches is not the same as it was when I Peter was written. Music continues to change in churches, including conservative ones. It does not look exactly like it did fifty years ago, and it will not look exactly the same fifty years from now. That’s ok! Music and cultures evolve, and there’s nothing unbiblical about that. There are a variety of musical styles that can be used for worshipping God; however, it would be erroneous to say that every style is appropriate for worshipping God. I propose three guidelines when it comes to holiness in worship music.


1. Worship Music must be God-centered

Isaiah 6, Revelation 4, and Revelation 1:12-18 provide some of the best examples of biblical worship I know of. Isaiah 6 describes Isaiah’s reaction to seeing God on His throne; Revelation 1:12-18 shows John’s reaction to seeing a vision of Christ; Revelation 4 describes the four angelic beasts and twenty-four elders worshipping at the throne of God in heaven. In each case, great pains are taken by the biblical writer to show the majesty and glory of God; in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4, angelic creatures proclaim “holy, holy, holy”. In all three cases, the worshippers fall on their faces before God in worship!

​All of this is to say that these passages of worship are totally focused on God. No one is particularly concerned about what the worshipper wants, or what kind of worship he prefers. It is not about the worshipper; it is about the One being worshipped!

​This is one danger of focusing too much on the latest trends and fashions in worship music. All of the flashing lights, praise teams, smoke machines, and whatever else is in vogue can simply take focus away from God. There can be a tendency to turn the worship service into an entertainment experience. I can’t say that these things are objectively wrong; the Bible does not say that, so I have no authority to claim that they are. But the question must be asked: do these things cause people to focus more or less on God?

2. Worship Music Must be Culturally Appropriate

I once heard a 9th-grade Sunday School teacher tell his class, “There’s nothing wrong with green hair…people say it’s worldly, but it’s not! The Bible never says you can’t have green hair!” While he is correct that the Bible never explicitly says that green hair is wrong, green hair does identify you with a certain attitude and way of life. If you see someone with bright green hair, do you assume they are lawyer or successful businessman? No. You probably assume they are a rebel or a delinquent. Right or wrong, people’s appearances and behaviors (conversation, to borrow Peter’s term) identify them with particular attitudes and cultures.

​As Christians, we are commanded to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” (I Thes. 5:22)

This applies to our worship music. Is it abstaining from the appearance of evil when churches purposefully copy everything they can from a music industry and culture that’s well known for every kind of immorality and perversion? I think not. While it may have become the norm, there is a danger of certain musical styles and practices identifying the body of Christ with sinful attitudes and immorality. Even if the music itself is not inherently wrong or harmful, we do have to consider the cultural connotations.

​I’ve heard it said that people should hear the same music in church that they hear on the radio; but is that true? By imitating the musical and entertainment culture, a church identifies itself with that very culture. Few would argue that a church should identify itself with the immoral practices common in the entertainment business, yet many churches do exactly that through their choice of worship music.


3. Worship Music Must Communicate an Appropriate Emotional Message

It’s often said that only the lyrics in a song matter, and that the music is, in and of itself, amoral. It is true that music without words cannot communicate a thought. Music alone cannot communicate an immoral thought like “drugs and violence are good.” Only words can do that.

​However, music does communicate emotion in ways far more powerfully than words can. We all know what happy music sounds like, or sad music. If music can communicate happiness or sadness, why could it not also communicate anger? Aggression? Sensuality? In fact, music does communicate those things. Many popular musical styles are designed to communicate those emotions!

​It is deeply incongruous to attempt to worship God with music that communicates these negative emotions. Yet some contemporary worship is designed to provide the exact same atmosphere as the concerts of popular secular artists, who purposefully promote those very things! Worship music must communicate emotions that are appropriate for the worship of a holy God.

​Admittedly, there is a degree of subjectivity here. Emotions are inherently subjective, and I do not know of an objective standard by which to measure the emotional content of a song. Some have tried to blame certain kinds of chords, or certain kinds of beat, but these claims are not backed up by the Bible or good research.

​I would suggest this matter requires a great deal of prayer and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. I believe it is also important to ask whether the music is leading people to an attitude of worship. Again, I would point out the biblical examples mentioned above; the worship of God is marked by humility and bowing low. Does our worship music lead us into a similar state of mind? Or does it have more in common with what you would hear at a sports game or a bluegrass concert?

Again, it is not my desire to demonize anyone, or any church, that chooses to use CCM in their worship service. The debate over worship music is very important and worth having. There are many reasons why I choose to work at a church that has a conservative approach to music. It’s not because I’m stuck in the past; I’m only 23. I’m constantly on the lookout for new software, ideas, techniques that can help our church. I love new things! However, I have a conviction that some of the CCM movement violates certain principles, including the command to be holy in all manner of conversation. By the way, conservative churches can also be guilty of violating this principle. As God makes clear in Amos 5:21-23, He is not pleased by the form of worship without engaged hearts, which is a problem that conservative music can tend towards. Whether your church uses CCM or not, it would do us all good to examine our worship music in light of the command to be holy.

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