Musical integrity; spiritual integrity?

I’d like to begin this post with a pretty well-known text:

1 Corinthians 10:31 (New King James Version)

31 Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

There is no area of life that is not touched by the need for the Bible-believing Christian to do their best to excel. This is not something that most of those who fit the category above would contest. But there are a handful of areas in which many of those who do indeed fit the category above consistently fall short of the best standard. One is in the area of film and television consumption – and I guess we could add music consumption to that as well.

Another is in the area of food. I have had some major battles in this area over the years. Despite some very significant victories, the fight continues. Flesh does NOT just lie down and die!

Still another – our topic of concern today – is in the area of music; but I am not talking about what we listen to as consumers (which was tagged above). I am talking about the concept and execution of music-making in Christian church services – Seventh-Day Adventist included. It is a source of considerable frustration for me personally that my own church has such an astonishingly poor track record of spiritually-enlightened and uplifiting church music-making right across the local church communities. There are certain churches in certain regions that are known for their commitment to and excellence in music. Of course, the definition of “excellence” varies rather more widely than would be ideal – but we must start somewhere.

Music is often linked to worship – which in practical terms has proved to be both a blessing and a curse. In Pentecostal, Evangelical and charismatic denominations, the tendency has been (and this remains)  to refer to ‘worship leaders’ and ‘worship teams’ – but these people are all musicians/singers! So does this mean that the music leaders and practitioners in these churches are uniquely placed to lead congregations in worship in ways that other church members are not? Are we really sure that this is what we want to say?

Many of these churches with ‘worship leaders’ and ‘worship teams’ are to be commended on their increasing commitment to the spiritual development of those involved in church music-making. These days, a ‘worship pastor’ is much more likely to be required to have bona-fide theological knowledge as well as musical ability and people skills and leadership ability etc.

Of course, much of this church music activity is within the nexus of contemporary non-classical ‘praise-and-worship’ music. Conservative Christian types of all Bible-believing denominations are often in the habit of looking askance on sacred music that involves drum sets and more than one amp (keyboard amps are fine; guitar amps are tolerated as long as they don’t look too threatening!). Bass can be fine, but can also be controversial. Many conservatives have a hierarchy of aesthetic values vis-a-vis music which puts the contemporary scene rather far down. We’ll return to this later. Then the question arises: if you spend more time practising and rehearsing than you do studying the Bible, how does that work? So this now means that church musicians are slowly beginning to get their spiritual and theological houses in order – which is only a good thing.

But the problem I am now about to identify is one which I feel incredibly strongly about – and I know that God has called me to ministry – and this is a problem which I believe that I personally have been called to make a contribution towards the solving thereof.

Despite the slow-but-nevertheless-gradually-increasing awareness of the need for biblically-literate music practitioners and leaders within our churches, there is nothing resembling an adequate awareness of our need for an actual level of true musical skill on the part of each musical practitioner in a church service. Instead, in much the same way as the trend of academically-theologically-trained persons who have gone away from foundational Biblical truth has resulted in varying levels of anti-intellectualism and anti-academia in various quarters, the desire for music practitioners to be seen as more spiritual than musical (or at least as spiritual as musical) has led to a (frequently unprocessed) mindset whereby singers are not in control of their own instruments, and not able to make music that would be considered acceptable in strict musical terms – but then justify their inadequacies with the rationale that ‘it is not a performance; God doesn’t care how in tune I might or might not be, because He sees my heart.”

This of course applies to instrumentalists as well – and this is where the fun and games takes off to a new level – because the conservatives and ultra-conservatives who don’t want to see a drum or a guitar amp (unless for an acoustic guitar and even then they’d prefer a mic on the guitar) tend to be much more accepting of poor piano playing, dire organ playing, and sub-standard singing from the front of the church than they would tolerate for a school musical concert (including a church school). So a band and ‘praise team’ who are very tight and well drilled and spiritually prepared and not in any way too loud for the congregation are a problem by virtue of the songs they have chosen and the instruments they have included – but the ‘correct’ instruments and the ‘correct’ songs are acceptable by definition even if what happens is less-than-musical!

