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Fall 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 2 · pp. 25–30 

Worship Music: Varied Styles, A Common Goal

Christine Longhurst

Worship music is unique in its ability to aid believers in their worship of God. It can help them express their emotions, teach them about God, unite them as one body in song, prepare them for worship, and act as a vehicle both for the Word of God and for their response. Varied styles of worship music in evangelical churches may lead one to conclude that there is no one correct style. Just as worship is shaped to reflect the varied needs and traditions of worshippers, so too is worship music. The appropriateness of worship music can only really be judged by its ability to aid worship, because worship music is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.

Successful worship depends on the creative pull between two distinct and venerable traditions.

Two very different worship music styles existed side by side in the Old Testament: The one, amateur, spontaneous and ecstatic; the other professional, orderly and formal. Though different, each had as its goal the worship of God.


“Elisha said, ‘Bring me a minstrel.’ And it came about, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him. And he said, ‘Thus says the Lord. . . .’ ” (2 Kings 3:1516a, NASB) {26}

A close connection exists here between music and prophecy. The exact nature of the relationship is not clear; it appears as though prophets used music to bring on a state of ecstasy during which they prophesied. The prophet Samuel anointed Saul and said,

“. . . you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them. . . .” (1 Sam. 10:5-6).

In other cases, the prophecy itself came in a musical medium. “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard. . . .” (Isa. 5:1a).

The close relationship between music and prophecy continued throughout the Old Testament and even into the New Testament. The Song of Zechariah begins: “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people . . .’ ” (Luke 1:67-68).

Inspired song is not limited to prophets, however. Scripture is full of examples of the inspired singing of God’s people. These songs, traditionally known as canticles (from the Latin canticulum, “little song”), are invariably inspired by the direct intervention of God in the life of the singer. After the people of Israel narrowly escaped the Egyptian army by passing through the Red Sea, Moses and the people sang

“I will sing to the Lord for he is highly exalted.

The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea . . .” (Exod. 15:1).

Moreover, Miriam, the prophetess, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her with tambourines and dancing as she sang the song’s refrain. The song of Hannah was inspired by God’s answer to her fervent requests for a child: “My heart rejoices in the Lord, in the Lord my horn is lifted high . . .” (1 Sam. 2:1). King David, Israel’s “singer of songs” (2 Sam. 23:1) was inspired to sing after the Lord “delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul . . .”: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer, my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge . . .” (2 Sam. 22:2-3a). Hezekiah, the King of Judah, sang after God delivered him from life-threatening illness (Isa. 38:9ff). Deborah and Barak sang after God gave them victory over the Philistine army (Judg. 5).

These outbursts of song continue in the New Testament. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a beautiful parallel to the earlier song of Hannah: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . .” (Luke 1:46-55). And Simeon, after waiting so long to see the Messiah, praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation . . ” {27} (Luke 2:28-30). These songs are unique acts of worship, prompted by the activity of God. They are spontaneous outbursts of praise to God: passionate, immediate and energetic. They are personal testimonies which recount the faithfulness of God in the lives of individuals and which point the listener to the continuing work of God. No importance is placed on the skill of the singer or on the style of the singing because the music is not the focus. Music simply serves as a vehicle for the recounting of God’s deeds.


Apart from the tradition of spontaneous and ecstatic song, one can trace the development of another and quite separate worship music tradition in the Old Testament. The tradition begins with God’s instructions to Moses to separate the tribe of Levi for work in the tabernacle. The Levites were to be dedicated to the Lord, and responsible for all duties related to worship in the tabernacle:

“. . . the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister and to pronounce blessings in his name, as they still do today” (Deut. 10:8).

In return, the Levites were to be supported by tithes from the people of Israel (see Num. 18). During the reign of King David there emerged the formal organization of worship music:

“David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brothers as singers to sing joyful songs, accompanied by musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals” (1 Chron. 15:16).

So the Levites appointed some of their number to be gatekeepers, others to sound bronze cymbals, others to play lyres and harps. “Kenaniah the head Levite was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it” (1 Chron. 15:22). Still others of the Levite clan were to “blow trumpets before the ark of God” (1 Chron. 15:24).

By the reign of King Solomon, the organization of musical duties was firmly established. When the ark of the covenant was first brought into the new Temple, the formalities were considerable:

All the Levites who were musicians—Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives—stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.” Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God (2 Chron. 5:12-14). {28}

Temple worship music appears to have been highly organized and carefully orchestrated. From the Talmud one learns that Levitical singers were expected to undergo five years of training before being allowed to serve in the Temple choir. The result was the gradual development of a separate class of musicians, all of them trained and skilled in music for the Lord” (1 Chron. 25:7). Musicians were full-time paid professionals. The extent of congregational participation in the music-making (beyond responses such as “Hallelujah! Amen! His love endures forever!”) is unknown.

