A Manifesto Against Pre-Recorded Music in Worship

I was recently asked to make a recording of worship music accompaniment to be used in a small, weekly bible study and fellowship group. The group leader felt that it would help to encourage the group to sing because they were too stressed about singing unaccompanied. I politely told the leader that I would not make such a recording and that he should encourage the group to sing without accompaniment for now and to pray for an instrumentalist to join the group eventually. The following is some of my reasons for my response and it could also be applied to why I would discourage the use of “vocal tracks” in worship services.

“Why not use recordings?”

  • Creational Ordinance: Produce not just Consume- God created humans to be producers and not simply consumers. We were given a command at the moment we were first created to “be fruitful and multiply.” Ephesians 2:10 places this concept in the framework of the work of Christ saying that we are God’s workmanship created to do good works. It is this command that compels us to serve people, to learn a trade, to raise a family, to maintain justice and mercy, and to take up instruments or lift up our voices to praise the Lord. In America today, this has been replaced with a consumer culture that is self-serving, entertainment driven, I believe that pre-recorded accompaniment (PRA) is a perversion of the creational ordinance that we have been entrusted with because it takes away the impulse for production and replaces it with passive consumption.
  • Worship by the People-The entire kingdom of God participates together in worship. From the worship of the patriarchs, to the tabernacle and temple worship, to the worship of the New Testament church, and finally the worship we anticipate at the end of time, the Scripture clearly reveals that God has a jealous desire to be praised by all people. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church corrupted the worship of God by placing it more and more into the hands of a few priests and taking it away from the congregation. The Reformation was a time of returning to the Scripture’s view of worship as an act of the whole church. Isaac Watts’ (nice wig!) hymns were written in simple meters and set to familiar tunes for the specific purpose of encouraging all people regardless of there skill level or education to sing. Today, the culture we live in is a culture of passive entertainment. Many churches fall prey to this attitude when the congregation becomes passive in the worship services, observing the action on the stage as if it was another episode of American Idol. I try to continually remind the musicians and singers on the Music Team at New City Fellowship that they are music leaders who are still a part of the assembled body; their hands and voices are joined together with all the saints in praise. I believe that PRA is a step backwards in the Reformation’s goal to see the worship of God placed into the hands (or more appropriately the voices) of all people.

“Ok, so what are we supposed to do with no instruments and such “bad” singing?”
Just Sing!

  • “Easy for you to say Mr. Musician Guy, but what about all of us ‘average Joes’?” Why is it so easy for people to sing “Happy Birthday” for each other, yet singing for the Lord is such a challenge? Singing is a basic skill of human beings on par with speech. While some might think that singing is matter of talent, I believe that it is something for which all humans have the capacity and should practice. Relative pitch, the ability to hear distinct notes and to reproduce them, is a basic skill that is available to anyone from an early age. The argument that PRA would help those with a ‘tin ear’ seems a bit illogical because if they did have a ‘tin ear’ then no accompaniment would help them to sing better. So, sing simple songs like “God Is So Good”, “This Is The Day”, or as was mentioned earlier, the hymns of Isaac Watts that are rich in theology and yet simple to sing.
  • “But, I’m embarrassed to sing and I’m even more embarrassed when that guy over there is singing.” The impulse to compare myself to others is a product of my sinful nature (in Sonship terms, it’s the sign of acting like orphans), and living in such a way that we compare our skills and abilities to others is contrary to the gospel. A child in the presence of their loving father will sing loud and clear because she knows that her singing is not the merit for her father’s love. There might be many different reasons for using PRA, but for sinners saved by grace who have been called sons and daughters of God, fear and embarrassment should never dictate how we worship. So, what is the internal motive for being so afraid of sounding ‘bad’? Who are you comparing your singing to? Is God comparing your singing to that person or group?
  • Or Don’t Sing! While singing is encouraged in small groups (NCF’s “house church”), it is not main goal of those meetings. Fellowship and prayer take precedence over singing for worship. Instead of using PRA to force a singing-shy group to become comfortable with singing, use the other means of worship in your group. When we sing songs we are actually fulfilling various elements of worship; we praise, adore, confess, admonish, repent, reprove, etc. In a way, to over-emphasize the necessity of singing in worship is putting the cart before the horse. If singing is such a source of stress within a group, then use other means to worship like reading Scripture together, prayer, or testimony. Maybe even get creative and use some of the means of worship found in Scripture that are uncommon in Presbyterian culture like shouting (Ps 100), raising hands (Ps 134), kneeling (Ps 95), dancing (Ps 149), or playing percussion instruments (Ps 150). Meanwhile, pray together as a group that God will give you songs to sing. No one can sing praise to the Lord (or any other means of worship) without the Holy Spirit’s motivation.
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  1. #1 by aimee on August 16, 2005 - 11:05 pm

