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Musical Discipleship

By Calvin M. Johansson

Many spiritual leaders conclude that music is the single most important factor in establishing worship style. They believe it largely determines who will be attracted to a particular church.

Most contemporary thinking about church music revolves around the question of taste. A style’s usefulness in ministry is thought to depend upon the assembly’s musical preferences, not upon the music itself. Musical style thus takes on a significance every leader must carefully consider when planning the church service.


Accepting all music equally and without careful scrutiny may unwittingly put the church in the untenable position of acceding to, and thereby perpetuating, things with which it does not agree. The church’s witness is then diluted.

History shows that the closer we go to the beginnings of the Early Church, the more carefully music was scrutinized before Christians used it. The gospel does not allow all music any more than it allows all behavior. Text aside, some music is faith-affirming; other music is faith-denying. How can we tell the difference?

Music and worldview

All music exudes a worldview delineated by the notes, rhythms, harmonies, colors, and style used in a composition. To the extent church music utilizes biblical principles placed in creation by God (such as a balanced unity and variety, economy, delayed gratification, subtlety, organic connectedness, discipline, modesty, creativity, and integrity), church music supports a theistic worldview. To the extent that the church utilizes a music or musical style based upon disunity (chaos, wastefulness, immediate gratification, obviousness, organic disconnectedness, rebellion, immodesty, banality, and cliche) in its composition, church music rejects theism and affirms, albeit unintentionally, something other than the full gospel.

Four cultural influences that dilute and alter church music’s theistic witness are hedonism, immediate gratification, egocentrism, and value relativism.


Musical styles crafted to entertain (the purpose of all popular music) will entertain regardless of text. Putting religious words to pop music does not change the end result. Nor does the musical result of a Christian composer’s efforts differ from a secular composer’s if both are written in pop style. Lyrics are important, but they do not change the musical end-amusement.

One way to combat a hedonistic worldview in worship is to use a music which is more disciplined (discipled, if you will), more austere, and more restrained than a congregation is used to. A brief teaching on music as gospel witness or entertainment versus edification in worship may be appropriate. We are in no way suggesting that joyless worship is the aim. Far from it. Our joy comes because of Jesus, not because of musically induced frivolity.

Immediate gratification

Any worldview trait of immediate gratification robs God’s children of Christian maturity. Concerned with the now, some opt for Bonhoeffer’s "cheap grace" rather than the costly grace of Scripture. Such a focus on immediacy fosters impatience, which affects all of life and living. God’s way is to receive fully, yet know that we see through a glass darkly.

Pop music of all stripes is based on the principle of immediate gratification. That principle more than any other single thing drives all popular music composers, religious or secular, to write as they do. The object is to please instantly and as easily as possible. Stylistically, popular music must disregard the integrity that music of substance requires. Such composition cannot in its own language support the integrity we find in God’s Word.

On the other hand, music which utilizes the compositional principle of delayed gratification not only enhances musical value, such music becomes a musical analogy of the gospel. It is the travail, the subtle excursions into the unknown, and the faith-like demands placed on the listener which make this music useful in church. The trials and hardships of life, like the internal workings of great music, make the ultimate goal all the sweeter. Church music offering delayed gratification helps Christians become mature.


The archetypal sin of humans is the elevation of the self. It may seem obvious that Christian worship ought not to be self-centered. Yet if worship is structured first around what pleases people, their desires are in that central position which belongs alone to God. When we choose music to please ourselves, music chokes worship. The idolization of the self becomes a real danger.

It is better to choose worship music that has the depth to transcend the temporal, music whose end is not carnal pleasure. Music that compositionally embraces internal goodness and rightness is music which not only can act as a vehicle of worship but which can become, itself, our musical worship.

Value relativism

Nowhere is value relativism seen at work more readily than in the moral realm. The fact that God’s Word condemns certain immoral practices is irrelevant for value relativists. They believe there is no universal standard by which to judge behavior. Standards are relative to each person’s individual desire and do not exist in any conventional sense.

Church musicians practice relativism when they hold that all music is of equal value, "John likes Knapp, Harry likes DC Talk, and Bob likes Bach. So what!"–If no one style, composer, or piece can be intrinsically bet

ter than another, we have made standards relative to what individual subjectivity desires. Musical absolutes, necessary for meaningful standards, do not exist for the value relativist.

Such relativistic thinking in music is dangerous, first, because it is not true; second, because music has the power to influence similar behavior in other areas of life. Musical relativism encourages moral, ethical, and social relativism. The fashionable relativistic principle, "There is no disputing taste," has no more validity for music than it does for morality.

Choose church music on the basis of intrinsic worth and let our people know that fact. After all, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the greatest activity of the Christian church, its worship, ought to contain the greatest music (objectively speaking) God’s people have to offer.

Musical discipleship

It is true that cultural customs and forms vary from one society to another. Yet within any given society there are cultural forms that help build Christian character and others that weaken it.

People desperately need teaching, anointed and empowered by the Spirit, that not all Music and styles of music are suitable for the Christian. Biblical discipline which extends to music will shore up our witness to a world we are in but not of.

Achieving good ends through just any means is never justified. Moses found that out when he disobeyed God in his method of providing water for the Children of Israel. For us results proceed from methods principled by Scripture, and musical methods are not left out. Musical discipline is part of Christian discipleship.

For further information, see the author’s Discipling Music Ministry: Twenty-first Century Directions (Hendrickson); Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint (Hendrickson); "Singing in the Spirit: The Music of Pentecostals" (The Hymn–Journal of the Hymn Society of America, January 1987, Vol. 38, No. 1, page 25); "Pastor, the Choir IS Your Partner" (Advance, September 1984, Vol. 20, No. 9, page 4); "Hymns Revisited I—IV" (Motif, November 1983, February, May, August, Gospel Publishing House).