It is important to note that these two worship music traditions—the one ecstatic, prophetic, individual, the other formal, organized, professional—run parallel with each other. One does not supersede the other as time passes. Each has its own validity, and each points to unique truths about authentic musical worship. One can, however, readily identify areas of tension between the two styles of worship music.


Amateur or Professional? The ecstatic tradition authenticates individual praise and testimony, regardless of musical ability. It is a reminder that sacred song is not just the domain of church musicians, but that it rightfully belongs to all people. Praising God through music is a natural human response, not something that needs to be taught. The ecstatic tradition encourages each one to rediscover music as a form of communication with God and testimony to others. Our culture has become highly gift-specific; the ecstatic tradition encourages each worshiper to recapture musical expression as a means to authentic worship.

The Levitical tradition, on the other hand, legitimates musical excellence and reminds believers that the worship of God demands the best. It recognizes and affirms giftedness and skill and visibly supports those who dedicate themselves to the development of their talents. This tradition encourages all to strive for excellence. It requires that room be made for the gifted in the congregation to present their very best offerings without fear that they will be judged as prideful, exclusive or elitist.

Spontaneity or order? The ecstatic tradition points to worship which is highly creative and spontaneous. Ignited by the activity of God, this worship arises out of specific situations and is freely shaped by individual expression. Corporate temple worship is necessarily more tightly controlled. There is a specific ordering of events, a coordination of large musical resources, and, quite possibly, even a consideration of time constraints. {29}

The tension between spontaneity and order is one believers continue to live with today. All worship experiences find their place along this continuum. Successful, ongoing worship depends in part on the creative pull from both these extremes. Order without the possibility of spontaneity can become dull and predictable. Spontaneity with no sense of order is chaos.

Individual or Corporate? These two musical traditions meet the needs of very different worship experiences. The ecstatic tradition is primarily an individual experience; the Levitical tradition is corporate. Both worship experiences are valid; indeed, both are vital to a healthy, growing relationship with God.

Individual worship allows for great freedom of musical expression. Each can come before God with unique statements of praise and thanksgiving, anguish or anger. One can use one’s own words and draw on one’s own experiences. Worshipers are free to create music and text as they go.

Corporate worship necessarily means less individual choice in musical style or text selection. Yet, in making music together, worshipers present a visible faith witness to each other, to their children, and to nonbelievers among them. They are also given the opportunity to interact with musical and textual material they might not otherwise have encountered. Corporate music-making is one of the best symbols of unity as a body of believers.


It appears, at first, that the two worship traditions have little in common with each other. Closer inspection, however, reveals some important similarities.

Music is Integral to Worship. Music-making is integral to both the ecstatic and Levitical traditions. Music-making appears as a natural expression of worship, not as something which has been invented or contrived. Everyone has access to the gift of music, whether by making it themselves or by being inspired by the musical offerings of others.

The contributions music makes to these two traditions are varied. It is a means by which worshipers are able to express emotion; it is a vehicle for statements of objective truth about God; it adds beauty, form and creativity to worship; and it appears to be an avenue through which worshipers connect with the Spirit of God.

The centrality of music in these worship traditions can encourage us to re-evaluate the place of music in our own worship. Are we encouraging ourselves to sing and make music as a personal expression of worship? Are {30} we helping our children discover and explore the world of musical expression? Are we supporting and encouraging those who have been given special gifts in music? Are we consciously creating a worship environment where all feel qualified to participate, regardless of ability or training?

Music and Prophecy. We noted how prophets in the ecstatic tradition used music to connect with the Spirit of God and to express God’s word to others. The Levitical tradition continued this unique use of music as well:

"David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals . . . All these men were under the supervision of their fathers for the music of the temple of the Lord . . .” (1 Chron. 25:1,6)

The connection between prophecy and music is intriguing, and it encourages us to look again at the way in which we view music in worship. Do we limit our music to expressions of worship to God, or do we also listen for God’s word to us? Do we seek out musical and textual expressions which expand our understanding and experience of God? Do we choose and use worship music in ways which encourage meaningful interaction with text?

Evangelical churches have traditionally placed primary emphasis on hearing the word of God through spoken mediums Scripture readings and sermons. The ecstatic and Levitical traditions encourage us to expand our understanding of worship music to see that it also has potential to speak the word of God.

Music Is Functional. Music-making in the ecstatic and Levitical traditions share one final feature: The central focus is on the worship of God. All aspects of music-making—composition, preparation, performance—exist to serve this central focus. The end goal is not the making of sublime music, nor is it the attainment of an emotional or spiritual “high.” The end goal is worship which glorifies God. Concern over musical style or selection pales in comparison with this important goal.

Believers worship in order to praise God and to hear and respond to God’s word. Music has a place in worship only to the extent that it helps accomplish these important goals.


* All scripture translations are taken from the New International Version (NIV), unless otherwise specified.

Christine Longhurst is Adjunct Professor of Church Music at Concord College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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