Is there a reason that we use a piano instead of a praise band?
You’ve asked a good and (in my estimation) important question.
I should actually start by defending the proposition that music even matters. Some want to argue that for Christian singing, only the words matter, and that discussion about music simply isn’t important. Typically, those who make this argument want to emphasize the central importance of sound doctrine (and that’s a good thing!). For them this becomes the entire rubric for analyzing hymns/songs: a good song is one that 1) states biblical truth accurately and 2) in a memorable way.
But this sells art short. Art here is a broad term. Most relevant for this discussion, the art of Christian singing not only includes the music but also the poetry of the words that we sing.
Art matters because 1) art shapes how we feel about truth and 2) we are commanded in Scripture to feel certain ways about truths.
Let’s start with the second proposition there. The Bible is full of commands for us to rejoice and to mourn and to be thankful and to be in awe and (we could continue this list for a while). Our Lord has taught us that the first and greatest commandment is that we love God, and the second is that we love our neighbor. All of these commands are about how we feel.
Let’s unpack this specifically about the command to love. While some well-intentioned Christians have attempted to remove any notion of “feelings” from the biblical command to love, this does not work. To be sure, love has little to do with the stomach butterflies of infatuation, and it most certainly produces a life of committed service for the good of the one who is loved. But fundamental to biblical love is a profound sense of holding the object of love in high regard—of valuing it, prizing it highly. Love is not merely a set of choices. Perhaps you’ve heard me say this before, but if I told my wife that out of love for her, I will serve her in all the ways that a husband should (because love is a choice), but that there is some other woman who really makes me happy, she is not going to be convinced that I love her.
One modern writer who helped me see this is John Piper. If you are a reader, I commend to you the two of his books: The Pleasures of God and Desiring God. Piper does a wonderful job in those books (particularly the second) of showing countless passages in our Bibles that display our duty to feel certain ways. When the Bible commands us to be thankful, it is not simply commanding us to say “thank you,” but to feel thankful. The same is true when we are commanded to mourn, or to delight in the Lord, or to abhor sin. These are not only feelings, but these commands cannot be obeyed without cultivating certain kinds of feelings.
Poetry Shapes Feelings
So that’s our first building block: we must feel certain ways, as a matter of Christian obligation. The second building block is my claim that the essential purpose of art is to shape how we feel.
When it comes to Christian songs, the instruction of our feelings happens in two forms of art: poetry and music.
A good hymn begins by being a good poem. Poems matter, because the words that we use do not merely convey statements of fact, but the kinds of words that we use add color to those claims. For instance, we could start a wedding ceremony by saying, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness….” Or we could say, “Guys, we’re here today to see….” As a matter of propositions, there’s virtually no difference in meaning between these lines. But there is a difference in feel.
The art of poetry is choosing words that communicate the right feel in connection with the propositions that are being spoken. To take that previous example, I would contend that the magnitude of what is happening at a wedding is better expressed for us with the former phrase. The latter, while not false, fails to capture the glory of marriage. It is bad poetry.
Let’s switch examples (and here I’m stealing from a professor of mine). Consider the following piece of poetry:
God is here, God is there.
We know our God is everywhere.
He’s up your nose, between your toes,
And even in your garden hose.
Are these lines of poetry false? On the surface, they are not. The problem with this poetry is not that the propositions are not true, but that the words demean God by speaking of his omnipresence in a trivial way.
The reality is that most poetry works at least to some degree at the level of metaphor or association. The words chosen for the poem link the topic being discussed to some other event or object about which we already have feelings, and the poetic link helps us transfer those feelings from one thing to another.
The Bible is full of this language. Is God a rock? Careful with your answer here! Obviously, the Bible uses this language, but we know that it is not a literal use of language. God is not a rock, or a tower, or a shepherd, or a father, or a soldier—not in the woodenly literal sense of any of those terms. Rather, God has made the world full of images that display aspects of his character. By contemplating these earthly realities, we can come to appreciate aspects of God’s character, nature, and work in a fuller way.
Good poetry does this well: “A mighty fortress is our God/A bulwark never failing.” Lesser poetry does not: “Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life/End over end, neither left, nor the right/Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights/Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life.”
(I wish I were making that up, but that’s an actual song.)
