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Winning the Worship Wars: Part 3
By André Reis

We continue this short series on the place of music in Adventist worship. In part 1 I proposed what I call the reductionist approach to church music. This view removes music from an inappropriate pedestal of importance in worship and brings it down to the level of a language used for communication. In part 2, I delved into how music impacts the human being and thus aids in communication of a particular message. In this part 3, I will discuss which type of music may communicate best in the context of corporate worship.
Communicating with music in worship: the problem of extra-musical associations
As we look to renew worship through new approaches to church music, it is important to pay attention to the problem of extra-musical associations. This is perhaps the most serious obstacle to the introduction of new music in church. Misunderstanding the implications of extra-musical associations has caused most of the controversies revolving around music’s use in Adventist worship today.
What is an “extra-musical association”? An extra-musical association may be defined as non-musical imagery prompted by a piece of music; for example, the music of a national anthem evokes images of home, country, classrooms and patriotic parades. These images are not musical per se, but their continued association with a certain style of music, in this case, a patriotic tune, prompts them.
Extra-musical associations should not be confused with intra-musical associations, which are the ideas conveyed by the music itself; for example, a minor key is generally associated with sadness, darkness or introspection, while major keys are associated with light, happiness and hope; a slow tempo is relaxing while a faster tempo is energizing. Intra-musical associations are not dependent on any context, they spring from the musical grammar so to speak, much like the intonations of the human voice which are universally understood.
Extra-musical associations, on the other hand, occur because music has the power to attach symbolic meaning to a specific context, event, time period, etc. As Harold Best explained it, “The more a piece of music is repeated in the same context, the more it will begin to ‘mean’ that context.”[1] (The example of the national anthem speaks clearly to this tenet). So the issue of associating musical styles with specific secular or even non-secular contexts can pose a challenge to Adventist worship music.
Others have dealt with the issue of extra-musical associations extensively.[2] In this article, however, I’d like to propose a more nuanced approach to the matter of extra-musical associations in music by creating a distinction between soft and hard extra-musical associations.
Soft extra-musical associations should be self-explanatory: these associations are “soft”, i.e., not strong enough to cause conflict between its original, secular context and a new context, in our case, a worship setting. The style of music that we now officially call Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), is, in most cases, an example of soft extra-musical association. It uses modern instruments, the melodic lines are similar to acceptable popular musical forms and the overall feel is more “folky” than “classical” or erudite. In most cases, although it is close to pop music, it avoids the most extreme elements of certain pop styles such as heavy metal or punk rock. CCM is more accessible to the majority of worshipers because of its familiar musical language. It can be considered a natural evolution of church music and therefore, an acceptable form of current Christian art.
On this point, it is important to point out that, because of the vast amount of borrowing and interchange that has occurred between sacred and secular music throughout the centuries, I believe soft extra-musical associations in church music are inevitable. Whether we are dealing with traditional church music from the 19th century, which mimicked secular classical styles or folk styles borrowed from American folk music, which we hear in Contemporary Christian music, we are dealing with a human phenomenon of musical desensitization that is quite ingrained in the human experience. Rather than fighting and resisting this musical evolution, the church will be better off accepting it as a fresh renewal of artistic expressions that is so vital to organic, relevant worship.
Conversely, hard extra-musical associations occur with musical styles whose secular “feel” is severe to worshipers in their respective cultural milieu. Such hard associations are difficult to overcome as the music will most likely overwhelm the message of the words or the meaning of worship and cause cognitive dissonance between its primary, secular context and corporate divine worship. In America, for example, these would be hip-hop and heavy metal; in the Caribbean islands, this maybe salsa or reggaeton. However, it is important to note that the problem of musical cognitive dissonance varies in different parts of the world and to different people in corporate worship.
Having briefly considered aspects of both soft and hard extra musical associations, I believe it is much harder to argue in favor of hard extra-musical associations in a corporate worship setting. This is so because the introduction of a musical style that is drastically different from customary styles and expectations of a certain community can be very disruptive to most worshipers. If the music has heavy, negative secular connotations, worship will be affected because of the noise in the communication of the Gospel. It will be hard for most worshipers to concentrate on the words of a song if the music forcefully calls the attention to an idea foreign to corporate worship! Again, this may be more severe in some cultural contexts and to some people than to others in corporate worship. What style of sacred music one listen privately falls under other criteria which is beyond the scope of this series.
