Neglecting Church Music

Neglecting Church Music

Neglecting Church Music

Joe Ed Furr, Texas Normal Singing School


In the closing years of the twentieth century many congregations neglected church music.  They spent very little money on music resources and development.  Most preachers had little to say about church music in their sermons, and most song leaders spent a minimum amount of effort preparing for the public assembly.  This neglect is beginning to manifest negative effects on the church and in public worship.  Future problems will hurt the church if this neglect is not resolved.  The goal of this presentation will be to examine the reasons for neglect and its effects.  We also want to present some encouraging ideas for the future.


Reasons for Neglect


About twenty-five years ago research into the field of neurology revealed some scientific findings that have helped us understand the human personality.  Three specific types of personality have been identified through this research.  The first type of personality is seen in people who have a strong interest in rational and logical ideas and a strong aversion to expressing emotions.  The second type of personality strongly favors the artistic, creative, emotional aspects of life and reflects an aversion to long essays in rational logical ideas.  The third type of personality seems to have no bias against either the rational/logical or the emotional/artistic dimension of life.

In the early decades of the twentieth century a majority of the members of churches of Christ in the U.S.A. were people who wanted a religion that maximized the rational and minimize the emotional.  Emotionality was seen as being “Pentecostal”, and Pentecostalism was seen as something that was very bad.

This aversion to emotionality created special problems in the domain of church music.  Music is (by nature) one of the most emotional forms of spiritual expression in the Christian religion.  These people believed that God required singing, so it was inappropriate to complete reject music.  A compromise was found in the development of a style of Christian singing that minimized emotionality.  This style came to be known as the “gospel song.”  It became the only style of song that was acceptable in the church.

Because of this aversion to emotionality gospel singing was treated as a minor priority in the public assembly, and preaching was maximized as a dominant value in the assembly. So, the average church spent little time singing and much more time listening to sermons.

Most churches spent much money to hire a skilled preacher.  They demand a high degree of professionalism in the preaching pulpit.  But singing is the opposite.  Many congregations have no interest in spending money  on church music.  They use the old hymnals until they fall apart.  They do not ask for professionalism among song leaders.  Most churches will tolerate mediocrity in music leadership.



The music theology of the twentieth century was based upon the assumption that Jesus revealed a legal code on the subject of public worship.  A cappella congregational singing is our duty.  God has forbidden instrumental music and choirs by his silence on these issues.

We were told that public address systems, hymnals, and pitch pipes were “aids” in singing.  “Aids” were OK.  But instruments of music were not “aids” in our singing.  The use of instrumental music in worship was man’s attempt to re-write the legal code of worship by “adding” man-made rules demanding instrumental music.  So, instruments were an “addition” to God’s law.  Additions are bad. But many of our people never did understand this point.  If a pitch pipe was an aid, why couldn’t a piano also be an aid?  If a public address system could enrich public worship, why couldn’t an organ or a choir also enrich public worship?  Differentiating between pitch pipes and pianos caused an endless circle of reasoning that was never resolved.

Many people had problems trying to differentiate between king David’s music and Christian music.  David was a man after God’s own heart.  His singers worshiped God with instrumental music, and they even called their instruments “God’s instruments”.  If it was virtuous for David to worship in that manner, then why is it evil today?  How could something be virtuous in one era of history and evil in the next?  Some tried to resolve this confusion by emphasizing that the law of Moses was nailed to the cross of Christ and is no longer relevant, so David’s music is irrelevant.  However, David’s music did not come from the law of Moses.  So, this observation has not been helpful.

Churches that opposed instruments of music had a hard time handling the psalms in the Book of Psalms that encourage the use of instruments.  The twenty-third psalm was OK, but the thirty-third psalm was not.  This seemed strange.

The book of Revelation predicts that there will be instruments of music in heaven.  This fact seemed to threaten the validity of a cappella music, so preachers argued that the book of Revelation was symbolic.  Symbolic images are not to be seen as direct realities.  The implication was that the music in heaven will really be a cappella, but it will just sound like music accompanied by harps.  This argument was not very convincing to many.

Preachers discovered that sermons against instrumental music caused people to ask complex questions, and nearly every preacher had his own opinions about how to answer those questions.  Those questions included the following:

  1. If instrumental music in the public assembly is sinful, then is it also sinful for my family to sing hymns at home around the family piano?
  1. If instrumental music in the public assembly is sinful, then is it also sinful for me to listen to hymns on the radio that are accompanied by instruments?
  1. If instrumental music in the public assembly is sinful, then is it also sinful for me to play hymns on my piano even when I do not sing along with the piano?
  1. If instrumental music in the public assembly is sinful, then is it also wrong to include instrumental music in weddings and funerals?
  1. If instrumental music in the public assembly is sinful, then is it sinful to sing America’s national hymns at community assemblies if they are accompanied by instruments?

So, most preachers decided to avoid this awkward subject in their preaching.  Silence followed.  This silence did not solve any problems, but it only swept these problems under the carpet and out of sight.

Church leaders relied mostly on the laws of the elders to enforce a cappella singing in the church auditorium.  Most elders declared that there would be no instruments in the church auditorium because they would encourage people to want instruments on Sunday, and they would offend others. Most  were willing to follow the law of the elders, so most churches maintained a cappella congregational singing even though many  wondered about the system.


The Effects of Neglect

The Crisis of Contemporary Music

The placid world of obeying the rule of the elders began to be shattered in the last decade of the twentieth century when contemporary praise music burst upon the scene of history.  Contemporary songs of praise brought a fresh air of beauty and emotionalism into the church.

A strong positive reaction to contemporary music caused church leaders to awaken to the fact that the church had changed.  From 1960 to 1990 the church acquired many new members who had artistic-expressive personality style.  These new members were not noticed for a long time, but contemporary praise music suddenly made these people visible.

