What is Church Music?

We talk all the time about how we liked this or that hymn, or how we wish they’d chosen another one, how that anthem was inspired or that bell piece really made our toes tap. It’s something we take for granted in our church—of COURSE there’s going to be music. It’d be weird if there wasn’t. But how many people really stop to think about what exactly church music is? Well, let me ask another question: at what other time in your regular life do you stop and sing a song with a dozen or a hundred other people? When else do you hear handbells play on a regular basis, or listen to an amateur choir perform outside of a high school? Music often lives a very different life in the secular and in the Christian world, and it’s useful to think about how exactly music interacts with our faith, and about its appropriate place in the Church; John and Charles Wesley certainly spent time thinking about that as they were considering what the Methodist church should believe and do.

A church musician has a critical job within the execution of any church service, whether it’s a regular Sunday service, a funeral or wedding, or other special occasion. They are the conduits for the congregation to experience the music of the church, and with that responsibility comes the need for understanding what church music is, and how it should be practiced.

Church music, at its core, is any music that is performed in a church, or during a church function. It could be with a variety of instruments, with vocalists or without; it could be at any point in the service, and it could serve a variety of purposes in the service. Ultimately, it acts as a vessel within the service, to tell the stories of Jesus; to illustrate ideas in the Bible; to be centering, focusing music (a prelude); to be a joyful statement of our faith (hymn of the day); to show us the community we have as a congregation gathering for worship (opening hymn); or to inspire us to leave worship and carry our faith into the world and our communities (closing hymn).

But without an underlying theology, the music is no more than window dressings of the church. The music reinforces the theology, it illustrates the teaching of the Word, it consecrates the Meal, and it inspires the soul. Music, in my opinion, is at least as important as the sermon, and when I’m in-between engagements and am looking for a church to attend as a worshipper, I look for inspired music just as much as I look for engaging sermons. I personally cannot have one without the other, because to me, music wraps throughout the service, woven as thread intertwining each different part of the service together.

We can look at music throughout the life of the church and see that common thread. Through the hymn writers’ movement of the 1800’s and 1900’s, during the “contemporary music” movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and through many other church music movements we have yet to see, the most important part of church music remains constant: the music of a church should reflects a congregation’s spiritual and aesthetic needs, it should be appropriate for the audience so as to not distract from its larger purpose in facilitating worship, it should to push a congregation and a choir to grow spiritually and musically, and it should to share the Gospel. It doesn’t matter if this happens with an organ, or a piano, or a guitar, or a flute, as long as the instrument chosen is appropriate for the particular congregation. Because if church music does its job well, it is one of the most important tools that the church has to evangelize to others, to comfort and to challenge current members, and to safeguard its future as a force for good in this world.


Lost in Translation

Many of the hymns that we enjoy today were not originally written in English, and the different translations of hymns can tell us a lot about both the translator and the Church at the time. Sometimes they took pride in staying very close to the original text, and other times text was sacrificed for rhymes or rhythms. Take a look at some of these examples of early hymn translations. How are they different from what you’re used to singing? How are they similar?


“How Great Thou Art”, originally in Swedish, translated by E. Gustav Johnson in 1925:

O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine,
And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life with love benign,

With rapture filled, my soul thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God! (repeat)

When I behold the heavens in their vastness,
Where golden ships in azure issue forth,
Where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness
Of changing seasons and of time on earth.


An early translation of “A Mighty Fortress”, originally in German, translated by Myles Coverdale in 1539:

Oure God is a defence and towre,
A good armoure and good weap[-]e;
He hath been ever oure helpe and succoure,
In all the troubles that we have ben in.
Therefore wyl we never drede,
For any wonderous dede
By water or by londe,
In hilles or the see do[-]se;
Oure God hath them all in his hod.*

*A hod is a long-handled tray for carrying a load, often bricks or mortar.


“Be Thou My Vision”, originally written in Old Irish, translated by Mary Byrne in 1905:

Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.
Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.

Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding.
Be thou with me, be I with thee
Be thou my father, be I thy son.
Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine.

Be thou my battle-shield, be thou my sword.
Be thou my dignity, be thou my delight.
Be thou my shelter, be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels.

Be thou every good to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.
Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.