*Brief disclaimer: I have focussed on Christian worship music, because it is my own personal experience. I cannot speak for any other faith, but I would always be interested to listen.

When you hear the words ‘Christian worship music,’ what’s the first thing that springs to mind? Maybe a modern Christian song with a repetitive tune and incessant choruses about how ‘Jesus loves us.’ Or a stereotypical village church where the congregation mumbles the hymns, out of time with the organ, and with varying levels of enthusiasm or tunefulness? Maybe you can’t think of anything worse!

Whatever your thoughts, it’s undeniable that music has always been an important part of Christian worship. From Gregorian chant and Bach cantatas to Gospel music, and contemporary Christian hip hop, jazz or rock, there is wealth of music, from all across the world, which is inspired by the Christian faith and written intentionally for liturgical settings. Following on from the tradition of Western art music, twentieth century composers such as Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and James Macmillan have been renowned for their ‘spiritual’ and ‘sacred’ compositions. But what do these terms actually mean? How can music be ‘sacred’? Besides, isn’t the idea of a deity who demands that human beings regularly sing to him quite preposterous really? In Oxford today, with so many chapel choirs and frequent performances of ‘religious music,’ maybe it’s the ideal time and place to refresh how we think about this tradition, and to consider what – if anything – it might tell us about humanity, faith, music, or the divine.

Firstly, what is the point? For Christians, worship is a response to God – to who he is and what he has done. This involves giving praise and thanks, especially for what Christ accomplished for us in his death and resurrection, meaning we can be justified by faith, restored to right relationship with the God who made us, and set free from sin and death, knowing we will be raised with Christ to eternal life. That’s a lot to be thankful for! If you’re in love with someone, you probably can’t stop talking about them and overflow with how wonderful they are; for Christians, it’s a similar story with Jesus (as cliché as that sounds). It’s all about him. We worship because God is good and so worthy of praise, but also because of his love for us and ours for him. In this sense, worship is a huge joy. It gives us a glimpse into the eternal dance of love, joy and worship which each person of the Trinity has been wrapped up in since the beginning.

That doesn’t mean you always have to pretend everything in your life is fine. (I am guilty of this, as well as many other Christians I know.) We are called to do the opposite of this: real worship means honesty and vulnerability. It means admitting we need help and turning back to Christ. Just like in any healthy relationship, it doesn’t help to bury your true feelings. There are many Psalms (songs in the Bible) which communicate a deep sense of pain, hopelessness, and abandonment by God; these are valid feelings to express, even if we know from the Bible that God will never abandon us, so our feelings do not always correspond with truth. In worship, as well as praising and adoring God, we can bring ourselves as we are – with all our anxiety, weakness and fear – to the foot of the cross, and trust in the faithful and boundless love of Christ, even (or especially) when we’re struggling.

So why do we use music? Why sing when we could just say it? I think this has something to do with the way music engages our emotions. There are numerous occasions in the Bible where music breaks forth from the human spirit: King David dances and celebrates as the musicians make a joyful sound and the tabernacles are brought into Jerusalem (1 Chronicles); the song of God’s people after he delivered them from the Egyptians and parted the red sea for them (Exodus 15); the Canticles in Luke’s Gospel; Song of Songs, and the music of Revelations (e.g. chapter 4, verse 8) – this is just to name a few. Music is universal to every culture and, like language, it is a powerful form of expression. People often say that music takesthem somewhere else or speaksto them deeply when words do not suffice. I think we need to be careful not to idolise music itself (and as a music student, I often fall into this trap). Human beings are fallible, and obviously not all kinds of music glorify God or edify us, but I do think that music is a gift from God and a unique medium through which we can respond to him. Singing allows us to express our love to God with our whole being – heart, soul, mind, and body. Combined with words from scripture, music helps biblical truth to be firmly etched onto our hearts and can strengthen our faith, as we are transformed on the inside by the Spirit. Additionally, by singing together, Christians show the unity of the Church, and it leads us out of our individualism, towards the collective, ceaseless worship of the saints. 

If music has a significant place in Christian worship, it’s important that the Church thinks carefully about its musical decisions. Music, in all its richness and variety, can demonstrate something of the beauty of creation, and worship music, as well as being theologically sound and contextually appropriate, should be engaging and meaningful for a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds and different stages of faith. 

So, let’s go back to where we began, with the tone-deaf congregation, or the Christian pop song which is – to be frank – musically uninspiring and tedious in its repetition. Is this suitable worship? I think it comes down to the attitude and spirit in which it is done. Of course, we want to offer back to God the highest standard of music we can (using the gifts he gave us in the first place), so we need musically talented people to lead us in worship, but I don’t think it’s all about ability. In the same way, a religious piece of music which is sung to an extremely high standard aesthetically, but with an arrogant mindset or a heart that is not thinking of God, is probably worshipping something else instead. The most important thing is worshipping God in the Spirit, from the heart, and fully participating, whatever level of musical skill you think you have (or don’t have). St Paul sums this up in his letter to the Colossians (3:16-17): ‘Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’