A Case for Traditional Music, Part 1

Suppose I told you I have a new car for you. And not just any car: it’s the car you’ve always dreamed of owning, in just the color you imagined it would be. Suppose I hand you the keys and tell you to take it for a spin. I think we all would agree that this would give you a kind of joy.

Now, change illustrations. Suppose you are fighting cancer. It’s a particularly aggressive cancer, with a remote chance of your survival. The treatment is brutal, with drugs and radiation that place you on the verge of death. And now the doctor walks into the room with a clipboard to deliver the news: the cancer is gone. It is not hard to imagine that you might cry. But who would doubt that those tears are tears of joy?

In both examples, the response to good news is joy, yet these joys are quite distinguishable from each other. For someone to hear that his cancer is gone and respond as though he just won a new car would indicate he is oblivious to the stakes of his situation. We don’t doubt that he is happy; we might rightly doubt that he fully understands the magnitude of both the threat he faced and the good news he has received.

Emotion in Worship

We are Bible people, and that makes us gospel people. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message we proclaim. We announce that we are guilty people; we are without God and without hope in the world. God is our judge and His verdict must go against us. Our sentence is certain: eternal torment in Hell, a judgment that we richly deserve and cannot righteously protest. “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–8).

Do those verses give you joy? If they do not, there is a major problem. But what sort of joy? Free car joy or no more cancer joy? Which of these joys better accords with the redemption found in the gospel? And how might we best express a joy like that? How might we help others understand—indeed, feel—the depth of joy that our salvation produces?

In my estimation, this question is at the heart of the music debate. The battle is not over whether we ought to have emotion in our worship, nor is it whether we should have a lot of emotion or a little. The question is over the kind of emotion that best accords with the truth that we confess and celebrate. And that question raises further questions: Is it even possible to communicate emotion in music? Can we be mistaken in what we think our music is communicating?

All would agree that in some circumstances we would be wise to preserve older worship customs. Even the most ardent proponent of contemporary worship adjusts the song list when leading singing at a nursing home. But I wish to take on a much greater argumentative burden. I want to argue that traditional worship is not merely a wise option in some situations but is always the best way for us to learn and express the proper emotional responses to Biblical truth.

What Traditional Worship Is

This task demands careful definition of the term “traditional worship.” If we take it to mean “whatever pattern of worship was common when the most senior members of our church were in their heyday,” then “traditional worship” is a meaningless label and is wholly indefensible. I do not intend that my defense of traditional worship be used in 50 years to argue for today’s contemporary worship music. I am not defending the music of a past era merely because it is of that era. Indeed, I would want to distinguish between traditional hymnody and the gospel song. The gospel song era (which extends from the late 1800s to the early 1900s) produced texts that were theologically vacuous, often presenting man’s problem as a kind of inner turmoil resolved by coming home to Jesus. The tunes are characteristically jolly and rollicking, many with a carousel feel. Their pervasive notion that the Christian life is one in which “now I am happy all the day” will serve to prepare us and our children poorly for the difficult days likely to befall the faithful.

True texts

I would offer the following as the characteristics of traditional hymnody. Lyrically, the minimum standard is that the text should be true. That said, proper poetry conveys truth in a manner quite differently from prosaic propositions. Our God is not literally a rock, and only rarely has God literally led me beside still waters or made me lie down in green pastures. We evaluate the truth of poetry differently than we do the truth of a systematic theology book. Poetry is often full of metaphor, and a poem is successful if the metaphor fittingly illuminates its truth. To stir the proper affection, the metaphor should not be a cliché. Certain comparisons (God’s love is a fire) are used so often that they lose their effectiveness, to the point of cheapening the very truths they hope to exhibit. The same is true for metaphors that are too time bound; gospel songs about trains and ships come to mind here.

Singable tunes

Traditional hymns prize congregational “singability.” There are two ways we might evaluate how easy a tune is to sing. The first is familiarity: if someone is accustomed to a certain style of music, that person is more apt to pick up other songs of that same style. But singability has a more objective measure: tunes that do not employ large leaps between notes or irregular rhythms. The gold standard for simplicity is a tune like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” By contrast, the pop music influence on contemporary hymnody often introduces tonal leaps more suitable for soloists than congregations, along with bridges in which tune and rhythm are unpredictably altered. While a congregation might adapt to such conventions, they are objectively more complicated than traditional hymns.

Broad unity

Traditional hymnody values universality and timelessness over particularity and contemporaneousness. Because we are truly part of one holy catholic church, we ought to delight in those expressions that unite us with all the faithful through the centuries and around the world. When we gather for worship, we do not come to emphasize the distinctions inherent in our earthly citizenship but the unity that we have in our heavenly citizenship in Christ. Our services should highlight not what we have in common with our unconverted neigh­bor but what we have in common with the saints around the globe and through all ages.

Complementary texts and tunes

Finally, traditional hymnody strives to complement the truths communicated in the text with fitting music. The ultimate standard for music is not merely the accompanying poetry but the Bible itself. Of course, the Bible does not give us explicit instructions about matters of musical style. But when we read any passage, we must ask not only what the passage is saying but how the passage is saying it. This should influence preaching; for instance, if we accurately communicate what Paul says about justification in Romans but do so in the manner of a stand-up comic, there is good reason to say that we have not been faithful to the text. The Bible’s own artistry and tone in poetry, narrative, and prose must be the standard by which we evaluate the tone of every part of our worship services, including our music.

(Tomorrow: How to Judge Worship Music)

From Baptist Bulletin, May/June 2018, with permission. © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved.

Michael Riley 2018 bio


Michael Riley is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, MI. Before coming to Wakefield, he served at Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minnesota and International Baptist College of Chandler, Arizona. Pastor Riley received his undergraduate education in Bible from Bob Jones University, his Master of Divinity from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA.

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TylerR's picture

Nothing too revolutionary here; good and sensible principles. We'll see how he fleshes it out!

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

....is whether contemporary music can enshrine the same categories of truth, poetry, and music.  I'd like to believe that it can, as fans of Bob Dylan would argue.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

I mentioned this article, and a companion one by Mike Augsburger arguing for contemporary music, in the "BJU + bluegrass = evil" thread a few times. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Ron Bean's picture

We may find ourselves needing to define "traditional".

For me a song must be doctrinally sound and singable by a congregation. That allows me to enjoy worship with psalms and hymns both old and new. 

BTW, it's encouraging to hear these two points emphasized by people like the Gettys. I've been in services with doctrinally sound songs (old and new) that are very difficult for for congregational singing. I've also encountered songs (old and new) that were singable and shallow.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

JNoël's picture

Good read! Looking forward to the series.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Aaron Blumer's picture

I appreciate the foundational thinking here and approaching the topic this way.

Unfortunately it's human nature to embrace premises then weasel out of the conclusions they point to, if we don't like them.

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