INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC IN CHURCHES OF CHRIST
It is significant that the Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth recently announced that it would soon have a service with instrumental music in addition to its usual services where the traditional practice of acappella singing will be preserved. It is significant not only because Richland Hills is one of our largest congregations, if not the largest, but also because it is one of our most influential churches, if not the most influential.
Unlike some of our avant garde churches, Richland Hills has been cautious and moderate in the changes it has made through the years. A number of churches have "progressed" beyond the point of any identity as Churches of Christ, and have more or less disclaimed any connection. They have not only gone "instrumental" completely, but they have taken some generic name in place of Church of Christ. They say that name is an impediment to their mission. And yet their leadership and membership are largely from Churches of Christ, and they are likely to practice communion and baptism as before. They are particularly "grace-oriented."
When I discussed this with Rick Atchley, senior minister at Richland Hills, he said being "Church of Christ" was no problem to them. He appeared to agree with what I have long said: We should be busy being what we believe a true Church of Christ should be – unsectarian, unity-minded, Christ-centered, and faithful to our heritage both in Scripture and to our Restoration tradition. That is what reformation/restoration is about – not leaving and becoming rootless, but staying and effecting renewal from within.
This is what makes Richland Hill's decision to go instrumental for even one service historic. It is something of an exemplary congregation, one that has kept its balance amidst decades of change, and it has remained loyal to its heritage in Churches of Christ. It has in fact through the years conducted workshops for our leaders on "how to do church." Are they now showing their penchant for leading the way by going (partly) instrumental?
While there are several Churches of Christ that still wear that name that are now instrumental in one service, it is not yet a trend – perhaps no more than six or eight congregations. The Jenks Church of Christ in Tulsa has the unique arrangement of simultaneous services, one acappella and one instrumental, one upstairs and one downstairs. They supposed that the instrumental service would be for the youth, but to their surprise a number of oldsters attend as well.
The Farmers Branch Church of Christ in the Dallas area also has simultaneous services Sunday a.m., a "contemporary" service in the Family Center that uses instruments, and a traditional acappella service in the sanctuary. There is a second acappella service on Sunday morning.. There is also a contemporary service on Saturday p.m., with instruments. These contemporary services use keyboard, guitars, drums. The four weekend assemblies total upward of 1500 in attendance. Considering its background as a non-Sunday school congregation (It still has no Sunday school!), Farmers Branch is a phenomenon among Churches of Christ, with dynamic leadership.
As might be expected, this innovation of having even one instrumental service is viewed with concern, if not dismay, by many in Churches of Christ. It is probable that for the foreseeable future most of our churches will remain uncompromisingly acappella. But there will almost certainly be a continuation of some congregations –the larger and the more progressive – going instrumental for one or more services. Now that Richland Hills is among that number the pace could accelerate.
Churches of Christ have such a rich tradition of acappella singing that it is unlikely that it will ever be completely abandoned. Even our most progressive congregations will almost certainly continue to do some singing without instruments. And for good reasons, one being that we often do it well. It is common for visitors to our services to comment that we don't need instruments. We can also believe that acappella music is more in keeping with the simplicity and beauty of New Testament worship.
Nor are Churches of Christ uniquely acappella, except in some American communities. Throughout the history of the church there has been a substantial presence of acappella singing, sometimes acappella only, as in the great Orthodox churches, the most ancient of denominations. All churches sometimes sing acappella, and some of the great choirs of the world use only the human voice. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland not only objects to instruments but to man-made hymnals as well. They use the hymnal that is in the Bible, the Psalms. The only scriptural hymnal! I don't know how we missed that one!
This is why I questioned the thesis of a publication by a professor at Abilene Christian University some years back on The Case for Acappella Music. I pointed out that no case has to be made for acappella singing, for reasons noted above. Beside, insofar as Churches of Christ are concerned that is not the issue. The professor's book should have been on The Case for Making Acappella Music a Test of Fellowship.
No one faults us for singing acappella. That has not been our sin. We erred when we made the use of instruments a test of fellowship and allowed it to be a divisive issue. We went wrong when we moved acappella music from being an opinion or preference to being an essential. We took it from our small t traditions, where it properly belongs, and made it part of our capital T tradition, the core gospel which we share with all believers.
And that, thank God, is what is changing – not in a trickle, but massively. Instrumental music is a dead issue in most mainline Churches of Christ. Many churches – that will adamantly remain non-instrumental — have gone on record of no longer making it a condition of fellowship. Even those who view it as a sin should they sing with an instrument no longer apply that judgment upon others.
It does not matter all that much whether Churches of Christ remain acappella or whether they become partly or completely instrumental. The church catholic has long labeled such questions as adiaphorous (matters of indifference). In our own Restoration heritage we have it in the motto: "In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love." We got off track and betrayed our own heritage when we turned opinions and methods into essentials.
What is important, whether we are acappella or instrumental or something of both, is that we love and accept all other believers as equals in Christ. How they sing in their assemblies, or how they otherwise "do church" is adiaphorous, so long as they are devoted to Christ and hold to the essentials of the faith.
History could do an irony on us, a benevolent one. Churches of Christ could end up with both instrumental and non-instrumental churches, while we remain united. That would put us where our Stone/Campbell heritage was 150 years ago. For an entire generation we had "organic" and "inorganic" congregations without a rupture in fellowship. This was the case until editor-bishops appeared who insisted that "It can be only one way," and divided us.
This transition we are going through – and remember the "law of change" is the "law of God – isn't really about instrumental music. It goes much deeper and is much more complicated. It is the old issue of "form and substance" that goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers. Is reality and truth in the form (anything material or outward) or is it in the substance (the ideal, or what's in the heart)? Or is it somehow both? Plato, for instance, held that material things are but a shadow of reality, which is mind or idea.
We are all exposed to this problem in one way or another. We know that unless baptism is a "circumcision of the heart" (Col. 2:11-12) one only gets wet. And we agree with Shakespeare in reference to prayer that "words without thoughts never to heaven go." And unless it is an act of heart and conscience the Lord's Supper is in vain. Form must have substance, and substance must have priority. Errors of the heart are far more serious than flaws in the form.
Our people are becoming more spiritually discerning, and this includes being more aware of what matters most, the heart. If the heart is right (substance) the form might be adiaphorous – or at least matters on which we can differ. Not that form is unimportant, for it is sometimes ordained of God, but our sincere responses to form might differ in detail. Foremost, God looks upon the heart, not outward appearance.
So, just how we do music — hymnals are only the Psalms, shaped notes or round notes, choirs or solos or congregational singing, acappella or instrumental – may not be that big a deal with God so long as the music is from the heart and glorifies Christ. And so we are to unloose and renounce the old fallacy that "It can be only one way."