Against Music

Greg Gilbert has written a must-read essay/exhortation titled “Against Music.” I second everything he says in this one. Here’s an excerpt:

‘I am really afraid that we’ve managed to create a generation of anemic Christians who are spiritually dependent on excellent music. Their sense of spiritual well-being is based on feeling “close to God,” their feeling close to God is based on their “ability to worship,” and being able to worship depends on big crowds singing great music.

‘Just as bad, think about how many church fights and divisions are rooted in disagreements about music. People leave churches because they don’t like the music. Christians who believe exactly the same things about Jesus worship in different buildings next door to each other because they can’t countenance one another’s musical style. Churches split because one faction wants “contemporary” music and another wants “traditional” music. It’s not the words that are at issue; it’s how the words are sung, and to what instrumentation. The thing even has its own name—the “Worship Wars,” which when translated with a little honesty is really “the Music Wars.”

‘The bottom line, I suppose, is that it would do every Christian well to do some honest heart-searching about what makes them feel “close to God.” Can you feel close to God just by reading or saying the words, “In Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”? Would you be able to function in a church that’s great in every way except the music? If not, you probably need to give some thought to whether your spiritual life is dependent on something it should not be dependent on.’

Go read the rest of “Against Music.” It’s well worth your time.

P.S. Don’t miss Bob Kauflin’s response to Greg’s essay.

18 Responses to Against Music

  1. Brett February 11, 2008 at 1:33 am #

    I totally agree with this. However, we shouldn’t necessarily slander our generation for using music as a means for them to feel “close to God”. The first paragraph seems to be a polemic against the Passion movement, which is fine b/c I would probably agree with what he has to say. However, I’m not going to slander a group of people b/c music is their primary means to help them feel close to God.

    I might have missed his main point b/c I didn’t read the whole article, but i just think it’s wrong to slander music just because our generation likes different genres more than the previous generation. The church break stuff is heartbreaking, but I wonder if the majority of breaks are instigated by the previous generation, or by our generation. It has been my experience that it’s the previous generation who cause the stink about the different genres of music. Anyways, back to writing a paper 🙂

  2. Bryan L February 11, 2008 at 9:06 am #

    It seems someone will always find something to complain about in the church. The article seems extremely reductionistic and only oriented in one direction so that the stripped down hymns should be good enough for everybody since they are good enough for Greg. Well we could always go further and say why don’t we strip away even more. Forget modern hymns lets go back to chanting or something or just reading scripture out loud as our worship.

    But ultimately in our modern American church landscape when there’s a church on every corner and you can go down the street where there’s equally good preaching and the music is the way you like it then why stick around? Only so you can feel like you are somehow more grounded as a Christian or more mature in your faith? Whatever.

    I’ll be honest I would rather any day worship in a church where there is great music and people are singing passionately to Jesus and pouring their hearts out to him than a church where they read the words out of a book. Sure I can do the later but if I have the choice I will pick the former. If I’m given the choice to feel close to God by reading a hymn or feeling closer to God by engaging in full on modern praise and worship, again I’ll pick the latter.

    Bryan

  3. BrianW February 11, 2008 at 9:37 am #

    Blaming music for people’s idolatry is like the Israelites blaming Moses’ bronze serpent for their idolatry. It makes no sense. Anything God has given can be used in an inappropriate way. That’s hardly a reason to give up on playing music excellently to his praise.

  4. Greg G February 11, 2008 at 10:00 am #

    Bryan and Brian,

    Thanks for your comments, but I really think you’ve missed my point here.

    First, I’m not calling for stripped down anything. I prefer excellent, contemporary music myself. I’m not saying that’s bad; I’m not saying we should get rid of it or stop pursuing excellence in music. Actually, I’m not calling on musicians or music leaders to do anything at all. I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to the masses who listen to them and are led by them. Musicians, in my opinion, are doing a great job (Bob Kauflin, Indelible Grace, Matt Redman, etc etc etc). They should keep doing what they’re doing. I’m talking to (what I perceive are) the thousands of young people out there who have let their own hearts become dependent on music for their sense of spiritual well-being.

