Sacred Music: What Should It Sound Like?

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Ministry: Worship Music

Sacred Music

Perhaps it is time to revise a word I haven’t heard in a long time: sacred, as in sacred music.

First let’s rediscover the word itself:

Sacred: adjective

  1. devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose;consecrated.
  2. entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
  3. pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to secular or profane) sacred music; sacred books. (

There are many practical uses of the term:

  • Sacred space: a place dedicated to God,
  • Sacred song: a piece of music connected with religion,
  • Sacred book: a literary work entitled to veneration, and
  • Sacred time: a time set aside for religious purposes instead of secular or profane ones.

There was a time when musicians routinely separated sacred songs from the other pieces in their repertoire. Still today, without use of the term, most of us place our worship music, contemporary Christian artists’ music, and choral/orchestra music in a different set of files from our pop/jazz/country/classical/you-name-it music. We set it apart.

I Needed More.
An experience of mine from several years ago illustrates the difference.

CD’s were new and I had just bought my first player. I had some monstrous stereo speakers left over from a component set I had from years earlier. Driven by a powerful amp those speakers did right by my new CD player. I placed them at least 10 feet apart in the living room and when I was home by myself, those things could put out the sound, as my neighbors could testify. CDs sounded so different from LPs and cassettes, so clean and free of scratches, hisses, and compression. So, I needed to buy some CDs! Classical CDs were the cheapest so I loaded up on them. Wagner, Beethoven, Gershwin, and their friends found a new home in North Carolina!

Then tragedy struck. One of my best friends was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Home by myself, Beethoven and the gang offered me little solace. I needed more. I went to the Baptist Book Store and spent about $50 (unauthorized!) on Christian instrumental CDs: David T. Clydesdale, Don Marsh, Ronn Huff—all masters of orchestral music—no, of sacred orchestral music.

The orchestra was the same, except for the addition of a rhythm section, but the effect was totally different. This music was freighted with meaning: clear, powerful truth—God’s truth. I walked the floors of my house with the stereo as loud as I could stand it, letting the truth of God soothe my soul. That house was sacred space. That music was sacred music filled with truth from a sacred book and springing from Christian purposes. I found the solace I needed.

The Anointing
There was musical power in the classical music but there was spiritual power in the Christian symphonic music. When the power of the Holy Spirit rests upon something, this is called “the Anointing.” This is not a random thing; it is a deliberate response of God to certain actions on our part.

  • God anoints something that is in agreement with His purposes.
  • God “gives grace to the humble” so what is offered to Him must be presented with humility.
  • God anoints people, places, and things of His own choosing, things sanctified—set apart—by Him for His use.

Sacred music presented from a totally sincere heart, to the best of one’s ability, and full of God’s truth, carries the power of the Holy Spirit—the anointing. This is more than music—it is music plus God! What an opportunity we have each week to select, prepare, and present, sacred music!

The Musical Priesthood
The Old Covenant Priesthood serves as a type of the New Covenant Priesthood. The people of God are a Holy, Royal Priesthood! We minister to God with the Living Sacrifice of Praise. According to the prophet Ezekiel, one of the functions of this priesthood is to teach the difference between the holy and the profane.

Ezekiel 44:23 KJV
And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane,
and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean.

When a song is selected, prepared, and presented as a worship song, it should be holy, not profane. “Holy” means “sacred.” “Profane means the opposite, “irreverent, contemptuous, offensive.” ( Much of today’s culture is deeply profane. The church at worship must sing a song of sacredness into this cacophony of profanity.

So, what does sacred music sound like?

  • It sounds like the heart—the hearts of people reaching up to God.
  • It sounds like heaven—the grace of heaven coming down to people.

These spiritual characteristics that should be subtext to the musical sound.

Be careful what you load onto the train.
Music is a cultural expression presented within a given culture and to engage that culture.

  • The truth of God must be loaded into the local cultural expression, like loading a boxcar on a train.
  • To do this the shape of the cargo must match the shape of the container.

It is time for a serious question: Does the sound of the music fit the truth of the message?

  • If the message is peace; don’t load it into riotous music.
  • If the message is majestic; don’t hamper it with an intimate sound.
  • If the message is joyous; don’t dampen it with sad music.
  • If the message is heavenly; don’t express it with hellish sounds.
  • If the message is spiritual; don’t confuse it with sensual music.

You get the idea. The sound of worship music should resonate with the sounds of God’s throne room in heaven and beat with the rhythm of human hearts here on earth. The local culture determines how these unheard things resonate within a given congregation.

Our Own Sound
Although we make our music within a given culture, why can’t all our music sound a little bit alike? We have both heart and heaven in common. The sounds of heaven are not American or pop or classical or country. The music of the heart is deeper than the music of culture.

  • Why can’t we have our own sound falling from heaven to the earth as we worship?
  • Why can’t our music be heart-music that communicates to other open hearts?

Let the world listen in as we worship and wonder what is so different about us.

What is so different? Our music is sacred!

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

For another article on this topic go to: “The Good, the Bad, and the Holy”

Sacred Music: What Should It Sound Like?

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