Is There a Place for Artistically Inferior Music in the Church?

Ryan Egan —  August 10, 2016 — Leave a comment

Well, to say I’m brushing the dust off of this blog would be an understatement, as I haven’t touched it since 2014, but I think it’s about time to start again as I continue to think through issues and grow as a church musician and worship/music leader.

I’ve been wrestling through the consistent tension of old and new in worship, regarding both the set liturgy of a typical “high church” service and new music within multiple settings of corporate worship gatherings. As is the case these days, I’ve tended to join others and go back quite a ways for teaching and inspiration and resurrecting “new” material, and in so doing discovered a little gem that I think is worthy of discussion.

Thoughts On Music Used In Worship

I was given a copy of “Thoughts on Music Used In Worship,” written by Dr. Eugene L. Brand, who was Associate Professor of Church Music, Liturgics and Systematic Theology at the Evangelical Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbus Ohio. There’s no publication date on this little booklet, but as the price of it was only $0.35, I assume it’s a bit on the older side. Regardless, some of the thoughts he presents in here struck me, and I’d love to take a look at them.

Brand gives a very concise look at worship itself from a Lutheran, liturgical point of view, the role of music itself in worship, the role of the choir, and the role of the organ. While I think he’s spot on on some of these issues, I’m wrestling through some others. Let’s take a look:

The Word is sovereign; the music is servant. But we must hasten to add that in its servitude, the music must retain its natural rights. Even in the liturgy, music remains an art – an art which serves, but nonetheless an art – and that means that its aesthetic nature must not be forgotten. If it is to be a worthy conveyer of the text, liturgical music must also be worthy aesthetically. Artistically inferior music, no matter “how well it is meant” has no place in the worship of the congregation. Artistic integrity should be an important concern of the church. On the other hand, music must not present its artistic worth as the only reason for its use in the service. Within the framework of the liturgy there is no place for art for art’s sake, here it is always art for the sake of the gospel.

To that last statement I give a hearty “Amen!” However, I’m struggling with the concept of “artistically inferior music” having “no place in the worship of the congregation.” This sweeping statement seems to be incredibly subjective. What is the definition of artistically inferior, and on the other hand, superior music? Is this defined based on harmonic complexity, melodic writing, something else? Does it become superior in the way it’s executed?

What Defines Artistically Inferior Or Superior Music?

I find this statement to be problematic. In the country church of 30 people with volunteer musicians, is there going to be a musician proficient enough to execute artistically superior music, if the standard to which it is held is musical complexity? Coming from a long heritage of church musicians including Michael Praetorius to J.S. Bach, it would seem that retaining standards based on composers of those likes would require a consistently high degree of technical competency. In the large church, where proficient musicians abound, is the call for artistically superior music a call to perform instead of lead, whether you’re performing a Bach cantata or a anthemic modern worship song? If we apply this same treatment to visual art, where do we hold our standard? Does electronic media fit into the “artistically inferior” category? For instance, I strongly believe good video editing and production is an art form in and of itself. Many believe it has no place in the context of the worship service and still many might not even call it “art” at all. Brand goes on to write:

In order to fulfill its serving function, the music of the liturgy must possess a style appropriate to that function. Music as such cannot be holy or sacred, it can only be good or bad music. As Archibald Davison quips, “a lily on the cover doesn’t make a piece of music sacred!” At least in non-Roman Christianity there is no recognized sacral style for liturgical music. It is set apart as a category only because of a difference in function. Theoretically all musical styles are usable in the church’s worship. But music which is appropriate to its liturgical task must meet the biblical requirements of being appropriate and edifying. The canon of appropriateness means that here again the Word is normative.

There’s a bit more context to that last statement earlier in the booklet, but I again find his statement of there “can only be good or bad music” to be very subjective. Is music bad simply because it’s simple or common or written in the style and tone of the day? How do we wrestle through the “good” and the “bad” music and it’s being able to “meet the biblical requirements of being appropriate and edifying” as he mentions above in light of the vast amount of church music, both “contemporary” and “traditional” that is available to us today?

Art Has The Role Of Servant

I don’t know the answer to this, and would love some feedback, but there is an issue in which I completely agree with Brand, and would love for us to contemplate. He’s speaking specifically of liturgical music here, which I take to mean the typical music matched with specific, historic liturgical elements in the service, but I think this can be applied to any congregational music as well.

If the Word of God is source and norm of the liturgy, then that Word stands sovereign over all the media used in the celebration of the liturgy. This means that the art-forms used in worship have the role of servant…Whether the music serves the Word by following the structure of the text…or whether it seeks to interpret dramatically, the music of the liturgy must never seek to dominate or free itself from the text.

Too often in modern worship styles we place the art (stage design, lighting, media, music, visual art) as the focal point, perhaps even sometimes to the point of assuming that it reinforces the message rather than distracting from it. Use art to glorify God, for sure, but please heed the call that these forms always “have the role of servant.”

I’d love your thoughts on this. Who decides what is artistically inferior or superior music or art? Who decides what’s good and bad? How do you wrestle with this in your own congregations?


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Ryan Egan

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Ryan is a follower of Christ, husband, father, worship leader, & creative. He is heavily involved in the Association of Free Lutheran Churches and desires to teach others to live a life of worship in everything they do.