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Fall 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 2 · pp. 141–47 

In a Multitude of Symbols There Is Reconciling Worship

Tony Funk

“If you ever use those drums in this church, we’ll be leaving.” As a pastoral intern helping in music, I wasn’t prepared for this heated response to some new instruments I was planning to use in our Sunday morning worship service. Conflict had already started, and the drum skins were still in the packages.

The arts have an intrinsic ability to loosen our rational senses and allow the symbolic to function. It is at these symbolic (and rational) times when our transcendent God meets us.

Why does worship (specifically singing) so often become a contentious issue with believers? 1 Is worship to be contentious to the believer, or the gospel to the unbeliever? Christian living is to be characterized by charity and self-sacrificing love. It is the gospel that is to be controversial, since it invites unbelievers to examine their lives. To come face-to-face with Christ makes us all ask the questions, Am I willing to die to myself? Am I willing to submit to a higher authority? This is controversial news that outweighs stylistic worship preferences.


In my search to understand why there is disagreement about what constitutes relevant congregational singing for us at the edge of the twenty-first century, the conflict about singing styles continues to come to the fore. My theory is that we have too narrowly conceptualized which artistic {142} expressions are appropriate in worship. We have been hesitant to employ other equally valid artistic and symbolic avenues of experiencing God’s revelation to us. We have embraced primarily one art form: vocal music.

I believe that if we focus on a holistic approach to corporate worship and begin to see the possibilities of expressions that lie beyond singing, we may defuse these tensions. People need to be given the opportunity to see and experience what possibilities the arts hold as avenues to experiencing God, to building us up, and for equipping us to be his light in this world. The liberation of our God-ordained imaginations will reveal other alternatives that lie waiting to enrich our corporate worship experience.

Because my work affords me ample opportunity to travel, I have opportunity on many occasions to talk with people about corporate worship. Frequently I hear confusion, despair, heated personal opinion, and anger when it comes to talking about worship. Most often, the cause of these emotional upheavals is congregational singing styles. Where did this conflict come from, and why?


The answer to the question posed above lies in understanding some historical antecedents. Prior to the 1960s, the Canadian MB church displayed homogeneity in its corporate worship structure. 2 German was the dominant language of worship. The MB Conference experienced regional solidarity and national unity. One could travel from Winnipeg to Yarrow, from Vancouver to Gem and experience the same kind of worship service. Little variety would be exhibited from region to region. 3

At this time, the sermon was clearly the prime reason for gathering. The usual corporate avenue embraced to express one’s love for God and concern for people was that of singing. While this highlights the importance of singing, it also emphasizes two points: first, the pragmatic value placed upon it and, second, the dearth of other congregational corporate worship activities. Singing was clearly secondary to the sermon and it was nearly the sole opportunity available for worshiping as a group.

With the advent of the “free thinking” movement of the 1960s, coupled with the dissolution of the German language (a decision to integrate culturally and to promote evangelism), the homogeneous nature of the Canadian MB Conference began to crumble. Fragmentation now stood where unity once reigned. The homogeneous nature of worship described above declined as individual congregations sought to become culturally relevant to the host culture. Patterns of worship that were seen as culturally irrelevant were dropped in favor of activities that would encourage evangelism. {143} 4


As power groups wax and wane, as generations come and go, change becomes inevitable and new groups take charge. Our history demonstrates that when new groups take charge, we often enter into counterproductive conflict. Unfortunately, reactionary thinking is part of our heritage. The Jacob Epp diaries, translated by Professor Harvey Dyck, describe in detail the conflict which wracked the newly formed MB church in Russia. 5 The problem is as old as it is new. The introduction of contemporary music—singing German chorales in four-part harmony—divided the church for many years. The conservatives wanted to maintain unison singing.

A similar conflict surfaced nearly one hundred years later. The 1940s and 1950s witnessed the emergence of a new progressive group who wanted to sing Gospel songs in English; these were in disagreement with those who wanted to maintain the German language. The radicals who earlier had introduced four-part chorale singing now became the conservatives.

The most recent manifestation of this debate began in the 1960s with the advent of the Christian Contemporary music scene. While the industry would not become a market force until a number of decades had passed, the contemporary chorus was introduced into worship. Twenty years later, the debate (as revealed in my generation) would come to a head. In the 1980s, Mennonite Brethren Herald published letters over the course of two years from disgruntled readers debating the supremacy of hymns over choruses. 6

Exactly with whom are the chorus advocates debating? Those progressive Gospel song advocates from the 1940s and 1950s, now, however, perceived as entrenched conservatives. Since change is inevitable, who will the chorus advocates be pitted against in the coming decades? Perhaps proponents of virtual reality worship singing?

