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Church Music: Simultaneously the Bane and the Heart of Worship

December 21, 2011

I have joked (in partial seriousness) for quite some time that the best thing the church could do for lent would be to fast from singing in church. I think we have an unhealthy obsession with expressing ourselves in this way. I don’t even think this is a controversial statement. Matt Redman’s incredibly popular “The Heart of Worship” was written as the result of just such a fast, and the song and its background story have been fully embraced by every evangelical church in the universe (indeed, playing the song may actually now be one of the marks of evangelicalism). The irony, of course, is that “embracing” it usually means a moment of silence to “get your heart right” (a reverent frenzy of introspection we usually reserve for communion) before singing the song full-on with multiple choruses and tags and a double-rainbow to seal the deal. I’m not trying to pick on anybody here or call entire worship services into question. If you’re wondering, I’m the guy who has done this. All I mean to say is that I find the quick liturgical mimic of Redman’s fast kind of telling.

Look, I’ve led plentyof these worship services myself, so I know the bind. People are looking at you to lead them in worship, and the music is the best way to meet most of them in a relatively recognizable way and get a good number of them to participate. Try something else and you get what feels like tumble-weeds. You wonder if you might be doing your people a disservice for all your good intentions. Music helps. So you put your best into it and it isn’t bad. I get it. But let’s not kid ourselves. Today’s evangelical worship routine was in part a reaction to rigid liturgy, but now it is one. And if we count up the scripture readings from the year and notice a disproportionate amount of times we read the “sing a new song to the Lord” Psalms then we should probably ask ourselves who we are trying to convince.

This sounds pretty cynical, and maybe it is. So, in true Out of Bounds form maybe I should let Karl Barth talk me off my soapbox. Here’s the Swiss theologian, writing in the early 1960s on the act of church singing, the trappings that become involved, and what they might say about us:

The praise of God which constitutes the community and its assemblies seeks to bind and commit and therefore to be expressed, to well up and be sung in concert. The Christian community sings. It is not a choral society. Its singing is not a concert. But from inner, material necessity it sings. Singing is the highest form of human expression. It is to such supreme expression that the vox humana is devoted in the ministry of the Christian community. It is for this that it is liberated in this ministry.

It is hard to see any compelling reason why it should have to be accompanied in this by an organ or harmonium. It might be argued that in this way the community’s praise of God is embedded by anticipation in that of the whole cosmos, to which the cosmos is undoubtedly called and which we shall unquestionably hear in the consummation. The trouble is that in practice the main purpose of instruments seems to be to conceal the feebleness with which the community discharges the ministry of the vox humana committed to it. There is also the difficulty that we cannot be sure whether the spirits invoked with the far too familiar sounds of instruments are clean or unclean spirits.In any case, there should be no place for organ solos in the Church’s liturgy, even in the form of the introductory and closing voluntaries which are so popular.

What we can and must say quite confidently is that the community which does not sing is not the community. And where it cannot sing in living speech, or only archaically in repetition of the modes and texts of the past; where it does not really sing but sighs and mumbles spasmodically, shamefacedly and with an ill grace, it can be at best only a troubled community which is not sure of its cause and of whose ministry and witness there can be no great expectation. In these circumstances it has every reason to pray that this gift which is obviously lacking or enjoyed only in sparing measure will be granted afresh and more generously lest all the other members suffer. The praise of God which finds its concrete culmination in the singing of the community is one of the indispensable basic forms of the ministry of the community (Church Dogmatics IV/3.2, 866-867).

A good portion of this pretty much goes against everything I said! Good. And yet I find some of my inclinations validated at the same time as they are chastised. For instance, lest we skim over that dated-sounding part about the organ and the ‘unclean spirits’, let’s note that Barth is not giving the scare-them-off-of-rock-music speech, nor merely expressing a distate for instrumentals (although I do think he is being a bit of a fuddy-duddy). In the lines I’ve bolded we find his real point: He is keying in on the tenor of our music and suggesting that we reckon seriously with our predilection to use this powerful medium to conceal our feebleness precisely when we claim to be coming ‘just as we are’ to worship.

This explains the part about the ‘spirits’ being ‘invoked’ as well. We all know that music can evoke feeling and rally a crowd. This is great. It captures something great in the human spirit. But worship is meant to invoke the Holy Spirit, and where it settles for motivating, expressing or (at worst) even manipulating the human spirit, well, it may be something, but we might have to ask ourselves what makes it particularly Christian.

But I need to heed Barth’s biblical claim that the church must sing. It must give the voice of the people the opportunity to raise in harmony to the praises of God in Christ. But in that regard it must also heed the charge to “really sing” lest it actually become “a troubled community which is not sure of its cause.” In that regard let me leave us with a constructive exhortation from James B. Torrance’s excellent little book entitled Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace:

But who can make that perfect response of love, that perfect act of penitence, that perfect submission to the act of guilty? …. It seems to me that in a pastoral situation our first task is not to throw people back on themselves with exhortations and instructions as to what to do and how to do it, but to direct people to the gospel of grace–to Jesus Christ, that they might look to him to lead them, open their hearts in faith and in prayer, and draw them by the Spirit into his eternal life of communion with the Father…. Jesus takes our prayers–our feeble, selfish, inarticulate prayers–he cleanses them, makes them his prayers, and in a ‘wonderful exchange’ he makes his prayer our prayers and presents us to the Father as his dear children, crying ‘Abba Father’ (55, 45-46).

