Alright, Who Invited the Electric?

Written by ryan on
Electric Guitar

Music in church sure has changed over the years.  But what hasn't changed is worshipers not always welcoming these new instruments to the stage.  Let's take a quick look at how instruments entered into church music since, well, the beginning of time.

Beginning of Time

Just as a newborn baby cries with its first breath, a brand new creation's first audible expression was to worship their Creator (Genesis 1:1, Colossians 1:16).  And shortly thereafter, some dude named Jubal messed it all up (Genesis 4:20-21) as man-made instruments (lyres and pipes) entered existence.  Well that didn't take long.

1000 BC

Then, for the first time recorded in scripture, worship became something that was partially supported, and even led, by instruments.  Around 1000 BC, 1 Chronicles 16 shows King David appointing priests (Levites) to play lyres, harps, cymbals, and trumpets "regularly before the ark of the covenant of God."  And you know some people were up in arms about that, and not just in the "raise up holy hands" sort of way.

18th Century

Fast forward a couple thousand years to the late 18th century, when we start to see the birth of what I might call "Contemporary Christian Music", or CCM.  Classical hymns steeped in scripture were merged with popular folk melodies, and incorporated into "camps" of traveling worship services.  Then, things really took off.  Around 1820, music education became part of typical Sunday School curriculum, and generations of Christian musicians were born.  Then came gospel hymns, evangelism crusades paired with large music events, and eventually, about 50 years ago, we see the roots of today's CCM start to take hold.


To many, the past 50 years of musical worship have been a whirlwind.  From organs to piano to brass to acoustic guitars to keyboards; and yes, even to drums and electric guitars.  An interesting dynamic enters our worship services, then.  Because all of this instrumental change happened within just a couple generations, our congregations today are made up of people who have experienced every flavor, and prefer some flavors over others.  And that's OK.  Think about it - in all of human history where instruments meet worship, these last 50 years are the only ones where worshipers had the liberty of forming a preference of one style over the other.

There's nothing inherently unholy about the synth lead screaming through a service, just as there's nothing naturally sinful about a blaring organ.  However, we get into real shaky territory when it comes to how we play these instruments in worship.  These instruments have been folded into worship music in order to add relevance while still preserving theological truth.

We are made to "sing a new song to the Lord" (Psalm 33:3, Psalm 96:1, Psalm 98:1, Psalm 144:9, Psalm 149:1, Isaiah 42:10), but are tasked with not changing a single word of God's truth (Revelation 22:18-19).  This balance pertains not only to the words we sing, but also to the instruments we play.

Yes, let creativity in instrumentation ever be part of the evolving beauty of our Creator continually revealed in music, and let that creativity ever support the worshipers' voices as we glorify God in song.  But let it not be executed in such a way that it detracts from a single word being proclaimed.  In other words, whatever instrument you play, play in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:17).

May what we play, and how we play it, bring glory to our Creator, and may we not shy away from embracing new instrumentation as it sings a new song with us all.


(Timeline drawn with help from the History of Worship.)

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What do you think? Keep the conversation going below...

You skipped a quite large area there, that has some valuable input. For the most part, there is no recorded secular music in Western Europe until you hit the 16th century. And a large part of the sacred music is all vocal music (chant, etc.) Now, there must have been folk music and secular music being played & sung, but most of it has been lost to history. As you move through the renaissance and into the 18th century, you then see a much broader expanse of music being played instrumentally, and you have the advent of the organ.

The organ then (largely in part due to Bach) takes on an incredible significance in western music through that whole century, and probably drives a lot of what we saw as traditional western church music into the 20th century. One of the keys here is that a lot of the music Bach made was purely instrumental music. And yet, he signed the majority of his pieces SDG, which stood for Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone be Glory). Using word and signing in worship is something I think we take for granted in sacred music today, when in fact that has not always been the case.

That said, he also spent about 3 years of his career writing a cantata a week for his upcoming church services. Imagine, if I asked you to write a brand new worship song every week for 3 years, and that we would perform it the following Sunday after the next rehearsal. That leaves you with 2 days to write it. Oh, and make it as complex as something like this...


In reply to by Gideon (not verified)

Yes!  The organ obviously played a great role in bringing instrumentation into worship, and has just as much of an impact on today's worshiping communities.  I love the SDG part of this all, and that's a really interesting thing to mention - worship can happen even if there aren't words being sung, and Bach's contributions show that it's not a new concept at all!

I just don't get the immense talent that Bach and similar composers have.  I just don't get it.  It goes without saying that he is gifted!!

Thanks for filling in this gap!