    Second, I’m not blaming music for idolatry. I blame the human heart for idolatry. But music, like anything else, can be an occasion for idolatry, and I’m calling on all the human hearts out there to do some soul-searching about whether, in their own lives, music has become just such an occasion.

    So keep singing praises to God, loudly and with a full heart. Do it with excellent music. But do it also with a critical eye on your sinful heart, which has a tendency to find its satisfaction in everything but the truth of the gospel—even music.

    Blessings,
    Greg

  5. Bryan L February 11, 2008 at 10:00 am #

    Greg’s last call for searching our hearts also brings up the question from opposite side whom the article is criticizing: if you can be satisfied just reading hymns instead of going all out in your worship and giving all your heart and emotions to God unafraid to raise your hands, clap, dance, shout praise, cry, fall to your knees or lay flat on your face, etc. then maybe you should also do some examining of your own heart.

    As I mentioned that is the problem with the essay. It’s too one directional and dependent on what Greg thinks worship should be like. It has a good enough attitude towards worship where we should just settle for good enough instead of giving all of ourselves in worship to such a wonderful savior.

    If he can say you shouldn’t need this type of music and atmosphere to worship God or feel emotional then I’d respond But why would you want to settle for anything less?
    Just as Greg could look with suspicion on those the article is meant to criticize they could equally look back on him with suspicion and about the state of his heart.

    Just a thought.

    Bryan L

  6. Lucas Knisely February 11, 2008 at 10:44 am #

    Bryan-the-ever-present-devil’s-advocate

    =P

  7. Jada Bown Swanson February 11, 2008 at 11:56 am #

    Thanks, Denny for that article. As a musician, worship leader (and I refer to worship as much more than music), and now student in a doctoral program in the area of worship studies, I have had some of the same thoughts as Greg (and Bob).

    I have a lot to say on this topic, but have two kiddos needing my time right now. I will be back, though.

    I will be sharing these links, too.

    Jada

  8. Paul February 11, 2008 at 12:16 pm #

    I suppose I have a singular viewpoint here as (probably) the only commenter here who is a working musician. And because of that, I see this argument in an entirely different light that might be helpful. If it’s not, then that’s really no different than any other comment that I’ve ever made here.

    Basically, I see where Greg is coming from, but from a completely different angle. You see, whenever I’m at a church that does “modern worship music” there are invariably several things that bother me, and get in the way of my ability to worship…

    1) the songs themselves: far too many of them praise some anonymous being in the universe. If you don’t name the God that you’re worshipping, it might as well be a song about Buddha, Allah, Ra, Mithra or Zeus. One that really comes to mind is the song “Come.” Especially the line, “now is the time to praise your God.” My God? Not the only God? Not the God that created the universe? Not the God who sent his Son to earth to save me from myself? But just, “my God?” Not exactly intellectually or emotionally moving, in my estimation.

    2) The players on the worship teams: why is it that, excepting a few circumstances, worship teams are always just awful? On the couple that I’ve played on, it’s always like pulling teeth. People that don’t understand that there’s a difference between a D major and a D minor chord. People that think it’s okay if you rush or drag because, really, it’s the message that’s important, man. They also always seem overcrowded with every person in the church that owns an instrument. And without a worship leader who can score for 10-20 instruments (I’ve seen it), it all turns to mush. As someone who constantly strives to play the best music I can, again, this just flat out gets in the way of worship. Period. Yes, you want as many people to be involved in the church as possible, but it shouldn’t be too much to ask them to be able to play proficiently if they want to be involved in a very important part of the ministry.

    2a) People need to know the music that they’re playing…

    If you’ve ever wondered why the world of CCM and praise bands is so awful, I’ll swear to you, it’s this. If you’re essentially going to play rock music (what modern praise music is), then you need to know it. Like the back of your hand. Just like you expect your accountant to really know math, I expect the guitarist in a praise band to know his rock and roll. Sorry. Because, when they don’t, when all they know are a bunch of sorry bands that can’t play good music (sorry greater CCM community), they also won’t be able to play good music. You’re influenced by what you hear, and so many of these people have never sat down and really studied a Beatles, Rolling Stones, Cream or Hendrix record, and it shows. It shows in the beyond basic chord movement, it shows in the lack of depth in their playing, and it shows in the absolute lack of groove found almost universally in praise bands that I’ve seen.

