Should We Can Canned Music in the Church?

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.

9 Responses to Should We Can Canned Music in the Church?

  1. Steve S December 21, 2005 at 9:41 AM #

    Great topic, Bob! I have seen both well-balanced usage of pre-recorded music as well as the excessive abuse of it, and I think you are nailing this right on the head.

    Ironically, I struggle with this issue from the vantage point of someone who is sometimes approached about creating tracks for use in congregational worship. For some reason, to me, it seems much more appropriate for a “special” song (i.e., soloist, duet, etc.) rather than congregational singing. Perhaps you’ll flesh out your thoughts on that??

    steve :)

  2. David McKay December 25, 2005 at 8:05 PM #

    A. My friend is a drummer and guitarist in a church where no one else plays. They usually sing to cds.

    On the occasion when he accompanies singing on his guitar, people complain that the music sounds limp and “not like the cd,” as you pointed out.

    B. In our previous church, singers always wanted to sing with backing tracks and not live musicians, though we had some competent musicians in the church, if I may say so!

    There were 2 problems that often occurred with using the backing tracks:
    1. If the balance between the recording and singer were not set correctly, the tape would either drown out the singer or give the effect that the singer was singing along with the radio on.

    2. The extremely professional recordings sometimes gave the effect of “million dollar arrangement with 50 cent voice!”

    Keep music live, I say!

  3. B. J. Hampton December 11, 2008 at 5:10 PM #

    Do you know where I can get music on cd for my church singing. We have no musician and need help with the singing. I used to have a place but lost the address. Everything on internet I find is complete groups. I would like singles songs from to soonbook . Thanks

  4. Pam Stewart January 5, 2009 at 7:08 PM #

    Hey BJ,

    try Lifewayworship.com. They just recently brought up this site with a great deal of music in several different formats for use in worship. most of the songs are 1.99 each.

    I also have to use CD tracks in worship and have found split track CD’s to work very well. You can look on Christianbook.com and type in split track cd’s and you will find many to choose from. Word Music also put out a three pack of CD’s called “Hymns for Praise and Worship” a few years ago. These are contemporary arrangements of favorite hymns and are in a split track format. They also have the PowerPoint available. I hope this helps.

  5. Terry April 2, 2009 at 2:02 PM #

    I am a liturgical musician/choir leader at my church. I have been using backing tracks for 10 years. We play the tracks from our ipod and I play guitar live and we all sing live with the accompaniment. I never purchase professionally produced tracks for my choirs. I use Sonar m.i.d.i. recording software to create backing tracks from our Hymnal keyboard books. I am a guitar player and don’t play keys so I input note for note into the program with my mouse. I taylor the tracks to fit our choirs so as not to sound over produced. I never exclude other musicians from joining in with the tracks. I have not received any complaints yet. And the congregation sings with them very well.
    Here’s a sample: http://members.cox.net/terrylittledad/Parable%20-%20Parable.mp3
    Technology is quite a gift from our Heavenly Father.
    Peace,
    Terry
    Liturgical musician/m.i.d.i. maker
    Glendale, Arizona

  6. Harold Moore February 27, 2011 at 6:31 PM #

    I have seen and heard so many comments about people no longer attending church venues and functions where music and singing are taking place. I have also heard so may comments from people who like music but no longer attend these events because of the use of canned music. Music is as much visual as it is audible and people enjoy good musicianship. I can site example after example of people either not staying at an event or simply not going in the first place. I have talked with people who have left gospel presentations by even the best of performers because they didn’t care for the format. What is especially disturbing is that a lot of these “ministers” have some musical ability but simply refuse to incorporate it into their presentations. It isn’t always necessary to “hire” a band. Many have the resource already. My personal opinion is, it is shear laziness on the part of the presenters. Bring back instruments and you’ll bring back the audiences.

  7. Vic February 23, 2012 at 10:20 PM #

    What difference does it make?

    Music and worship is about what God likes, instructs, and wants, not what “WE” like and want, or have a preference for..

    I mean sure, if a church is blessed to have several qualified musicians, and their gifts are being ignored by the church, ….and instead, the church only using professionally produced pre-recorded music, then yes, we have a problem in the kingdom of God (and it is US not God).

    …but what about county road 33 baptist church where 74 year old “Aunt Bessy” that has played the church piano for 46 years has now passed away. Then after a review of the other regular 75 attending members, discovering that nobody there can play piano. Not only that, but they cant find anyone in the community that would give of their time to come play as a volunteer. Then after a business meeting the church decides they will just hire someone and willing to pay $20 service, ….but after 7 weeks of no response from an ad, they start giving up, and assume they are going to be singing without music for a long time.

    I see no reason whatsoever, that a church in this (or similar) condition should be ridiculed by others because they simply take a laptop to church, play an mp3 of an accompanying piano playing “Just as I am”, and cable it into the church PA system so that it sounds as full as when Aunt Bessy used to play, so that everyone can worship in song with.

    …and if a deacon there, wants to sing a special like Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (my chains are gone)” and using Tomlin’s soundtrack that his grandson downloaded for him (bought), …then who are any of us to judge that this is not worship?

    Worship is what happens between our hearts and God, as it is group led by an anointed leader that has a heart for worship and a heart for Jesus,

    ….not about where the music sound is coming from, regardless if its a speaker or a big wooden box with white things on it that people strike with their hands.

    I wish more people were more concerned and having greater discussions about “the lost being saved”, than debating/discussing how the accompany music in a church should be administered.

    …ever wonder why some churches grow like wildfire and others in a same geographic area die? Its all about moving the things that really matter to the top of the “Do” list, and moving the things that really are not as significant, to the bottom of that list.

  8. Terry May 14, 2012 at 6:06 PM #

    Well, it’s been 3 years since i posted my comment about my use of canned music at Mass. I’m happy to say that we are still using it and it just keeps getting better. The longer I use my recording software the better the sequences sound.
    One problem we do face each week is the blending of the track with the live voices and guitar. we do not have a ‘sound person’ at the back of the sanctuary to make sure the voices are not overpowered by the tracks. We have several friends who are very honest with us and tell us how we sounded.
    The wealth of music opened to us using tracks is unbelievable. We use the new Gather Hymnal and have created tracks for some amazing new songs.
    Peace,
    Terry

  9. Victor Sluder September 18, 2013 at 1:09 PM #

    Music Minus One.com has converted to Classical, but may have some spiritual tunes. The sister site, Pocketsongs, may have appropriate material. IF SO, it is probably better than stuff “off the shelf” from Walmart. I have a BEAT that can be used to sing to, to enhance performance, called “Organ Grinder 1.1-B”, available at I-Tunes. The best way is to RECORD with the free computer program, and then play back to sing “with”. Google free recording software.

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