Why We Need to Stop Fighting about Music in Church

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Published:
March 16, 2022

Pastor Marcos Torres and musician Maxwell Aka have teamed up to produce a series that takes an in-depth look at worship music in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In this joint interview, Marcos and Max explain why worship is more important than the mission, how divine mandates about music styles dont exist, and why it doesnt matter that a time-traveling Ellen G. White would despise the music they make.

Question: Marcos Torres and Maxwell Aka, together you have created a new podinar series—a podcast seminar—about worship music. When did you publish the first episode, and when did the last one drop?

Marcos: The first episode of Deconstructing the Adventist Worship Wars” dropped August 23, 2021. We published the final Q&A episode last month, in February 2022. So in total, the entire project took roughly six months to complete.

Why did you decide to get into this topic?

Marcos: The reason why we decided to cover this topic—at least from an ideological perspective—is that the issue of worship and music in the Seventh-day Adventist church is symptomatic of much deeper problems that adversely affect our ability to do mission, especially in our post-church age. Music is just one obvious place where those deeper problems come to the surface, so it is a great medium to engage them.

And how did you team up together?

Max: In terms of what practically brought about the collaboration, I had been working on a video series for the Adventist Learning Community entitled ReFrame Adventist Worship.” The goal of that series was to unpack the various dimensions of the debate around music and worship in the Adventist Church and to provide some kind of antidote for what I believe to be rampant misinformation that dominates this conversation.

I had been aware of Marcos and his ministry online for a while, but we actually connected after he saw some of my work on that series.

Marcos: Max is a professional musician and former music pastor. But those aren’t the reasons I decided to do the series with him. What led to that was Max’s video series on the iBelieveBible YouTube channel.

I always enjoy interviewing thinkers who don’t fit the conservative/liberal mold because I consider myself to be nonconformist as far as those labels are concerned. So when I heard this theologically conservative, doctrinally rich, critical thinker with the Kirk Hammett hair, non-preppy rock/metal vibe thing going on I was like, Okay, this is different, and I’m loving it.”

Can you explain in a little more detail what the series is about?

Marcos: The series is about confronting the underlying assumptions that fuel the worship wars to begin with. Where do these assumptions come from? What agendas did their original proponents have? How do these assumptions line up with the character of God? And how do they impact our ability to share the gospel in a culturally diverse world? Exploring this is what the series is all about.

Max: Our goal was to classify the kinds of arguments that come up in the Adventist worship debate, and then to address them one by one. The series is about the kinds of decisions we have to make as a community about our corporate worship practices—musical or otherwise.

The series addresses the issue of private music listening for entertainment, as well as music as a creative undertaking that people do for fun, as a career, or as a spiritual practice. And I guess it’s also about hermeneutics and how to integrate theological knowledge with other forms of knowledge.

The series is 13 hour-long episodes, plus a Q&A at the end. Why did you decide to do such a deep dive into worship music? How did you decide to split up the subject into separate topics?

Max: I think the deep dive” approach is necessary at this point. A meager 13 hours is pretty slim compared to the decades-long ministries” that some folks have made out of spreading myths and fables about music. The whole podinar series is the length of an audiobook.

Meanwhile, I can’t begin to imagine the cumulative size of every book, sermon, DVD series, Bible study, Sabbath school group, Bible class, and so on that has been dedicated to lying to people about the nature of rhythm, the nature of instruments in the Bible, and the supposed application of Ellen G. White’s writings. If anything, what people should find most surprising is that a mere 13 hours is enough time to pretty much demolish generations’ worth of false claims.

In terms of the topic split, I gave Marcos this basic outline for the series that I put together based on how I’ve personally observed the arguments clustering together. So thematically, the show covered:

–      Racism and culture

–      Music theory (and history) relating to rhythm

–      Philosophy and science

–      What I call The Theme of Sacrifice” as it pertains to purity laws, the sanctuary, sacrifices, explicit divine commands about worship, and holiness” as it relates to cultural artifacts

–      Emotions (including so-called negative” ones) and the Bible

–      Themes of protest, resistance, and counter-culture in music and the Bible

–      The eternal conflict of Old vs. New”

–      Ellen White’s writings and Adventist history

Your argument is that a lot of our beliefs—as well as our preferences in music—are cultural, rather than biblical. But is it so bad to make choices based on our culture and society?

Max: I would actually say that it’s perfectly fine for some worship practices to be based in local cultures, including in Europe and North America. The problem is that in areas where scripture has pretty objectively left room for flexibility and variation, some cultures have imposed artificial boundaries of imaginary orthodoxy” that limit the Christian freedom of other cultural groups in the church.

I don’t think we ever claim that Adventist theological beliefs are cultural, but I do think we argue that musical preference can’t be justified as a theological belief.