Those who were loyal to the rational/logical culture found themselves suffering culture shock as they saw the dawn of a more emotional approach to worship.  Culture shock caused the two groups of church members to face each other with stress and tension.

Culture shock split many churches.  One group moved out of the church building and went across town to build a new congregation.  The old church often remained faithful to old traditions, and the new church adopted a more “contemporary” (emotional) approach to worship.  Other churches sought to avoid the pending split by agreeing to host two worship services each Sunday – one would be traditional and the other contemporary.  This compromise resolved the culture shock by making everybody a winner.  Most congregations that offered dual services on Sunday, the majority chose to attend the contemporary service and the minority chose to attend the traditional service.

Contemporary worship dropped the use of hymnals in favor of video projectors that placed the lyrics of songs on a large screen at the front of the auditorium.  The video images omitted music notations.  The lyrics-only visual images caused a decline in four-part harmony in favor of a soprano-only monophony.  It is difficult to sing harmonizing voices without music notation.  So, contemporary approach to worship began to lower the quality of harmony in public singing.

Larger churches tried to add praise teams to restore four-part harmony in congregational singing.  This experiment did not succeed, however, because a praise team is a poor substitute for music notations.  And the praise teams themselves caused a host new problems in the fellowship of the church.


The Returning Crisis of Instrumental Music

One hundred years ago the role of instrumental music deeply divided Restoration churches.  This problem has returned.  The Abilene Christian University Center For Adolescent Studies conducted a national survey in 1992 – 1993.  They surveyed preachers, youth ministers, elders, college students, high school students, and middle school students on the subject of public worship.  They found a strong bias among teens and younger adults in favor of instrumental music in the church.

The first year of the third millennium of the Christian age reveals the “tip of the iceberg” on the problem of instrumental music among churches of Christ.  A few trendy congregations are already beginning to bring instrumental music back into the church.  The problem can be seen in only a few cities, but it will most likely spread in coming years.


What Should We Do?


Very few have ever taken the time to develop a holistic and objective knowledge of everything the Bible says about music.  We have not taken the time to learn the historical facts about music that connect with Biblical texts.  We have tried to substitute arguments about music for a general education.  And our arguments have accomplished little.

We need to seek a general education in Biblical teachings about music.  This education should not begin with the a priority attitude that we know what we are going to find before we look.  We should not begin with predetermined conclusions in mind.  We should not be ego-defensive as we begin to study.  This writer finds that many promoters of a cappella music start to feel threatened as they search the scriptures, so they start closing their minds to what they find and trying to rationalize rather than to learn.  Some do not want a holistic education because they are afraid of what they might find.

After we have objectively studied everything in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, then we need to look for an objective way to apply what we have learned.  There are only four ways to apply Bible knowledge in the domain of music – (1) legally, (2) morally, (3) functionally, or (4) culturally.  When all the facts are before us we will find that church music is much more a functional issue than a legal or moral one.  When we make this discovery it opens new doors of opportunity to persuasively promote an a cappella emphasis.  The functional view removes embarrassing questions and awkward forms of reasoning.


Dealing With the Human Personality

Even though church music is a functional activity, it does have many cultural overtones.  We cannot gloss over the role that the human personality plays in our music.

Most of us have some favorite songs we like to sing.  The songs that are the most meaningful to us are those songs that we associate with some of our most meaningful religious experiences in our past.  Songs that we sang when we were spiritually maturing will always be favorites.

Many of our older members draw upon their repertory of classic gospel songs.  Many of our middle-age members draw upon their discovery of classic hymns or their experience with lively Southern convention songs.  Younger people share their fondest memories with the newer generation of praise songs.

There is a tendency for one group in the church to want to control the church’s music culture by shaping church policies around their own personal biases.  They want to shut out the culture of others because it makes them uncomfortable.  It is this quest to gain social power in order to monopolize the church’s music agenda that leads to conflict in the church.  This is a destructive strategy.

The church needs to be tolerant of diverse cultures.  We should allow every generation to sing their favorite songs.  We should allow every generation to express its deepest feelings in songs.  Some people may seem to be too emotional for us.  Others may seem too unemotional for us.  Both groups are trying to praise the Lord.

Churches that conduct dual services on Sunday to accommodate diverse cultural tastes represent one method of being tolerant.  In a more idealistic environment the church should not need dual services in order to sustain an environment of brotherly love, but in the real world dual services may be the only way to keep peace, at least in the short-run.

Church leaders should also become aware of how young people perceive them.  Many congregations encourage their teen members to attend regional youth assemblies.  Most of those assemblies are filled with contemporary praise songs, a high level of emotional expressiveness, and even some clapping.  This same style of worship is commonplace at summer youth camps.  These activities are tolerated in special youth events, but they are strongly discouraged when teens return to their local church.  This split personality the church projects to teens is very confusing.  It makes no sense at all.  It makes church leaders seem so unreasonable and arbitrary and hostile to young people.


Learning To Manage Congregational Culture

The Singing School at Abilene Christian University offers a special training program for church leaders to help them improve the quality of public worship without causing strife and division in the local church.  This training program is called “Public Worship Development.”  We recommend this training program to church leaders who are concerned with finding a balance between Bible instruction and practical application.

This training course focuses clearly upon the teachings of the Bible in all areas of the public assembly.  But this training course also emphasizes the cultural dimensions that are present in every church as they seek to implement Biblical guidance in worship.  We teach church leaders to work within the framework of a church’s culture to bring about improvements in worship.

We also offer an advanced class for Worship Leaders.  This class presents a model for building a solid infrastructure for this kind of work.  It offers practical ideas and options for helping the church to expand its repertory and improve its singing.

Leave a Comment