Music in Worship: A Discussion

Since it’s been rather quite around here lately, allow me to
take advantage of open-source thinking and pose a couple questions. 

What is the role that music plays in worship?


Is there a difference between playing music in a worship
setting as opposed to other settings?

To elaborate a little: 
It is certainly the case that the church can gather for worship, perform
the liturgy, without music.  
For example, there is Morning Prayer according to the Book of Common
Prayer.  Yet, for the most part,
music is and has been an integral part of Christian worship from the beginning. 

The second question comes after a discussion I had at a
gathering of local worship leaders. 
We were discussing playing songs written for worship in public settings
like bars and cafes.  Shortly
after that, I was rereading Jamie Smith’s “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism.”  In his last chapter describing a
postmodern liturgy, he notes the use of U2’s “40.”  A great example, I thought, of a song that can be played in
worship and has certainly been played in a variety of other venues.  Is there a (significant) difference?


  • adhunt

    Don’t forget that the BCP can be sung!

  • Eric Speece

    Actually, that’s great point. Music isn’t limited to ‘songs’ only. And it adds the question -is there is anything theologically, linguistically, or aesthetically significant about singing the liturgy verses saying it?

  • adhunt

    Well we can look at who sings and who says. It is almost always “anglo-catholics” who sing the BCP; be it the Daily Office or the Mass. Perhaps “catholic” theology (for lack of a better term) lends itself to incorporating skill and beauty in ways that emphasize beauty and transcendence as compared to the bibliocentristm of “evangelical” theology (again, for lack of a better term.)

  • adhunt

    I’m not really a big fan of how I just used those words, but I hope the “gist” of what I was getting at came across.

  • Eric Speece

    I think I see what you’re saying…perhaps that the more “sermon-centered”, “non-liturgical” worship style doesn’t make space for forms of aesthetic expression?

  • geoffrey holsclaw

    we once did “personal Jesus” (jonny cash version) in our worship service (the recording with images). it went over really well.
    i’m all for a theological exploration of things, but regarding music, would a general anthropological answer not go a long way? it seems like music is part of most any religious service, at least ones of worship rather than contemplation (of course that is a hasty generalization).

  • Sue

    Sacred Art, including Sacred music can only be produced within the context of, and come out of a comprehensive Sacred Culture.
    Otherwise it inevitably gets bastardized and reduced to another consoling consumer product.


    Sue, Great point. Worship is a bi-product of our sacramental lives not a spiritual comodity to be consumed. God doesn’t need our worship, and yet I have heard countless pastors speak of worship as if we are singing is “putting quarters in the heavenly jukebox” – shameless instrumentalism.

  • Horace

    Raised an evangelical, but recently returned to TEC after a decade or so of agnosticism, my experience has been that music has been my way back to accessing a spiritual self. I am less concerned with what music I hear, but rather which music I participate in making.
    For me, then, it is the embodied component of music: of breathing, of combining a single voice with the community (that oceanic feeling), of finding a way out of the performative identity of daily social interaction and into something that feels sincere and unmediated.
    Accordingly, I am less concerned about the provenance of the music (even choir anthems go through corporate profit systems) and more about how that music enables a participatory sense of the sacred. Singing the BCP, or chanting the Psalm have this sense with less self-consciously aestheticised form, but for worshippers so deeply inculcated in the highly aestheticised world of popular culture, perhaps more popular music is a way to connect a spiritual life to the world outside, rather than allowing the secular to taint the sacred.

  • Bryne Lewis Allport

    this morning i went to our early service which has no music. the absence of music was palpable and oddly in tune (no pun intended) with the lenten season. it made me realize how i rely music to transition from the everyday to sacred time. music really helps me to ease into the religious service. today i felt a little awkward, like a kid on a first date, unsure of myself in the silences. i was very much more aware of my own noises, more aware of the voices of people around me, more aware of movement in the liturgy.

  • Maxwell Kennel

    I think I know what Bryne is saying, I have similar experiences in finding it difficult to enter any state of worship without music. I’ll often return to my home church and find that hymns aren’t fully conducive to this either. I often find music that helps me worship outside of church as well as stimulating ‘sermon-like’ writing in places other than the pulpit…

  • John Sullivan

    We are turning to Morning Prayer on a regular basis in my parish. We are a bit unsure of ourselves with it… feels awkward to us like it did to Bryne. We are not used to it and not used to the transitions in the service. We’ve talked about adding music… sing the canticles (makes sense)… something.
    Anyone hear of Nóirín Ní Riain? She wrote a thesis on what she calls “Theosony”. It’s interesting and fits this conversation.

  • d

    the problem with music is that most worship music is too simplistic and its effect hijacks the emotional body of the listener instead of being a launching pad into spirit.

  • Eric Speece

    Could you elaborate a little on your thought? I wonder if it’s “superficiality” as opposed to “simplicity” that you worry about. In a lot of ways, I’ve noticed that the more complicated the song is, the more it distracts, or at least, the congregation has to focus so hard on hitting the right notes that it kinda stifles focusing on the Spirit. A good example of the use of simplistic, yet deep, songs would be Taize. Their songs are intentionally simplistic (and repetitive – even mores so than the 7/11 praise choruses that everyone loves to hate) and it is that very nature that allows the Spirit to move.

  • sbassistheplace

    I’ve been a believer as long as I can remember. I’ve been a musician most of my life. I’ve had more spiritual encounters out of the church context than in it, when serving as a musician. The most powerful spiritual songs don’t depend on the pretense of the church setting to evoke the divine.
    In my experience, I have noticed that there is a big difference between “singing” with one’s instrument, and raising your physical voice in praise. I wonder why?

  • Worship Leader Darin

    As a worship leader, I find music really moves me and hence adds to worship. But is it necessary? Of course not, because worship is about the heart rather than the ears! But I find music does help, and I love it!

  • WFP

    Wow nice post..I love this music worship discussion..
    Thank you for posting!!!

  • Nurisng clothing

    it is wonderful to worship with wonderful songs, you could actually feel it.

  • 3 times the nod

    I have enjoyed reading through this stream of thoughts. A question has formed in my mind that I would be eager to have answered by those of you who have commented here.
    What do you believe to be the purpose of the communal acts of worship – be they with music, song, or liturgy? What place do they hold for you, personally?

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