Why I Love A Cappella Music In Worship12 min read
Aren’t you the people who don’t have music?” Yep, that’s us. Mere Christians. Except we really do have music – and we love music. When it comes to our worship, however, we just don’t use man-made instruments to accompany our music. We simply use the strings (psallo) of the heart: our voices.
People who walk into our church buildings often ask, “Where’s the piano?” If I didn’t know much about the church of Christ, I would ask the same thing. It is, after all, one of the most obvious differences between Christ’s church and other churches.
Can I share with you the reasons why I love the exclusive use of a cappella music in worship? The following reasons aren’t in any particular order, except for the last one (it is by far the most important).
1. It’s simple.
Suddenly, worship becomes much less complicated when you take instruments out of the equation. You don’t have as many wires and electronics to deal with. You don’t need as much real estate on stage. You don’t need a sound technician. You don’t have to find musicians. You don’t have to coordinate as many people to assist with the worship service.
Additionally, you don’t have to worry near as much about the “worship wars” – the almost constant battle between those who want traditional music and those who want more contemporary music. Yes, there will always be people who want to sing newer or older songs, but in my experience the problem is greatly exacerbated when drum sets and guitars are part of the equation.
With a cappella music in worship, there are fewer things that can go wrong. And there are fewer issues by which to be distracted. When it comes to worshiping the Lord, simple is all He wants. A cappella music makes it easier to worship anytime, anywhere. (And if a cappella is the norm, you don’t feel like you’re “missing” something when instruments aren’t around.)
2. I like how the church can spend its money on more important things.Have you seen how much stuff costs these days? A new Baldwin grand piano will run you over $40,000. I hear what you’re saying, “It doesn’t to be a Baldwin.” Okay, but even a new Yamaha grand piano will be in the ballpark of $30,000. That is, of course, if you want to buy “new.” You can pick up used guitars, pianos, organs, drum sets, etc., for a fraction of the price. Maybe someone can even donate an old electric piano that has been collecting dust in their garage. But everyone wants the best – especially if it is supposedly for the Lord – and the best is going to cost some $$$. And if you can afford the best, why not get the best?
Plus, there’s the sound equipment you’ve got to worry about. Mixers, equalizers, microphones, amplifiers, and speakers that will do it all justice. This all costs money, and assets need to be insured. And in today’s turbulent legal situation (with implications of legalized same-sex marriage looming on the horizon) and unsteady economy, having unnecessary assets of sometimes-exorbitant worth can be irresponsible.
Without having to equip a “praise band,” think of the ways the Lord’s money can be stretched. Perhaps your church wouldn’t benefit much from the added savings, but other churches with more elaborate bands could save even more. Which in turn means more money could be allocated to feed the homeless, organize evangelistic efforts, or hire another minister. Use your imagination.
3. It is easier for me to keep the main thing the main thing.
Instrumental music in worship makes it easier to misplace my focus. I think less about the words in the song when sister Jones playing the organ accidentally presses a wrong note. I think less about the words in the song when the professional musician visits our service and amazes us with his talent on the guitar. I think less about the words in the song when I visit a different church and am charmed by how much better their band is than that of my home church.
When I was preaching in Georgia, I remember a nearby Missionary Baptist church that split over an argument between parents over whose child would get the lead role in the worship band. I know of a Methodist church in Lexington, Kentucky that lost over 200 members because the “music director” was fired over his reluctance to incorporate more “contemporary” music.
There is a natural tendency to make worship about the musician and his or her abilities rather than the object of our worship, God Himself. Musicians may humbly say, “I use my talent for God’s glory,” but what about the people in the audience who may be doing more listening than they are participating?
We must remember that those present in worship must participate in worship, not merely spectate. Acceptable worship involves teaching and encouraging one another through our singing (Col. 3:16). God has specifically requested reciprocal, congregational singing (Eph. 5:19). When instrumental music is added to the worship service, however, it tends to lend itself to performance-based worship. A cappella music allows me personally to focus on using the words of the song to edify the people sitting next to me.
4. I like worshiping like the early church.
I don’t believe in denominational Christianity. I simply want pre-denominational New Testament Christianity. I want to be as close as possible in doctrine and practice to the church instituted by Jesus Christ through His apostles in the 1st century. And there is no doubt about it: the early church worshiped with a cappella music. After all, “a cappella” is Italian for, “in the manner of the church.” For hundreds of years, a cappella singing characterized Christian worship.[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]There is no doubt about it: the early church worshiped with a cappella musicTweet
The late James McKinnon, professor of musicology at the State University of New York, wrote, “The antagonism which the Fathers of the early Church displayed toward instruments has two outstanding characteristics: vehemence and uniformity” (69). The Reformed theologian John Girardeau wrote, “Instrumental music had no place in the early Christian churches” (102). Edmond Lorenz, a well-known Adventist in the late 19th century, said regarding the music of the early church, “there was no instrumental accompaniment” (217). Dr. Everett Ferguson, professor at Abilene University, wrote, “The testimony of early church history is clear and strong that early Christians employed vocal music but did not employ instrumental music in their assemblies” (79).
