Toward a (Short) Theology of Instrumental Music in Worship

“How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” (1 Cor. 14:26)

With the early rise of the church school, Adventist worship has enjoyed a strong tradition of instrumental music. Whether it is music from the classical, folk, gospel, or Contemporary Christian Music genres, instrumental music has steadily wafted over our church pews.

But what role does instrumental music play in worship?

Constructing a theology of instrumental music in worship has to do with how the meaning of worship intersects with the meaning of music. Simply put, worship is built around the objective proclamation of the foundational, propositional truths of God’s kingdom which must elicit a response on the part of the worshiper. In fact, the Greek word for  “worship” in the New Testament is proskyneo, which carries the meaning of bowing down before someone greater than oneself. Congregational worship is a participatory process where both leader and congregation are actively engaged in the messages being communicated: e.g., God’s majesty and power, God’s creative action, the cross, the forgiveness of sin, and the resurrection. Ultimately, says Paul, the intelligible communication of these truths in worship must be for “edification” of the believers (1 Car. 14:26).

While directly proclaiming truth in worship is hardly a subjective actitivy, the complexity of music lies in part in its ability to evoke both objective and subjective responses on the part of the listener. For example, the successful marriage of word and melody in song creates a potent emotional elixir that acts on a willing listener’s prefrontal cortex, embedding a message that can be continually and promptly retrieved.[1] How dreary worship would be without the powerful emotional impact of sacred music! But in order to be effective in worship, music needs to join hands with the spoken (or dramatized) word in order to advance the proclamation and worship of God and actively “build up” the worshipper.

As I have argued previously,[2] using incidental instrumental music (also known as “traveling music”) as standalone items in preludes, postludes, or offertories in worship presents particular challenges. The problem lies in the fact that music without words offers at best a subjective experience for the listener, regulated, as it is, by one’s musical tastes and interpretative ability. This does not mean that instrumental music does not have any intrinsic meaning. After all, the fateful knocks which introduce Beethoven’s 5th are nearly universally understood. But the appreciation of instrumental music requires a certain knowledge of the inner-workings of its particular genre in order to decode what is being communicated; Bach’s music does not communicate the same way as Mozart’s; rap does not “mean” the same thing as Appalachian song. 

When including instrumental music in worship, it is necessary to ask whether it simply fills up time or has a specific theological, rather than purely artistic, function. Assessing whether Handel was successful in setting the theology of a certain biblical passage to an instrumental piece in d minor, or asking whether the use of synths along with acoustic guitar is aesthetically pleasing—although perfectly pleasurable intellectual endeavors— does not get at the core function of music in worship.

But there’s a straightforward reason why such a focus on musical aesthetics rather than objective theological meaning fails to reflect the primary goal of worship: the lack of a theological subtext. Corporate worship is really not the place for the musician to offer his or her latest instrumental creation, which, although admirably performed, might remain in the realm of the unknown for the congregation at large. The notion that the church gathered in worship should stop to indulge in mere artistic appreciation of the musical talent and dexterity of an instrumentalist is, quite frankly, foreign to Christian worship. Aesthetic excellence, while valuable, does not equal divine truth; as Harold Best posits, “Being emotionally moved by music is not the same as being spiritually or morally shaped by it.”[3]

I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t appreciate our valuable musicians (or any other artists). I’m painfully aware of the Adventist culture that, on one hand, desperately needs musicians, and on the other hand, often resents them. I’m simply musing whether such needed appreciation justifies a break in the worship flow. As a worshiper, I have at times been merely entertained with great instrumental music, which, although marvelously executed, added virtually nothing to the practice of exalting God objectively in worship. The musician(s) played music, but the music played no essential role in worship.

The fix for the potential deficiency of instrumental music in worship is simple: instrumental music only advances worship when it carries a subtext of worship. By this I mean that the listener is able to recall sacred lyrics when the piece is played. For example, a freshly arranged traditional hymn will “speak” in worship in a way that an obscure piece for piano and violin can never do. Revisiting traditional hymns accomplishes at least two things: (1) it keeps the service grounded in the beautiful tradition of historical Christian worship, and (2) it allows the congregation to intelligently worship alongside the musician. And this is not reserved only for the traditional repertoire; known contemporary worship songs are equally effective as instrumentals. Something truly special happens when the congregation listens collectively to a well-known instrumental offertory, perhaps even joining in song. Participatory worship can be thus greatly enhanced.

There is, however, an exception to this rule, and that is instrumental music as background for prayer, Scripture reading, or other thematic reading. While many churches frown on this practice, I have found that when well done, supporting music for the spoken word has the potential to greatly smooth out the flow of the service. For these cases, improvising on a short melodic motif from the day’s theme song to create an ambience while a presenter speaks works better than playing the full melody which will recall the words and likely compete for the listener’s attention. This is not a hard rule and requires sensibility on the part of the musician. Effective worship music is, after all, an art!

So next time a standalone instrumental piece is placed in the worship flow, take a close look at it to ensure that it will communicate theological truth both objectively and subjectively in worship. Or, juxtapose it with elements in the worship narrative that make the music truly part of the story. Invite even a child musician who is just learning to play to offer—rather than a witty, secular piano piece—a simple two-note harmonization of Jesus Loves Me; let the child actively lead worship. The same is true for the jazzy piece by the school brass ensemble or the flashy solo by the visiting violinist. 

When instrumental music does not objectively communicate divine truth in worship, it breaks the flow of the service and becomes a distraction. Worshipers have gathered to attend to God. Let all music music serve that end.

[1] Cf. Laura Ferreri, et al., “The Influence of Music on Prefrontal Cortex during Episodic Encoding and Retrieval of Verbal Information: A Multichannel fNIRS Study,” Behavioural Neurology  article 707625 (2015); Farshad Alizadeh Mansouri, et al., “Interactive effects of music and prefrontal cortex stimulation in modulating response inhibition,” Scientific Reports 7, article 18096 (2017).

[2] Cf. André Reis, “Winning the Worship Wars: Part 1,” Elder’s Digest (Sep 2016): 24–26; ibid., “Winning the Worship Wars: Part 2,” Elder’s Digest (Dec 2016): 10–11; ibid., “Winning the Worship Wars: Part 3,” Elder’s Digest (March 2017): 11–13; ibid.,  “La Música en la Adoración,” in En Espíritu y en Verdad, ed. Adriana Perera (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2013), 90–99.

[3] Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith  (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1993), 151.