What the above scenario demonstrates is how, when presented with change in the context of congregational singing, the argument can deteriorate into a battle between those who advocate for more rational content and those who desire a more emotionally-directed approach. 7 In such a case the result is often schism and misunderstanding.

There is an old saying, corruptio optima pessima (“The best thing when not used in the right way becomes loathsome”). Both traditional and contemporary avenues of expression, limited by their finite nature, fall into this trap. A generation of hymns sung in a turgid way or a generation of choruses sung without creativity will produce the same effect: dissatisfaction. 8

Perhaps this quarrel about how to worship has a message for us. {144} Could it be that the intensity of the debate reflects how the more intuitive side of ourselves is starving for symbolic input? We have embraced vocal music as the primary symbolic medium in our communication with God. Yet music is only one of many symbolic media and this monolithic embracing of song has caused us to neglect other types which can also lead us into God’s presence.


To hear the gospel is to grapple with paradox, irony, and parable. A study of the Scriptures reveals how God delights in revealing who he is through symbolic gesture, whether written, aural, or visual. The Bible itself is a book of literature: an art form in word symbols. Much of God’s revelation to us comes in the form of poetry.

The church needs to come to terms with diversity, not only in terms of “Jews” and “Gentiles” in the congregation, but with potters, poets, musicians, dramatic artists, dancers, painters, storytellers, and sculptors. If these gifts are given by God they should be used in his service. When we deny a painter or poet a voice in the congregation we promote a kind of exclusivism similar to that which divided the people of Corinth in Paul’s day.

Part of the problem comes from how we are taught to think about high art and low art. For centuries, artists worked alongside carpenters, shoemakers, and farmers. As the centuries progressed, a dichotomy developed between artist and nonartist. Gradually the arts became removed from the local community and became deified or set up on high. Artists became viewed as geniuses. These new high priests were above and beyond the common folk. This led to the distinction between high art and low art, pejorative and schismatic terms that continue to infect and influence the church’s thinking. Lamentably, artists have been excluded from the believing communities which could enable their work to be most meaningful to those communities.

Our rejection of the arts as vehicles to carry the message of redemption is no longer appropriate. It would be helpful for all leaders of worship to come to terms with why music has been so tenaciously promoted while drama, dance, poetry, prose, and visual arts have been held at arm’s length. We need to move beyond the cultural and historical reasons for their neglect. Perhaps in this area, the world has squeezed us into its mold by creating an atmosphere of distrust or disinterest in what the artist has to say.

Even though we are people anticipating the coming of the third millennium, we have prejudices deeply ingrained from millennia ago. This {145} mistrust has some basic sources that can be identified. Greek thought, highly influential to early Christians, promoted a dualism which saw matter as insignificant and evil, while the spiritual was good. This stood in direct contravention with God’s teaching and the fact that his son came to earth in material form. Matter, created by God, was acceptable.

The early Church grappled with these same issues. A manifestation of this can be seen in how they rejected different kinds of music and musicians because of their association with pagan deity worship. Recent converts, previously employed as musicians in the mystery cults, found their abilities unused and unwelcome. References in the Psalms to instruments no longer permitted in the service of God’s praise were now interpreted allegorically. 9

The European Reformation of 1517 heralded a new age in religious thought. Yet the break with Catholicism and all its excesses brought about new excesses in zeal. While Martin Luther valued the arts as vehicles of expression, other reformers like Zwingli sought to have all arts banned because of their superfluous nature. Our Anabaptist ancestors adopted the spartan ways of the latter reformers, and simplicity became the hallmark of their religious expression.

The modern Evangelical movement, like the latter three groups, has largely been suspicious or simply uninterested in embracing the arts in worship. Many of our prejudices against certain art forms have little to do with biblical injunctions but derive from sociological mores which influence our understanding of certain texts.

Yet humans have a God-given, intuitive, aesthetic side that also needs redemption. Evangelicalism is primarily word-centered. Its gospel proclamation is speech-based. And because this movement largely removed itself from its host culture (since saving the spiritual was seen as more important than the affairs of the physical), it has largely been impotent to impact that culture. More often than not, the Evangelical movement finds itself reacting defensively to an intruding, increasingly pagan culture. 10


The arts have an intrinsic ability to loosen our rational senses and allow the symbolic to function. It is at these symbolic (and rational) times when our transcendent God meets us. They speak in abstract and intuitive ways, bringing to the surface images and impressions associated with them from our past experiences. We take those sensations and inklings and reinterpret them anew each time we either hear a particular piece, participate in a drama, or view pictures. The arts are a powerful carrier of faith. {146}

I propose a model of worship which recognizes the power of the arts and embraces holistic expression and interpretation. God has created us as complex beings. We are responsive to a multiplicity of visual and auditory stimuli. Additional sensory involvement allows for participation beyond stylistic music preferences. Drama, poetry, prose, visual, and other symbolic stimuli have the same power.

