Dr. T. David Gordon on Musical Preferences

Church Organ

Dr. Gordon is best known for writing two books: Why Johnny Can’t Preach and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. Apparently he has written some other stuff too, which can be found at this rather archaic website.  While the website is not very modern, the articles have been helpful as I continue to look at worship music. In an article titled “Coral Ridge Reply” Dr. Gordon explains why musical preferences in worship are not trivial. He is responding to the ex-pastor of Coral Ridge Tullian Tchividjian when he said it was wrong “when we separate people according to something as trivial as musical preferences…”  In this article Dr. Gordon lists his musical preferences, which I found rather interesting.

I prefer theologically orthodox lyrics to those that are heterodox.

I prefer theologically significant lyrics to those that are theologically insignificant, even if true (e.g. hymns that touch upon the significant moments in the humiliation or exaltation of Christ are preferred to hymns that ambiguously refer to God’s “salvation” or “grace,” amazing or otherwise).

I prefer in corporate worship lyrics that celebrate the objective work of redemption to those that recount our/my subjective experience of redemption (e.g. I prefer “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” to “the hour I first believed” or even a “sweet hour of prayer”).

I prefer literarily apt and thoughtful lyrics to those that are not (the language should correspond more to the imaginative language of poetry than to the clinical language of a textbook; “Crown him with many crowns” is preferable to “I affirm his sovereignty”).

I prefer lyrics and music appropriate to a meeting between God and His visible people to lyrics and music that are common to run-of-the-mill meetings with other humans that we experience every day.

I prefer music that makes it easier for the congregation to participate (e.g. the key signature should keep everything at an e-flat or lower) to music that makes it more difficult for the congregation to participate (such as printing lyrics but not the musical score).

I prefer well-written music with regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, and form to music that is less well-written with regard to the same considerations (e.g., formally, music should resolve; we shouldn’t repeat the last stanza several times simply because it doesn’t resolve and we don’t know what to do with it, as with Sandra McCracken’s musical setting to “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go”).

I prefer that the musical setting be appropriate to the lyrical content (e.g. that celebratory lyrics be accompanied by celebratory musical settings; that contrite or pensive lyrics be accompanied by pensive musical settings).

He is closing paragraph of this section of the article.

Each of these preferences is debatable; each could be challenged, and I am perfectly willing to entertain a discussion of why each or all is wrong-headed or mistaken.  But not one of these preferences is a consumerist preference, and not one of them is a merely personal preference.  I do not own any CDs with traditional hymns on them; and I do not listen to traditional hymns in my leisure time, so I am not saying that I “prefer” the church’s liturgical choices to be dictated by (or even informed by) my consumerist choices.

Tullian was essentially saying, “One man likes country, one likes hip-hop, one likes hymns, and one likes choruses. Let’s not divide the church over trivial musical preferences that arise from our individual likes and dislikes.”

Dr. Gordon does not agree. His preferences do not arise from what music he likes or doesn’t like. He is not for hymns because he likes to listen to hymns throughout the week and this his is preference as a consumer. He does not go to church to sing what he likes. He goes to church to sing church songs. And his study has led him to determine that there are certain songs and music fit for worship and certain ones that are not. He is willing to argue about what criteria should be used to judge whether a song is fit for worship or not. But such criteria must exist. He is unwilling to concede that worship music should be left up to the consumerist preferences of the pastor, congregation, or worship team.

4 thoughts on “Dr. T. David Gordon on Musical Preferences

  1. Pr. Peter,

    The lengthy quotes you provide from Dr. Gordon expose a problem which he nowhere actually engages in those passages. Indeed, you can see the problem in his exposition only by examining the passages quoted for what is ~not~ mentioned!

    In the nine passages you’ve quoted, the word “lyrics” appears in eight of the passages. In five of those, lyrics are the ~subject~ of Gordon’s comments.

    In three of the passages, “music” is the subject. However, Gordon nowhere says anything about (1) what will qualify as music, (2) how “good” or “well-written” or “appropriate” music is to be identified as such.

    In short, the passages quoted have nothing in them admitting of a rigorous aesthetic for music – a set of criteria, standards, a coherent theory that permits one to say “this is good music” or “this is wretched music” or “this is wicked music” or “this is not music at all.” All of us have said these very things about some music we have heard, but if pressed to ~defend~ our judgment, we’d likely have to fall back on “well, what I like is what is good.”

    Perhaps in another place Dr. Gordon does this – lays out a set of aesthetic criteria or standards. Does he? I haven’t found anyone who does this, and I’ve been looking for someone who can do this convincingly.


    • Bill, this was a really short article (8 pages in Word w/ a lot of footnotes). He doesn’t really do that here. My gut is he has fixed standards that govern what he thinks is suitable or not suitable for worship and those fixed standards include a theory of music as well as lyrics. I am not sure he is trying to prove what is good and bad music in the article. He is just trying to get people to agree that worship music matters and should not be treated as trivial. In Christ, Peter


  2. Pingback: We Need Theologians Devoted to Worship Music | Singing & Slaying

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