    i am definitely in accord. have we not been discussing diversity, multiculturality? let each man give back the glory to God according to the traits, blessings, abilities, and talents esteemed specially on him.por ejemplo: “praise Him with timbrel and dance.” dance? ack. i can’t dance. i would be completely self-conscious, inhibited, and distracted from the spirit of worship if i were forced to worship in the form of dance. that said, if singing makes you go “ack,” then as kirk says, “don’t sing!” put your emphasis on worshipping Him elsewise.if you CAN sing but are uncomfortable without instruments or self-conscious about not being good enough, ponder this. brilliant cultures preceded our NCF culture that worshipped mightily without instruments. do we do this now? it doesn’t have to be brilliant a cappella counterpoint (see palestrina, sicut cervus) or shimmering harmonic masterpiece (see rene clausen, magnificat and others) to move a man to praise God. think about the time you couldn’t help but hear that dude in the front row at church bellowing his heart out, completely out of tune with the music, completely in tune with his heart for God. wasn’t it moving? and as a personal example, it wasn’t how gorgeous “in christ alone” was that made me melt into a blubbering mess in the middle of that song a couple weeks ago. it was hearing the sincerity in the ululation from the back of the church that hit me like a ton of spiritual truth-y bricks.why should each mini-meeting of new city be a mini-reenactment of our big worship services? let your individuality spark originality in worship so you’re not sheepishly going through the routine motions and we can multiply the ways in which God is glorified.btw i do believe in tone-deafness though. there are definitely people with NO relative pitch. i think it’s being studied in these people’s brains…

  2. #2 by Andrew Kaufmann on August 17, 2005 - 9:47 am

    Interesting producer/consumer dichotomy. Do you think this applies to all of life, including your personal musical life? For instance, do you have a discipline whereby you try to produce a certain amount of music in proportion to the amount of music you listen to/consume. And for those of us who don’t have as many resources to play/sing/etc., do you think it’s bad if we almost exclusively listen to music?

  3. #3 by Kirk Ward on August 17, 2005 - 3:12 pm

    Andrew Kaufmann! It’s great to hear from you!I was not attempting to create a dicotomy there. I would also acknoledge the joys and benefits of listening to, and appreciating recorded music to the glory of God. I would even say that Karaoke, which is not too different from PRA is a great form of entertainment that encourages singing, community, creativity, fun, joy, etc.My point about our creational ordinance to produce not just consume might not be the best argument agaist PRA, but it does make me feel a lot more icky about the idea. Obviously we consume things all the time; God made us consummers in a truely biological sense. But, as creators made in the image of the Creator, we aught to strive to add, increase, redeem, reform, renew. As a music listener, does that music drive you to produce in other ways, like writing, conversing, dancing, meditating, making original music, even running or political action! Balancing my music listening against my music production might not be the right conclusion, but I would say that I hope the sum of any one person’s life who is pursuing the Kingdom of God should end up on the positive side and not the negative. AK, send me an update sometime on how things are goin with you!

  4. #4 by AfricanRains on August 18, 2005 - 7:58 am

    kirk, i have to admit i have not given this much thought. until now… i respect your frustation with people who are hesitant to sing because they are shy or embarassed about how they or others sing. i think this reflects a limited understanding of the Gospel and what it means for our daily life both personally and in relationship to others. if we get that God’s love for us is unconditional and therefor our love for others ought to be unconditional what do we have to fear? if anything the place where this love should be seen is in house churches. i mean, that’s the point of them isn’t it? … to be a smaller group in a church where people can learn to know and love each other better than they can just on sunday morning. i guess i’m a bit dissapointed in general with the american church culture (big stereotype beware!) and i’m willing to admit that in some ways i’m a part of it. but we in the west in general are so performance oriented, and so concerned about our appearance that we miss out on the quality of relationships that we could and should have (especially as christians). what motivation is there for a non-believer to join a church or house group or even bother to build a friendship witha christian if they don’t feel that there is a depth of relationship offered there that can be found no where else. didn’t someone important once say, you will know them by their love.

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