This model is evangelistic. To evangelize is to make anew, to recreate in the heart of the unbeliever a heart of belief. Artists promote reconciliation (evangelism) when their works bear witness to God’s movement in their lives. Gospel proclamation happens in a variety of contexts. To assume that traditional methods are the most effective is to place limitations upon them. When artists participate and function within a Christian community and create works that bear witness to the saving power of Christ, evangelism of another sort occurs.

This model is theologically sound. God’s nature encompasses many facets. He is truth, he is beauty, he is love, he is holy, he is the antithesis of sin. He is also the prime creator. God’s nature is creative. He fashioned the world, ex nihilo, during a “Trinitarian bash!” After humankind sinned, he came to redeem us as a created being. The whole notion of redemption implies recreation, not only of our souls, but of the entire material world and the cosmos. At the end of time, God will re-create the heavens and the earth.

This model is prophetic. In order for the church to hear the artist, it must once again embrace the arts. Suspicion must cease. It has been said that for centuries the church placed great trust in its poets, painters, bards, and musicians. We need to reclaim that trust for today’s church to impact our generation as never before. We trust doctors to take care of our medical needs and nutritionists to explain bodily health. God has gifted some to be prophets, or forthtellers, to use symbolic communication to enrich all of us in our understanding of who God is and how we are to live out his purpose on earth. 11

And finally, this model will help the church to address contemporary society with greater impact. Society is hungering for a holistic experience that addresses body, mind, and emotions. The message of Christianity will be strengthened, not weakened, when the church embraces drama, visual art, dance, and varieties of song, poetry, and prose. This will say to society around us that Christianity is concerned with redeeming mind, soul, and spirit. These forms of communication will engage our “symbolic inner self” and will empower us to proclaim a holistic message of redemption and reconciliation. This is the work of the Lord. {147}


  1. For the purposes of this article, “worship” will refer to participatory congregational activities.
  2. While these points may be applicable to MB churches in the U.S., the focus of my study was Canadian MB churches.
  3. See Tony Funk, “To Prune and to Cultivate: An Historical Glimpse into the Singing Tradition of the B.C. Mennonite Brethren Conference, 1931-1991” [photocopy] (Langley, BC: Associated Consortium of Theological Schools, 1992).
  4. There was an “English interregnum” in which the old form persisted in the new language, i.e., the blue Mennonite Brethren Hymnal (1940), which was a direct translation of the German Hymnal, fading into the green MB Hymnal (1971).
  5. See Jacob D. Epp, A Mennonite in Russia: The Diaries of Jacob D. Epp, 1851-1880, trans. Harvey L. Dyck (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto, 1991).
  6. A telephone conversation with past Mennonite Brethren Herald editor Herb Kopp revealed that the crux of the debate was not about genre or whether we should sing new music. The issue centered around the quality, durability, and singability of music and text (Herb Kopp, private telephone interview, 19 November 1992).
  7. See Calvin Redekopp, ed., Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Waterloo, ON: University Press of America, 1988).
  8. Each genre needs to be contextualized by each generation in order for it to become part of their ethos. Lack of understanding is at the root of this problem.
  9. See Johannes Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, trans. Boniface Ramsey (Washington, DC: National Association of Pastoral Musicians, 1983).
  10. Churches all over North America are realizing that these dichotomies are no longer appropriate nor biblical. Robert Webber chronicles churches who are reclaiming the arts in worship. See his Signs of Wonder (Nashville, TN: Abbott Martyn, 1992).
  11. Leland Ryken, Triumphs of the Imagination (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979). See also on this topic idem, ed., The Christian Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981); Franky Schaeffer, Addicted to Mediocrity (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1981); and Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for a Fallen World (Toronto, ON: Tuppence, 1980).
Tony Funk teaches at Columbia Bible College in the areas of music, worship, and the arts. In addition to singing in the Vancouver Cantata Singers and directing the West Coast Mennonite Chamber Choir, Tony enjoys gardening with Marlene and playing with their three sons.

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