A Moment of Transcendence: A Study of Music and the Church


Over the past decade, music has become a huge part of human culture. “Gangnam Style” was the first music video to reach over 1 billion views, which initially broke the YouTube view counter. The song not only received much success on YouTube, but also stocks for PSY’s company skyrocketed in anticipation for his next release. According to Business Insider, single music sales have increased almost three times in the past decade. Indeed, music has become an integral part of human culture. In this digital age, music has become an easily-acquired solace for many people. Ironically, even though music has become very accessible, musical styles have become narrow. With the evolution of music toward heavier bass and catchy beats, the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry has started to boom in the hopes of attracting younger listeners and worshipers. Hymns, chorales and other forms of worship popular in the last century have become obsolete in this new era of popular culture. CCM has evolved to offer young Christians a chance to listen to music in the same style as its contemporaries. However, the shift in style raises many controversies on its appropriateness in a religious setting. Conservatives believe that the music disrespects God because it associates God too much with worldly culture. This project will explore the evolution of music at the founding of the Christian Church by first discussing the changes in two specific songs: “Because He Lives” and “Amazing Grace.” It will then discuss the structural, lyrical, and stylistic changes of music throughout the history of the Church. Finally, it will form an argument on the question of CCM’s appropriateness in worship.


Because He Lives

Heritage Singers: 1976


One of the most beloved songs for worship is “Because He Lives” originally by Bill Gaither. This is a song of praise and adoration for God’s love. It is a narrative that tells the story of Jesus’s sacrifice and the future it creates for sinners. The chorus centers on three “Because He lives” statements that are directed toward the future. Because He lives, sinners are able to face tomorrow, lose all fear, and give all control to God. Life is worth living because God has washed away all sin and has given hope to sinners for a better future. The focus on this song is God’s work; it discusses very little of human works and actions. This recording is made by the “Heritage Singers” in 1976. Although recorded only a few decades ago, the style of music is extremely different from Matt Maher’s version, discussed below, which was released in 2014. The song is sung in the traditional four part harmony, and there are very little instrumentals.

Matt Maher: 2014


In this version of “Because He Lives,” the focus of the lyrics looks at Jesus’s resurrection in a different perspective. The first verse begins with 3 “I believe” statements. Because “I believe in the Son,” who rose again, then “by the power of his blood, I am alive.” The word “I” and “I’m” appear in the lyrics 18 total times. In the original song, it appears 5 and 0 times, respectively. The stark difference implies a huge shift away from God and towards the self. In many cases, this is not an ideal situation. Many bible verses talk about shedding the “old, egotistical self” and receiving the “new, humble self” (Ephesians 4:22, 24). A faithful Christian should be content with the role of the “backseat driver” (TobyMac, 2015) and allow God to be the center of his/her life. However, in this case, Matt Maher chooses to use “I” because it allows for a proclamation of faith. “Because He Lives” acts as a prayer. It proclaims that Jesus has died and risen, and through his sacrifice, all believers are reborn. The repetition of “amen” allows for a humbling and acceptance of God’s mercy and grace. The singer of the song wishes for his voice to join the “song that never ends,” implying his fear and love for his God. Although the song begins with “I,” it returns back to God in the end. The song understands that without God, there is nothing. The use of “I” is not a way of rejecting God’s way, but rather, it is a way of praising God by offering one’s life up to him. Although the musical style of the song is much bigger and louder than the one by Heritage Singers, it does not seem to interfere with its goal: to praise God for the lives he has given to humans. On the contrary, the contemporary style appeals much more to youth than the traditional style by Heritage Singers.


Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)

Olney Hymns: 1779


“Amazing Grace” is one of the most popular songs in the Christian music industry. It has been translated into multiple languages and is a loved song among Christians and non-Christians alike. Even a man without faith cannot deny the pure love and hope that this song offers. “Amazing Grace” is a narrative of a man who was lost and blind, but through God was saved. Grace not only saved the sinner, but also taught his “heart to fear.” God promises to be a “shield” and to bring believers through “dangers, toils and snares” into a place that is “bright shining as the sun,” as long as they fear and respect his power. Although the earth will dissolve and men will shed their mortal coil, God will save the soul for “ten thousand years.” Undoubtedly this song speaks a message that allows for hope and redemption. Here God is painted as the all-powerful and all-merciful God, who is willing to save all sinners if they will believe and fear his power. The focus of this song is purely on God’s amazing grace and his ability to save the soul even when the mortal body returns to dust. This recording attempts to recreate “Amazing Grace” in an older style by using an older score. Thus, the instrumentals are simple. However, because it is an imitation, it is difficult to fully understand its original style. For example, musicians sometimes strayed away from the actual written bass line and improvised their own. Thus, the original score can give some idea of the piece, but the actual music and the way it was played is lost.

Chris Tomlin: 2008


Chris Tomlin’s version of “Amazing Grace” peaked in the Christian billboards at number 3. It is probably the most famous version of “Amazing Grace” today. This version of the song is similar to the original by John Newton, but it introduces a new chorus in the song: “My chains are gone.” Again, although the focus is on the human self, it returns to God’s undying grace at the end of the verse. The chorus is an extended metaphor of a prison in which the sinner is the prisoner and the Devil is the warden. However, God, with his “unending love and amazing grace,” breaks the chains of sin and ransoms sinners away from their cells. This song also omits some of the verses in the original and ends with the penultimate verse. This new ending seems more appropriate in this era. The last words in this version are: “But God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.” Today, there are many people suffering, both physically and emotionally. In this secular era, many Christians need help to maintain their faith. This last line offers the hope they need. During times of suffering, not only is God present, but he calls from the gaping abyss, implying that suffering is a part of God’s will. There is no greater suffering than the passion of Christ, and yet, Christ endured and was resurrected. Martin Luther says, “It is God’s nature to make something out of nothing; hence one who is not yet nothing, out of him God cannot make anything . . . He has mercy only on the wretched” (Keller, 49-50). Through suffering, God molds a sinner and allows him to be redeemed and saved.


Music Evolution in the Church

Hebrew worship music: Psalm 23


Even before the founding of the Christian church, Hebrews and Jews worshipped God through music and song. Miriam, Moses’s sister, burst out in a famous song of praise after the crossing of the Red Sea. Ancient Hebrew music relied mostly on vocals; instruments were rarely used (Talley). Singing was a way for studying scripture by facilitating a faster memorization of verses and passages. The structures of the songs are simple: they are taken almost directly out of scripture. It is acapella and sung in a one-line melody, producing a subdued and calm effect. Music before the church was not used to develop a relationship with God. Rather, it was used as a way to easily commit scripture to memory in a time without many books and writing.

Early Church Music: Blagosloven jesi Gospodi


The early Church took many musical ideas from the Jewish synagogues. Just like Hebrew music, early hymns were used as a means for devotion and learning. The musical style in the early church remained simple and almost inelegant. There was little instrumental and accompaniment. Many were groups of monks singing in unison, which makes for a simple, but quickly dull performance. Singing was done in unison with one simple melody line. Many songs were acapella with no backup or harmony. However, in a time in which monks were mostly secluded, the pieces did not need to be interesting. They were used as a tool to help monks with their daily devotions, and thus, they did not need to be well written or intricate. They were rarely performed for the public. Although many ideas were similar with Jewish culture, new lyrics and styles of music emerged. Spiritual songs such as Alleluias began to be sung in churches. Early praise hymns, such as “O Gladsome Light,” were written, which presented a different theological perspective than the ones from hymns based verbatim from scripture.

The Great Schism: Valaam Monastery, O Gladsome Light


As mentioned above, “O Gladsome Light” was one of the first hymns written. During the Great Schism, the Roman Catholic and the Protestants split, and thus, there was a change in Christian music. Around the 11th century, polyphonic music began to gain popularity. Monks started to chant in intervals of fourths or fifths instead of in unison. Organs and accompaniment instruments started to be installed in churches around the Western world. With the introduction of music and polyphonic music, understanding of the lyrics began to blur, and many Christians argued about this controversy. Much like CCM today, polyphonic music was called “distorted and intoxicating” by Pope John XXII (Talley).