In light of this, it is reasonable to propose that soft extra-musical associations as we see in traditional hymns and much of Contemporary Christian Music and Contemporary Gospel Music are usually acceptable while hard extra-musical associations may need to be avoided in corporate worship or used with careful intentionality. However, again, the decision of what music has hard associations will have to be made taking into consideration local cultural sensibilities; a style that would be disruptive in a particular geographical region may not be a problem in another. Even a local church may have different sensibilities from their next-door church.
Ultimately, worship music requires that whatever the style, it should support the high ideals of worship and protect its purity from foreign ideas, feelings and emotions. Worship music should take advantage of the most desirable musical elements available in any particular style, those that are most likely to be universally appreciated in order that music may faithfully carry the message of the words without unnecessary interference with its meaning.
With the above in mind we can ask: How do we introduce new musical styles in worship? Below are a few extra principles to keep in mind when dealing with a transition from traditional to contemporary worship style.
First, we should agree that the mere use of modern instruments in church music does not immediately cause hard extra-musical associations. Musical instruments are amoral; their effectiveness in worship depends on how they are used to support worship or detract, cause noise and manipulate the hearers.
Second, we should accept that music with a beat and syncopated rhythms has a different meaning to younger worshipers. From Baby Boomers to Millennials, a beat and drums have no immediate negative associations; they are part of a musical language that they have grown to understand and appreciate. They are part of their own personal musical grammar.
Third, change is necessary for renewal. Doukhan writes, “Change will happen anyway … we should become a part of it, and make it happen in a responsible manner.”[3] Church planter Robert L. Bast found that churches that transitioned from traditional to contemporary music experienced growth.[4]
Fourth, tolerance and patience will be essential in this process. New musical styles may cause conflict because most Adventists have associated worship music with 19th century hymnody, accompanied by the organ and other “classical” instruments. This classical style has come to “mean” worship to them; new music may sound foreign to worship. Tolerance and patience is essential for members of the musical “establishment” as well as for the new generation of worshipers.
Fifth, we should avoid demonizing new music in worship just because it is “different.” This is a major problem for Adventists. We are too quick to read diabolical intentions into innovations. Tradition has become a sacrament in Adventism. Eric Fife writes, “It is so easy to have prejudices and call them principles.”[5] Often what is simply a matter of taste can quickly escalate into a satanic conspiracy to destroy Adventist worship. Walls are erected between those who value “good music” and “true worship” and the “subversive” who are looking for a show. (More on this in the conclusion of this series).
In the din of the many voices arguing for the only Adventist style of music, I believe that musical eclecticism is the only to keep Adventist worship alive. We need to allow for the “cross-pollination of music” in worship, i.e., allowing diverse styles of music to co-exist in our worship. Adventist music must live perpetually within the tension of continuity with tradition . Removing all traditional musical landmarks will represent a diminished worship experience for most Adventists; refusing to add the new will dry up the bones of a new generation of worshipers. In other words, let’s add instead of taking away. Let’s offer worship that is a collage rather than dualistic, appealing to head and heart, tradition and innovation.
The effectiveness of new music in Adventist worship should be judged by its fruits, whether or not it engages the congregation in the act of worship. It is hard to argue against any style of music that elicits vibrant congregational singing. Worship planners need to look objectively at whether a certain hymn, praise song or instrumental music, regardless of its style, will be conducive to engaging and transformative worship.
In our last article, I will offer some conclusions on this series.

[1] Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1993), 154.
[2] See for example Lilianne Doukhan, In Tune with God (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2010), 65-69.
[3] Ibid., “Historical Perspectives on Change in Worship Music,” Ministry (September 1996):7-9.
[4] Robert L. Bast, The Missing Generation (New York: Reformed Church Press, 1991), 157, 158.
[5] Eric Fife, “The Stubborn Dilemma of Church Music,” Ministry (July 1972):15-17.