Life + Culture

The Art of Worship

The Art of Worship

Is there a place for choirs, orchestras, violins, and cellos in the church’s worship, or should it all be guitars, keyboards, and the sounds of modern bands?

Twenty-five years ago, when John Piper compared the roles of “folk culture” and “fine culture” in corporate worship, he noted several strengths of folk genres of art (usually manifested in our worship services as music):

  • meeting people where they are,
  • building bridges for a shared experience, and
  • making its vision accessible to the average person.

Folk art “clothes its claims with the skin of ordinary people and affirms implicitly the value of getting through to the mind and heart of the masses.” Today, we keenly value these strengths, and we regularly use folk art (primarily music) to accomplish these goals in our worship.

Comparing Folk and Fine

However, Piper also observed that folk culture (for continuity, the terms “folk” and “fine” will be used here as Piper defined them) has several weaknesses. Most notably, it can tend to “short circuit the mind and move the emotions with shortcuts. Thus folk culture is not generally a preservative force for great biblical doctrine.” Fine culture balances this weakness by “preserving the concepts of truth and excellence and beauty as objective ideals rooted in God as our Absolute.”

In defense of fine art, Piper offers both ministerial implications (“we will lose succeeding generations if we do not have intellectually credible expressions of faith to pass on to them”) and theological implications (“some emotions that belong to God are rare and profound, and may be awakened and carried best through the expressions of fine culture”).

Tim Keller offered a similar perspective, writing that “we should recognize that folk/contemporary music has a frame of reference that is different from Bach. . . . Each one conveys certain theological themes better than the other.”

But working out the ramifications for culture and art in corporate worship is no simple task. A look at church music history confirms that this project has been ongoing for centuries. For many Christians, the term “Christian music” seems to refer exclusively to contemporary Christian music on the radio, with its various genres of folk styles. The potential of fine-art music in the mission of the church is often not considered or utilized as well in our circles.

But if Piper, Keller, and others are correct about the strengths and weaknesses of both fine and folk culture, then fine art may still have an important role to play in the worship of the church.

Overcoming Misperceptions

So where do we go from here?

First, there are misperceptions to overcome. Bringing up fine-art music may elicit groans and stories of past experiences with “opera in church” or “organs that sound like haunted houses.” But as musical styles continue to evolve, there may be more music today than anytime in recent history that successfully blends the strengths of fine culture with a broad appeal for a wide range of people.

Mixing in fine-art music doesn’t have to mean using music that resonates only with a select few “artsy types.” Church music directors can find and use music for congregations, choirs, or instrumentalists, across the fine-folk spectrum, that will best speak to their congregations the varied splendors of God, and that “makes his praise glorious” (Psalm 66:2). And often, a congregation has much more capacity for resonating, and worshiping, with great fine art (both classic and newly written) than we might assume.

Fine Art Still Speaks

Second, we should see the ongoing relevance of fine art. It still communicates profoundly and resonates broadly within our society. Mainstream film scores frequently use choirs to portray a sense of noble character, awe, or wonder. Western weddings commonly use fine art (music, language, architecture, and decoration, for example) to signify the importance of the ceremony. Our nation’s capital city memorializes our history in great works of sculpture and architecture. Our presidential inaugurations include performances of transcendent classical music and poetry readings. These types of occasions consistently include fine art because it helps communicate the weight of the circumstance.

Perhaps, then, the fine arts still communicate in our society more successfully than we have considered. Of course, our corporate worship is different in many ways than a good show or a memorial event — and we can certainly “make his praise glorious” and “play skillfully” in a wide variety of artistic or musical styles (Psalm 33:3; 66:2). But adding appropriate components of radiant beauty and fine art may strengthen our communication of the breadth of God’s character — especially when it comes to communicating his transcendence and splendor in our worship.

Is It Worth the Effort?

In a 2006 interview, Piper suggested that art hasn’t been encouraged in the church because

we are (rightly) a goal-oriented pragmatic people who are bent on being efficient in the spread of the gospel. The production of art is not efficient — so it feels superfluous to us. There seem to be so many more urgent things in life than creating art. We don’t believe that these kinds of [artistic] affectional experiences are essential to a God-exalting life.

Professor Gordon Smith echoes these sentiments and observes that, where pragmatism flourishes in religious culture, the arts — especially the fine arts — tend to be marginalized and replaced with something more “useful.”

But Piper asserts that, while there is a right way to be goal-oriented with the gospel, we nonetheless should resist the kind of pragmatism that hinders beauty and the arts:

Unbelievers should not be the ones who have the greatest art, and we shouldn’t be so pragmatic that we can’t take the time to say beautifully what ought to be said about the gospel. Art was once the prerogative of the church; four hundred years ago, only the church did art, by and large.

Or as Frances Schaeffer famously wrote in Art and the Bible, “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”

Bringing Art to Church: Four Suggestions

So what does all this teaching mean for our weekend worship gatherings?

Certainly, situations and cultural contexts will vary, even within the American church, and even among churches in the same city. The balance of folk and fine art will be implemented differently. Each body will have unique potential for incorporating fine art in the mix of worship based on the gifts within the congregation. As we do so, here are four suggestions to consider:

  1. Churches accustomed to using only a worship band might consider occasionally mixing in timeless traditional hymns with more classical instrumentation.

  2. Some churches might consider pulling together a choir on special occasions, or asking fine-art instrumentalists in their congregation how they might contribute beauty to their services. Churches with choirs that function only as congregational leaders could broaden the scope of their worship expressions by exploring the wide range of choral repertoire available today.

  3. Churches already using some finer art might benefit from singing appropriate classical selections (whether “classics” or newly written pieces) at special times of the church year — perhaps exultant music at Christmas or Easter, or powerfully weighty music for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

  4. Applications can extend beyond the musical arts as well. For example, some churches commission artists in their midst to paint “fine art” murals which artistically (or even abstractly) depict their current sermon series theme, for the congregation to reflect on.

Whatever the situation, each church can benefit from considering its own possibilities as it seeks to use the full array of the arts in God’s world.

Symphony for His Splendor

The importance of this issue is perhaps best stated in Piper’s 2006 interview when he directly ties his own well-known motto to the arts:

God is most glorified in us when we’re most satisfied in him. Or we could say “most moved by him” or “most awestruck by him.” We need to find artistic ways to awaken in people affections that will glorify God. This is a God-centered, God-glorifying issue — whether we awaken all of the human heart that should be God’s.

There is great value in the church proclaiming the radiant majesty of the king of kings, the ruler of all nations, who is to be worshiped in the full display of his splendor and with a symphony befitting his glory. Fine art is there for the task.


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