A Theology of Music

For the music-makers and leaders of the church
Zach Light-Wells

Music in Creation
In the beginning, when God hovered over the waters of creation, God spoke the universe into order: day by day, night by night, in perfect sequence (Genesis 1). Intentional, rhythmic, and divinely improvised, God’s cadence of creation—God’s own song of life—stirred the cosmos into existence. From the depths of the earth to the furthest frontiers of the universe, God continues to create: to sing and paint the world into being. Created in the image of our own Creator, we, too, are called to be agents of invention: to be co-creators in an ever expanding universe. In music-making, we participate in God’s active, vibrant re-creation of the earth. In music-making, we fulfill our divinely inspired vocation: to create in the image of our Creator.

The Twofold Nature of Music-Making
If we recognize music-making as an intrinsic human activity, should music-making be classified solely as an instinctual human obligation? In other words: if music-making is woven into the DNA of humankind, is the aim of music-making simply the fulfillment of human instincts, or are theological purposes for making music within the walls of our sanctuaries?

For Paul, music serves two primary theological functions: to serve Creator God, and to serve neighbor. “Be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians. 5:18-19, CEB). Perhaps intentionally, Paul’s theology of music-making reflects Jesus’ summary of the law found in the gospels. When asked “what is the greatest commandment,” Jesus responded “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength… you will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31, CEB). Just as we seek to serve both God and neighbor in our daily lives, we seek to serve both God and neighbor in our music-making, for even the angels sing “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, KJV).

Too often, the church fails to embrace the twofold nature of its musical calling. Too often, in our desire to glorify God in worship, we forget our obligation to the neighbor; we dismiss the untrained musician in the pursuit of perfection, or we dismiss musical accessibility in favor of grandiose complexity. Likewise, in our attempts to nurture the neighbors in our pews, we often water down our musical offerings; we dismiss new musical ideas in favor of nostalgia, we dismiss musical cultures outside of our social contexts in favor of familiarity, or we dismiss musical and theological depth in favor of music that aligns with consumeristic trends. Too often, in the shadow of declining church membership and the commodification of the worship service, we find ourselves unwilling to stir up the dust—to reach towards the unfamiliar—out of fear of losing another prominent family from our congregations.

So, as leaders of the church, what are we left to do? Only through understanding our obligation to both God and neighbor can we fully live into our ministry. In a healthy worshipping community, one dimension of music-making can not exist without the other: when we recognize and celebrate the goodness of our Creator, we are compelled to love God’s creation.

I. Love the Lord, Your God: Music and God
When scripture references music-making, it is most commonly characterized as an act of praise. For these writers, then, the primary purpose of music-making is to glorify God: “Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp! Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe! Praise God with clanging cymbals; praise God with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:3-6, NRSV) “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.” (Psalm 96:1-2, NRSV) Hymnist Fred Pratt Green often reflects this aim in his own hymns, declaring “when in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried: Alleluia!”

Additionally, scripture often draws connections between thanksgiving and giving praise. In other words, thanksgiving, gladness, and recognition beget praise. In recognizing the abundance of the Creator, creation is compelled to worship God with music: “Let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the Lord…” (Psalm 96:11-13, NIV).

When we offer God our praise, we acknowledge the beautiful complexity of the Creator, while simultaneously acknowledging the beautiful complexity of God’s creation. When we offer praise, we recognize God’s supreme love for all of creation. When we offer praise, we revel in the cosmic mysteries of God. When we celebrate the goodness of God, God hears our songs—our very own musical creations—and, in our joy, God dances with us.

Prayer and Lament
Music-making can also serve as an act of mourning, questioning, or petitioning. In the form of lament, music is a type of contemplative prayer, or a moment in which we can profess our grief, frustration, and confusion: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:1-3) “When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted…
I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked: ‘Will the Lord reject forever? Will God never show favor again? Has God’s unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has God in anger withheld his compassion?’” (Psalm 77:1-2, 6-9)

In our lamentation, our song does not demand a response from God. Instead, songs of lament sing our grief into existence; songs of lament name the truths that we are experiencing; songs of lament acknowledge our desire for God’s empathy, grace, and renewal; songs of lament give flesh and embodiment to our deepest concerns. In our song, God hears the cries of our hearts and, in our sorrow, God weeps with us.

II. Love Your Neighbor: Music and Neighbor
Communal Creating = Community Creating
Musical creativity isn’t merely reserved for songwriters and composers. In many ways, a congregation, a worship band or sanctuary choir constantly explores the act of creating. In each moment of music-making, whether rehearsed or improvised, pre-written or spontaneous, each musician contributes musical ideas specific to that very moment in time. Because each musician adds their own unique, independent musical interpretation to the whole, each moment of group music-making is inherently distinct: never will the same sonic landscape, instruments or voices, or the same exact combination of vibrations and stillness exist again in time. When an entire congregation sings an ancient or pre-existing melody, the assembly invokes the voice of the original songwriter while collectively embodying a new musical idea. Regardless of the musical intent of original composers and songwriters, communal music-making brings new music into being, unique in both time and space.

