Last night we read Psalm 115 as a family. Afterwards we sang Chris Anderson’s excellent setting of Psalm 115 to the tune “St. George’s Windsor.”
We often sing after family devotions, and the simplicity of the practice always impacts me. With young children, unison-ish is the high standard for which we currently strive. Last night as we sang, there were no interludes, no counterpoint (at least, not intentional), and no modulations. The song progressed, but it did so textually, not musically. Every stanza said something different… but every stanza sounded the same. There was no musical climax, no resolution, no variation.
Despite these limitations, we obeyed Colossians 3:16— we sang psalms to one another. While we weren’t exercising every facet of musical construction available to us, we were making music. And it drew me to consider the role that musical simplicity should have in corporate worship.
Scripture gives us few guidelines for musical style, but we do know the music of Old Testament saints was varied and elaborate. They used highly trained musicians, both singers and instrumentalists. And they had a wide range of instruments: strings, brass, winds, and many kinds of percussion. And the Psalms are filled with commands like “play skillfully,” which seems to imply a degree of musical complexity and virtuosity. In the New Testament the commands are focused entirely on singing, but there’s no reason to assume that instrumental music is any less helpful to the church or pleasing to God.
Complexity and creativity are gifts from God. We’re creative beings who can bring glory to God through the complexity of musical construction. And as we adorn the praises of God by skillful playing and singing, we can edify the church by reflecting the beautiful complexity of the Creator.
But if we’re not mindful, our musical accouterments can become crutches. We can begin to measure the effectiveness of our music by its musical complexity and emotional impact. Worse yet, we can develop a mindset of musical superiority towards believers in other contexts who praise God with a simpler musical language. If musical worship is a part of our daily life— around the dinner table, at the hospital bed, and in family devotions— we’ll rarely have an orchestra and synth pads and a rhythm band backing us up. And if the songs we sing feel awkward or dull without all these extras, it might be that we’re imbalanced in our musical choices.
Here are the guidelines I use to make choices of musical intricacy in our ministry:
1. Use what you have, be who you are
We have a lot of gifted servant musicians in our church. Sometimes, though, schedules get full with other obligations. When that happens, we use the people we have. There are certain roles that have to be filled every week (especially in the tech ministry), but other roles can ebb and flow as musicians are available. The congregation can sing and worship the Lord with a full stage or just one person at a piano.
If you lead a team in a small church, be who you are. Don’t try to copy the musical language of a big church or a professionally-produced album. Stick to the basics: rhythm and melody instruments, vocalists that lead well, and simple tech elements. The success of your music ministry is measured by the godliness and humility of your team members, not the size of your roster or the polish of your production.
2. Plan variety in personnel
This point is similar to the first one, except that I sometimes limit the scope of the music by choice rather than by necessity. Sometimes I’ll just lead from piano, maybe with a violin. Sometimes we’ll add singers and other instruments.
The point is that we want to keep a measure of variety on stage, but not for novelty— and we never want to make abrupt changes that are so significant that they draw the congregation’s attention away from the Lord. At the same time, I want the congregation to be accustomed to seeing different combinations of voices and instruments from week to week. After all, the message never changes.
3. Plan variety in song structure
In our services, the vast majority of our music is congregational singing instead of performance (I’m not using that word negatively). But we invest a significant amount of time each week into arranging and rehearsing congregational music that is intricate, varied, and carefully structured. Most of our songs have intros, interludes, and different instrumentation on each verse. Sometimes we modulate or use other musical devices to emphasize the text.
But sometimes we just sing with simple chords, or no instruments at all. Sometimes the simplicity of the melody and the text is all I want the congregation to hear.
It’s good to do both. We don’t want our music to be consistently stripped down: that would deprive our musicians of the joy of serving, and we might actually be failing to offer the Lord our best efforts. But we also want our people to love the simplicity of praise. We want them to remember that all the Lord requires for musical obedience is loud, heartfelt singing.
4. Elevate the ministry of the Word over the ministry of music
Music is a profound gift, but God’s Word is greater. More specifically, God himself has said that his Word (not music) is the means by which he sanctifies and edifies his church.
It’s humbling, but it’s a relief as well. By all means, serve well. Labor to play and sing skillfully, because the Lord desires your best offerings. Music in church is a command from God, and a glorious privilege. But if a song comes to a screeching halt because of a missed modulation (which has happened to us more than once), nothing is lost. Have a chuckle, start the song again, and move on. The music ministry exists to exalt God’s Word, not the reverse.
So there’s a time to adorn the musical praises of the Lord, to labor skillfully to create and play music that reflects the genius of the Creator. And there’s a time to refrain from adorning, to merely stand and sing the glories of the gospel.