    It’s really, really, really sad that the only really phenomenal modern praise band that I’ve ever seen was attached to one of the most heinous prosperity gospel churches that I’ve ever been to.

    Give me a bunch of Mennonites singing out of the hymn book any day of the week. It might only be people singing out of a book, but we mean it, and singing songs that are actually about God, being led by a piano player that’ll catch everything on the page is a far shot better than painfully bad attempts at hipness any day of the week.

  9. Lucas Knisely February 11, 2008 at 12:27 pm #

    Those are good thoughts, Paul. You point, 2a) is a good one. Imagine if your preacher didn’t ever read good preachers, or good books. Imagaine if he knew nothing about how to speak well. His knowledge on any given subject may be greatly hindered, not to mention his ability to get his point across.

  10. Brad February 11, 2008 at 3:32 pm #

    Paul,

    I think that your comments prove Greg’s point.

    “You see, whenever I’m at a church that does ‘modern worship music’ there are invariably several things that bother me, and get in the way of my ability to worship…”

    You then go on to list all the things, from the perspective of a working musician, that are lacking in modern worship music. But the focus seems to be on you — what works for you as a musician, what doesn’t work for you as a musician.

    I read Greg’s point as saying we’re all too focused on what the music is doing for us rather than whether it’s pleasing to Christ. Ultimately, the music is an offering to Christ, not something intended to make us feel better or close to Him. Modern vs. traditional doesn’t really matter in the end. Human-centered vs. Christ-centered does. And I’ll take a rag-tag band of no-talents who are giving everything they have for Christ over polished professionals who can feel the groove but don’t mean the words any day of the week.

    Blessings

    Brad

  11. BrianW February 11, 2008 at 4:36 pm #

    Greg,

    In your reponse to me (and Bryan L), you come across very measured, full of qualifications (as is appropriate). That’s not at all how you come across in you blog post. You provide one or two terse qualifications and then overstate everything. I don’t recall you saying anything like, “you know, this isn’t really about music; this is about our tendency to treasure things more than Christ. The real issue transcends music.” It’s just a big rail against music and how we are too dependent on it with a short paragraph at the end to somehow smooth out overstatements. So, if we’ve missed your point, in all fairness, its because you didn’t state it (or very clearly).

  12. Paul February 11, 2008 at 4:44 pm #

    Brad,

    you then miss my point C-O-M-P-L-E-T-E-L-Y.

    The focus is on me in MY post, because I was stating how this stuff relates to ME. Of course my post will be self-centered.

    What I was getting at is that the reason why so many people end up focused on the music and what it does or doesn’t do for them is because the music is usually uniformly BAD. When the music is bad, you can’t help but focus on how it’s not doing this, that or the other. At the very least, I can’t, and that’s why I am very happy to go to a church that doesn’t have a modern worship team, so that I don’t have to be distracted by how bad they are.

    And, I also cannot state this enough: if you’re playing for God’s glory, but can’t be bothered to learn your instrument well enough to do it right, how much glory are you giving God in the first place? Something that gets lost on my ridiculously dumb generation is that words aren’t the sole way to worship Christ! Bach wrote plenty of wordless music that was intended to be a tribute to God, through music alone. My trio ends our sets with hymns, and our version of Amazing Grace is fairly popular with members of my church. (Actually, I think that our version of Amazing Grace is up on our MySpace page, check it out!) When we (as musicians) are playing, that music is a tribute to God’s glory and the gifts that He’s given us. That should go double for people playing in worship bands. It’s not too much to ask for the musicians leading people IN WORSHIP to know what in the world they’re doing.

    in other words…

    bad music/musicians = inability to hear the message over the din.

    good music/musicians = fully able to delve into the message and meditate upon it.

