IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 46, November 12 to November 18, 2001


A Manifesto On A Reformed Worship Music Aesthetic For the 21st Century

by Randy Oliver


Reformed Christians have strong opinions about worship. Reformed Christians also have strongly divided opinions about worship. A major impetus of the Reformation was the desire to return to a biblically regulated pattern of worship. However, there has not always been a consensus as to what such a biblically regulated pattern would look like — and sound like.

Music, for the most part, has always been a central component to the worship of the people of God. However, many in the Reformed community have held deep-seated suspicions about the "power" of music. It was thought that the more one's worship delights human nature, the more it is to be suspected by believers. The Reformer Zwingli (although an accomplished musician) banned music of all types from the worship service, substituting antiphonal congregational readings. Calvin allowed only singing of the Psalter, without instrumentation, in unison (although allowing for the use of harmony and instrumental accompaniment in the home). Even Luther was suspicious of the "sensual" sound of the church organ. Over the centuries, Christians have continually battled over such issues as the use of uninspired (non-Biblical) texts, instruments, choirs, soloists, and musical styles.

The years since the Reformation have not brought the Reformed community to a consensus on the place of music in its worship. In fact it seems that the lines of battle are even more sharply drawn. We affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith as it says, "But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture." However, many in the Reformed community are appalled that their brothers and sisters are using music that, in their opinion, reflects a tendency toward "will-worship" rather than a biblically based use of music in worship.

This manifesto is an attempt to develop an approach to the use of music in Reformed worship. I contend that many of our contemporary battles over worship music are stylistic, rather than biblical or theological, at root.


In contemporary secular society, music primarily serves the purpose of entertainment and enrichment. This is a legitimate use of music. However, music in worship serves the greater purpose of enhancing the worship of God. Scripture is replete with poetic and musical forms that strike the hearer with a vividness that prose communication does not possess. Music affects the emotional as well as the cognitive faculties of mankind, driving to the heart, and the memory, the word of God. Through music, the works of God are extolled. Through music the people of God are instructed in his ways. Through music, praise of God is rendered. Through music, the prayers of God's people are offered to him. Through music, the sins of God's people are confessed to him. Through music, the blessing of divine forgiveness through Christ Jesus is celebrated. Music is not only an element of worship, but is also a means by which we may carry out every aspect of worship.

Though divinely motivated and sanctioned, worship music is also a uniquely human activity. Although it first emerges among the sons of Cain, it soon comes into the service of God's people. In Scripture, we see the people of God singing in response to and in sync with the redemption unfolding before them. They realized that is was on the sung praises of his people that God was to be enthroned (Psalm 22:3). For them, song is a function of redemption anticipated and accomplished.

The melding of text, melody, harmony, and rhythm allows us to exercise the creative gifts given us by our Covenant Lord, returning the fruit of those gifts as an offering of praise to him. Through music the people of God seek to give him the glory that is due him.

Where have the battle lines been drawn with regard to worship music?


Traditional worship music has grown out of the Reformation and its concerns with the worship of the Roman church. Plainness was emphasized. The order of worship is not as fixed as the liturgical style, nor as free as the contemporary style. At first, music in Reformed worship was proscribed to the Psalter, without accompaniment. Eventually, the use of non-inspired hymnody and musical accompaniment was deemed acceptable by most (but not all) Reformed churches. Complexity of melodic and harmonic elements is de-emphasized with a corresponding emphasis on richness of lyrical content. The lyrics are often didactic in direction, although the praise of the transcendent God is also lyrically prominent. Congregation, rather than choral, singing is emphasized.

Many who advocate traditional worship music consider this style to be most faithful to their Reformed heritage. However, that which is "historically faithful" to its advocates is deemed merely "hoary" by those who do not prefer this approach to music. Traditional hymns tend to be lyrically dense. While this lyrical content is edifying to those accustomed to it, it is daunting to those unfamiliar with its complex structure and syntax. To those raised on the sounds of pop, rap, and rock, traditional worship music seems "old-timey," bereft of the exuberance they believe should characterize the worship of God.


Liturgical worship is characterized by a fixed order, a weekly celebration of the Eucharist, a sermon or homily that tends to be shorter than in traditional Reformed worship, written prayers, and use of the lectionary. Congregational responses are often sung. The music is often out of the western classical tradition, hearkening back to the complexity of music in the Roman church. In some cases, liturgical music can be progressive, even cutting-edge. Often, because of the difficulty of the music, the choirs are used, giving voice to the praise of the congregation. Meditation, rather than participation, is what the leadership is hoping to inspire.

It is this "inaccessibility" which causes many to eschew this type of musical expression in worship. Those of a more Puritan bent see the emphasis on choral music (and corresponding de-emphasis on congregational singing) as a Roman intrusion into Reformed worship. The emphasis on "classical" music structures (both historical and contemporary) is intimidating both to advocates of traditional worship music and contemporary worship music, both of which tend toward much simpler structures.