For this reason, congregational music is distinct among all elements of the Christian liturgy: congregational music invites neighbors into a corporate and immediate act of creation. Communal music-making, then, is exactly that: making, creating, and re-creating. In communal music-making, we mirror God’s song of creation: we perform an act that is intangible, vast, and transcendent. When we make music together, we offer our unique selves to our neighbors. While the result of our music-making may be a single, unified moment of sound, it is only achieved by the acceptance and inclusion of our differing voices and instruments. Just as the only requirement to receive communion is a willing heart, the sole requirement of music-making is the willingness to participate. Therefore, communal music creation is only made possible by the willingness to share the experience with others. Just as persons of all social statuses, gender identities, races, sexualities, skin colors, abilities, ages, and social classes are welcomed to the table, so, too, are all persons, voices, instruments, and abilities welcomed in to the song of the church.

Presbyterians, like Christians of many reformed traditions, recognize sacraments as tangible signs of a grace that has already been given, or as an outward sign of the Spirit. Music, through the parameters of sacrament, seeks to reveal the reality of God’s ever-present, ever-moving Spirit. Just as the breaking of bread revealed an already-present Christ to the travelers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), the sacraments embody the intangible work of the Spirit. Music in the church, then, is not an attempt to instigate the Spirit towards movement, but is a realization and exploration of the present movement of the Spirit.

As baptism represents new life and new creation in Christ, and as the eucharist conveys the incarnation of God’s grace, music—through its creation and performance—intrinsically imitates God’s act of creation and, therefore, reflects the re-creating work of the Spirit. Richard Rohr describes the sacraments in this way: “the truth is, we are already in Christ by the power of the Spirit… All the children of the world are God’s children… We frequently hear it said that baptism makes us children of God. Yes, but no. Baptism, rather, names the childhood that is already there” (Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering, p. 180). Music, too, names that which is already there: having been created in the image of God—the creator—we, too, are called to create. In our music-making, we seek to express the work of the triune God to all who participate and witness our music: the image of a creative God, the re-creating Spirit, and the renewing Christ.

“He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11, NIV). Whether or not it is realized, music leaders serve communities in a pastoral role, navigating and guiding their community through worship. As shepherds, we must recognize our responsibility to comfort and care for our communities. When we are consumed with grief, fear, or uncertainty, God’s spirit of comfort moves through our music-making and renews our faith. “By day the Lord commands his faithful love; by night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42:8, NIV). In the night, God, the great shepherd, recognizes our need for comforting and meets us in our song. So, too, should music leaders recognize the need for musical comfort in our own communities.

For some, musical comfort may come from the incorporation of a popular folk melody, and for others, it may be in reviving a hymn from their childhood. For some, it may be the weekly repetition of specific service music, and for others, it may be the reprisal of certain songs on specific liturgical holidays. In each case, comforting music provides a feeling of security and reassurance, and reminds us of God’s promise to shepherd us—to carry us close to God’s own heart.

While shepherds comfort, they must also stir up or provoke their sheep in order to move them towards a new destination. Out of love and care, shepherds must guide their herd through uncomfortable places, pushing and nudging their flock forward when they are afraid to take another step. In his philosophy of church music, Martin Luther notes that psalms should both “excitare et provocare,” excite and provoke, “…because when we are challenged, soon God is stirred up as well.” Throughout the bible, music is often found on the edge of comfort, particularly in its association with prophesying. “David and the army officers set apart Asaph’s family, Heman and Jeduthun, for service to prophesy accompanied by lyres, harps, and cymbals.” (I Chronicles 25, CEB). Prophesying is edgy, uncomfortable, and vulnerable— demanding boldness and courage from those who make prophetic claims. As an attempt to name truths which have not yet been realized, it is fitting to pair music-making—a corporate act of creation—with the act of prophesying. In both prophesying and music-making, we revel in the mysteries of the unknown, intangible aspects of God.

In our obligation to care for our neighbors, we must not be afraid to venture into the uncomfortable places, or into the deep waters of faith (Luke 5). We must not avoid the unfamiliar, because God’s own self dwells there, for even “if I make my bed in the depths, [God] you are there… if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me” (Psalm 139:8-9, NIV). It is in the depths that God redeems and renews; in the flooding of the earth, there is the promise of the rainbow; in the deepest waters, the fisherman’s largest yield; in the suffering of the crucifixion, the redemption of the earth.


In a society that is seemingly more polarized each day, are we still willing to create something together? Are we willing to share our full selves with our neighbors? Are we willing to share our full selves with God?

In our churches, in our worship services, in the chants of protests, or in our songs around dinner tables, making music together is the act of making something new together, and we know that God is making all things new (Rev. 21:5, NRSV). When we unite in the practice of creating something together, we collectively invite God to create something new within us—to make us new—and to continue reshaping, re-creating, and renewing the world all around us.

So, are we willing to create something new—to give life to a new creation together? In our music-making, may we lift our hearts and voices to all of God’s creation, together.


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© Zach Light-Wells 2020


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