Whichever denomination you are from, if a person is genuinely serious about biblical Christianity, then they would be hard-pressed to say that music in church does not matter. Music in the wider Christian life is very significant – how much more so what we call ‘liturgical music?’ Folk gather together in a dedicated, sanctified space for the exclusive worship of the the One true God – and music is part of the ritual. Is there any part of the ritual that does not matter? Of course not. So – if the person who is to preach the Word gets up and demonstrates a wobbly grasp of the language being used, and has not prepared the sermon properly, then there is no real blessing to be had! We could not tolerate that on a consistent basis. But we have the absolute audacity to call certain people ‘music ministers’ when what they do barely qualifies as music!

If it is not in time, it is not musical. If it is not in tune, it is not musical. If it is stylistically inappriopriate to the given context (etc), it is not musical. If the musical practitioner is not technically good enough to play or sing whatever it is, it is not musical.

Pray, tell me: if something purporting to be musical is in fact musically sub-standard, HOW is it supposed to be spiritually acceptable? How does even leading a hymn from the front of a church in a way that is more unhelpful than helpful to those who don’t know it create a spiritual atmosphere? How does a keyboard player who knows the Bible and EGW (etc) back to front but who cannot play the hymns in time contribute to the spiritual cohesion of a church service? How does another keyboard player who is more serious about God than about music but who cannot stop trying to play extra notes and stuff in the hymns and songs (thereby making the church service a place to practise creativity – which it is NOT) add to the spiritual cohesion? How does a praise team leader who has a low voice who then booms a tenor part into the microphone when the congregation’s focus is the main (soprano) melody (which in a multi-part praise/worship team is ALWAYS supposed to be sung by the sopranos, despite some strange foolishness that goes on in several churches with regard to arranging vocal harmonies for praise and worship teams) add to the spiritual cohesion of the service?

The church choir gets up to sing, resplendent in robes etc – but they look far better than they sound. Tell me, does this sound like any church choir you have heard?

The special items and musical selections and meditational songs are just too hard for the person/s performing them. But they get a bigger ‘Amen!’ and a bigger round of applause than those who keep it simple and stay within their technical/musical limitations. How does this glorify God?

~

If you have been called to music-making in a church context, then you have a sacred duty to do your best. Full stop. And if your best means that you are not in tune, in time and in control, then either you are claiming a calling or (worse yet) an anointing that you were never supposed to receive – OR you have a LOT of hard work ahead to prepare you to do what it is that God has called you to do to an appropriate standard that glorifies His Name.

All those who say that they take God more seriously than they take music, but then fail to take their music seriously need to realise that by failing in their moral and ethical duty towards music, they have failed in their moral and spiritual duty towards God. Even if a person sounds good, the offering to God in church is supposed to be a sacrifice of the best that one can give. An audience (or congregation) may be fooled, but not God. We cannot ignore the question of musical integrity and still expect that our spiritual integrity will not be affected.

So for all those called to Levitical ministry – you are not necessarily supposed to be a world-class virtuoso (but if you were to be that and you remain faithful to God, give Him all the glory). But you ARE supposed to be in tune, in time, and in control of the music and of your instrument (including voice). Don’t fail to process your technical/musical responsibilities and then say, ‘God knows my heart.’ You might just condemn yourself by your own words!!!

If secular people give a great deal up just for music – how much more ought we to give up for the God of music?! If we ignore our musical duties, then we have no right to expect people to take us seriously as ‘music ministers.’

There are two words in ‘music business.’ A professional musician cannot hope to survive by ignoring either of those words.

There are two words in ‘music ministry.’ A Christian musician cannot hope to survive by ignoring either of those two words. If we music ministers would be spiritual, we MUST be musical as well.

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