Singing the Lord's song in Babylon

Andy Wilson
Monday, July 2nd 2012
Jul/Aug 2012

At the time of the Babylonian exile, the people of Israel asked, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:4). This question is still relevant for the church today, because we too are "sojourners and exiles" on the earth (1 Pet. 2:11). God clearly wants his pilgrim people to be a community of song (Heb. 13:14’15),

but he has not given us an inspired set of musical tunes. So the question arises: what musical styles should we employ as we sing the Lord's song in spiritual Babylon? Over the past few decades, the determining factor for many churches has been the desire to make Christian worship appear more relevant in the eyes of the broader culture. But should this be the key criterion in how we make decisions about worship music? Should we allow contemporary culture to have the privilege of being the standard of relevance for the church's worship? It is true that some people see traditional expressions of Christian worship as out of touch and outdated. But we need to remember that the various cultures of this world will always find reasons to reject the gospel because of its apparent foolishness and weakness (1 Cor. 1:22’31). Christians should not seek to win converts and keep their children in the faith by making the gospel look "cool."

Christians today have a lot to say about being culturally engaged, and we need to continue to emphasize both mature discernment and inevitable confrontation in this engagement. As Ken Myers writes, "The widespread desire to be’¦'culturally engaged' is often a distraction from the church's mission, not because it takes culture too seriously, but because it has not paid close enough attention to the actual state of our culture….If Christians were really culturally engaged, really serious about recognizing meaning in forms of cultural expression, they would be much more reluctant to embrace certain cultural trends." (1) After all, the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that "'all things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up" (10:23). And a few chapters later he explains, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (13:11). Biblical teaching therefore encourages grown-up thinking about all matters of faith and life, as when Paul concludes, "Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature" (14:20).

As mature Christians and grown-up saints we need to remember at the outset that the church by its very nature is distinct from the world. The Greek word for church is ekklesia, a word whose etymology means "called out of." We still live in the world, but we need to be different from the world, especially in our Sunday worship of the living God. This is the only way we can function as salt and light in the world.

Music as a Common Cultural Product

Music is a product of common culture, the same culture we share with non-Christians, and not something per se that we are called to redeem. David VanDrunen explains the notion of a "common culture" in that "while God, in the progress of redemptive history, would choose out of the world a people of his very own, he has also preserved a common, cultural realm in which those who love him and those who do not must live and work together." (2) The common realm and its activities are not being redeemed but are being preserved as the context in which God is carrying out his work of redemption through the ministry he has instituted in his church.

Christians should care about all matters pertaining to the common realm, as well as participate in the range of activities that occur in this sphere. But in such engagement we are not called to create cultural forms that are distinctly Christian, first because the work of redemption isn't something to be ordinarily found outside the church's ministry of Word and Sacrament, and second because we have no biblical blueprint for redeeming culture or music. We must always regard music as a product of the common culture and acknowledge that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as "Christian music" or "church music."

That being said, we need to be careful lest we slip into the error of aesthetic relativism, which says there are no objective standards by which musical forms can be evaluated. Art is not entirely subjective. It is true that people have disagreements when it comes to evaluating the quality of a work of art. I am sure there are people who think Justin Bieber's music is better than J. S. Bach's. But it is also possible that some people have less well-developed aesthetic tastes.

Such claims are unpopular in our day because our culture tends to define art entirely in terms of self-expression rather than as the development of the order that God has woven into his creation. When art is defined as self-expression, attempts to evaluate the quality of the art are sometimes viewed with suspicion. But Christians should not always go along with this tendency of our age. Before we jettison old worship music in favor of the new, we need to ask whether the new music is qualitatively better than what it is meant to replace, and not just a subjective preference. Contrary to the contemporary conventional wisdom, newer does not always mean better. Further, we also need to remember that not everything that is permissible in some contexts is suitable for corporate worship. You can wear your swimsuit at the beach, but I hope you don't wear it to church. Just as a mother would not try to put her infant to sleep by singing "Rock-a-bye Baby" to the rollicking tune of "Seventy-Six Trombones," we all recognize that musical form contributes significantly to the meaning and appropriateness of a song.

