Music and Worship - Part 1: Music, Its Context, and Diversity
It seems that in almost every church circle, organization, denomination, and fellowship the issues of worship and music continually stir up trouble, strife, and division. Why? It seems that if someone got up and preached that Jesus rose spiritually rather than physically most might go "hmm, that's strange," but no problem - but if the beat (or the temperature) changes, then you've got real trouble. Again, why is that? I don't have all the answers to that but I do want to take some time to explore the issues of music and worship in the life of the church. It has been of great concern of late in my local assembly, so I know what that's like. But I want to approach the question more abstractly and think through the issues more carefully because there are pitfalls on all sides. Most of all I want to worship God alone, to have no others gods before Him, make no idols for myself or others, to love Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and love my neighbor as myself. For this first part I take my queues from this video dialogue put out by Sojourn church in Louisville. It is thought provoking. Watch it first.
There are so many things to say and discuss. Music has style, rhythm and beat, feel, key (majors, minors, etc.), instrumentation, volume, melody, harmony, and more. Music is complex. Let me start with this point that the above video mentions, that I found profound.
1. Music Soaks Up Context and That's Just the Way It Is.
What in the world does that mean? It means simply this: music that is repeatedly played in a certain place, type of venue, or event becomes associated with that event. Music, like a sponge, soaks up atmosphere, feeling, dress, language, place, etc. and can much later on evoke all those details. That is why we have "bar music," "elevator music," "arena rock," and of course "church music," and this where jazz cafes, piano bars, and blues clubs all come from. I didn't know that rodeos had a specific kind of country music that got played at rodeos until I went to a rodeo-a big rodeo a few years back at the Kentucky Expo Center in Louisville. I've never seen so many boots and cowboy hats in my life. I was out of place, but it was fun. Anyways, now when I think back to that rodeo, I can hear that sound, that music, playing in my ears. That's what it means for music to soak up context.
This is of course why rock and roll, for many listeners, has a lot of baggage that comes with it. It originated in a specific era sung by specific people living less than ideal lives and singing and playing in certain not-so-wholesome venues about taboo themes. Of course, the lyrics to many of the songs aren't wholesome, but some of them are just fine, neutral, or even good. So we need to remember this. Because styles of music get associated with certain contexts some people enjoy, or do not enjoy, those styles merely because of their associations.
However, over time music tends to lose its context. So that when I was growing up, cruising around town in the back seat with mom behind the steering wheel running errands and listening to light 107.9 FM out of Indianapolis, and "Here Comes the Sun" plays over the radio, I did not know that it was a 20 year old song sung by a group of uber-popular but rebellious British pop rockers. I was totally isolated from the original context and just thought - hey that's a pretty cool song. I just didn't think about the Beatles the way my grandparents probably did. Today, many of the artists, bands, and groups that were being railed against 20, 30, and 40 years ago are all being played on the oldies station today and nobody is using them as a sermon illustration any more.
2. Differing Contexts Generates Diversity, and That's OK.
Church music is no different. Specific types of "church" music has become associated with different church contexts. A thousand years ago church music was a group of males with bowl-haircuts chanting in rounds. The Puritans didn't like instruments either since the New Testament had nothing to say about them, and I've met similar minded groups today. Add instruments. A pipe organ brings images of stone churches and solemn, generally quiet, assemblies. Replace the pipes with a bouncing B3 and you have a hopping Gospel choir and people shouting. Go back a bit and think of a man with an acoustic guitar, a lady with an accordion, and a girl with a tambourine and you get a tent revival meeting. Put four men together singing parts, add piano, drums, and bass and you get a very specific kind of church music named for its geographic origination-southern Gospel. Then there's the full church orchestra and choir: a dozen or more trumpets, saxes, trombones, and percussion backing up 20-30 voices and you have the image of a large, established church, say Baptist or Pentecostal, around the year, say 1985. Now replace all that with a worship leader holding an acoustic guitar, another guy on electric, a bass, drums, and two keyboards (all minus ties). You get the point. All of these descriptions evoke very different images of church music, atmosphere, aura, feeling, volume, and environment. And yet they are all descriptions of people claiming to all be doing the same thing: singing songs to worship God.
We are all on this spectrum of style, context, and age. And what I think is really good church music that makes me feel spiritual and worshipful is not necessarily what makes other people feel spiritual and worshipful. That's just a fact. All of us tend to associate the style of music and its instrumentation that we don't like with a specific context that we think is "dead" or "old" or "new" or "boring" or "loud"...ad nausea. And all of tend to associate the style of music and its instrumentation that we do like with specific context that we think is "lively" or "on fire" or "cool" or "anointed"...and so on. We need to remember that everyone doesn't like what we like, and vice versa, and we need to be humble about it.
This point is helpful because it helps us understand why the issue is so divisive. At each particular moment in time, some music is associated with the world, or with the country, or with the church (and then take that to the personal level of taste). Again time changes all that and mixes it all up. That's been going on for a very long time, at least since Martin Luther started taking folk songs and bar tunes and turning them into hymns! For instance do you know what Gospel song shares the same tune as the folk song Danny Boy?
What we need to do is broaden our personal spectrum. Over time all of us tend to do this anyways. What music do you like today that you disliked five years ago? What artists and songs do you now enjoy that surprise you? That has happened to me many times over the years. But we need to do it intentionally. We need to understand that musical tastes are diverse and that's ok, God made people different, He enjoys diversity. If we don't do this we are making an idol out of some music style whether new or old. If it is being done in the name of Jesus Christ and with a heart for worship to the living God, we need to step back and be careful before saying something, if anything. Anytime we say that our form of music is that which is truly spiritual and worship we are essentially saying, as Harold Best stated, "my way is Yahweh," and that is idolatry. Well Yahweh (God) has been enjoying a variety of styles since the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea and sang a song of victory (Exodus 15). The scene around the throne in Revelation 4-5 shows people out of every nation, tribe, and tongue singing the song of the Lamb. That seems to say that God is right now enjoying the worship of those peoples in the styles they make music and sing and will bring that diversity into Heaven itself. If God enjoys the diversity, we should too. True worship is not based on style, but on the God who seeks those who worship Him in spirit and in truth.