Towards an Adventist Philosophy of Music

Much of today’s Christian music is to worship what Once Saved Always Saved (OSAS) is to theology.It’s an attempt to take hold of the assurance of God’s acceptance without a solid Biblical basis for such assurance.

Over the years I’ve met many godly OSAS Christians. I have no doubt whatsoever that such people will be in heaven. OSAS theology acknowledges that we are saved by grace through faith and that we must accept Christ as a personal Saviour. It guides a person to the new birth from where the Holy Spirit can take over in spite of bad theology. If my child had to be raised by foster parents, I would much rather these parents were OSAS Christians than Catholic or any non-Christian religion or philosophy.

None the less, OSAS theology still has its dangers. It effectively turns off a part of our psyche that was intended by God to protect us from temptation:

‘Let him that thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall’ 1Cor. 10:12

Some might be familiar with a disease called Congenital Analgesia where someone normal in every other respect lacks the ability to feel pain. This condition is considered very dangerous because such a person can suffer serious damage and not know it. Similarly, OSAS theology allows a person whom the Holy Spirit is attempting to convict of sin to say, well, even if God does want me to change some aspect of my life, I will not be lost if I don’t. They can thus continue to ignore or discount important, potentially-spiritual-life-threatening warning signs.

For the less sophisticated, Pentecostalism provides a similarly-false sense of security, although the grounds are now experiential rather than theological. The ecstatic, seemingly-supernatural manifestations, are often perceived as a divine endorsement. ‘Sure the Scriptures are convicting me of sin, but the manifestations of the Spirit are still with me and therefore, I must still be right with God.’ Although the mechanism for security is different, the end result is the same: when there is a problem, the individual is prevented from recognizing the seriousness of the Holy Spirit’s warnings.

Pentecostalism itself however, has not been very successful crossing the boundaries into mainstream Protestantism. To the average Christian, Pentecostalism remains ‘kinda weird’ belonging to the fringes. What did cross the boundaries into the mainstream has been the charismatic worship style of the Pentecostals. Today, this seems to be the status quo among Protestants, more so the younger the congregation. And, a glossolalia-less Pentecostalism still carries with it much of the same dangers.

Worship today has become an emotionally-induced spiritual high giving participants a false impression of God’s approval. While God seeks to speak to individuals through the ministry of the Word, the rest of the worship service often speaks even louder. Conviction is dampened by the sense of already obtained divine favor.

Adventists should make every effort to resist Pentecostalization. We should guard our music and worship process in general not because it offends God but because it distracts and confuses the participants. The worship part of our services, like John the Baptist, should decrease so that the Scriptures might increase. If the Holy Spirit has something to say to the individual, He should not be hindered by this person having already ‘so connected with God’ through the music that they can no longer hear His rebuke. Anything potentially gained by switching to a contemporary style of worship is just not worth all that will be lost.

Music as outreach

Some people argue that our worship music should be more contemporary not because of personal taste but in order to be more appealing to visitors. Unchurched people are accustomed to modern music and they feel more comfortable visiting churches where the music reflects their listening preferences.

Certain evangelical groups have applied this principle and have developed very successful ministries. In fact, not just the music, but the entire worship service was adapted to cater to the needs of a secular crowd. The music was contemporary, the services were entertainment-based and the messages were short on doctrine and Christian distinctives and heavy on feel-good and self-help concepts. Basically, the church experience was brought to a level where the transition between secular life and church life would be as painless as possible.

But there are several things to understand about this model of ministry:

1) It is typically used by non-denominational churches or by churches that have a congregational form of church government. Because the ministers are not paid a salary by a denomination they have to fill up the pews in order to pay church expenses and support themselves. The larger the congregation, the more successful they are as well so it pays to do whatever it takes to bring people in.

2) Because the members are not willing or not capable of reaching out to the community while the ministers are either also unwilling or too busy to meet the people where they are, it makes more sense to put on a show and invite the community to come to them. Through concerts, skits, various programs and more, the church itself becomes the initial point of contact between the unchurched community and the congregation.

3) Theologically, this type of churches tend to have a once-saved-always-saved view of the gospel. So if they could squeeze in a little bit of gospel presentation amidst the music, the drama and the self-help preaching, they have done their job. Helping people grow in their Christian experience is nice but not essential so it is far more important to keep things simple so that as many visitors can come through as possible and get at least some exposure to the gospel invitation.

As Adventists however, we don’t subscribe to the Once Saved Always Saved view of the gospel. We believe that discipleship and nurturing are essential to the spiritual health of a congregation and the worship service is a significant fraction of the time that is available for this. We can’t adapt our services entirely to the needs of unchurched visitors without this becoming detrimental to the spiritual health of our own congregations.

Moreover, because congregational/nondenominational type churches are relatively independent, it makes sense to grow the congregation as large as possible. The minister cannot be in several places at once so he must bring everyone he can to his location. The Adventist church on the other hand has a global perspective. It is more conducive to our mission to have many smaller churches spread everywhere rather than a few large ones in select locations. To have a large congregation you need celebrity-like preachers that can hold the attention of thousands. To have many smaller churches you need a model of ministry that is easily replicable and can be learned and applied by average people.

Finally, when it comes to the Adventist church, the idea of adjusting our worship services to make the transition painless for the unchurched falls flat from the very start. Having to attend our services on Saturday instead of Sunday already goes against what everyone else is doing and is itself a major transition. And, that is only the beginning because even a superficial look at Adventism will reveal that it entails major shifts in doctrinal perspective and lifestyle. So in essence, it is next to impossible to create a seamless transition into Adventism for the unchurched, no matter what our worship services are like.

But, this is actually not such a bad thing because it forces us to follow the New Testament model of outreach where we focus on reaching people where they are instead of trying to convince them to come to us. This requires stepping out of our comfort zones and requires the cooperation of members and ministers, but it gives us access to far more people (no matter how successful a seeker-sensitive megachurch is, there are always people that just don’t come). And, because we reach people where they are instead of waiting for them to come to us, when they do come to church, they are usually further along the ‘buying funnel’. They come to church looking for substance not entertainment.

Now this is not to be taken to mean that we are justified in continuing our boring worship services where people sing as if carrying a heavy load up a steep mountain. But it does mean that we don’t have the same pressures to impress the unchurched as other denominations so when working through our music issues the priority should be placed on finding a middle ground where the majority of us could worship together comfortably.

A Solution

Many people consider music and worship styles one of the biggest obstacles preventing Creedal Adventists from joining forces and working together. In reality, the solution is simple:

Imagine a spectrum of music styles going from the mildest to the most rhythmic labeled 1 to 100. And let’s say that people who have conservative music tastes can worship comfortably with music ranging anywhere from 1 to 50 on this spectrum, while those with more liberal tastes prefer worship music that ranges from 25 to 75.

In that case, there should be some range on this spectrum that everyone is comfortable with—say 25-50. So let’s try to keep most of our worship music within that range. Let’s agree to stay away from music that is far in extreme of that medium range, and let’s also agree to put up with minor deviations from that range for the sake of our brethren. The conservative can wait prayerfully for that troublesome song to finish instead of storming out, while the liberal might just put up with that really boring song for a few seconds longer.

Surely there is some happy medium where most of us would be comfortable worshiping corporately. But if not, we could always just scrap music from our worship services altogether. I doubt anyone would want, on that Day, to explain to Jesus that the reason we prolonged this planet’s misery for decades was because we could not stand each other’s music.

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