Do you think worship music in the Adventist church is too homogenous and doesn't take into account the many different societies and cultures it is a part of? For instance, I attended an Adventist church in East Africa, and while it was somewhat comforting to be singing the same hymns as the church I grew up in in the eastern US, it seemed like we were missing the opportunity to enjoy musical influences from the country we were in! It felt like the Adventist Church was trying to make everyone conform to its nineteenth-century New England roots, rather than adapting to the very different society it found itself in.

Max:  I have had literally this exact same experience in both East African and East Asian contexts. So yes, there is a problem of homogeneity in Adventist worship.

There is, of course, diversity as well. The Black church in particular has always had a very distinctive culture of music and worship, and one of the things we mention in the podcast series is that Black Christianity has contributed enormously to the creation of most forms of modern music.

I grew up playing guitar in Caribbean-Canadian churches in the Toronto area, so I always knew that there was something distinctive about Black expressions of Christian worship. I also spent a lot of my time in East Asian Adventist circles (because of my heritage) and found that in these communities, some kind of proximity to European culture was essentially normative for worship, and the closest we came to cultural contextualization was singing Western hymns translated into Japanese.

In many ways, I think the Black church is several steps ahead of the rest of the church in creating distinctive, culturally-relevant worship practices, and in that regard, I think there’s still a long way to go before we start seeing the gospel expressed and experienced in ways that are more idiomatic for all our members.

In our denomination, membership is diverse, but worship is not.

How is the argument over worship music different or the same as it is in other Protestant churches? Or other religions?

Max: Obviously different denominations are going to have different hermeneutical and overall theological strategies, so it really varies according to what tradition any given group has inherited. And that makes it hard to make a broad statement about how we differ from everyone else. Adventism will present more or fewer similarities with other communities’ worship practices depending on who we are comparing ourselves to.

But I find this question really interesting because in some ways Adventism represents the inversion of how cultural artifacts are evaluated in conservative North American Protestantism. For your typical conservative Adventist, meat-eating, rock bands in church, and belief in immortal souls would all be markers of either liberalism or apostasy. In conservative evangelicalism, vegetarianism, traditional liturgical worship, and annihilationism are often regarded as hallmarks of theological liberalism.

It’s kind of counterintuitive for those of us stuck inside of the Adventist cultural bubble, but in the broader Protestant world (at least in North America), the theological conservatives are using auto-tune, trap beats, smoke machines, and stage lights while the theological liberals are reading from the Book of Common Prayer. I have always found that both really interesting and also somewhat indicative of our isolation as Adventists.

The other big factor that really defines the difference in the music debate between Adventists and other conservative Protestants is, unsurprisingly, Ellen G. White. I think the broader Protestant world has come around on the fact that whether people personally dislike modern music styles or not, there really is no biblical grounds for excluding them. Sola Scriptura” actually does some heavy lifting there for evangelicals. For Adventists, Ellen White’s words in Selected Messages, Book 2 (36) about the 1900 Indiana Camp Meeting basically turn into a kind of Rorschach test. Whatever prejudices, anxieties, or misconceptions people have, seem to get very easily projected into her words.

I have heard many people theorize on the basis of her writings about what should be excluded from worship, but I have never seen the traditionalist side of Adventism actually produce specific, positive instructions about what God actually wants us to do in worship, outside of obvious things like reading scripture or prayer. In my experience, most of the appeals people make to Ellen G. White about music expose themselves as desperately ad hoc very quickly. But it will take a lot of re-explaining and careful detail work to help people actually see that.

Who is the target audience for this podcast? Are you trying to convince older people to give up their prejudices and get more on the same page as younger people? Do you think this is a generational divide?

Max: For me, I think the audience is whoever is willing to actually listen. If this discussion can convince die-hard traditionalists to reconsider their position, that’s great. If it helps those with a more inclusive view to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that this conversation creates, that’s also great.

This conversation includes a generational divide, but it definitely goes beyond age. When I was younger, some of the most passionate advocates of hymns-only, no-drums” worship philosophy were the same age as me, and I still occasionally run into folks with that perspective who are now younger than me. It is just as much an issue of theological culture as it is of age. It depends on who people are listening to and reading from.

There was a short time in my life when I was playing in bands while also listening to a lot of mid-2000’s Ivor Myers sermons. From that experience, I came to understand that there are people like me trying to navigate Adventism while carrying a massive load of cognitive dissonance. Some of them are young, some of them are much older. All of them are struggling to reconcile the common-sense reality of how music works with the strange, inconsistent, and factually inaccurate claims made about music by Adventist conservatives.

