The Last and Final Word You Will Ever Need on Music and Worship

Of course, that is a juvenile and wildly foolish title for an article; but in light of the seemingly endless other silly and inane comments often made about worship music, what’s one more to the mix? Within the American church, few topics have brought out more absurdity, immaturity, or blind passion, than the discussion of “what shall the music in our worship services be like?” There are of course exceptions, but if one listens to the discussion in Bible School classes, small groups, hallway chatter, Sunday aisle reactions, blogs or car rides home…well, let’s just say it has often been less than our finest moments.

Why has the style of music in a worship service been such a lightning rod for disagreement and discussion? What has made this issue to reign and tower over the landscape of church life, when other issues—vital issues like discipleship or lost people or poverty—should have been demanding that lofty position? And worse yet, how has it grown past the stage of congregational discontent and become something even more repugnant, a prime cause for the divorce of relationships within a church? The reason often stated for the ripping up of “us” and the migration of families from a congregation is “We just can’t worship with that music.” Why? How did this come to be?

We must begin by recognizing the fact that the issue of music in worship is a “collection issue.” Much like a magnet you find in a drawer, numerous other items from that drawer will have been pulled in, attaching themselves to it. When you pick up the magnet it will not be one thing, it will be a collection of things. Worship is the same. At first blush one would expect that the primary issue at hand when discussing music and worship would be theology; a simple question of “What is the appropriate musical way to approach God?” But that is far from the case. The tension of the issue, of course, includes one’s theology of approaching God, but it is never only that, and in most cases is probably least about that! As a collection issue it collects not only our understanding of God, but it also gathers to itself a menagerie of other highly complex ideas and emotions. These “collected issues” may be harder for us to identify and articulate, but even more than our theology, they probably explain why we think on this issue as we do.

One of the collection issues would be the deep emotions that were shaped out of our past experiences. In each of us there have been prior events and moments that made a permanent mark. Our emotions are a reflection of those episodes and memories. That is why the young girl at a youth camp, first beginning to grasp God’s love for her, will forever have the hint of tears come to her eyes when certain songs are played or sung. Those songs will go deep to a memory and to her emotions. It is also why her grandmother will react to different songs, of a far different style, for she too has memories.

One of the simplest ways to describe the music that deeply affects our emotions, and therefore means the most to us, is to describe it as a “heart-language.” When it comes to worship, most all believers have a primary musical heart-language. It most likely comes from the time in life that they first came to know what it is to really trust and to love the Lord. We may learn many other styles, we may even enjoy and be “fluent” in multiple expressions, but there remains something very special about a heart-language. Perhaps it can be illustrated this way; I have a set of friends, a married couple, who are fluent in multiple languages. While they will use those languages for many purposes, and be enriched because of them, it is still true that whenever either wants to express their deepest emotions to the other they still go back to their first language, their heart-language, the language they both knew when they first fell in love. They can communicate several ways, but they communicate deepest one way.

When worship music is being discussed, something far more than just a preference is involved; we are talking about the inclusion, or the exclusion, of an individual’s heart-language and of the deep emotions that music evokes.

A second collection issue that gathers to worship music is the role that music styles play in group identity. Look at the cultures around the world; most every group has “markers” that help that group to establish their distinctiveness and to help the individuals know their place within the group. It may sound odd for this discussion, but consider the gangs and their “colors.” the prisoners and their unique tattoos. They are extreme caricatures of a normal life phenomenon. We may pretend not to notice, or even pretend that we are above it, but we each want to belong somewhere and we want to know our place in that group. Music has long been a marker. Do you remember high school? Did you recognize that the “cowboy crowd” did not become a group because country music pulled them together; rather it was normally the other way around. They were friends and country music was a marker. Their knowledge of the same songs, their shared life, with the radio on in the background, it was all a part of their group identity.

So what happens when you look around you at church and you don’t know the songs, and you don’t recognize the rhythms, and everyone else seems to be doing what they do, but you…..well, it doesn’t feel like you fit? The question itself quickly moved from music to something much deeper. You wonder if this is your group. Do I fit here? Am I in or out? Do they want me? Do I fit better in a group somewhere else?

That question will occur to the young family with two children who come into a church that has “very unfamiliar markers.” It will also occur for the elderly couple in a church that seems to be “moving its markers.” No, music style in the church is not just a theological issue; it is also an “am I wanted” issue.

As a collection issue, the music service will expose the differences in our personalities. Some individuals crave change and delight in it, while others feel safest in the secure routine. Therefore a variety in music feeds the hearts of some, while it unsettles others. Both groups may attend the same Sunday morning event, but have very different experiences.

While there are several other important issues that also find their intersection in this topic, perhaps it is time to address the pressing question. What do we do with all of this?

Here are five possibilities:
In short, music is a complex issue. And as such will serve as a primary litmus test for the maturity of a great number of believers and churches. Will the leaders incorporate multiple “languages” into our gatherings? Will the believers fight for the unity of the many or will they fight only for their own? Will our music be a marker that celebrates our diversity or our exclusivity? Will our music reflect our unity or our divisiveness? Your answer is the answer we will have.

  1. “I get to have my heart-language and my style of music. You give me my music or you go somewhere else.” The problem with that answer is that while God is collecting to Himself a people from “every tribe, and language, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9), we’re saying “not here! That is until you change your heart-language to mine.” We might be on shaky ground there.
  2. “The majority rules. Whoever can collect the most votes wins!” In some odd way that does seem democratic. But the problem with that is… well, we have a little conflict with Scripture on that one. Those multiple passages in Romans and Corinthians about “not pleasing ourselves. But each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself…” (Rom 15). Well those passages are going to be troublesome. We may have to do some creative translation work here.
  3. “Whoever was here first should have their music. We have entitlement because we paid for this place.” (A good argument but see previous paragraph.)
  4. “The old people have had their time, and it is up. It is time for younger generations to have their shot at advancing the Kingdom.” Well, that does sound progressive, and for a good cause. But I remember the Pharisees and their claim to be doing Kingdom good as they “dishonored” their parents. Jesus used words about them that frighten me. Come to think of it, it does seem a bit unloving to tell Grandma that there is no longer any place in our gathering for the music and lyrics that gave expression to her faith.
  5. “Here, let me make room for you. Not just room in this row, but room for you in my praise of the King who redeemed such a motley bunch. Our singing may sound a bit “international”; you will hear a variety of heart-languages used here. I want to sing some of mine, but I want to sing more of yours…for when we gather I want to celebrate more “Him,” more “us,” and less about “me.”