What Does the Bible Say?

The Bible does not tell us what musical forms we should use in our worship, but this does not mean it has nothing to say on the matter. For one thing, Scripture makes it clear that the prevailing mood of our worship should be one of reverence and awe (Heb. 12:28’29). In light of this, our worship music should not be trivial or showy, nor should it foster a sentimental practice of the Christian faith. Instead, it should be capable of carrying the weighty doctrinal content of Scripture, of good aesthetic quality, and easily sung by the average congregation. When it comes to serving these purposes, some musical forms are better than others.

The Bible also tells us that the songs we sing in worship are a means by which God's Word comes to richly indwell us (Col. 3:16). One of the most powerful ways this can happen is when we have a core set of songs that we sing our whole life long. This is one of the benefits of taking a slow approach in adding new songs to the church's worship repertoire. If we are always looking for the next new song, it becomes difficult for our singing to be a means by which the Word richly indwells us.

Closely related to this is the importance of nurturing the church as a community of song. Singing should not primarily be about what the musical professionals do. Instead, individual Christians should be encouraged to incorporate the church's hymns into their times of private and family worship, and the overall musical atmosphere in our worship should not be one of entertainment (a danger for both worship teams and choirs), but one in which the entire congregation is lifting up its voice in song.

Another biblical truth that speaks to this matter is the fact that wisdom is obtained by listening to our elders and conforming our lives to their teachings (Prov. 1:7’9). In our culture, the voice of tradition is largely rejected, and everything is expected to conform to our personal interests and desires. This is especially evident in our approach to music. In the post-1960s era, much of our culture's thinking about music has been influenced by the sensibilities of rock and pop music. These sensibilities include: an attitude that rejects tradition in favor of what is new; an impatient and prideful exaltation of younger over older generations; and an emphasis upon impulse and emotion that has little patience for careful reflection. (3) In a culture that makes an idol of newness and takes its cues from its youth, the church needs to exercise discernment in how it thinks about the music it uses in its worship. If we are going to avoid the tyranny of trendiness, we need to make use of the best music from church history. While there is nothing wrong with adding new songs to the church's repertoire, the impulse in many churches today is one of replacement rather than enhancement. Even if older hymns are still utilized, they are often sung only in the contemporary style. The church can serve its young people better by teaching them to receive the hymnody of previous generations as a rich heritage. Surely this is more consistent with the biblical principle of honoring your father and mother than a mind-set that sets aside old songs as outdated and irrelevant.

On a related note, our thinking about the music we use in worship should be mindful of the fact that the goal of Christian discipleship is Christian maturity (Col. 1:28). The songs we sing in worship should not encourage a perpetual state of adolescence but help move us toward maturity in Christ. How will this happen if the determining factor for our worship music is a desire to appeal to the preferences of the young?


If we are going to faithfully sing the Lord's song in Babylon, we need to understand that the music we employ in our worship will always be a product of Babylon’the culture we have in common with non-Christians. Music is a matter of common grace, a part of the realm being preserved as the theater in which redemption is taking place. For this reason, we should not think of musical styles as something we are called to redeem for Christ. But this does not mean that "anything goes" as far as the kind of music we use in our worship. On the contrary, we need to carefully evaluate musical styles in terms of their aesthetic quality and their appropriateness for use in Christian worship. The church sings the Lord's song in Babylon most faithfully and most fruitfully when her decisions about musical styles are guided by her pilgrim identity rather than by a desire to feel at home in this world.

1 [ Back ] Ken Myers, "Waiting for Epimenides," Touchstone (July/August 2009), 9'11.
2 [ Back ] David VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Action Institute, 2006), 26.
3 [ Back ] See Kenneth A. Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 133'55.
Monday, July 2nd 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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