What music is proper for church?

August is “Camp Meeting Month” at my church. People are urged to dress casually, and we sing old hymns. For the prelude, our keyboard player played a ragtime hymn arrangement on the piano. Back in the days when camp meetings were actually held in camps, a piano would never be heard in church and ragtime was probably considered sinful!

I remember reading an essay that attempted to prove, with multiple scriptural references, that any music with a back beat was inspired by the devil and out of place in church. I read all of those references about the role of music in worship. They contain not a syllable of instruction about what rhythms are or are not suitable.

Complaining about new musical trends is not new. The generation of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley is considered the golden age of English hymnody. Now that many lament that praise choruses are being sung more and those glorious old hymns less, it helps to remember how controversial the hymns were when they were new.

Watts was a Dissenter, and thus separated from the established Church of England. Even the academically and religiously respectable Wesleys ministered to social outcasts. Most of the people who wrote or sang the hymns were on the margins of conventional religion. They were also much more emotional than “respectable” elements of society could tolerate. English aristocrats feared both the threat of mobs and the enthusiasm of this underclass.

In his A Fine Picture of Enthusiasm (1740), John Scot noted, “The Hymns they sing, i.e. all I have seen or heard of, are not rational Compositions, nor do they accord with the first Principles of all Religion. . . so that their singing is calculated to engage the Passions by nothing more than Words, and the Melody of the Sound or Voice.”

There was even a time, during the Middle Ages, when the thought of any instruments in church was highly offensive, whether anyone was playing them or not! It’s fascinating how they explained away all the trumpets and “guitars” and drums in the Psalms.

It is more than a thousand years since the invention of musical notation, and church music has been produced in every conceivable style. Everything new has met opposition, but eventually much of the old has been discarded, the excellent with the mediocre. Why not appreciate the very best of every style and use it all?
(First published on The All-Purpose Guru, August 4, 2009)

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