Musing About Music

I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on music. I can’t read it at all, but I’ve been thinking about how we use it, and am always asking the “why?” question. I want to know why we do things in a certain way.

If you hang around me long enough, you’ll notice that I don’t typically use the words contemporary and traditional in relation to worship. It seems to me that these words have come to refer to specific forms of worship music, and do not address adequately the larger question of proper worship. Contemporary typically refers to modern (post-1970’s) praise music, and traditional is used to refer to hymns.

The argument over music isn’t helpful in the big picture because musical style isn’t the most important question no matter how we feel about it. No matter our opinions. Part of my problem with modern worship is its obsession with music as the expression of good worship. When someone asks “Does church X have good worship?” What he normally means is “Does church X have good music?” Maybe it’s just me, but this puts an emphasis on music that didn’t exist in the Church for most of its history, and seems out of balance now. I contend that this is an expression of our revivalistic ideals, and is almost entirely a modern development.I don’t want to leave the impression that I don’t like music, or that I have some sort of weird grudge against it. I suppose I’ve just never understood why  we have come to a point where we pick a church based on musical preference. That just seems significantly counter to everything I see in scripture concerning the gospel, being the body of Christ, and showing grace to one another. Music needs to be singable and accessible to all the people. It can’t just be about the performer and what makes her sound good or give the wannabe star a platform to showcase his skills. Worship and music is about what the people of God – all of them – do together. I think most of us realize that we accomplish this using various styles, though certainly some styles are more affective than others.

Music must also consider its entire audience. The facts are that older congregants typically can’t appreciate contemporary music, and younger audiences have trouble understanding hymns, but part of being a body is learning to appreciate one another. This is gospel. This is learning to live with patience in community. This show of grace is needed by all parties in any conversation of this sort.

I suspect that the lack of tradition and rootedness in modern society is driving some young Christians to something deeper and more stable. I’ll wager that classic hymns and hymn writing will make a comeback.

Music needs to be theologically sound, and it needs to fulfill its two-part historic and theological function. It needs to teach us and allow us to express appropriately what we have been taught. Music has the beautiful power to speak to us and allow us to speak simultaneously. Because of its unique and powerful role in worship, it must be centered on Christ and what he has done. Any song that talks about some mystical air I breathe, or whose referent could just as easily be a girlfriend, or walking in a garden alone, is inappropriate for Christian worship. These type of songs are built upon some vague concept that any religious person could sing, instead of the revealed truth of Christ, a sentimental notion of love that any love struck teen could bellow to his girlfriend instead describing the sacrificial love of Christ, or is focused on the individual’s experience of God instead of the congregation’s communion before that same God.

My issue is with the content and focus of music. Much of modern worship music is not very theologically sound. It fails to have enough depth of content, so it fails in one of the historic and theological purposes of worship: it can’t teach. The purpose of much of modern music seems to be about getting us to feel a certain way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no “hymnal only” kind of guy. There are more than a few “traditional” songs that fail on the same count. Nor am I opposed to emotion and passion. Anyone who has heard me preach knows I’m telling the truth here. I am opposed to emotion based on mere sentimentality instead of revealed truth. I am opposed to having my emotions artificially manipulated.

The biggest reason I don’t use contemporary and traditional, is that I see both of these words as referring to different streams of the Revivalistic tradition. Revivalistic worship was constructed to convince people to make decisions. The purpose was to find a pragmatic approach that attracted people into the tent.  Once worship became about what “works” pragmatically, it was inevitable that sinful humans would disagree on precisely that point. This made the “worship wars” of the 1980’s an almost inevitable conclusion. It took more than 100 years, but the cultural revolution of the 60’s brought profound disagreements over the cultural forms of music used in churches.

It seems to me that the argument over contemporary or traditional music among the free churches is really just an argument over what brand of modified revivalism appeals to you. These terms are making a distinction without a substantive difference. I want to push us past that argument over music to consider historic worship versus modern worship. That is where good answers for the future of church worship can be found.

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One thought on “Musing About Music

  1. “…focused on the individual’s experience of God instead of the congregation’s communion before that same God.” – This, I think, is the most insidious issue because it is the hardest to spot. With just a little thought, most people can spot how those other, insipid songs are not very worshipful or God-centered. Its the songs that sound good but, when analyzed closely, are actually more centered on the worshipper over the object of worship that I think are most dangerous in the long run. I say so for this reason: subconsciously or even unconsciously, these songs are continuing to feed the modern idol of self worship or, maybe even worse, self-centered worship of God.
    And the reason that it is so insidious is that it is unrecognized by a majority of people singing these songs or even, if I had to guess, most of the well intentioned artists writing them. Yet, if you begin to look closely at the order of the wording and the focus generated by that ordering, you can begin to recognize a steady undercurrent of how it is that I am worshipping; how God feels about My worship; how I want God to change My heart and My worship; I, I, I rather than You, You, You or we, we, we. (and no, thats not French)
    Easily sung and rightly focused music is the key. As you posit above, when it was written and who wrote it isn’t the primary concern in determining good worship music. Who the music is focused on and how well we as a community of believers can participate in its singing is how we can determine whether our singing is pleasing to God.

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