Last week, the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC) unleashed a maelstrom of confusion and discontent among Christians over the place of Rap in Christian worship. As is always the case in situations like this, there is inevitably more heat than light. Emotions are running high, and unfortunate (and unnecessary) divisions are now forming.
After watching the video of the NCFIC conference, I was, frankly, embarrassed—embarrassed for the panelists and also embarrassed by the panelists. It was not their finest hour. Nevertheless, my aim here is neither to “pile on” criticism nor offer correction. Others have done that much better than I ever could (see Ligon Duncan’s comments here).
My aim is redemption and clarity, a word of edification for rappers and non-rappers alike. However clumsily and (perhaps even sinfully) the comments were made by the NCFIC panelists—one panelist (Geoff Botkin) called Christian Rappers disobedient cowards (and has since had to apologize)—still, there may be a helpful lesson embedded in the NCFIC critique. The lesson I have in mind is the distinction between form and content in worship.
Music itself is devoid of content. Music is, by definition, form. Content must be added to musical forms if we are to have songs which serve to praise God. Those who advocate for a kind of 4/4 Classical form of music—as though God’s metronome cannot accommodate syncopation—miss this basic point that music itself is all form. Why would it be that the music of Beethoven and Bach is allowed in the worship service while that of BB King and Flame is not?
Typically, one might argue that Beethoven is more refined than Flame, but are we sure that is God’s measure? Neither form existed in the wilderness wonderings of ancient Israel. Neither form existed in the early church of the New Testament. Neither form existed in the Protestant Reformation. Both forms have evolved post-Reformation. So, neither is prescribed for Christian worship. Both are forms of music which developed culturally. Lest we become like Islam—sanctifying a particular cultural norm as divine—we ought to re-think offering canonical status to any cultural norms.
Musical forms are always contextual, largely dependent upon the instruments available in a given region. Why sanctify white, American pianos, organs, and guitars? On what basis? Is Beethoven really more holy than BB King? Is Mozart more pristine than Flame? A music leader once shared with me a telling story on this matter. His church was quite traditional—a high culture, hymn singing church. They began the service one morning with a traditional hymn built on the platform of a classical piece of music by Beethoven. Part of the way into this classical hymn, a young man—a visitor that day—went screaming from the service, running down the aisle and out the front doors.
Church members followed up with the man to determine what had happened. He told them that he had been a member of a cult group and was recently saved, miraculously redeemed by the washing of water with the word. He then explained that he had been brainwashed by the cult group. The cult used Beethoven’s music to alter the minds of unsuspecting youth. When this man heard Beethoven’s music being played at church, he freaked—thinking the church was just another brain-washing cult!
The point is that Classical music is no more holy than hip-hop. Both are contextualized vehicles upon which the content of Christian lyrics is free to ride. The aim of Christian musicians should be to utilize any and every form of music to the glory of God. Some songs need to be driving and forceful, while others should be irenic and serene. Different instruments accomplish different things and ought to be employed in diverse ways to glorify God. The content of the Christian message ought to determine the form of music used. If the content of the message is from Hebrews 10:24-25, for example—a message to stir one another up to love and good works—then the form of the music ought to be “stirring,” such as the form used by the group Downhere in their song, “Stir.”
Pianos, keyboards, organs, banjos, and didgeridoos are all—equally—instruments which ought to be used instrumentally as vehicles to carry the content of Christian proclamation and praise. Let us not sanctify any instrument or form over another—such sanctifying leads only to unfounded self-righteousness. And it is ugly. If we were to consider any instruments holy in themselves, then, surely, it would be those instruments found in the Scriptures. Surprisingly, no one is arguing for the holiness of a trumpet or pipes or cymbals, yet these are the instruments actually found in Scripture, along with harps and lyres.
We will build up our people best if we keep them focused on the content of our message rather than on the form of our music. Use whatever gets the point across to the audience assembled. Forget attempting to sanctify the style of your musical preference.