Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Church Music

Today I have a topic to think about and you all get front seats to this thought storm; here goes:

As one who was brought up in church, I got involved with worship music somewhere around 8th grade. Since then I have been a part of music teams as they transitioned from "traditional" (whatever that means) music to more "contemporary" (again, that's pretty non-descriptive) music. I've also had the incredible experience of playing a role in re-building a worship music program from the studs. Along with all of that, I've studied for a worship music minor (that I decided to drop my senior year of my undergrad college experience) and have studied theology, philosophy and church history intensely for going on 4 years now.

I preface this post with some of my credentials in order to say that I have probably spent more time thinking about how we as western, American, Evangelical, Protestant, mostly modern Christians worship today than your average Christian.

Qualifying statement: This does NOT in any way make me a better Christian, person, etc. but it does make me more likely to have made some observations that others may not have come across.

While there are several different aspects to our worship which I could comment on, I  don't intend this blog to be an all inclusive thought project, so let me establish some parameters:

1. I want to begin by delineating between what I'll call a "private worship life" and a "corporate worship life". There are many nuances here, but I'm going to use these broad categories in order to remain focused.
2. I have no intention on attacking any practice currently in place. Over against any hard teaching, I only want to flesh out some of my recent observations and reflections, so please try and take this for what its worth and if you don't like it, ignore it.
3. While there are many many ways that Christians have worshiped throughout the life of the Church and stretching back into our Jewish heritage, I will only be speaking of things that are relevant to my western context because that is where I have personal experience. Also, this lets me off the hook for having to do research just to write this blog.

ok, I think that's most of it, pressing on...

Today, I want to assess how we choose which songs to play at church. Now, while I think that there are many issues with how we do church (everything from over-emphasizing Sunday worship to marginalizing congregation participation and beyond, but that's a bit outside the established parameters), I think that if we accept the generally established music utilization in our Sunday gatherings, we ought to give due diligence with what kind of music is played.

Before getting too far in to what songs we choose, I think that it would be good to put some preliminaries out there about our Sunday worship:

1. I think that it is most correct to approach Sunday for what it is; specifically, it is a corporate worship gathering. This means that, against our current culture of hyper-individualism (no citation, sorry), we should spend this time coming close to each other. We often fail on this point and it is evidenced in many ways, some of which are how we tend to sit only with our family and often not right next to anyone else if we can avoid it. By way of example, I remember getting a bizarre look when I sat next to a guy who was not a family member and I didn't leave a space in between us... man-law violated, I know. But we should not shy away from this nearness; we are part of the body of Christ and no hand would try and shy away from its fingers.
2. Closely related to the above, this is specifically NOT individual worship time. My interior life is maintained daily so, I should not feel the need to hijack this time to selfishly serve my lacking spiritual life. We are gathered for each other as much as we are gathered for ourselves...perhaps more. There are many implications of this that I encourage all to think about, but there you have it.
3. As much as our culture has made this a "show" in which only a few men (rarely women) are highlighted an given the stage, we are all to engage which is not the same as saying "we are all to sing along". No, instead, we should feel that the service would not quite be the same if we were gone; that kind of impact. Maybe this happens behind the scenes like in giving the preacher/teacher or band leader feed back, but however it occurs, we ought to feel some ownership of this time.

So, with those preliminaries out there, we turn our attention to the music itself. I think that there are many things to be conscious of, not only as music leaders but also as elders, leaders, worshipers and members of the body who are being asked to sing the words on the screen week in and week out. The qualifiers that I'll list below for songs are not meant to be all-inclusive and they certainly are my opinions, but I think that they transcend music style preferences and volume of music etc. So, to be more pointed, my opinions here have little to do with what kind of music is being played or how its played, but they are focused on the content of the songs. Lets begin:

1. Our music should be theologically sound. While you may be tempted to say "duh", we often don't put songs through the ringer. I think far too often we gauge the value of a song based on the feeling we personally get or the response of the crowd without very much thought given to the truth or context of our words. Without pointing to specific songs (because I do care about offending people and their song preferences), some problems that come to mind are like using the word "lord" without acknowledging that this isn't simply an interchangeable name for "God" or "Jesus", but is instead a title that reflects a relationship that may or may not be real for everyone in the congregation. Another issue may be in using metaphors with no explanation. This is one that happens with hymns often (i.e. what's an Ebenezer? Does everyone in your congregation know that? Is it a good metaphor for our current context?). We ought to be theologically thoughtful.
2. Our music should be corporate in voice. Again, we're discussing corporate worship settings, so I believe we should more or less stay away from songs that are heavy with "I", "me", "my life", etc. to the exclusion of more corporate language like "your church", "the bride", "the kingdom", etc. When we fail to avoid those songs, what happens is that we perpetuate the selfish, hyper-individualization that our culture pushes that prizes our individual comfort over community. This is starkly anti-Christian. Now, I should say that those songs often elicit worship because we connect to them more easily and, as a song writer, I have myself written songs like that, so I think there is value in them. I only want to say that their proper place is in our private lives, not in a larger communal setting. Sadly, this may mean re-vamping most churches musical libraries; but I think it's worth it.
3. Our music should teach. I feel like it is more or less irrefutable that music teaches. This is why everyone was mad at Eminem when I was kid. Ironically, he said in a song "music can alter moods and talk to you..." and here, I have to agree. Music is so much easier to remember than oral, written or rote-memorized teachings. With that in mind, I think that we ought to be careful what kind of things our songs teach. Not just theology, but in building a picture of God, we ought to take care. I believe that our mental picture of God's character is probably the single most important part of our worldview and as such, we ought to be careful what kind of mental picture we are painting. Are we perpetuating the butler God? Are we perpetuating the tamed and cuddly Jesus? Are perpetuating the angry, warrior God? The cosmic vending machine? a deist or heretical picture? I know this can seem like a slippery slope, but we ought to seriously ask these questions of the music that we're asking people to sing.

Those are just three things that I think about when thinking about songs we sing in church. I hope that discussion opens up in the comments section or through different social media venues. Most of all, I hope that this lands in front of church leaders. When I began to first think of myself as a Christian leader, I was terrified for several reasons (among which was not feeling qualified). Since then, I have more confidently come to terms with that role, but the one thing that has not left me was the urgency of the office; that is, the seriousness and eternal implications of what I may teach people. After all, who wants to go swimming with cement shoes...or a mill-stone around the neck...At any rate, I fear that the consequences could be dire if we mislead people with the music we put in their mouths. God will move regardless of our foolishness, but we should still honor the call we've answered.

I'm sorry if I offended. Truly, my goal with this entire blog is simply to better the church and provide space for me to work out my own beliefs and in that context, I thank you for following along. I would only ask, if you were offended, that you ask yourself why. Furthermore, feel free to open it to discussion; often we learn best together.

The Dread


  1. This is excellent. I know you want conversation but I have nothing to add as I wouldn't change much of anything. Great post.

  2. Thank you for those kind words, Jeremy!

  3. Acts 2:17. "In the last days (which we are obliviously in) I shall poor out of my spirit (holy spirit of course) and your sons and daughters shall prophesy ( well im sure it is clearly pointing out the "younger generation" and they shall prophesy (preach the gospel) ) and your young men shall see visions ( well when your close to the lord he reveals things to you, possibly showing how close the "younger generation" will be.) And your old men shall dream dreams. ( well that could mean different things.) This is why I think it is in dire for the younger generation to be accepted into the "church worship" whatever music it shall be let it be. As long as the holy spirit is working in it. Very very good blog!

  4. Have you read much Edwin Abbott? If not, check him out.