That, to me, is a bigger issue than mere age. We have a whole episode in the series dedicated to the dynamic of old vs. new.” The phenomenon of prejudice against new” things is a centuries-old phenomenon. Yesterday’s rebellious rockers are today’s grumpy old men. Corey Taylor of Slipknot has said that he hates all new rock music. You can find clips of Snoop Dogg mocking the vocal styles of recent so-called mumble rappers.” I want people to see that having pejorative and dismissive views towards youth culture is just a really old and well-worn form of worldliness, not a badge of righteousness and discernment.

Who have your listeners been so far?

Marcos: It’s hard to know with real accuracy, but we have had over 15,400 plays so far. The top five global locations are the US, Australia, Canada, the UK, and Austria. But we have also had lots of messages from people in Africa—particularly Kenya. Surprisingly, we have had super positive feedback from both older and younger Adventists. So the content has had a cross-generational impact as well.

What do you think Ellen White would have to say about worship music if she were around today?

Marcos: My view on this is nowhere near as philosophically profound as Max’s, so I’ll let him do most of the answering on this one. But in the same way that we can see Ellen White growing and nuancing her views, at times expanding or changing her mind on things, while she was alive, a sci-fi Ellen who time-traveled to our generation would likely do the same thing. She would take the time to listen and grow and develop views in harmony with scripture. I think that centered and wise approach is something that she certainly developed more and more in her life and as a part of who she was as a person.

Max: I don’t know that it’s particularly useful to speculate what historical figures would say if they were placed in radically different circumstances than their own. If anything, that kind of speculation just reinforces a contextless, verbally inspired” reading of Ellen White that doesn’t actually reflect Adventist theology.

If we imagine her coming into our world today, we have to also imagine the circumstances bringing her into our era affecting her perception of history, culture, and reality itself. If she had been born in the mid-1990s, would she have grown up thinking that rap was just a normal part of the world and musical culture? If she were brought into 2022 in a time machine, would the world we live in even be comprehensible to her?

I think the more salient point would be that if Ellen White were to adopt the arguments used today by Adventist traditionalists about syncopation, music history, and the human body, then Ellen White would be wrong, because those arguments are objectively inaccurate. Granted, many of today’s Adventist traditionalists seem to think their arguments are based on Ellen White, but I would contest that even Selected Messages, Book 2 doesn’t actually offer grounds to dismiss all (or even most) modern music styles, and that’s just a matter of agonizingly basic hermeneutics.

I’m pretty confident that a time-traveling Ellen White would absolutely despise the music I make, and that doesn’t bother me at all because the same Bible that governs my faith and practice also governs the use of the gift of prophecy in the church, and there’s no biblical precedent for divine mandates about music styles.

How do you think the discussion about music in the divine service is different in Australia vs. Europe or the US or Latin America or other places? Are the "culture wars" the same?

Marcos: The worship wars manifest differently in diverse settings, but there is a common theme that seems to unite most conservative Adventist tension on this topic that pops up everywhere I have been (I grew up in New Jersey, lived in Hawaii and Tennessee, and now in Australia). That theme is rhythm. In regard to that element of the worship wars, I have found it to be the same everywhere.

Max: I don’t think we can even confidently say that the worship wars are exactly the same even between two Adventist churches in the same city. The particular issues that come up for people when it comes to worship practice and music are always going to be different. What does seem to be standard across Adventism is some kind of fixation on rhythm and drums. And for reasons we explore in the series, I think this anxiety about rhythm has the potential to morph into numerous other kinds of theological problems.

What kind of worship music do you prefer?

Marcos: Oh man, I have like the most eclectic taste in music ever. I’m not sure I have a preference. I like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and I like Skillet. I listen to folk, rap, country, ambient, Celtic, French, Salsa, and the list goes on. My favorite music style by far is Chillstep, and I love urban DJ remixes as well. If I can find worship music in any of those styles, I’m happy. As far as worship groups are concerned, I’m not a big fan of Hillsong or Bethel style. My favorite would have to be Common Hymnal because it combines praise and protest together, so it's worship with a social conscience.

Max: When it comes to what you could reasonably expect to hear in church, my first choice would likely be a tie between gospel music and old traditional hymns, depending on my mood. Typical CCM” (Christian Contemporary Music) fare is fine but I don’t usually find the genre particularly interesting or inspiring. There are plenty of individual good songs, and I have often led out this music style because I know it’s meaningful to a lot of people, but it’s just not my thing. In terms of personal devotional life and private listening time, Christian Rap and especially Christian Metal are what really speak to my heart.

Do you think it's okay to choose a church based on one's own musical preferences?

Max: If that’s the only consideration someone is making, then no, I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to join or not join a congregation. Some of my fondest memories are in churches with hymns-only worship. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t voluntarily join a church where the leadership made music style a matter of doctrine. To me, that’s an immediate red flag for theological incompetence. So if you’re only singing hymns, that’s great! If you’re saying any other way is wrong,” then I’m not expecting good Bible teaching here.

