In recent decades ambient sounds have become omnipresent in church gatherings. Meetings start with a synth swell and every song after that is connected to the next with musical glue. Synth pads play softly behind prayer, Scripture readings, song intros, communion, and in some cases, the preaching. If you don’t have someone who can produce the necessary sounds, no worries. “Worship pads” in every key are available for purchase to smooth out the transitions.
Which raises the question: what’s going on?
Music and God’s Presence
We often see a connection between music and the Holy Spirit’s activity in Scripture. Long before he was king, a young David comforted Saul as he played his lyre (1 Sam. 16:23). Elisha was unable to prophesy until a musician was brought into the room and started playing (2 Kings 3:14-16). The prophets of the Old Testament were regularly accompanied by musical instruments (1 Sam. 10:5; 1 Chron. 25:1). The walls of Jericho fell flat at the sound of trumpets and shouting (Josh. 6:20). In the New Testament, we’re told that being filled with or by the Holy Spirit results in singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:18-21).
That partly helps explain why people often sense God’s presence in a greater way in the midst of congregational singing. The sound of Spirit-enabled believers, lifting up their voices to proclaim the greatness of God and the glory of Jesus Christ makes us more aware of God’s goodness, majesty, and nearness.
But while music and the Holy Spirit’s presence can be related, they’re not the same thing. That’s why David’s lyre comforted Saul at one point and on another occasion led him to try to pin David to the wall with his spear (1 Sam. 18:10-11).
Useful vs. Necessary
Music is a means. God is the source. God often uses physical means to do his work. But when we start to view a means of grace as a “need” for worship it can subtly take on the characteristics of a mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). We think certain musical sounds enable us to experience God’s presence. Like the time a leader told me the synth melody I was playing “had healing in it.” Not sure how he reached that conclusion.
Wayne Grudem says one of the Holy Spirit’s “primary purposes in the new covenant age is to manifest the presence of God, to give indications that make the presence of God known.” (Systematic Theology, pg. 641). God might use music as a setting to manifest his presence, but music isn’t required. There is a difference between music being something God uses and something he needs. More often, the Spirit reveals God’s presence through preaching and various spiritual gifts, not simply playing music (1 Cor. 2:3-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-7).
What music does do is affect us emotionally. It can soften our hearts to listen or inspire a sense of expectancy. It can make transitions seem less choppy. It can cover up extraneous noises and set a reverent tone, as organ preludes have been doing for years. But that doesn’t mean God is making us aware of his presence, or worse, that we’re being “led into God’s presence.” In his insightful book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Harold Best warns,
“Christian musicians must be particularly cautious. They can create the impression that God is more present when music is being made than when it is not; that worship is more possible with music than without it; and that God might possibly depend on its presence before appearing.” (p. 153)
Everyone knows a synthesizer is not the Holy Spirit. But judging from worship albums, YouTube videos, and comments I’ve heard people make, that point might need to be clarified.
So here are three ways a synthesizer (or piano, B3 organ, electric guitar, cymbal swell, etc.) can be distinguished from the Holy Spirit.
A synthesizer points to emotion. The Holy Spirit points to Christ.
Music is an emotional language. It moves us, with or without words. Music can communicate joy, sadness, awe, celebration, or peace. But the emotions it communicates are “truth-less.” We don’t know their source or their object. Music by itself can’t tell us that God is slow to anger or that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree (Ps. 145:8; 1 Pet. 2:24). The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, was sent to magnify Christ (John 16:14), not just affect our emotions. He does that through illuminating God’s Word to our hearts, distributing spiritual gifts, and opening our eyes to see the glory of Christ (1 Cor. 2:10-13; 1 Cor. 12:4-11; 2 Cor. 3:17-18). A synthesizer can create an atmosphere of peace. The Holy Spirit actually gives peace as he assures us of our forgiveness in Christ, God’s sovereignty in our lives, and his Fatherly care for us.
An ever-present synthesizer can subtly communicate God only works with a musical background. The Holy Spirit gets things done with words alone, or even in silence.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing music between songs or when someone’s speaking, and there can be good reasons for doing so. But repetition teaches. If people typically hear a steady stream of atmospheric pads during your church’s corporate worship, they could assume the Holy Spirit is “less present” when the keyboardist stops playing. They might struggle to engage with God in a more traditional church service, where the songs are “interrupted” by prayer, Scripture reading, confessions, and creeds. Some might even think the Holy Spirit isn’t as active in those churches, or that those people just don’t “get” worship. If you always play music between songs and under speaking, try mixing it up. Occasionally start your meeting with a Scriptural call to worship rather than ambient sounds. End a song and pray or read a Scripture with no background music. People should know that while music can support what’s being read, God’s Word can stand on its own. Likewise, communion is just as meaningful, if not more so, without a synthesizer in the background.
A synthesizer can connect parts of a meeting. The Holy Spirit connects us to God and to each other.
One of the common reasons for using synth pads is to improve the flow. i.e., smooth out transitions from one song to another. That can be a good thing. But a Sunday meeting isn’t a seamless performance or production. And we aren’t trying to create a musical mood or atmosphere in which the Holy Spirit feels “more comfortable.” As we meet, God is building us into Christ and into each other (Eph. 4:15-16). He is making us into a temple in which his Spirit dwells (Eph. 2:19-22). And he uses all kinds of means to do that – the preaching of God’s Word, singing, the Lord’s supper, greeting, and a variety of spiritual gifts. Music is not what unifies us, the means by which we approach God, nor the means by which God approaches us. All that has been accomplished in Jesus, our perfect Savior and our all-sufficient mediator.
We can thank God for gift of music and the variety of musical means he’s given us to encourage faith-filled, passionate worship in song. Let’s make the most of them. But let’s also make sure our people don’t assign to music a power it was never meant to have.
(Image courtesy of shutterstock.com)