What music does do is affect us emotionally. It can soften our hearts to listen or inspire a sense of expectancy. It can make transitions seem less choppy. It can cover up extraneous noises and set a reverent tone, as organ preludes have been doing for years. But that doesn’t mean God is making us aware of his presence, or worse, that we’re being “led into God’s presence.”
In recent decades ambient sounds have become omnipresent in church gatherings. Meetings start with a synth swell and every song after that is connected to the next with musical glue. Synth pads play softly behind prayer, Scripture readings, song intros, communion, and in some cases, the preaching. If you don’t have someone who can produce the necessary sounds, no worries. “Worship pads” in every key are available for purchase to smooth out the transitions.
Which raises the question: what’s going on?
Music and God’s Presence
We often see a connection between music and the Holy Spirit’s activity in Scripture. Long before he was king, a young David comforted Saul as he played his lyre (1 Sam. 16:23). Elisha was unable to prophesy until a musician was brought into the room and started playing (2 Kings 3:14-16). The prophets of the Old Testament were regularly accompanied by musical instruments (1 Sam. 10:5; 1 Chron. 25:1). The walls of Jericho fell flat at the sound of trumpets and shouting (Josh. 6:20). In the New Testament, we’re told that being filled with or by the Holy Spirit results in singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:18-21).
That partly helps explain why people often sense God’s presence in a greater way in the midst of congregational singing. The sound of Spirit-enabled believers, lifting up their voices to proclaim the greatness of God and the glory of Jesus Christ makes us more aware of God’s goodness, majesty, and nearness.
But while music and the Holy Spirit’s presence can be related, they’re not the same thing. That’s why David’s lyre comforted Saul at one point and on another occasion led him to try to pin David to the wall with his spear (1 Sam. 18:10-11).
Useful vs. Necessary
Music is a means. God is the source. God often uses physical means to do his work. But when we start to view a means of grace as a “need” for worship it can subtly take on the characteristics of a mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). We think certain musical sounds enable us to experience God’s presence. Like the time a leader told me the synth melody I was playing “had healing in it.” Not sure how he reached that conclusion.
Wayne Grudem says one of the Holy Spirit’s “primary purposes in the new covenant age is to manifest the presence of God, to give indications that make the presence of God known.” (Systematic Theology, pg. 641). God might use music as a setting to manifest his presence, but music isn’t required. There is a difference between music being something God uses and something he needs. More often, the Spirit reveals God’s presence through preaching and various spiritual gifts, not simply playing music (1 Cor. 2:3-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-7).
What music does do is affect us emotionally. It can soften our hearts to listen or inspire a sense of expectancy. It can make transitions seem less choppy. It can cover up extraneous noises and set a reverent tone, as organ preludes have been doing for years. But that doesn’t mean God is making us aware of his presence, or worse, that we’re being “led into God’s presence.” In his insightful book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Harold Best warns,
“Christian musicians must be particularly cautious. They can create the impression that God is more present when music is being made than when it is not; that worship is more possible with music than without it; and that God might possibly depend on its presence before appearing.” (p. 153)
Everyone knows a synthesizer is not the Holy Spirit. But judging from worship albums, YouTube videos, and comments I’ve heard people make, that point might need to be clarified.