Written by Steve Hafler
Having lived in Africa for more than a decade, the term “traditional music” strikes me a bit sideways. Traditional music in sub-Saharan Africa includes indigenous music as well as dance. Singing in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Madagascar, and their border countries is emphasized and is often accompanied by rattles, shakers, the mbira (thumb piano), the xylophone, various drums covered with either parchment or animal skin, and a wide variety of flutes made of bamboo. The African instrumentalist has also made great use of the guitar. This only scratches the surface of the amazing instrumental selection to be found across Africa. Worshipful expression is also seen in hand clapping, animated body gestures which communicate aspects of the song, and foot shuffling. These are as common throughout Africa when the church gathers for worship as piano and organ are for westerners. How do you navigate your way through the deep tradition of indigenous cultures, the wide selection of instruments including an assortment of drums, the associations they have to animistic ceremonies, and the use of clapping and shuffling when singing hymns?
In listening to and answering questions about church music both in Africa and now in America, I am perplexed by the conspicuous absence of any clear argumentation from God’s Word. I will keep saying that “God’s Word is sufficient for contemporary issues” (music, modesty, alcohol, worship, homosexuality, and other issues that demand our attention). God, and what He has revealed in His Word, are enough. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3).
The arguments I often hear are people’s opinions unsubstantiated by the rightly applied truth of God’s Word. We need the Word of God on this matter – God’s Word accurately exegeted and rightly applied. Our children need to see an authority higher than our opinions and preferences or they will make decisions using the same insufficient and errant measure (their opinions and their preferences). There is a better way! The danger we create is the perception that the Scriptures have no answers for contemporary issues. Is this really what we want to communicate to the next generation? Absolutely NOT! What should we proclaim by our life and lifestyle choices? – “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
What we will soon realize is that God wants us to praise, He wants us to sing, and He desires a song from His children. Silence is not an option – so we better grapple with the Scriptures to know what and how to sing.
The texts of Psalm 33:1-5; Ephesians 5:19; and Colossians 3:19 make clear that praise to God is not only acceptable but divinely mandated when believers gather to worship.
Part of authentic worship to God, therefore, involves the corporate singing of praises by His people. We often dichotomize our life. What Christians believe and what they do often stand in sharp contrast. Where there should be consistency, there is conflict and contradiction. When I preach on Sunday it is my hope that the content of the sermon will be applied to the following week’s choices and relationships, but I realize this is not always the case. This glaring inconsistency is also seen in the area of music. It is rare that people apply theological truth to this area of their life. Applications are subjective but we must let Scripture guide our applications as we live in a post post-modern 2012.
So let’s begin with a few presuppositions:
(the outline and content below were taken from Wayne; Grudem, Elliot (2009-03-10). Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know (Kindle Locations 78-79). Zondervan. Kindle Edition).
Authority: The Scripture is authoritative because it is God’s breathed-out words. All the words in the Bible, therefore, are God’s words. "The words in the Bible are God’s words. Therefore, to disbelieve or disobey them is to disbelieve or disobey God himself” (Wayne Grudem). We must not create a false tension between the written Word of God – the Bible and the Word become flesh – Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2:13; John 1:14). It is a gross error to say I follow Jesus but I do not adhere to the Bible. Since the Scriptures are God’s Words they are authoritative for faith and practice (both narrowly and broadly). Whatever the Bible affirms, we accept as true. No human opinion, preference, church creed, or tradition can supersede or equal the Bible (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:20-21).
Necessity: It is necessary to read the Bible or have someone tell us what God’s written Word says if we are going to know God personally, have our sins forgiven in the Person and Work of Christ, and know with certainty why God has created us and what God wants us to do (Rom. 10:14,17; 2 Tim. 3:15). Necessity also means that the Bible is our only source for clear, definite, and accurate statements about God and how to become a Christian, live as a Christian, and grow as a Christian.
Clarity: God has revealed Himself through His Word in such a way that everything necessary is clearly communicated and able to be understood (Ps. 19:7; Ps. 119:130; 1 Cor. 2:14).
Sufficiency: Those alive during the Old Testament period didn’t have access to God’s complete revelation as we do. (the New Testament) They did have access to all of God’s Words intended and sufficient for them during their lives. “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!” (Ps. 119:1). The Bible gives us instructions that equip us for “every good work” that God wants us to do. (2 Tim. 3:16-17) This is what it means to say that Scripture is “sufficient.” It is enough. Therefore, we should be content with what God has given us – it’s enough. God has revealed exactly what He knows is right for us. It is sad to realize that many differences in church history that have divided people and churches are issues that the Bible places very little emphasis on. We must be careful not to impose man-made rules on other Christians. There are issues and situations for which God has not provided the exact direction that we sometimes would prefer, but since Scripture is sufficient, we must be sure we don’t add or subtract based on our predetermined belief system.
An argument often just thrown out is that “traditional” songs are superior to “contemporary” songs. Really? Why? The argument itself is fractured since we first need to define our terms. People mean different things by the words “contemporary” and “traditional.” The very music being argued for by proponents of this group also sprang out of a modern culture. The older hymns we sing were all contemporary at some point. I am not sure the Christians in the 1800′s restricted their hymnology to the 1600′s. Even if there was a small enclave who held on to the “traditional” music of their day that does not by default mean the believers who chose to sing the hymnody we treasure today (modern to them) were wrong for using it for worship (with the organ and piano this may have seemed over the edge).
In a recent video forwarded to me a man said, “and the music at ___________ [Baptist] brought tears to my eyes cause it brought it back to home like we grew up.” I found this disturbing! Sentimentality is not our authority and will prove an untrustworthy benchmark. Watching Rudolph at Christmas causes me to think and feel of home like we grew up. ”Refusal to change” can not become our authority or we might as well become the Amish of fundamentalism (which hyper-fundamentalism is verging towards as it departs from historic fundamentalism). Our children will see it for what it is and depart in search for authentic Christianity. I won’t blame them for “looking” either. We need in place the presuppositions that God’s Word is authoritative, necessary, clear, and sufficient.
Each individual assembly will need to make some very difficult decisions. Many will remain in a vacuum caught in time because that is “safest.” I will argue, however, that incorporating well written, singable, and doctrinally orthodox modern hymns after evaluating them through the grid of Scripture in light of our present culture is not questionable, it’s not unsafe, it’s not even the dreaded “slippery slope.”
It will be helpful to understand that the church I have been given the privilege of pastoring is not trying to be like anyone else’s church or Bible college. We don’t spend a lot of time trying to be “like” or “unlike” this or that church. We still sing Amazing Grace even though the Mormon temple around the corner from our church building sings that hymn. We are an autonomous assembly of believers with God-ordained leadership. We consider it our duty to shepherd in such a way as to avoid being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:1-2) while at the same time encouraging “growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus” (2 Peter 3:18). We are not trying to be like the world and we are trying to be like Christ. Our mission is to love God, love our neighbor as ourself, and take this Gospel to the world. What fuels our pastoral decisions is higher than simply trying to be like or unlike other churches (this guide will ultimately break-down at some point and will prove unreliable). Our benchmark is the authoritative Word of God. My desire is that each generation of Christians know the Word and understand personally how to exegete it for matters of faith and practice regardless of cultural norms or sentimental traditions of the past.