An Eight-Part Music Test

I received an interesting book from Moody last week. Entitled Perimeters of Light, the authors take on a daunting task. They seek to define some boundaries for the emerging church. Notice the lower-case “e” in “emerging,” as they are not referring to the Emergent church but to what evangelical churches are becoming in the early 21st Century. The authors, Elmer Towns and Ed Stetzer are both Southern Baptists and both have ministry experience (though at this time Towns is dean of a school of religion and Stetzer directions the North American Mission Board Church Planting Center).

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One chapter in the book is dedicated to examining music. Woven throughout the book is a parable of two missionaries, and these men showcase an extreme example of the difficulty in choosing music that is acceptable for church. The younger of the two wants to bring conservative, Western styles of music to these natives of Papua New Guinea. The second realizes that the music we sing in this part of the world, and that we associate with traditional Christianity, is not the music of Christianity. The authors teach through this parable that God has no musical preferences. However, this does not mean that we are free from using discernment in selecting music. They go on to make some suggestions that will help in selecting good music that is appropriate for worship.

Three months ago I read With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship, written by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether. They also had suggestions for God-honoring music, though in a distinctly Reformed setting. Based on the writings of Terry L. Johnson, the authors suggest four criteria for music appropriate for the worship service. First, is it singable? Second, is it biblically and theologically sound? Third, is it biblically and theologically mature? Fourth, is it emotionally balanced? “It is crucial that the church’s songs be substantial enough to express accurately mature Christian belief as well as the subtlety of Christian experience….Simplistic, sentimental, repetitious songs by their very nature cannot carry the weight of Reformed doctrine and will leave the people of God ill-equipped on occasions of great moment” (page 173).

While Hart and Muether’s suggestions were perhaps more mature, they were less-specific. Towns and Stetzer go into quite a bit of detail as you will soon see. The aforementioned chapter leads to a section that provides seven tests which “focus on biblical principles that we should apply to our music to determine if it is Christian.”

An Eight-Part Test

The Message Test – Does this song express the word of God? Is there a strong message and one that appeals to the new man or to the old man?

The Purpose Test – What is the purpose of this music? Was it written to lift you up or to bring you down? To make you joyful or to make you sad? Different types of song may be appropriate at different times. Obviously the very nature of music dictates that certain patterns in music have the ability to stir emotion independent of the song’s lyrical content.

The Association Test – Does the song unnecessarily identify with things, actions or people that are contrary to Scripture? An otherwise good song may have to be rejected simply because people will make inappropriate associations with it in their minds. The authors provide the example of singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The Rising Sun” which is a song about drinking and gambling. As people were singing worship to the Lord they would also be thinking of the song’s original words, leading their minds to think of things that are inappropriate for a worship setting.

The Memory Test – Does the song bring back things from your past that you have left? The purpose of this test is not to guard against music that people may dislike, but to guard against music that may cause them to sin, heeding the biblical warning about not offending one’s brother. So it has less to do with taste and more to do with leading people to sin.

The Proper Emotions Test – Does the music stir our negative or lustful feelings? Amazingly enough, music does have the power, once again independently of lyric, to stir emotions to sin. If you don’t believe this, watch a room full of young people during a hard, driving rap beat, even before the words begin.

The Understanding Test – Will the listeners have a hard time understanding the message or finding the melody. Different people know and understand different types of music. People will have an easier time worshiping to a type of music that they understand. Those new believers in Papua New Guinea may have a difficult time worshiping to contemporary Christian music as they would simply not understand it. The same principle holds true with the lyrics, though I would suggest to a lesser extent, because unlike music, words are objectively true or false. If a song is strong in its theology, the people should eventually understand it, even if they do not now. With music this is not the case. Those natives will be no farther ahead if they learn to appreciate church-rock (and many would suggest, perhaps correctly, that they would actually be farther behind!).

The Music Test – This test asks if there is really “a song within the song”? Is the song singable? Does it flow from verse to verse? Does it stir the listener’s heart to join in the song? A song with beautiful words may quickly disappear from the hymn books simply because it is not singable.

So there are the seven tests suggested by the authors. Conspicuous by its absence is one I would like to add, which is:

The Excellence Test – Does the song provide God with the best music and lyrics? We should strive for excellence in all we give to God. If our giving to Him should not be half-hearted, how much less our worship?