Baroque Period: J.S. Bach, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring


Romantic Period: Jean Sibelius, Finlandia


The advent of the Baroque and Classical era of music introduced a huge revival in Church music. Great composers, such as Haydn, Bach, and Mozart wrote many pieces dedicated to God. Music became a sort of meditation because many of the classical pieces were without lyrics. From only notes, music was able to share the same message as the chants from the early Church. In “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the constant moving notes gives a continuity to the piece, which parallels the constancy of God. Other pieces, such as chorales and cantatas, were used with lyrics. Bach’s cantatas were a blend of Scripture quotations and introspective choruses to illustrate the connection between the human body and the Holy Bible (Talley). The rise of the great composers allowed Church music to add a new dimension. Many lyricists used melodies from famous pieces, such as Sibelius’s “Finlandia.” The complex and intricate melodies and harmonies in these pieces allowed for Church music to achieve a certain grandeur never achieved before.



NEEDTOBREATHE’s “Brother” peaked number 1 on the Christian Billboard in the summer of 2015. It is personally one of my favorite. Like many of its contemporaries, it focuses more on the human self; in the lyrics, it has little mention of God or the divine. However, it does offer a promise: “When the night winds are driving on, [I will] be the one to the light the way, and bring you home.” Luke 2:52 says that “Jesus grew in favor with God and man.” Thus, Christians not only have to grow with God, but also they have an obligation with other humans. Jesus said that to “love your neighbor as yourself” is one of the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:30-31). “Brother” embraces the golden rule; it is a song about love and compassion for a fellow human. In a world full of grief and suffering, this song offers hope because it implies that friends and family will bond together to triumph adversity. Metaphorically, if God is the Father, Jesus is a brother. This is a song that Jesus sings to us, his brothers. He will be the “shelter,” the “fortress,” and the “light that brings [us] home.”



Music styles has inevitably changed drastically since the early church. Songs that once contained only one melody line have come not only to incorporate multiple voices and melody lines but also encompass more lyrics than specific scripture passages. The importance of music has not changed across the centuries. Augustine said that “those who sings prays twice” (Westermeyer, 2013). Songs as prayer and meditation has been an integral part in Christian worship ever since the Great Schism in 1054. Thus, it is no surprise that the validity of CCM has come under investigation. Conservatives worry that CCM defiles the sacred nature of worship music; Matt Maher’s “Because He Lives” is undeniably different from “O Gladsome Light.” However, as time changes, so should humans change to adapt. The shift towards CCM is a result of the revolutions in the 21st century. In the past decade, the rise of technology and the popularity of liberalism has put stress on the Christian community. CCM is a response to the world’s changes, and it offers an even stronger relationship between God and humans.

At the time of early Christianity, the Church held much power, and they were a strict and orderly society. Monks lived ascetically, never allowed to marry or follow the wealth of the world. Thus, early church music involved only scripture and voices. Instruments and harmony were seen as distractions to the real purpose of music (Morris, 2010). The music that resulted was thus very simple and God-focused. Christianity was an accepted religion in the Middle Ages, and thus, followers of faith did not feel the need to use music as a way to proclaim their faith, but rather, as a way to strengthen it.

By the time of Martin Luther and the Great Schism, the Church had broken into two major denominations: the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. From here, not only would their beliefs differ, but so would their musical styles. When baroque music became popularized, many composers, such as Haydn, wrote music for the church. It became dramatic and majestic. Many of these pieces used a full string orchestra. Sometimes the music used no lyrics. The Catholic Church disagreed with this movement, saying that it distracted and distorted the purpose of music (Talley). However, a singer that I interviewed believed that singing chorales and other forms of classical music does not blur the purpose, but rather it brings her closer with her faith.

