Rock in Church
(What is wrong with using rock style music to convey a Christian message?)

QUESTION: A conversation started with me lamenting the awful rock music used in church. I insist it does not invite the Holy Spirit, and I feel it hinders Him from coming. My friend tries to justify the music by saying the words seem biblical. (I feel even the words are not all biblical.)

So he says Luther's hymns were put to bar tunes. I wanted proof they weren't, and found your writing. He conceded I was right about Luther, but is wondering about Fanny Crosby and William Booth?

ANSWER: You refer to my article on Barroom Tunes (q.v.). I looked it over again, and I stand by my basic contention that if any of our familiar hymns did use tunes previously set to secular words sung in bars, it is very rare for this to be so. Most tunes were either written for a particular hymn, or borrowed from another hymn.

Then, of course, there are barroom tunes, and there are barroom tunes. In other words, they’re not all equal. If you listen to the secular music likely sung in taverns centuries ago, much of it consists of sentimental ballads. Nothing like the raucous, sensual, driving beat, and deafening noise of some modern rock.

Also, it’s important to recognize that music is a language too. It carries a message of its own. If what the music is saying doesn’t match up with what the words are saying, the result is confusing, to say the least, and it weakens the message of the text.

Rock music’s common message is two-fold: rage and rebellion on the one hand, and unbridled sensuality and sex on the other. This is made clear by such things as the volume and the beat, the words of the songs, and the dress and actions of those on stage. It is also admitted by the rockers themselves. How does that fit with the words of our hymns, or words with any kind of Christian message?

The actual performance of rock has another aim. It is aiming to give listeners a spin-tingling, adrenalin-pumping experience. But that should not be our goal with the sacred songs we sing. We are dealing with eternal truth in the presence of God. We will either be expressing praise and prayer to the Lord, or sharing truths and personal witness with one another (Col. 3:16; Ps. 28:7). That is what should thrill us!

Rock seeks to deliver a sensual and self-centred experience, driven by the music. And the key word there is experience. Carnal sensations are awakened that may well get in the way of fellowship with the Lord. Our joy and excitement should be found in Him, and in reflecting on truths expressed that come from His holy Word.

As to Fanny Crosby, she was an amazingly gifted person. In her early years, she composed and played classical music, and wrote secular songs. But, in her forties and onward, she dedicated herself wholly to writing the words of hymns and gospel songs.

Though she could write music herself, she had a number of musical collaborators supplying the tunes for many of her hymns--men such as William Bradbury, John Sweney, Ira Sankey, George Stebbins, and William H. Doane. These were each godly servants of the Lord.

I haven’t studied all of the 8,500 or so sacred songs Fanny wrote, but the ones found in many hymn books today do not use “barroom tunes.” One exception: Fanny wrote some lovely Christian lyrics ("How sweet the hour of praise and prayer...") to the tune for Auld Lang Syne that is often sung to welcome in the new year--perhaps in bars!

The Salvation Army’s founder, William Booth, is another story. Working among the slums of London, he looked for a means to communicate Christian truth in a way people would recognize and remember. Yes, he did use secular tunes for some songs.

None of the tunes that I know of were as vulgar as modern secular rock, but I still think he crossed the line at times. One song he produced was, “We’ve Got Salvation.” Fine, so far. But it was set to the tune of, “Roll out the barrel, and we’ll have a barrel of fun”!

If the secular association of a song is current and common, this kind of thing becomes dangerous. That is, in the song mentioned, if people hearing that tune will immediately think of consuming a barrel of booze, it certainly muddies the message!

On the other hand, if the secular tune is centuries old, and is a good one musically, and if it has lost its connection in people’s minds with the secular text (as I illustrate in the article you mention), then it’s possible it can be turned to a sacred purpose.

One more example. In 1616, poet and playwright Ben Jonson wrote a love song for a woman named Celia. In 1790, composer John Callcott set the words to a beautiful tune. First, there is nothing immoral in the text of Jonson, and it was written over 400 years ago, so few even know the words today.

This separation, and the exquisite beauty of Callcott's tune, it seems to me, could make it available for use with a hymn. It has been used for two that I know of: I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say (by Horatius Bonar, and How Blest a Home (by Janetta Trench).

As to the words of the songs we sing or share in church, we should be concerned to make the message biblical, clear, and enriching. Too many modern lyrics I’ve seen are shallow, vague, and sometimes downright contrary to God’s truth.

Now, admittedly, that’s not exclusive to modern songs. A song isn’t good simply because it’s old, or bad because its new. But on the whole, what’s found in our hymn books has an ocean's devotional and doctrinal depth, while with contemporary songs written today we're sometimes dealing with the depth of a puddle.

Finally, I’m not sure about your statement: “I insist [this carnal music] does not invite the Holy Spirit, and I feel it hinders Him from coming.”

The Spirit of God is omnipresent, He is fully everywhere at once. He doesn't need to "come" into a church. The real issue is, are we truly open to His ministry.

We can “grieve” the Spirit (Eph. 4:30), or “quench” the Spirit (I Thess. 5:19). In simplified terms, we grieve Him when we do what He doesn’t want us to do; we quench Him when we don’t do what He does want us to do. To my mind, both of those can be involved when we attempt to convey a Christian message using carnal music.