By Mike Augsburger and Michael Riley
[Editor’s note: At the 2015 Midwest Congress of Baptist Fundamentalists, Michael Riley and Mike Augsburger, pastors of Regular Baptist churches, took part in a frank panel discussion on the proper use of music in corporate worship. Both men defended divergent views on what kind of music is appropriate for churches to use: Riley defended traditional music, while Augsburger defended contemporary. Although the “worship wars” have been long, sometimes bitter, and too often shallow and unthoughtful, I found the cases presented by these two pastors to be some of the very best I had ever heard for their respective viewpoints. So the Baptist Bulletin invited them to put those arguments into writing and debate the issue in the pages of this publication. What follows is their joint introduction, acknowledging methodological, theological, and philosophical points of commonality, after which are their individual articles arguing for contemporary and traditional music in worship.]
What is the “right” music for worship? What constitutes “wrong” music for worship? These questions, and the ensuing debates, have driven a polarizing wedge between otherwise like-minded churches. There are reasons for this. Music is unavoidable for Christians: we are commanded to sing, which moves music from the optional category to the required category. Also, music becomes ours in a way that little else does. Many of us associate certain songs with defining moments of our Christian walk. Other songs unfailingly grip our souls, pointing us Christ-ward. How can we then but take it personally when someone claims that music we cherish is an inadequate expression of true worship?
For these reasons, debates about music too often turn ugly—talking past one another and attributing ill motives to those who disagree. We, the authors, are two pastors who love Christ, His church, and corporate worship. In the next two articles you will read two opposing views of church music. However, before those opposing views, we thought it would be helpful to demarcate our points of agreement that supply the basis upon which we both build our differing philosophies of music.
Foundational Points of Agreement
We affirm that the music we use complements the teaching ministry of the church. We have been given a message to proclaim. Our commission demands that we teach people to observe all that Jesus commanded. Therefore, a critical function of church music is to add dimension and texture to the propositional teaching ministry of the church.
We affirm that God intended church music as a means for His people to worship Him. Using music with the goal of attracting unbelievers is inappropriate and unbiblical. While unbelievers are always welcome in our services (1 Cor. 14:16, 23), they are observing our worship; they are not the audience of our worship.
We affirm that the music we use in worship expresses and shapes our love for God. Biblical Christianity is never merely about right thinking and right living; it is also about right feeling. Our Lord teaches us that the greatest commandment is that we love God (Matt. 22:37–38). Poetry and melody accomplish what mere recitation of sound doctrine does not: they engage the affections. The music we use then teaches us how we ought to feel about the truths that we confess.
We affirm that modern (contemporary) church music is not necessarily indicative of a seeker-driven church. This is a frequent generalization from those of a traditional music position. It is common to find Bible-believing, believer-centered churches that use modern music for the sake of edifying believers.
We affirm that traditional church music is not necessarily indicative of a conservative church. This is true in two settings. First are revivalistic churches that think they employ conservative music, but in actuality they do not. Second are blatantly liberal, Bible-denying churches that have wonderfully orchestrated, classically driven music ministries.
We affirm that there is no such thing as a style of music that is exclusively “Christian.” Every style of music has been performed and composed by unbelievers. No style is exclusively performed by and composed by believers. Therefore, every church must choose which of the “world’s” music it will use for worship.
This last point is where our disagreement begins. How does one go about choosing music that is not exclusively Christian to use for worship? Whichever way you have chosen, we pray that you will seek to be Biblically wise and Scripturally informed in your choice!
Mike Augsburger (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is pastor of Soteria Church, West Des Moines, Iowa. Michael Riley (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Mich.