So, let’s recap to this point:
- We have a biblical obligation to feel certain ways about certain things. Perhaps I could have stressed this more earlier, but supremely, we are commanded to love God and to esteem him with the glory to which he is due.
- The words to our songs of praise do need to be true; if the lyrics are theologically amiss, the song is not suitable for Christian worship.
- But the art of poetry is not merely the statement of true Christian doctrines. Poetry actually does that task very poorly (God is not literally a shepherd, for instance). Poetry takes those truths and speaks about them in such a way as to help us feel about those truths in a suitable way.
- Thus, even at the level of words, there are better and worse kinds of Christian songs.
Here, I’ll pause and note a recurring issue with much contemporary worship music: not only is it (often) predictable and trivial, but the central message of love for God is often cheaply portrayed. There’s a reason these are sometimes called “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs; failing to grasp the depth of biblical love, they link our love for Christ with the syrupy infatuation of teenage romance.
The deeper idea to ponder here is that the object of our love should have a defining influence on the nature of that love. Loving a sports team, a favorite meal, my wife, my most broken-in jeans, my nation, my dog, my children, and my God: these are all kinds of love, but they are quite different from each other. And it’s not simply a question of more love vs. less love; they are different kinds of love altogether. To say I love my wife more than I love my dog insults my wife; these must be different kinds of love.
Preachers sometimes make the comparison between the enthusiastic crowds at a football game and the comparative restraint of our gathered worship. This comparison misses the point: if I came to the pulpit one Sunday, and on the front row were five shirtless men with J-E-S-U-S painted across their chests, I would not be overjoyed. God’s grandeur is not comparable to that of a football team, and so our expressions of adoration for him differ from how we express our adoration for a quarterback.
Also, this isn’t a “contemporary music” only problem. The gospel song “In the Garden” is poor in exactly the way that I’ve described here, and there are many others like it.
Music Shapes Feelings
OK, let’s turn now from poetry to the music itself.
I don’t think it should be controversial to say this, but music matters. Music says things. At the most trivial level, when we add tone and rhythm to our words, the propositions that we speak take on color. For instance, we know that, when I tell my son to do something, he can say “Yes, Dad,” in a variety of ways. Some of those tones are acceptable; others, merely by changing his tone of voice, show that despite the words that he is saying being unchanged, he does not believe what he is saying at all. Tone of voice is, at the most simple level, music. And music colors the meaning of the lyrics.
I recognize that that is a simple example, but I hope it shows, at least in part, the deficiency of “lyrics only” analysis of Christian songs. Music speaks. There is a reason people don’t have lullabies in their earbuds at the gym, nor do (sane people) play metal for their children to go to sleep. Music conveys a mood.
Now, how music speaks is truly difficult to put into words. At a simple level, we can break it into two ways. First, there is a natural meaning to music. Because music is a physical phenomenon, it has certain straightforward effects. Music that is loud versus music that is soft communicates different things. Lower pitches communicate differently than high pitches. Fast music communicates differently than slow music. Simple music communicates differently than music with complex, deeply enmeshed harmonies.
The point of that is not to say that one thing is right and the other wrong. It is rather to make the simple observation that because we are embodied people, there are certain very broad universal effects that music has on us, simply as a matter of its physical characteristics.
The second way that music communicates is by association. A simple illustration: the music of the Star Spangled Banner communicates a sense of grandeur. It is an anthem, and anthems create a certain mood.
But when we hear that tune, we think, “United States of America.” There is nothing in the tune itself that could naturally communicate that. But because that is our nation’s anthem, merely hearing those notes pulls up all kinds of associations in our minds and hearts.
I contend that both natural and associative meaning in music matter when we come to decisions about worship music. I’ll start with examples within the realm of “traditional” music. Consider these two songs, both of which have the same words; in this case, both are recordings from the same church in similar styles:
- Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waWQUOgwNGs
- At the Cross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F02SYN3zByk
If you want to make the point even clearer, adjust the playback speed on the second song to 1.5x, which is often how it is sung. Now pause and contemplate the words. The first verse is a lamentation. The author is distraught in contemplating his own sinful responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ.
You’ll gain more benefit if you take the time to answer this question: which of these two tunes better captures that sense of lamentation? In my judgment, the answer is very much the first. That is compounded when the second setting adds the chorus, which suggests that Christians now are “happy all the day,” which is both unbiblical and manifestly false.
