Holiness in Church Music [ARTICLE – Adam Ferguson]

“Man Gets Lost on Way Down Aisle to Receive Christ Due to Fog Machine.” That’s the title of an article from The Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian news site. The article describes this poor guy’s attempt to go to the front of the sanctuary so he can learn how to be saved. He gets confused, and ends up wandering around aimlessly; eventually, the service is over. “Oh, well,” he says to himself, “there’s always next week.”

This is an obviously fictional (but funny) story, but it’s supposed to illustrate an important point: many churches have gone so far in implementing contemporary methods into their worship services that it is often a detriment, rather than a help.

In the last 50 years or so, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has drastically changed the landscape of church music. Churches have shifted to a more seeker-sensitive model of worship that purposefully imitates the secular music culture as closely as possible. The reason for this is understandable: by changing to a method of worship that is more palatable to the world, we will bring more people into our churches. It seems true that churches with the highest quality praise teams and most elaborate worship services typically have a higher attendance.

At this point, the arguments for and against CCM have been repeated ad nauseam. Churches that still hold to a more conservative form of worship (like mine) are certainly the minority. It is not my intention or desire to demonize those that use contemporary music; I know many churches that are doing great things for God and use modern music in their churches. It’s also important to note that the term CCM covers a lot of styles. There have been great songs come out of CCM, and not every style or change introduced by the CCM movement is harmful. However, I do believe that there are some ways in which the broader CCM movement (not to exclude some conservative churches, which can also be guilty) tends to lose sight of an important principle: the biblical requirement of holiness.

The Bible Commands Christians To Be Holy

Consider I Peter 1:14-16,

“As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.”

We are to be holy in “all manner of conversation.” All manner of conversation would certainly include our music, and the way we worship. Pastor Wayne Hardy of Bible Baptist Church in Stillwater, Oklahoma (where I grew up) wrote an excellent book called The Great Exemption. This book deals with a problem that many Christians have in their thinking when it comes to music: they assume that only those verses that specifically deal with music can be applied to music.

If this was the case, we would have little biblical guidance regarding music. However, thee are many verses, like the one above, that give no specific application. As Pastor Hardy says in his book, that means we either must apply these verses to nothing or to everything.

Everything includes our music. We would apply these verses to our dress, speech, entertainment (and rightfully so); so why would this principle not apply to music as well? It does apply. These verses make it clear that we ought to be holy in our music.

So what exactly is holiness? Holiness is sacred. Morally pure. Upright. Something that is holy is set apart from sin and to God. Therefore, the command to be holy requires that our music be morally pure, upright, sacred.

What Does Holiness Look Like In Church Music?

Here’s where things can get murky; what does a holy worship service look like today? Music changes over time; the style of worship music of even conservative churches is not the same as it was when Peter wrote his epistle. Music continues to change in churches, including conservative ones. It does not look exactly like it did fifty years ago, and it will not look exactly the same fifty years from now. That’s okay! Music and cultures evolve, and there’s nothing unbiblical about that; there are a variety of musical styles that can be used for worshipping God. However, it would be erroneous to say that every style is appropriate for worshipping God. I propose three guidelines when it comes to holiness in worship music.

1. Holy Music Must Be God-centered

Isaiah 6, Revelation 4, and Revelation 1:12-18 provide some of the best examples of biblical worship anywhere. Isaiah 6 describes Isaiah’s reaction to seeing God on His throne; Revelation 1:12-18 shows John’s reaction to seeing a vision of Christ; Revelation 4 describes the four angelic beasts and twenty-four elders worshipping at the throne of God in heaven. In each case, great pains are taken by the biblical writer to show the majesty and glory of God; in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4, angelic creatures proclaim “holy, holy, holy.” In all three cases, the worshippers fall on their faces before God in worship!

All of this is to say that these passages of worship are totally focused on God. No one is particularly concerned about what the worshipper wants, or what kind of worship he prefers. Because it is not about the worshipper; it is about the one being worshipped!

This is one danger of focusing too much on the latest trends and fashions in worship music. All of the flashing lights, praise teams, smoke machines, and whatever else is en vogue can take focus away from God. I can’t say that these things are objectively wrong; the Bible does not say that, so I have no authority to claim that they are. But the question must be asked: do they cause people to focus more or less on God?

2. Worship Music Must Be Culturally Appropriate

I once heard a 9th-grade Sunday School teacher tell his class, “there’s nothing wrong with green hair…people say it’s worldly, but it’s not! The Bible never says you can’t have green hair!” While he is correct that the Bible never explicitly says that green hair is wrong, green hair does identify you with a certain attitude and way of life. If you see someone with bright green hair, do you assume they are lawyer or successful businessman? No. You probably assume they are a rebel, or a delinquent. Right or wrong, people’s appearances and behaviors (conversation, to borrow Peter’s term) identify them with particular attitudes and cultures.

As Christians, we are commanded to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” (I Thes. 5:22)

This principle applies to church music, as well. Is it abstaining from the appearance of evil when churches purposefully copy everything possible from a music industry and culture that’s well known for every kind of immorality and perversion? I think not. While it may have become the norm, there is a danger of certain musical styles and practices identifying that local church with sinful attitudes and immorality. Even if the music itself is not inherently wrong or harmful, we do have to consider the cultural connotations.

3. Worship Music Must Communicate an Appropriate Emotional Message

It’s often said that only the lyrics in a song matter, and that the music is in and of itself amoral. It is true that music without words cannot communicate a concept. Music alone cannot communicate an immoral thought like “drugs and violence are good.” Only words can do that.

However, music does communicate emotion in ways far more powerfully than words can. We all know what happy music sounds like, or sad music. If music can communicate happiness or sadness, why could it not also communicate anger? Aggression? Sensuality? In fact, music does communicate those things. Many popular musical styles are designed to communicate those things!

It is deeply incongruous to attempt to worship God with music that communicates these negative emotions. Yet some contemporary worship is designed to provide the exact same atmosphere as the concerts of popular secular artists, who purposefully promote those very things! Worship music must communicate emotions that are appropriate for the worship of a holy God.

Again, it is not my desire to demonize anyone or any church that chooses to use contemporary music in their worship service. The debate over worship music is very important and worth having. There are many reasons why I choose to work at a church that has a conservative approach to music. It’s not because I’m stuck in the past. I’m constantly on the lookout for new software, ideas, and techniques that can help our church. I love new things! However, I have a conviction that some modern music violates biblical principles, including the command to be holy in all manner of conversation. Whether your church uses CCM or not, it would do us all good to examine our music in light of God’s command to be holy.


Adam John Ferguson grew up in a Christian home in Stillwater, OK. When Adam was five he heard the Gospel during Vacation Bible School. Realizing he needed to be saved, Adam believed on Christ as his Savior.

Throughout his teenage years, Adam knew that God wanted him to be in full-time ministry. After graduating high school, Adam attended Heartland Baptist Bible College. He graduated in 2015 with a degree in youth/music. After graduation, Adam moved to Sammamish, WA to join the staff of Foundation Baptist Church as Youth/Music Director. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in music from West Coast Baptist College.

Adam also writes for TheMinistryWire.com, a site that produces challenging and encouraging content for Christians, especially those in the ministry.

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