Because of the changes in style, it is understandable that music’s purpose has also shifted since the early church. Before, its use was simply as a way to remember scripture and devotions. With today’s technology, this purpose of music is obsolete. Instead, worship today is used as a way to develop a communal atmosphere within a congregation. Mr. Colloton, a director of education for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, says that worship should indeed be communal because not only should humans love God, but also each other (Colloton, 2009). By having a communal worship, it allows for a group of people who are fundamentally different, but come together in worship to God. At the Christ Tomlin concert that I attended in October, I was stunned by the way music brought together a group of people that never knew each other. The entire amphitheater was united through music and under God. Music may be evolving towards something that is very different from original church music, but its ability to promote a communal environment has not changed. On the contrary, it may have even improved. In today’s world, people need hope, and CCM, although focused more on humans, offers that solace, and from my experiences at the concert, it has not failed to return to God and the heart of worship.



Music has undeniably changed throughout the centuries, but its nature has remained constant. Since the time when humans banged on leaves and rocks to make sound, music has been an integral part of society. In many ways, music is the language of God. Even people without faith cannot argue with music’s transcendent nature. Many of the best composers of worship music, such as Vaughan Williams and Johannes Brahms, were atheists. Regardless of the origin of music, it allows for listeners to enter a state of spiritual awakening. When a group of worshippers come together, their origins and future loses their purposes for an instant. Instead, they are all united under a common banner. In essence, music is unity. If we can somehow find a way to unite a world ravaged by differences, then we will surely find peace.

Indeed, Music today is used as a way to express emotions without words. It is difficult to describe God with man-made language, just like how it is hard to have a real representation of a tesseract. Music is something that is much less artificial than words; it is something that transcends this world. An Arab and a Chinese may not understand each other’s language, but let them listen to Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachian Waltz” and they will surely feel a sense of nostalgia and peace. Music is a way that people can connect with other people. Confucian said that every person is connected with each other: “Our mouths agree in having the same relishes; . . . Our eyes agree in recognizing the same beauty, our minds also agree in feeling the same objects” (Liu, 50). We all see music in the same way: as a way to depart from this world, if only for an instant. Music is ephemeral and elusive. Unlike a photo, music cannot be separated from its temporal constraints. Music and time are inextricable. Perhaps it is this relationship that makes music transcendent, just a wrinkle in time.




Bach, Johann Sebastian. 1723. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwWL8Y-qsJg

Colloton, P. 2009. “Professional Concerns: Contemporary Praise and Worship music and Roman Catholic Worship, Part I. Pastoral Music, 33(5), 38-38, 40.

Foley, Edward. 2015. “Music and spirituality—introduction.” Religions 6 (2): 638-41.

Heritage Singers. 1976. “Because He Lives.” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVvsfvthSOo

Liu, Xiusheng. 2003. Mencius, Hume, and the foundations of ethics. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Love Ran Red. By Chris Tomlin. The Koka Booth Amphitheatre at Regency Park, Cary. 15 Oct. 2015. Performance.

Maher, Matt. 2014. “Because He Lives.” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBvU7arNhQs

Morris, Anne. 2010. “Music in Worship: The Dark Side.” Practical Theology 3 (2): 203-17.

NEEDTOBREATHE. 2015. “Brother.” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61Wm_qlVD4Q

“The Theology and Place of Music in Worship.” Accessed November 1, 2015. https://www.rca.org/resources/theology-and-place-music-worship

TobyMac. “Backseat Driver.” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kME_Q5V82Us

Tomlin, Chris. “Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone).” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jbe7OruLk8I

Westermeyer, Paul. 2013. “Music and Spirituality: Reflections from a Western Christian Perspective.” Religions 4 (4): 567-583.

Sibelius, Jean. 1899. “Finlandia.” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5zg_af9b8c

Trueman, C. N. 2015. “The Medieval Church.” March 5. Accessed November 11, 2015. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval-england/the-medieval-church/

Valaam Monastery. “O Gladsome Light.” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h243a2Vln6A

YouTube. “Psalm 23.” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p96RVPukpQk&index=19&list=PLtHwCW_cJqEy2YTdg0cQiJKR8c0jfQad8

YouTube. “Blagosloven jesi Gospodi.” Accessed November 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvGkYG12vx8


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