To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16).
It’s impossible to imagine Christian ministry without music.
In 1865, a Methodist clergyman named William Booth began to preach on street corners in the slums of London. Since he and his growing band of followers believed they were called to storm the gates of hell, they named themselves the Salvation Army.
This ministry wasn’t easy. And it definitely wasn’t safe.
A local builder, Charles William Fry, quietly volunteered himself and his three burly sons to serve as bodyguards. Booth worried how it would look to people if they saw that the preacher needed protection. But Fry countered with an interesting idea. He and his sons all played brass instruments. What if they played spiritual songs while watching Booth’s back?
Thus was born the tradition of the Salvation Army street band. Others showed up with accordions, drums, bells, banjos, and fifes. One observer sighed, “It sounds as if a brass band’s gone out of its mind.”
Stuffy traditional hymns seemed seriously out of place on the streets. So members of the Army began to write spiritual lyrics to popular songs, many of them right out of local pubs. Here’s to Good Old Whiskey was reborn as Storm the Forts of Darkness.
Booth was worried about the propriety of using drinking ballads to bring people to faith. Then one night he heard a beautiful song: Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free. As Tim Stafford tells the story, Booth asked about the origin of its haunting melody. The soloist answered, with some embarrassment, “Why, General Booth, that’s Champagne Charlie is My Name.”
“That settles it,” said Booth. “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?”
That’s a great question. Here’s another one: If it’s impossible to imagine Christian ministry without music, is it possible to imagine a group of Christians whose members are completely agreed on what constitutes “good” music?
Since the 1960s, such gatherings have been few and far between. The battle lines of the so-called Worship Wars have been drawn between organs and guitars, choirs and praise teams, quiet reflection and sonic blasts. It’s a rare church leader who hasn’t received at least one note that says something like, “Either the drums leave the sanctuary or I’m outta here!”
So what does Paul have to say to us from the vantage point of the first century?
Colossians 3:16 is essentially about “the message of Christ” – God’s Good News as embodied in the preaching of the apostles. It also happens to be one of the New Testament’s most important prescriptions for worship. Since we’re just a few days away from tackling II Timothy 3:16 – the Bible’s crowning statement concerning the value of Scripture – let’s take this opportunity to zero in on Paul’s sentiments concerning music.
In modern parlance, he seems to be a fan of “blended worship” – that is, a variety of musical motifs.
Paul challenges us to experience “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” The global church’s current musical repertoire is staggering. Today we can come before God with Gregorian chants, revival songs like “How Great Thou Art,” Bach’s St Matthew Passion, classic hymns, Christian rock anthems, Handel’s Messiah, countless praise choruses, and spirituals like “Wade in Water,” which Harriet Tubman used as a coded message to remind runaway slaves to splash through streams in order to confuse the bloodhounds pursuing them. The variety is endless.
There have always been church leaders who have been anxious about music – and instrumentation in particular. Wouldn’t it be wiser to cultivate silence instead of potentially exposing God’s people to Satanic rhythms and cadences?
The German Protestant reformer Martin Luther was not one of them.
He wrote in his typically frank style, “I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people joyful… Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed… He should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”
In the confidence that you are neither a crank nor a clodhopper, let’s ponder the question that troubled William Booth: Must followers of Jesus keep their distance from certain kinds of music?
Human beings are incurably musical. It’s estimated that something like 1.6 million new songs are written every year somewhere on planet Earth. The vast majority will never be recorded or heard by more than a handful of people. But they represent the fact that men and women, made in the image of their creator, love to create beautiful things.
Art is an expression of common grace – God’s good gifts that are generously sprinkled across humanity.
Which means you don’t have to have correct theology to produce artistic masterpieces.
Followers of Jesus can take joy in architectural marvels that were designed by people who rarely think about God. We can fall in love with paintings that came from the palettes of doubters and skeptics. We can be brought to tears every single time by the songs of Les Mis, even though it’s not an explicitly religious musical. Why is this so? God is a beautiful God. His image bearers make beautiful things. And appreciating beautiful art is a way of honoring the One who is always its ultimate source.
That opens the doors for Christ-followers to savor all kinds of music. There’s nothing inherently unspiritual about syncopation, polyrhythms, blues notes, or dissonant chords.
But (and yes, there is a but), Paul is quite specific about the role that music should play in the context of worship. Through our songs we are to “teach and admonish each other in all wisdom” with “gratitude in our hearts.” Dissonance should never be the norm in a community of joy. Nor should we welcome lyrics that are silly, superficial, or subversive of the very values we most respect – such as mercy, grace, humility and compassion. Popular songs that diminish the humanity of other people need not apply.
It’s worth noting that Jesus and his disciples sang together at the end of the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30). Paul and Silas sang while imprisoned in a Philippian jail (Acts 16:25). According to the book of Revelation, music abounds in heaven at this very moment (5:9).
Nor can we forget that a host of angels sang on the night of Jesus’ birth.
Martin Luther surely had it right when he said, “As long as we live, there is never enough singing.”
So, if God so leads, feel free to turn up the volume and join in the next song.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.