I will mention a sampling of overwhelming evidence from the early Christian witnesses about the exclusive use of a cappella music in the church. Eusebius of Caesarea, a well-known church historian from the 4th century, wrote,
We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living kithara with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. (Ferguson 94)
Nicetas Dardani, an elder in the 3rd century, wrote,
Only the corporal institutions have been rejected, like circumcision, the Sabbath, sacrifices, discrimination in foods, [from the Old Law and have fallen into desuetude]. So, too, the trumpets, harps, cymbals, and timbrels. For the sound of these we now have a better substitute in the music from the mouths of men. (94)
Theodoret of Cyrus, an early theologian from the 4th century, wrote,
It is not simple singing that belongs to the childish state (in reference to the Old Covenant, BG), but singing with lifeless instruments, with dancing, and with clappers. Hence the use of such instruments and the others that belong to the childish state is excluded from the singing in the churches, and simple singing is left. (95)
Don’t you want to identify as closely as possible with the early church? Early Christians are not alone. Renowned men such as John Calvin, Adam Clarke, and Charles Spurgeon were all opposed to instrumental music. Spurgeon, perhaps the most famous of all Baptist preachers, commented on 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I would as soon pray to God with machinery as to sing to God with machinery.”
5. I find it easier to worship God with my mind (and not fall into the trap of empty emotionalism).
Music manipulates the human mind evokes different emotions. Background music in horror films, music played at gyms, and music in romance movies are all very distinctive. When young David played his harp, “Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (1 Sam 16:23, ESV). Modern scientific research proves in varying degrees the power of music upon our subconscious and our emotions.[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]Why not rebel against mainstream religion and truly be fresh? Be different. Pursue 1st century Christianity.Tweet
When I sing about matters such as Christ’s death, His resurrection, or His glory, I want to feel strong emotions – not primarily because of the talented band or compelling orchestra, but because of the potent words of the song. Music that is instrument-centered, instead of linguistically-focused, is a danger to the intelligent worship of God’s people, which must be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
Worship must be edifying and encouraging, but it must also captivate the mind. “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15). While worship should be emotional, it should principally be intellectual (which should then lead to emotional worship). In the words of John Prince, “Anything that has the power to bypass the mind and directly affect the emotions must be handled with the greatest care in the worship of God. Musical instruments, and even unaccompanied tunes, have this power” (153).
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones commented, “We can become drunk with music – there is no question about that. Music can have the effect of creating an emotional state in which the mind is no longer functioning as it should be, and no longer discriminating. I have known people to sing themselves into a state of intoxication without realizing what they were doing” (282).
Please do not misunderstand (as some may eagerly do); I believe singing must reflect the deep convictions and affections of the heart – especially our joy and thankfulness in Christ. “Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before Him with joyful singing” (Psa. 100:2). All I am saying is we don’t need instruments to accomplish this. (And if you need instruments for emotional worship, then you do not adequately appreciate the depth of your salvation.)
6. I don’t like adding to what God specifically commanded.
When it comes to worship, has God through Scripture told us what will please Him? Absolutely. His Spirit-inspired Word says,
Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (Heb. 13:15)
We express our worship through our lips. We do this by praying and singing (1 Cor. 14:15). James writes,
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. (Jas. 5:13)
Elsewhere in the New Testament, we read:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)
18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:18-20)
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25)
Again, has God indicated what is pleasing to Him? He wants us to worship Him with our hearts and with our voices. Additionally, there is an absence of mechanical instruments of music in the New Testament context of Christians assembling to worship. F. LaGard Smith wrote,
In contrast to the many Old Testament passages referring to musical instruments in temple worship, in the New Testament text not one sound of a musical instrument is heard – not a trumpet, not a harp, not the quietest jungle of a tambourine! Singing, yes. Musical instruments, no. Relative to musical instruments, there is only an ominous haunting silence.
When I assemble with Christians and worship God with a cappella music, I find comfort in the fact that I am worshiping God in the manner He specifically wants – no man-made additives. Simple, beautiful, congregational a cappella singing – just as He wants.
The first five reasons I listed are my preferences, and you are allowed to disagree. I genuinely believe a cappella music is most conducive for truly spiritual worship. But there is no getting around the sixth reason: God has specifically asked for a cappella music in our worship to Him.
I just want to stick with the primitive New Testament pattern for worship. Call it “vintage.” Call it “restoration.” Call it “radical.” But in an age where non-conformity is celebrated, why not rebel against mainstream religion and truly be fresh? Be different. Pursue 1st century Christianity.
Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.
Ferguson, Everett, Jack P. Lewis, Earl West. The Instrumental Music Issue. Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1987.
Girardeau, John. Instrumental music in the public worship of the church. Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, Printers, 1888.
Lorenz, Edmund. Church Music: What a Minister Should Know About It. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1923.
Lloyd-Jones, Martin. Preachers & Preaching. Zondervan, 2012.
McKinnon, James. The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant. Brookfield: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1998.
Price, John. Old Light On New Worship. Avinger, Texas: Simpson Publishing Company, 2007
Smith, F. LaGard. The Cultural Church. Nashville: 21st Century Christian, 1992.