    Finally, as a reply to your last sentence, I have to ask this: how many “overly polished” musicians who “don’t mean the words” are going to show up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to play other people’s music either for free or for a pittance? Give it some thought, and we’ll both come to the same conclusion: NONE. So, that argument is moot. If you don’t care enough about God to learn the music you’re using to praise Him properly, you shouldn’t be on stage.

  13. Ken February 11, 2008 at 5:07 pm #

    BrianW: Respectfully, that you characterize Mr. Gilbert’s post as “a big rail against music” tells me that you didn’t read the entire essay, or that you indeed missed his point.

    Speaking likewise as a church elder, I know exactly from where Mr. Gilbert is coming. Been there, done that, got so many T-shirts I can open up shop.

  14. Brad February 11, 2008 at 5:12 pm #

    Paul,

    I appreciate your points, the more so much so as my wife is the worship leader for my congregation. The points raised in your posts (as well as those of others) are a weekly struggle for her.

    What I was attempting to resist in your post was an attitude of — (insert here) gets in the way of my ability to worship. For you, it’s the musicianship, for others the clothes the worship team wears, the temperature of the room, the use of hand gestures (or not), etc. Point being, something will always bother someone. Our job is to priase Christ despite the myriad of distractions.

    As to the quality of musicianship — I have mixed feelings. While I certainly prefer the musicians to be of high quality, I’m uncomfortable setting a rigid bar. Christ calls us while we are imperfect. Are we to refrain form worshipping until our offering is perfect. I hope not. Are we to not allow children to offer music as part of the service because they are not yet masters of their instruments? I hope not.

    And regarding someone “not believing the words” being unwilling to get up early on a Sunday morning. Sadly, several of the congregations in my area (not mine) have paid pianists who are not necessarily part of the congregation; others routinely bring in guest ensembles (instrumental and vocal). In both cases I’m pained to say that in these scenarios talent can and has trumped belief.

  15. BrianW February 11, 2008 at 5:31 pm #

    Ken,

    I did read the entire post and, as my comments from #11 state, I’m certainly open to the possibility of missing the point. Its just that might not be a result of my poor reading (though it may).

    My guess is that the hearty “amens” from some (like yourself) might be more of a connection to a sentiment Greg touched on and not so much a result of a well-reasoned article.

  16. Paul February 11, 2008 at 6:04 pm #

    Brad,

    good to hear your wife is also fighting the good fight. 🙂

    You’re right. Something will always get in the way of someone’s ability to worship. I get that. That’s why I go to the church that I go to. Theologically fairly conservative, politically radically lefty, with the musical director being one of the coordinators for Wheaton College’s music program. For me, I found something that’s as close to the perfect church that I’m going to find, and that allows me to worship and focus on Christ in an unencumbered way. Most people won’t be that lucky. I get that.

    On the musical front, there is a huge difference between a children’s choir or a kid that just learned how to play Joy to the World on the piano and somebody who’s just DYING to play some Vineyard tune on his Fender acoustic that he just picked up at Wal-Mart. Being part of the congregation and worshipping is an entirely different ball of wax than being one of the LEADERS of that worship. Those folks have a duty to at least know how to play their instruments.

    Insofar as hiring people to play, I know this much: Not necessarily part of the congregation hardly means not a Christian. I know quite a few guys that play church gigs on a regular basis, ranging from music directors to special event situations (i.e., jazz vespers), and ALL of them are believers. If you’re dealing with a situation where non-Christians are being hired to play during worship at your church, then your church has bigger problems than just non-Christians leading your worship.

  17. Ken February 12, 2008 at 11:53 am #

    More than just a sentiment, Brian. I have the scars to prove I’m a veteran of the “worship wars.”

  18. debbie February 15, 2008 at 12:45 pm #

    Denny, I don’t think people realize how much it is important to personalize their affection for God. It’s about what we will do when we worship him in Heaven and on Earth when he returns. I hate that we cant’ fully express our worship like it says in Revelation. We bow or lift our hands no matter how closed minded we are to the people around us. John 4:24 says to worship in Spirit and Truth. When we can’t express our worship in Church, how we will do it later.

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