In reaction to music practices that seemed alien to modern culture, contemporary worship music emphasizes vernacular expression of praise in music. Intelligibility and accessibility is stressed. The music is characterized by the use of modern instrumentation (guitars, drums, electronic keyboards, etc.) and musical settings that mimic those of popular music. Lyrics tend to be simple, even when derived directly from Scripture. Often, a number of these songs are sung back-to-back.

However, what is by others considered vibrant contemporary worship music is perceived as vapid by many others. They resent the perceived lack of lyrical, melodic, and harmonic sophistication. They prefer the sound of the organ to the twang of the guitar, the tweet of the synthesizer, and the thump and crash of the drum set.


I contend that much of the battle between the various factions of the Reformed community over music is focused on stylistic preferences that, in the heat of dispute, become almost "canonized" in the minds and hearts of the disputants. The ways in which we worship too often become themselves "objects of worship." However, the Scripture admonishes us that love "does not seek its own." (1 Corinthians 13:5b). I believe that there is room for a diversity of musical expression in Reformed worship. Such diversity reflects the diverse origins of the people of God, who have been called out of every people, tongue, and kindred. We should not confuse the unity to which we have been called with uniformity. Just as there are differences in spoken languages, there are differences in musical languages. These differences are to be embraced rather than spurned. It is through the embracing of these differences that each in the body learns to submit to the other, to serve one another. We must remember that every person and culture, apart from God's grace, is depraved and defected by the fall. Conversely, every person and culture is capable, given the touch of God's special grace, of being a vessel and expression of his redemptive power. Young and old, rich and poor, Asian, African, European — all who experience the salvific touch of God are enabled to sing a "new song" in praise to him. The "people of God" is a membership that transcends any particular cultural matrix.

Whatever the musical style, the lyrics of worship music are to be both scriptural and understandable to the congregation. As the Psalter runs the gamut from the simple to the profound, so the "new songs" of God's people should reflect that variety. All of us may not express the praise of God in the same way. All of us may not apprehend the truth of God in the same way. All of us may not proclaim the gospel of God in the same way. Rather than demanding that our brothers and sister sing their song as we sing our song, let us strive to learn to sing each other's song, for in our striving and our singing all of us will come to maturity and unity in the faith (Ephesians 4:13). There is value in being stretched and challenged by another musical heritage.

The Reformed community also has within it different "musical" languages as well as "lyrical" languages. Because we emphasize our heritage, and the continuing validity of the insights and practices of our predecessors, we cannot reject a particular musical setting merely because it is not of our time and culture. The Reformed tradition has inherited a rich collection of psalms and hymns. This inheritance should not be abandoned merely for the sake of contemporainity. If as Reformed people we stand high, it is because we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone this way before us. In the legitimate pursuit of vernacular musical expression, let us not forsake the depth and richness of musical expressions of our past. It is from them that we learn how God is to be worshipped rightly.

On the other hand, we must also recognize the need to help people to worship in the musical language that is familiar to them. Music is a part of culture, and as God designed culture to grow, to develop, to change, so music will likewise grow, develop, and change.

Musical settings should enhance and support, not detract from, the message of the lyrics. However, it should be recognized that what is "inappropriate" for one person, another may deem culturally "appropriate".

A truly Reformed worship aesthetic would allow for a variety of musical expression. The driving force behind such an aesthetic would not be stylistic, but faithfulness to Scripture, and to the God of Scripture. Such an aesthetic will recognize that, just as there are those within the body specially called and gifted to proclaim God's word, that God also calls singers and musicians to specially minister to him and his people through song. Yet these "called ones" must realize that their song is an aid to, not a replacement of, the congregation's song. The congregational singing will reflect the diversity of that particular body of believers. Historicity and contemporainity will be held in balance. The great songs of our past will be appreciatively sung, reminding us that those who have gone before us are yet part of our community, have yet something to teach us. But also, new songs of praise will also be lifted, giving voice to the contemporary experiences of the congregation, enriching the musical heritage of generations yet to come.


As Reformed people, we affirm that Scripture, and only Scripture, is to regulate how we are to worship God. Too often, however, we have raised personal preference and cultural proclivity to the authoritative level of Scripture. I believe that a 21st century Reformed worship aesthetic would fight against this tendency, allowing our worship to be Biblically faithful, while at the same time culturally authentic.

As the people of God gather to worship, their Redeemer takes up a sacramental presence in their midst. He takes the head of the great chorus, chanting God's victory over sin and death. As the salvation he brings transcends all ethnic, cultural, generational, and temporal boundaries, so his new song transcends boundaries of stylistic differences. We, his people, who sing that new song with him and to him should also seek to grow beyond our battles over style. As Reformed people, we know that Lordship of Christ is central to all existence. In the light of his sovereign glory, our petty musical differences fade to nothingness. In the light of his holy love, our love for each other motivates us to submit one to the other, to sing the song of our sister and brother, realizing that although the lyrics and the music may sound different, their song is our song.