Pipe Organs, Steel Drums and Aspirin

Featuring Tom Kraeuter Posted on February 1, 2010

Sing to the LORD a new song... (Psalm 96:1a).

Discussion of musical styles in the Church can be a very volatile issue. All of us have our own ideas about what are acceptable styles of music. This has been true in the church for centuries. Did you know that J.S. Bach was once almost dismissed from his position in the church because people thought his harmonies and rhythms were too sensual? Bach!

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? Does our way of doing things somehow have more credibility with God because we have more Christians per capita? Obviously not. 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.

Some time 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 always been the same since the beginning, but how it is packaged, the way that 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. 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. We must 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.

Several years ago I encountered Dr. Judson Cornwall 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,” any large metal object they can find to beat on to produce 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.

This concept 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 high quality music of J.S. Bach would probably not be readily accepted and wholeheartedly embraced by the people of rural Mongolia.
Quite some time 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 many churches that use a style of music very removed from that to which most people are accustomed. Often what happens in these churches is that visitors cannot even slightly relate to the style of music and therefore go elsewhere. The truth of the Word of God 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. Never! They are a vital part of our Christian heritage. I have seen many churches refuse to use hymns and it has been very much to their detriment. However, have you ever noticed how many times the Bible tells us to sing a new song to the Lord?
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 1600’s? 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, no particular musical style or certain instrumentation is more appropriate with which to worship God. Even if you are already heavily involved in contemporary style music for your church, try something a little different. “Sing to the LORD a new song...” (Psalm 96:1a).