What Style of Music Is Acceptable?

Several people in our church have labeled the modern praise and worship songs as “ungodly.” They believe that the style of music is completely inappropriate for church. How do I handle these comments?

To date, I have been unable to find any indication from Scripture that God has a preference for a particular musical style. The fact is that music is simply a cultural vehicle and we should use it within the cultural setting where we find ourselves.

Years ago I heard Bill Gaither speaking. He made a statement that really had an impact on me. Unfortunately, I did not copy it verbatim, but the gist of what he said is this: “The gospel has been the same since the beginning, but how it is packaged, the way it is presented, is always changing depending on the culture and society.” He went on to say that he sometimes has difficulty relating to the type of music his son plays in church. It’s a bit too aggressive for Bill. However, he admitted that he could not deny the fact that his son is reaching people that he, Bill, will never be able to reach. I thought that for someone of the stature of Bill Gaither to make such an admission was pretty strong.

We need to begin to admit that even though we may prefer some styles of music over others, the others are not necessarily wrong. Music is simply a cultural vehicle.

Quite some time ago, a man who was a real mentor to me, Dr. Judson Cornwall, was teaching at a worship conference. During one of his messages he addressed this concept of music and culture. Dr. Cornwall shared that he had on more than one occasion been to tribal regions in Africa to minister. For the music portions of their worship services they have what he refers to as “steel bands,” utilizing any large metal object they can find to beat on to produce rhythm and sound. Dr. Cornwall admitted that he preferred to have two aspirin before worshiping like that, but he could not deny the fact that the people were wholeheartedly giving themselves to God in worship. It was not his preferred style of music, but it was perfectly within the experience and understanding of that culture and society.

It is amazing to me to realize that missionaries in years gone by would take pipe organs into deepest, darkest Africa and compel the natives to worship in a style that was completely foreign to them. Is our western style of music somehow more superior to theirs? Does our way of doing things somehow have more credibility with God because we have more Christians per capita? Obviously not. I am certain that the music David and others composed for the Psalms would sound extremely foreign to our ears.

The truth is that music is a cultural vehicle and must be seen as such. Martin Luther understood this when he adopted current tunes of his day and wrote good, theologically sound words for them. William Booth understood this when he wrote and performed songs (with his Salvation Army brass band) in the popular style of his day.

Did you know that J.S. Bach—arguably the father of Western church music—was almost dismissed from his position in his church because people thought his harmonies and rhythms were too sensual. Bach!

Seeing music as a cultural vehicle does not give us license to use poor quality music. God is deserving of the very best quality we can offer. We must never compromise the highest standards of quality. However, even the highest quality music of J.S. Bach would probably not be readily accepted and wholeheartedly embraced by the people of rural Mongolia.

Several years ago I met a pastor from Trinidad. During our conversation he began talking about the steel drum, an instrument invented in his native land. The steel drum has long been a popular instrument in their musical style. This man went on to tell me how, many years prior, missionaries had come to their country and insisted that the steel drum was demonic. Many people stayed away from the church simply because of this pronouncement. Fortunately, today many churches throughout Trinidad (and many other countries as well) use the steel drum in their worship of God.

Today in our society there are numerous churches that use a style of music—pipe organ, for example, or even 1980s rock—that is very much outside the cultural norm. What often happens in these churches is that visitors cannot relate to the style of music and therefore go elsewhere. The truth of God’s Word may be there, but the music is too far removed from the experience and understanding of the people.

I am not suggesting that we throw out traditional hymns or other older songs. Never! They are a vital part of our Christian heritage. I have seen many churches refuse to use hymns or any song more than 10 years old much to their detriment. However to stay locked into a style of music that is 30 or 100 or 300 years old simply because this is the way we have always done it is just as detrimental.

Again, we must realize that music is a cultural issue. Why do the people in our society generally wear Western styles of clothing? Why do teachers in the church use modern English instead of the vernacular popular in the 1600s? Music, just like language and dress, is a cultural issue.

We must break out of being locked into a certain style of music and be willing to try new ideas and new ways of doing things. Remember, from a Scriptural perspective, there is apparently no particular music style that is inherently ungodly. It is strictly a cultural preference.