Music is another element of worship that effects the architecture of a sanctuary. The congregation’s beliefs about this aspect of praise is one of the most clear and immediate identifying marks of denominational affiliation and theology in the building.
The Reformation reclaimed congregational singing, insisting that the corporate body gathered for worship was to sing as part of that worship: choirs were a mark of Romanism. Organs were often classified as papal instruments as well, especially in the United Kingdom (where many were removed from churches during the Reformation), and in the American Colonies. Congregational, acapella Psalm singing was a hallmark of Protestant music. High ceilings, uncarpeted floors (with the occasional exception of aisles), and unpadded pews maximized acoustics.
Then, Isaac Watts [1674-1748] began writing hymns and setting them to contemporary tunes. Hymn writing and singing was not a new phenomenon, but Watts became a catalyst for its nearly ubiquitous acceptance and practice. He argued that the Psalms could not fully express the theology of the New Testament era because they were written before Christ; the church needed to sing hymns which told of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and second coming with New Testament clarity, and not in types and shadows. Charles Wesley agreed, and began writing hymns in such quantity that he became one of Protestantism’s most prolific song writers – a massive influence in the rise of hymnody.
Instruments, usually organs, eventually became standard as well. They were initially installed at the back of the sanctuary for two reasons: this allowed the instrument to aid the singing instead of dominate it, and pipes at the front of the sanctuary were considered distracting, diminishing the pulpit’s theological and architectural prominence. Most Protestant congregations also often permitted and even welcomed choirs to the front of sanctuaries, sometimes to lead the congregation in singing, but sometimes to perform for them. Only a few Presbyterian denominations continued singing Psalms as a congregation with no instrumental aid.
Anglican and Lutheran churches often have large choir stalls at the front of the sanctuary, stating that there is nothing unbiblical about choirs, and that getting rid of them is a Protestant over-reaction to Roman Catholic habit.
While the traditional place of the organ in Evangelical Protestant churches was behind the congregation, Methodist churches often placed the instrument at the front of the sanctuary to emphasize the value which they, with their founders, placed on singing – an activity which flowed out of the congregation’s gratitude for the grace proclaimed from the pulpit.
Until the Victorian period, and even through it in some denominations, Presbyterian sanctuaries had no pipes, no organ bench, no choir stalls, and thus even more space at the front of the sanctuary around the pulpit, emphasizing the prominence of the Word, in accordance with their firm, Calvinist approach to worship.
John Scotford comments that Protestants have traditionally “majored on appeal to the ear through preaching and singing. The latter art survived because Martin Luther, the Wesleys and many others of the Protestant faith were mighty men of song…in Protestant churches there is a great deal to be heard but very little to be seen” (The Church Beautiful, 2).
Today, music in Protestant worship in the English speaking world ranges from Presbyterian groups who continue singing Psalms acapella, to “traditional” congregations (from Lutheran to Baptist to Methodist, etc.) who have organs, choirs, classic hymns, and a general continuation of Victorian musical standards, to contemporary churches who use full worship bands, soloists, and songs written as recently as possible. Every variation possible seems to be out there somewhere, and sanctuaries reflect this. Many Reformed Presbyterian sanctuaries have no architectural evidence of music, “traditional” congregations have massive organs and choir stalls, while contemporary churches construct large stages, with microphones, lights, and drum kits.
While concerns about legalism and music may have been legitimate in past generations, antinomian approaches to church music seem to be proliferating. We cannot assume that what we are doing is biblical, whether we are following a tradition or breaking new ground. Our often haphazard theology of music will lead to sanctuaries that are theologically out of balance. It is helpful to get past the worship wars and examine our theological convictions and denominational backgrounds according to Scripture’s pattern and instruction.
Is our singing corporate, aiding our unity as a worshipping body? Is what we sing biblical? Edifying? Excellent? Singable for a congregation that is not professionally trained? Are the instruments distracting? Does the music dominate or drown out the congregation, or support it? Is there any element which turns the music into a performance to be observed instead of an aid to corporate praise? Does it compete with or compliment the preached Word and sacraments? Perhaps most of all, does our music reflect the reality that we are saved sinners coming before our Maker, Redeemer, and Judge who requires our best, most careful, joyful worship?
What happens musically in a service can set the tone for the entire time, regardless of the rest of the liturgy. In a church where music is more vital to the congregation than the preached Word, architectural manifestations of the music can dominate the sanctuary. What we believe about singing and instrumentation will be clear in the arrangement of our sanctuaries. And while it is not as essential as the right preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments, singing to the Lord is commanded, and so deserves our careful theological and architectural attention. Scripture speaks so much of this aspect of worship and Christian life that we cannot afford to neglect it. “[B]e filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” [Eph. 5:18b-19].