Words-Only Worship: A case for fasting from music

t is difficult to imagine worship without music. Indeed, for too many worshipers the music is the worship. As congregations are working to make their worship more accessible to a wider range of people and more expressive of the voices of young and old, traditional and contemporary, modern and post-modern worshipers, the greatest struggles and most obvious changes often have to do with music. So-called “worship wars” could as easily be called the “music wars” as particular musical forms and styles have become shibboleths for true worship.

Despite the difficulties surrounding it, however, music retains a central place in the worship of most churches. Many of us first learned the faith through music. Whether through Scripture songs that had us singing portions of the biblical text or hymns that celebrated the great doctrines of our faith, music has become a kind of mother tongue of our Christian identity. It is little wonder that people react strongly when others alter either the grammar or vocabulary of the language of our faith.

Recently I had occasion to worship at a service with no music. Both the pipe organ and the piano sat silent. Nor did the celebrant so much as intone a psalm or response for us to sing. We were left with only words. My initial reaction was predictable: I missed the music. Attending successive services at this church confirmed my response. Making my way home I would muse, The words are fine, but I miss the music.

Gradually, though, my impressions began to change and I missed the music less. I no longer craved a meditative prelude or a celebrative offertory or a stirring closing hymn. Then it struck me: I don’t miss the music anymore.

A Splendid Hush

What had changed? For one thing I was becoming more familiar with the words. Like repeated footfalls that wear a path across a grassy field, the words of the liturgy were working their way into my mind and heart. They were becoming part of my spiritual landscape. At the same time, I was beginning to feel a part of the community—travellers on the same journey.

Other things began to emerge from this environment. Once I had stopped longing for what was missing—the music—I began to notice what else was present: silence, movement, the architecture of the space. Of course these elements were there all along; it was not necessary to still the music in order for them to appear.

Yet, as so often happens when one sense is diminished, the other senses become more acute. The silence seemed deeper; movement and gesture were a cappella dancing; color and space became sanctuary. In fact, without singing voice or playing tune, I began to appreciate the deep internal music of the liturgy itself—the rhythmic flow of the responses, the cadences of Scripture and prayer, the splendid hush as the last chord reverberates and disappears. Ancient words carved over the chancel archway bore quiet witness: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Three Distractions

This experience has caused me to reflect on the devotional nature of worship—the deep, conscious involvement in the church’s corporate prayer. As William Cieslak points out, “Consciousness . . . does not need to mean that the worshiper is aware of the meaning and function of every word or religious gesture or action. In fact, attending to these elements can often prevent one from entering more deeply into the liturgical event” (“Putting Heart into Liturgy,” in Leaver & Zimmerman, eds. Liturgy and Music: Lifetime Learning, 1998). What Cieslak says of the hazards of over-attention to the various elements of worship may also apply to music. The caution expressed in St. Augustine’s ambivalence concerning music may strike a chord with many worship planners:

I fluctuate between the peril of indulgence and the profit I have found: and on the whole I am inclined—though I am not propounding any irrevocable opinion—to approve the custom of singing in Church, that by the pleasure of the ear the weaker minds may be roused to a feeling of devotion. Yet whenever it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by the thing that is sung, I admit that I have grievously sinned, and then I should wish rather not to have heard the singing (Confessions, X.33).


Thus, while music can carry worshipers more deeply into the congregation’s prayer and the focus on God, it can also become a distraction. This may happen in a number of ways. The music may be inaccessible due to difficulty or lack of familiarity. While this could be true of any element of worship, it is more a concern with music, since music is one of the most changeable aspects of the service. Other elements of the liturgy are repeated week after week and assume a familiar shape. Good liturgy, it is sometimes said, fits like an old shoe. Music, on the other hand, is always changing and often new. While this can lend a certain dynamism to a congregation’s worship, it can also become a hindrance if music draws attention to itself and away from God. Like new shoes that need breaking in, it takes time and repeated use for unfamiliar or difficult music to carry us into God’s presence rather than leave us limping distractedly away.


A second source of distraction may be music that is theologically and culturally out of place. This is a complex issue because no worshiping assembly is theologically or culturally homogeneous. Our worship should enable both neophytes and experienced believers to participate in corporate prayer. For this reason, worship must be offered in many “languages.” The more mature will need to sing a primer of devotion with younger Christians. Newer Christians will be invited to sing expressions of faith beyond their current level of comprehension, but into which they will grow. Worship that is inclusive requires a broad range of expression. Yet almost every congregation possesses a theological and cultural ethos that informs its worship. The introduction of elements foreign to this ethos can be problematic. Words and tunes imported from pop culture or that are trite or overly sentimental are largely incapable of bearing the “weight of glory” that worship seeks to express. Likewise, the sombre, archaic language of many older hymns may provide continuity with previous generations, but may be an impediment to worship in this one.


Third, so immersed are we in the culture of entertainment that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate music that is offered to the glory of God from music that is performed for the approval of an audience. The applause with which solos, anthems, or “special numbers” are often greeted is indicative of this confusion. When have you heard a congregation erupt into applause following the reading of Scripture or the prayers of intercession? Again, the issues are complex. Music that is offered as a genuine act of worship may be heard as entertainment; and music that is performed with no holy motive can elicit a powerful devotional response. This is a paradox with which the church will have to live while trying, through education and spiritual formation, to employ music in ways that enhance rather than impede the flow of worship to its Source and fulfillment.

A Liturgical Counterpoint

Many church musicians have been working creatively and intelligently to address these problems. These people are a gift to the church, and their ministry is profoundly important. While affirming the rightness and joy of music in worship, however, I wonder if we might also consider the value of occasionally doing without. Especially in places where there has been much turmoil and division over music, congregations may benefit from a kind of liturgical counterpoint in which the sacred melodies of silence and movement and space and the exquisite harmonies of bread and wine are permitted to come to the fore.

James White has said, “Sometimes one has to experience the absence of music in a familiar service just to realize how greatly music enhances full participation” (Introduction to Christian Worship, rev. 1967). Whether in the wordless worship of the Quaker meeting or in the words-only worship of a simple service of Scripture, prayer and Table, an occasional season of musical fasting may help to deepen our devotion. It could also help us to be more discerning and appreciative of the gift of music when it once again bears our praise aloft.


Matt Redman on “The Heart of Worship”

“It seemed like we’d lost something at our church. There’s a dynamic that occurs in worship when people throw themselves into it, bringing an offering to God, and he inhabits our praise in a wonderful way. It felt like we’d lost that. So the pastor made a brave move: he ‘banned’ the band! For a while we just led worship with an acoustic guitar, or sometimes just voices. One time we decided to worship without music altogether. Even though music is such a wonderful way of expressing our devotion to God, we wanted to see what would happen without it. . . . I guess the point of all this was to strip everything away to check where our hearts were at.

“The song [“The Heart of Worship”] was birthed at that time, just as it felt like we started to come back to the heart of worship.”

—Matt Redman, in an interview with Bruce Adolph in Christian Music Magazine.

Reformed Worship 72 © June 2004 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.