‘The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
As a church organist, Bach’s abilities were widely respected throughout all of Europe during his lifetime. Even though he was a prolific composer, he was not generally recognized as one of the greats until the late 18th century and early 19th century when composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn began to dig into Bach’s keyboard works.
To this day, though, Bach is regarded as one of the preeminent composers of the period of music called the Baroque Period (approximately 1600-1750), and undoubtedly as one of the greatest composers to have ever lived.
To hear (or read) a quote like the one above from J.S. Bach puts a lot of things in perspective. Known as the one of the greatest organists at the time, it might seem a surprise to hear him say things like, “I worked hard. Anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results.” And when asked about his extraordinary organ skills he said, “There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”
We can learn several things from looking back at Bach’s life and career as a musician in the church, a leader of ensembles, and as a composer (writer) of church music.
1. When WRITING for worship, we should seek God’s glory alone.
Soli Deo Gloria. “To the Glory of God Alone” is something Bach wrote on all of his music for worship. This was not to say that the purpose of the music was only to seek God’s glory without giving any thought to those who might hear and sing the music. I see this solely as a heartfelt reminder to himself that his gifts came from God. He wanted to continuously remember that it wasn’t the accolades of his congregation, or the praise of his superiors, or even the admiration of his contemporaries that drove him to compose his masterpieces, but he did so for the honor and glory of God.
When we write, of course, we’re writing to enrich our congregations with sound theological expressions of musical worship. Yes, we write to teach. Yes, we write to encourage. Yes, we write to disciple. But all of these things, every single last reason you can come up with for writing a worship, song should bring us back to God being glorified.
God is glorified when we express songs of worship that teach, that encourage, and that disciple. So, when you write, remember that all of your reasons, like the many streams that flow into rivers that eventually come to the sea, are ultimately rushing into the great, deep ocean of God’s glory.
2. The Refreshment of the soul.
This is really an expansion of point number one. We need to find peace and joy in the fact that God gave us music to bring HIM glory and to refresh OUR souls! Worship shouldn’t be a drudgery. Although there are times when musical worship can be sober and intentionally filled with lament, the end result should be to bring us refreshment.
In the presence of the Lord there is fullness of joy. (Psalm 16:11 paraphrased)
3. It’s ok to work hard at honing your gift.
Bach, one of the greatest keyboardists (organ, piano, harpsichord, clavichord, etc.) of all time and possibly on the list of greatest composers of all time, admitted readily that anyone could do what he did, if they just worked hard at it. Bach says, “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed…equally well.”
We know and understand, that while that is probably not one hundred percent true, we can find some encouragement and challenge in that statement. Bach’s main goal, his “main end” was to make music that honored God. That starts in the heart, and then flows outward through the gifts that we’re given.
In a modern sense, there has been a tendency for worshipers to seek the glory of God, in the same way one might seek therapy or pharmaceutical intervention. God’s glory is not about what we can get out of it, or how much better it makes us feel to be “in His presence.” Don’t get me wrong, when we set and keep appointments with God through musical expression, He figuratively shows up (I say figuratively, because God is everywhere). He inhabits the praises of His people. And if God “shows up,” obviously, there is joy there in His presence.
But if we can move past our vending machine idea of praise and worship (music) that if we somehow sing hard and loud enough, or cry enough tears, or raise our hands high enough, that God will be pleased, if we could just know that it’s from a place of LOVE that God invites us INTO worship, our whole outlook would be radically changed.
God doesn’t survive on our worship and prayers. He doesn’t get stronger because people pray to Him. God is God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a beautiful relationship with one another where worship and glory are being given to “Himself.” God invites us INTO that beautiful already existing ocean of worship.
It’s from that perspective that thinking about what J.S. Bach says about music: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul,” really begins to make sense. Our times of musical worship are our RESPONSE to the forever extended invitation from God to enter into that place where worship is already happening, and when we go there, we will partake in the glory of God and be refreshed in our souls in a way that is impossible if our main end is to be a consumer of worship.
As Bach would write at the end of his pieces for worship:
Soli Deo Gloria (To God Be The Glory Alone)
Russ Hutto is the Associate Director of Worship & Media at St. Simons Community Church where he mentors, oversees and helps lead Family and Student worship environments. He is also the content curator and editor here at The Worship Community.