The point I try to make here is that, for those who grew up singing nothing but “At the Cross,” they likely don’t even notice the way the lilting tune is not fitting for a reflection on Christ’s sufferings and death. Its “meaning” as a piece of music really only comes into focus when we compare it with something else. But once we do, it can be more and more apparent that some tunes are better than others for certain purposes.
Another (brief) example. I have a book in my library called God’s Lyrics, which analyzes biblical passages that are songs. In the back of the book, the author tries his hand at taking these passages and setting them for singing today. One of those is a setting of Judges 5, which is a song about God crushing his enemies. The tune the author chose, however, is the tune from the Christmas hymn, “We Three Kings.” Despite the weighty theme of the words (God’s judgment and wrath), and to be honest, the natural weightiness of the tune, I wouldn’t be able to sing this combination without laughing a little. The association of the tune with a Christmas carol is simply too strong for me to use it for virtually anything else.
Instruments and Style
So now, what about your question: “is there a specific reason behind simply using a piano for the hymns. Is that preferred over a full band?”
There are two related questions implied here. On the surface, this is a question of mere instrumentation. Within certain boundaries, I see no reason to think that any particular instrument (or set of instruments) is uniquely best for worship. I say “within certain boundaries,” because again we might look at outliers. Perhaps we could have our worship accompanied by an amplified kazoo? I’m not writing this to be disingenuous, but to illustrate a point. There are some instruments that, because of their natural sound and/or the way we perceive them, would be very hard to use seriously in worship.
But at this level, there is nothing intrinsically superior about using a piano over a couple of guitars, a keyboard, and some percussion.
But the reality is that certain kinds of instruments (and certain groupings of instruments) aren’t merely a matter of changing the instruments, but changing the whole feel of the song.
To continue our theme from above, here’s another setting of At the Cross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZjuIMtBx1w
Although it begins in a reserved style, things kick up a bit around the 2:30 mark. It might not be the best example, but my point here is that, in general, most instruments tend to be played in a certain style. So when you ask about instruments, any objection I have to a band isn’t intrinsically to guitars or even drums. But I would try to make the case that the style of music typical of a praise band doesn’t communicate in music what I think we ought to be trying to communicate.
Here, I think it’s important again to make the point that music does communicate. We can illustrate this by going back to the orchestra/organ/congregational singing versions of the song I linked above. How do those feel to you? You might not say this, but I can imagine someone saying, “Those feel out of touch. God seems distant there,” or things similar to that.
Although I disagree with that assessment, I’m absolutely willing to hear that case. But I think it’s important to observe that if we say that the “old style” of music communicates, the “new style” does as well. That is to say, it is incoherent to say, “Music is neutral and shouldn’t be judged, and also the old style of music is terrible for trying to connect people with God because it gives them the wrong idea of what God is like.”
In general, I’m going to shy away from using a band for a few reasons. Stylistically, I think it tends toward communicating an easy familiarity with God that is not suitable for our perception of God, because it is not biblical. It is the way in which it is accessible and comfortable for most people today that becomes a liability; God becomes utterly unthreatening. I contend there is much biblical warrant for one of my favorite lines from C. S. Lewis, in which Aslan (as a picture of Christ) is described as “not safe, but good.”
Second, in our churches, we ought to emphasize the congregation’s corporate worship rather than their being audience members for a performance of worship. To be sure, there are churches who use a band who likely do this well. But one of the reasons I’m grateful for my wife’s playing of the piano is that it is simple. Her goal is to accompany the congregation’s singing. Our gathered singing as a church is the central element, not the band’s playing or the worship leader’s singing. On a practical level, the use of electronic amplification (again, not wrong in itself) tends to muffle the role of the congregation’s singing, making them mere observers of what is happening on the stage.
Whether you find this convincing or not, my hope is that you’ll at least acknowledge that the music that we use—its words, its music, the instruments, how it is done—matters. It matters because it shapes us; it expresses what a given group of people think it is like to enter the presence of the one true God, and it in turn shapes those people to embrace that way of valuing God. If music matters, we can continue to discuss the kind of music we ought to use to advance our biblical goal of worship and sanctification.
Just as we continue to study the Word to know the truth that God has revealed in a more accurate way, I believe that over time we can get a better grasp on the feel of what God is like, as he has revealed himself in his Word, and therefore what it is like for us to worship him.