Don't you think the Adventist church has grown much more tolerant of different musical styles and instrument choices? Haven't we managed to move on a little bit?

Max:  I think it depends on where you are. There has for sure been progress, but I get the sense that it’s actually largely centered in the Americas. Various places in the US, Canada, the Caribbean, and Brazil have contemporary music cultures to various extents. But as we already mentioned, I don’t think we have done anything to encourage or facilitate the use of indigenous instruments or music styles in the various world mission fields. Eurocentrism seems to be the name of the game.

In some ways, old prejudices have just been swapped out for new ones. I know that there are quite a number of aspiring rappers in the church—some wanting to be pro or semi-pro, and some who are just independent grassroots artists who want to express themselves. The church has barely moved at all when it comes to hip-hop. And while I don’t think we need to get all the old folks in our churches rapping, I do think we need to create space for people with that skill set to contribute to the life and mission of the church. And we need to create an atmosphere in the church that isn’t just immediately hostile to people who show an affinity for hip-hop culture.

What little acceptance there is for rap absolutely dwarfs the acceptability of metal and hard rock sub-genres. As a metal musician myself, I know that hip-hop fans in the church will endure all the scorn and slander the church can dish out on them, only to turn around and write off heavy rock sub-genres as inherently demonic.

Also, the tentative acceptance or toleration of certain instruments or even music styles in church is not the same as the development and emergence of a corresponding music culture. My own worship leading experience has taught me that it’s way easier to get a conservative congregation to tolerate a drum set than it is to get them to clap their hands.

Dancing is a bridge I think most people are still not ready to cross. Hand-raising and prostration are still fringe in terms of frequency, and usually awkwardly out of place when they do happen. And those things are explicitly biblical! So the issue is about much more than just the mere presence of certain instruments but the development of a genuinely Adventist culture that is participatory enough to make diverse music styles meaningful and practical for the church.

Why is worship music a big deal anyway? Is this topic really worth so much time?

Marcos: It depends. If the debate revolves around what music I like versus what music you like, yes, it’s a waste of time. But that’s not what our podcast is about. In fact, our goal isn’t to get people to upgrade their worship at church or change their style of music.

The main focus of our series is to address the underlying assumptions that fuel the worship wars because these ideas show up in other aspects of our culture as well and have an adverse effect on our mission. These underlying assumptions are rooted in racism, cultural elitism, Eurocentrism, pseudo-science, anti-intellectualism, colonialism, and more. There is just no way we can be a church that is cozy with the garbage that stems from these systems of thought and be successful at the mission Christ has given us. These ideas need to be exposed, repented of, and replaced by Christlike thinking if we wish to have a meaningful impact in our world.

Max:  This is also something we covered in the podcast. One of the episodes we did about philosophy and science (see Episode 4 of Season 5) touched on the way that utilitarian modes of thinking can sometimes deflect the conversation about worship—usually when someone from the more progressive side starts to make a point. Does worship really matter that much?” they will say. Shouldn’t we be focused on the mission?”

This, to me, is so catastrophically naive that I don’t really know where to begin. One day the mission of the church will be over and done with, and all we will be left with is worship. It’s one of the main things we were made for as human beings. Not only that, but worship is a vital part of the mission. We aren’t just inviting people to add their names to a list and give mental assent to a series of propositions. We invite people to become participants in the life of the church, and worship is one of the crucial and indispensable parts of discipleship and spiritual growth that all Christians must participate in. Worship is quite literally the thing we do together the most as Christians. If that worship space is a war zone, then we are sabotaging both our mission to the world and our discipleship among ourselves. And more often than not, I think the conversation about worship music is only secondarily about the music itself, and primarily about power.

It reminds me of the scenes in John 12 and Matthew 26 where women pour our expensive perfumes on Jesus, and the people around (Judas in John’s gospel) start raising practical and financial objections. The perfume was a waste of money.” The music conversation is a waste of time and effort.” But Jesus responds with words about beauty, value, and leaving people alone who are serving him in ways we don’t understand. 

Can you tell us a little bit more about your pastoral work and different projects?

Marcos: I am a pastor in the Western Australian Conference, currently church planting a unique model of church designed for post-church missional engagement. I am also the founder of The Story Church Project, which is an online ministry aiming to train and equip a new generation of Adventist urban, post-Christian missionaries. Pretty much everything I do is aimed at resourcing and empowering that vision.

Max:  For the last few years I have been working on projects like iBelieveBible and The Haystack for the Adventist Learning Community.

 

Read a previous Spectrum interview with Marcos Torres and his previous columns for Spectrum.

 


Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum

Title photo: Marcos Torres (left) and Maxwell Aka (right)

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