Monday, December 04, 2006

Leroy Garrett on Richland Hills

Leroy Garrett has written this essay about the decision at the Richland Hills Church of Christ to add an instrumental service.


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."


Len Scott said...

Thanks for the article. Growing up in a Baptist culture I have never understood the COC's stand on acapella only. Maybe you can help me with that. I thought that the tone of this article was good. If a church chooses to worship in a particular style/culture that is fine. It is when we make style a test of fellowship, or even salvation, that we fall into danger.

I would like to hear your take on the article. What does your church, I assume you are still Church of Christ, practice?

CJR said...

Len -

I think it's a great article - and a trend that is long overdue. I believe the American Restoration Movement has many good things to offer the modern evangelical community, but a cappella music, at least as a doctrinal position, isn't one of them.

I guess one way to contextualize this is the movement among many evangelical churches to have a "traditional" service and a "contemporary" service.

I would say there are fewer and fewer folks in mainstream Churches of Christ that hold non-instrumental worship as a "hard" doctrinal position. Most hold on to it because they like, are familiar with it and harbor the same concerns as our traditional instrumental brethren do about "contemporary" worship - that it's a "slippery slope" toward turning participatory worship into a spectator event.

My congregation here is still non-instrumental, but none of our leadership holds that position as a "hard" doctrine, but as a cherished tradition.

CJR said...

As a personal aside, I have to say as a person who grew up in various churches (primarily Baptist) that used instruments in worship, I found the a cappella style of C of C refreshing and one that conveyed sincerity, the equality of all believers, and the sentiment that God was the audience in worship. I never enjoyed instrumental worship services as much as a cappella - but this was probably because I grew up in small churches where the pianist and choirs were not very good, but were very loud, nonetheless.

Since then, I have had tremendous worship experiences in instrumental settings and would like to see a balanced use of instruments, performances, a cappella singing, drama, symbols, etc. used - not one style or method over another.

mlt said...

I'm alongside your aside, brother.

David Hammontree said...

One thing that is missing from all of this discussion on instrumental music is consideration for what type of music would have been found in the 1st century church. History shows that the instrument was not used by any type of church until the 3rd or 4th centuries. I want to pattern my worship services after the 1st century church -- acapella only.

Anonymous said...

As a lifetime participant in first a conservative Christian church and now an acappella congregation I am deeply moved by what Richland Hills is doing. The tone of Rick Atchley's message available on their website is great but leaves me struggling. How can we continue to frustrate our youth even one more day without at least telling them that listening to good instrumental gospel music would be our preference for them. I have heard people say for years we are losing most of our young people and have watched that come true. Anyone have a millstone? RTA

Jason said...

I think you have missed the point that God is the one who is being worshipped and that what he sets forth in the Bible as our standard for worship is the final and only word. The thought that instruments make us feel good is not what worshipping God is all about. We are not in it to feel good or get something out of worship but to put our heart and soul into it. The Bible forbids instrumental music in the worship and with Richland Hills adding it to their worship is a sad day for those who stand by God's word as the final say in worship. You would think in all of God's infinite wisdom that he would know how he wants to be worshipped and not leave it up to humans to do whatever they please.

Lauren said...

I would agree. I write from the standpoint of one who has grown up in the Church. Instruments, although not necessarily forbidden, are definitely not what God expressed a desire for, and we can find many examples of when we try to add on to what God says He wants (Nadab and Abihu, Saul offering sacrifices, etc). I think there is a definite problem with Richland Hills adding instruments to their assembly. Not only are they adding them, but if I am correct on this matter then they are adding them to a Saturday night commnunion service, which is also by no means authorized.
Believe me, I want unity in the Church as much as anyone, but not at the sake of abandoning scripture. As already mentioned, instruments were NOT used in the first century church, nor several centuries afterwards. Why is it that those who are following the example from the first century are the ones who are causing dissension, as opposed to those who are adding things on their own accord? Let's have unity, but not on OUR grounds.

Travis said...

It appears that many of the writters on this page have put very plainly how they feel about the issue. What concerns me is exactly that. The worship of God is not in the least decided by what I like or how I feel. Jesus commanded in John 4:24 that God must be worshiped in spirit and in truth. Since Jesus also made it clear in John 17:17 that God's word is truth, we must go to God's word to find the truth. In the reading of the New Testament which is what we are now under, and thus is our sole source of authority, there is not one example, inference, or command to institute a mechanical instrument in our worship. I do, however, believe that every Christian is required to use an instrument in the worship of our God, and as Ephesians 5:19 tells us, that instrument is the heart. I would like someone to prove to me, using the Bible, that it is pleasing to God for the New Testament church to use the instrument. If that cannot be proven, then why would anyone claim that it is pleasing to God. I hope and pray that the true worshipers will do exactly what can be proven to be pleasing to God, and since we know that singing in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, using the instrument of our hearts (Ephesians 5:19) is exactly what God said would please Him, then that is exactly what we should practice

Jimmy said...

Wouldn't you agree that we are commanded to "sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" to the lord, but isn't it odd that as we sing psalms, we are singing about using instruments, but we are forbidden to use them? Doesn't make sense. Furthermore, Jesus was in the Jewish temples all of the time. We know that Jewish temple worship involved instruments, so if the matter was as big as many in the mainstream Church of Christ make it out to be, don't you think that Jesus would have at least addressed the issue? The fact that the issue is left alone only shows that it isn't an issue. I think that it isn't really a matter of whether or not it (instrumental praise) is right or not, but rather an issue of being wrong all along. There are much bigger problems in the world (and in the church for that matter) than to continue to squabble about a non-issue.

Steven said...

I was taught all my life that the New Testament is silent on instrumental music.I finally read the New Testament for myself. It certainly is not silent on instrumental music. Not one time when instruments are mentioned in the New Testament is it negative. We need to stop making laws where God has not made them. That is "adding to" the Bible. Consider these New Testament verses:

The context is speaking in tongues but Paul addresses the church at Corinth and says in essence, "Even in the case of instruments such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes?" If instrumental music is wrong this would have been a perfect time for Paul to address it...He did not. (1 Corinthians 14:7)
Revelation 5:8 "Each one had a HARP...and they SANG a new song: "You are worthy..."
How can we say instrumental music is wrong when is spoken of positively in the Old and New Testaments. We need to let go of our biases and let the Bible speak and obey it.

Carving Ben said...

I am Orthodox. We preserved the Apostolic Tradition of a capella singing, and there is simply no question even being posed to change it. We are called to pass on the Apostolic Tradition within addition or subtraction. I grew up in Church of Christ, and attended Abilene Christian College (now University).
The Restoration movement may become superfluous as the possibility to reconnect with the historic Orthodoxy is now available and flourishing in many Cambellite geographical enclaves, viz., Texas and Tennessee.

Lee said...

Lee says: A good review of 1 Cor. 3 might help us all. Paul says there that the Apostolic foundation of Christ was prepared by an "expert builder" (himself). Others build upon it with various materials. And those materials will be tested by God. Some of them will endure others will be burned up - but those whose work in lost will not themselves be lost. Instrumental teaching is an instruction/belief built upon the foundation of Christ by many...that teaching in time will be tested by God...perhaps the acapella group will be wrong and God will let us all know it or maybe the reverse will happen. Be that as it may Paul tell us in this passage that Christ is the foundation, not the things we build upon the foundation...even this music issue. We will always talk and debate and study together but we must never become the "tester" and think we are in God's spot. "Tests of fellowship" are not ours to make. If the acapella group has failed they have failed here. Creating tests of fellowship is inherently divisive and should be avoided at all costs.