14

My church's stated philosophy of music requires that all music used in the worship service be performed live – that is, the use of prerecorded accompaniment tracks or other audio is not permitted.

I was asked about the rationale for this, but I didn't have a good answer. One idea I had was that public use of recorded music might be a copyright violation, but on further reflection I realize that this is surely not an insurmountable obstacle. I am therefore left to assume that the rationale is primarily theological.

What are the theological reasons for forbidding the use of prerecorded music in the worship service and requiring live performances?

15

Clear statements against the use of prerecorded music have been made by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians ("On the Use of Pre-Recorded Music in the Liturgy") and Paul S. Jones (Singing and Making Music). Both emphasize two arguments:

  • Authentic worship requires active participation
  • Recordings are static and inflexible

Authentic worship through participation
The first argument, that recorded music implies inauthentic worship, rests on the idea that both musicians and congregation should be participants in worship. The NAPM writes:

The liturgy is a complex of signs expressed by living human beings. Music, being preeminent among those signs, ought to be 'live.' [...] [Recorded music] should, as a general norm, never be used within the liturgy to replace the congregation, the choir, the organist, or the instrumentalist.

Paul Jones sees recordings as a sort of "worship by proxy":

Playing a recording does not truthfully represent the real people in the church who should be offering the music. It imports commercial players from a static moment in time, from a recording studio that is likely many miles away. It is like hiring an agency to worship in our stead.

Recordings are static
The second major issue seen with prerecorded music in the worship service is its rigidity. Jones argues that recordings lack the "flexibility, subtlety, and choice" that makes music "organic" as opposed to a "single performance trapped in time." The NAPM's statement develops the argument further:

Just as the homilist must hear the Word of God and proclaim it with a knowledge and understanding of the community, so too is the musician to lead the assembly's song with a sensitivity both to the text and to the particular assembly that is singing. Different times and seasons affect the way that a particular piece of music is to be sung. Tempo and volume or accompaniment may vary according to the size of the assembly. The different thoughts and moods expressed in a hymn call for different ways of accompanying and leading the congregation from verse to verse. Pre-recorded music cannot take any of these factors into account.

Develop instead of replace
To those who argue that prerecorded accompaniments are necessary to supplement the live musicians or mask their deficiencies, Jones argues that the worship of God requires that "if we can do better, we should," and therefore calls for an emphasis on development of musicians:

Use your musicians and provide training and encouragement to those who need it. Do not mask the lack of tone or diction in your choir with backup vocals on an accompaniment CD. Build up the choir instead. If you do not know how, consult with someone who does. Any choir can improve.

Summary

Advocates of live music in worship services argue that authentic worship requires active participation, and that it is hindered by the rigidity of recordings. Development of musicians, rather than replacement of them, is part of understanding the role of music in the worship service:

Because the liturgy is an encounter between the God of Life and the human beings created in God's image, its modes of expression ought to be authentic expressions of living persons. (NAPM)


  • National Association of Pastoral Musicians, "On the Use of Pre-Recorded Music in the Liturgy" (July 12, 1991). Published in Pastoral Music, October–November 1996, 51
  • Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music (2006), 51–55.
  • What about when you don't have anyone who can play an instrument? And who says the music is "professional"? It could easily have been recorded by members of the church, rank amateurs, etc – warren Jul 20 '16 at 18:19
  • 4
    @warren I don't know that the purpose of the question is whether or not this is a good philosophy or practice (good Christians can disagree for good reasons) or even whether this argument is coherent. The question was where this practice came from, and this seems like one answer to that question. – Richard Rast Jul 20 '16 at 18:42
  • @RichardRast totally agree. Just something that came to kind when reading your answer :) – warren Jul 20 '16 at 19:04
  • 2
    @warren These authors would say to either hire someone, or encourage those who are interested to learn. Some holding this view would say that singing a capella would be preferable to using recorded music. – Nathaniel Jul 20 '16 at 19:15
1

As an amateur musician who plays both the piano and organ during our congregation's worship service, I may have a unique perspective on this. I've both played and led the congregation in musical worship. Our denomination also forbids pre-recorded music in worship services, and even excludes most musical instruments from the main worship service. (Allowed instruments include piano, organ, and orchestral string instruments (not guitar) and some wind instruments like a flute (but never brass instruments). A lot of discretion is given to the local leadership to determine what is and is not appropriate.)

Our denomination is a world-wide denomination, and the policies exist for the whole church and are not made for individual congregations, which I think is part of the reason for the strictness of the policy. We consider music to be a holy part of our worship, and believe that the music should be uplifting and holy in nature. Congregational songs are always picked from the approved hymnal. Guest musicians (usually other amateur musicians in the congregation) typically have to get their song and instrument approved by somebody in the congregation's leadership who will ensure that the musical presentation will maintain the holy nature and feeling we want associated with our main worship service.

While wholesale banning of pre-recorded music (as well as, in our case, most instruments) means we don't get some music that is still holy and uplifting, it also makes it easier for local leaders who are trying to enforce a policy designed to assist in maintaining the holiness of the meeting.

Is it fair to some pre-recorded songs that are holy? Is it fair to some brass instrument arrangements that are holy? Probably not. But I'm okay with that. In part, because it isn't my decision, and its not one I think is worth fighting, especially when there is still such a variety of options available to me as a church musician.

  • 1
    Welcome Paul, and thanks for contributing. Your experience is certainly interesting, and, based on my experience, not uncommon. If you'd like to further improve your answer, however, you could mention which denomination you belong to, and perhaps link to the denomination's policies on worship music (if they are available online) – the best answers here usually have some citations backing them up. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. Thanks! – Nathaniel Jul 20 '16 at 23:04
  • Since your denomination is worldwide, what do they do in growing areas where there are not enough members musically trained to play accompaniment? Also, is guitar specifically banned, or would that be something up to the discretion of local leadership? – Samuel Bradshaw Jul 21 '16 at 3:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.