Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently posted a blog bemoaning the increasing use of pre-recorded (canned) music in church services. After I read his comments, Eric Zeller sent me this e-mail:
“Often smaller churches will use pre-recorded musical tracks either to accompany soloists, choirs, or congregational singing. Do you have any thoughts on this practice and its impact on worship?”
I don’t know if Eric saw Dr. Mohler’s post, but it seemed like the topic of pre-recorded music in the church was worth commenting on. New Testament Christians obviously didn’t have to face this issue, so there’s no Scriptural example for us to draw from here.
God refers to singing over 400 times in Scripture, so that’s not up for discussion – He wants us to sing. However, when it comes to what accompanies the congregation (or choirs or soloists), we have to discern God’s priorities for music in the church and apply them appropriately and humbly. It’s always that last part that’s difficult. There are a number of reasons why a church might use pre-recorded music. Here are some potentially good reasons:
- A church plant that God hasn’t seen fit to send musicians to yet (although He certainly endorses a cappella singing).
- An accompaniment to a special song that’s too difficult for anyone in the church to play.
- Playing music before a meeting to focus people’s hearts and minds towards God.
Here are some bad reasons:
- Wanting to sound like the big church across town.
- Failing to find anyone who wants to practice.
- Wanting our music to be perfect, every time (as if it’s ever perfect).
- Believing people won’t be affected unless a song sounds exactly like the artist on the CD.
I trust I don’t need to explain why those reasons are unacceptable. But even if our reasons for using pre-recorded music might be good, we need to look at its potential long-term impact on congregational worship. Dr. Mohler gives three reasons why it may not be such a good idea: music tracks contribute to a decline in church music programs, create a desire for near-perfect acoustics and performance, and foster a tendency to listen rather than to sing.
Here are some more drawbacks:
Pre-recorded music can limit our ability to respond to the Spirit. Ephesians 5:18-19 implies that making melody to the Lord is a fruit of being filled with the Spirit. He is working to impress what we’re singing on our hearts. Of course, each time we sing a song we can sing it exactly like the last fifty times. That’s fine as long as we’re singing with faith towards God. However, there may be occasions when we want to repeat a verse, pause a bit before singing the last chorus, or sing a section quietly and reflectively. Canned music doesn’t allow us that flexibility. The dynamics and tempo are the same each time, every time.
Pre-recorded tracks can discourage authentic participation. God wants us to worship Him from our hearts. (Mt. 15:8-9) Minimally, that implies mental comprehension and emotional engagement. When we sing to recorded music, we’re sometimes aware that the music track goes on whether we’re there or not. (That’s painfully obvious when we forget to stop the CD player before the next song starts). Maybe that’s why we call it “canned” music. Like canned vegetables, canned fruit, and canned meat (ugh), canned music may feel a little artificial.
Pre-recorded music can discourage using our gifts for God’s glory. God gives the church musicians to serve His purposes in the church, especially supporting congregational worship. When recorded music is overused, where does the average musician find motivation to serve? In the eight years I’ve been at my present church, we’ve encouraged older musicians to train younger musicians through individual interaction as well as group lessons on Saturday mornings. We’re beginning to see wonderful fruit as teenagers serve in children’s ministry, outreach events, and even the main meeting on Sundays. We could use background tracks in some of those situations, but how much better to provide opportunity for these young men and women to grow in their God-given gifts and their heart to serve.
Now that I’ve talked about the downside of using pre-recorded music in the church, I’ll share some thoughts tomorrow on when and how it might be beneficial.