I wanted to examine a few songs through this seven-part test (which I have expanded to eight parts) using some real-world examples. We’ll put each of three songs through this filter and see what comes out the other side.

“Amazing Grace” Meets “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

When I was younger, I attended a church where the worship leader sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” This was, of course, the version of the song make popular by The Tokens in 1961 and not the original which became popular as early as 1939 and which was subsequently recorded several times by several artists.

  1. The Message Test – Pass. You can’t do much better than “Amazing Grace.”
  2. The Purpose Test – Pass. The music is joyful and fun, much like grace.
  3. The Association Test – Fail. People will associate this song with anything but worship.
  4. The Memory Test – Fail (though this test is somewhat subjective). But memories of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” will likely not be God-honoring
  5. The Proper Emotions Test – Pass. The emotions stirred by the music will be good.
  6. The Understanding Test – Pass. Words are easy to understand and the tune is easy to understand.
  7. The Music Test – Pass. The song is plenty singable.
  8. The Excellence Test – Pass. “Amazing Grace” is an excellent song. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is silly, but is musically sound.

So there we have it. Singing “Amazing Grace” to is a mix of passes and fails. I would suggest that it is inappropriate for use in worship.

Psalm 23 Travels to Geneva

I struggled a little bit to think of a song that seemed to have problems opposite to the last one. A church I used to attend sang The Apostles Creed to a tune that was quite reminiscent of the old “Davy Crockett” tune, but that didn’t quite do it. But I think I found one. Psalm 23 in the Genevan Psalter is a wonderful lyric set to an awful tune.

  1. The Message Test – Pass. The words are drawn almost directly from Scripture.
  2. The Purpose Test – Pass. The song was written to honor God.
  3. The Association Test – Pass. I don’t people will associate the music to much of anything.
  4. The Memory Test – Pass. See above.
  5. The Proper Emotions Test – Fail. Psalm 23 is a beautiful and joyous Psalm, yet this tune is in minor chords.
  6. The Understanding Test – Fail. People have likely never sung Genevan tunes, and especially the more difficult ones.
  7. The Music Test – Fail. It is difficult to sing this music (which has not been popular for at least half a millennium).
  8. The Excellence Test – Fail. The lyric passes, the music fails.

In this case we have quite a mixed result. The words are consistently strong, but the music is irrelevant and very difficult to sing. And it is such a shame that one of the greatest Psalms is presented in a format that is nearly impossible to enjoy. No wonder the people in these churches do not sing it very often. I still remember the first time I sang this Psalm set to a different tune (one of the two that goes with the lyric “The Lord’s my shepherd / I’ll not want / He makes me down to lie / In pastures green / He leadeth me / The quiet waters by”). I was suddenly amazed at the beauty of the twenty-third Psalm.

“Gonna Be” Rewritten

Allow me to present a third example. In this case we’ll look at a situation I heard of recently where “Gonna Be” by The Proclaimers (“I would walk 500 miles / And I would walk 500 more / Just to be the man who walks 1000 miles / And falls down at your door”) was rewritten and sung in the worship service. There were minor lyrical changes (ie “door” was changed to “throne”), the “Da da la da” during the chorus was changed to “You are my Lord,” etc. And of course the verses about drunkeness (“When I get drunk / Yeah I know I’m gonna be / I’m gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you”) and “havering” were removed.

  1. The Message Test – Fail. There were parts that expressed theology, but in the end it’s a love song converted to a God song.
  2. The Purpose Test – Fail. The song was written, at least partially, to laugh at and celebrate drunkeness.
  3. The Association Test – Fail. The song will certainly not be associated with God.
  4. The Memory Test – Fail. I doubt many people have God-honoring memories associated with this song.
  5. The Proper Emotions Test – Pass. It’s a fun, upbeat song that could be appropriate to joyful lyrics.
  6. The Understanding Test – Pass. It’s generally easy to understand.
  7. The Music Test – Pass. The lyrics and tune are quite easy to sing.
  8. The Excellence Test – Fail. The music is fun and good, but a quick re-write of lyrics does not generally produce excellence.

This example speaks to something that is increasingly popular in contemporary churches, which is re-writing popular songs to make them “church-worthy.” I would suggest, as in the above example, that this usually fails, either because of association or because the end result is just a bad song.

I would be interested in your thoughts on this eight-part test. And furthermore, if you have some songs you would like to run through the filter, feel free to do so and post the results in the forum.