I guess that’s what I’m after. I highly recommend picking up Torrance’s book or engaging in the comments if you want to explore the constructive vision of community worship which has me on edge for something more. In the meantime, lest nothing but my inner scrooge has come through, I invite you to imagine the four of us at Out of Bounds robustly singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with egg nog on our faces.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2011 6:40 pm

    This is very well put Jon. I am generally a little hesitant when people suggest we stop doing this or that common element of worship. I often notice that fasting from sermons is seldom suggested. It seems to me that the job of the worship leader (a job that I do semi-professionally) is to ride that difficult edge between careful and conscious design and execution on the one hand, and the humble submission of our weak and insufficient (apart from grace) acts of worship to God by the Holy Spirit. It is such a difficult edge to ride, that I can hardly fault any person who tries to do it at all for their failures to do it well.

  2. Len noma permalink
    December 22, 2011 1:25 am

    This brings to mind Matthew Myer Boulton’s God Against Religion. He argues that because our worship emphasizes our separateness from God, it is in a sense sinful. However, God does still redeem and transform our worship.

  3. December 22, 2011 10:47 am

    So a few years ago I met a guy who genuinely didn’t like music. Being a musician myself, I found this hard to believe. “You mean you don’t like modern music?” No – he said. He didn’t like any music at all. “Noise” – was his name for it. His wife of 40 some years tried to explain to me that his sentiments were genuine, that when she wants to put on some quiet string quartet music to accompany her reading, she has learned to shut the door so as not to disturb her husband.

    Now, this guy was an authentic Christian. He wasn’t even a jerk or generally a sourpuss – he was actually really beloved in our church (he was a carpenter and donated a lot of his talent to sprucing up the place). So my question is this: where is this guy’s place in the worship service? I suppose you could say that his special task might be to serve his bros and sis’s by encouraging their singing – but nevertheless, in light of his (admittedly unique) situation, I can’t help but get the sense that music ends up getting theologically defended in the church simply because the vast majority of people tend to like it and find it helpful (and it’s no secret that Barth was a music lover himself).

    My thesis, therefore, is that the commands we find in Scripture to sing need to be demythologised. Music is not necessary in the church; worship is.


  4. December 22, 2011 4:36 pm

    Colin, I fully agree: Those who lead worship have a very demanding and difficult task in front of them. The professionalization and commodification of worship ministry and music has only made this more difficult. I don’t mean to make the burden heavier for such music leaders, but to point out how unnecessary and inappropriate some of that burden is. Question: Why would we fast from sermons? Isn’t proclamation of the Word a little more fundamental to corporate worship than singing? Even if they are on the same level, I think you’d find way more churches willing to forego the sermon well before they dispensed with the music. (And I’ve been in some sermons which also seemed willing to forego proclamation of the Word, but that’s another story).

    Now, Justin: I’d be willing to consider the thesis that “music is not necessary in the church,” with emphasis on the “necessary” part. The commands in that respect might be contextualised in a variety of ways. Even what counts as a “hymn” or a “psalm” or a “spiritual song” is undoubtedly different now, and I don’t believe there is a command which says that music has to be part of the regular liturgy in a fundamentally *necessary* way. (I could be wrong about this.)

    I think there are more people like your man there Justin, and even *way* more who like music just fine but simply and genuinely do not find evangelical church music an expression of their heart and soul in the least. Surely what we’d be asking these people is to make a bit of a sacrifice for the sake of the majority, but how many of them aren’t even at the place of Christian maturity yet where such sacrifices are even on the radar? This is probably inevitable and maybe not a big deal except the irony is that so often evangelicals claim or believe that their music is evangelistic; that it helps them reach people. But I’ve met plenty of people who are simply repelled by it. One might well say they should get over it and see the true heart of what the church gathers for — but that is exactly my point, and I’m saying it to the regular worshippers rather than the seekers.I don’t know if I agree with Barth that “singing is the highest form of human expression.” Maybe it is, I don’t know. Isn’t that contestable?

  5. December 23, 2011 11:23 am

    Yes – Barth’s quote is definitely contestable. I actually don’t really mind music in church myself, but if you’re going to defend it, you should just say: “Music helps a lot of people in church, ergo, it’s something that we should do.” That’s cool – not everything has to be exalted to the heights in order to be justified. The only non-negotiables for church gatherings, in my opinion, are prayer, Eucharist, and preaching – and music can surely play a role in accentuating these things if people are game for it.

  6. December 23, 2011 11:26 am

    And also: John Tesh at Redrocks is almost as cool as Esteban at Redrocks.

  7. Virginia Sumner Adams permalink
    December 24, 2011 5:35 pm

    Jon says: I don’t know if I agree with Barth that “singing is the highest form of human expression.” Maybe it is, I don’t know. Isn’t that contestable?…

    As a Singer, Singing is my highest form of human expression…(except maybe prayer) no contest! – this is an interesting discussion. Maybe someone who has the gift of preaching or ?? has that as their highest form of human expression.

    My recent experience (and focus) has been on the “underground” complaints centered around “Modern/contemporary” style vs. “traditional” (what ever that means) The point of all of this is worship is gauged by how my heart (and yours) connects with the Father. There are only 2 that can really assess that and as worshipers, we need to carefully monitor our side of that connection. (“Is thy heart right with God…” old gospel song) There are times in my worship, that I am impressed to look in directions other than music.

    I think that God loves worship – whatever it is that touches our heart and moves us toward Him.

  8. December 28, 2011 9:22 pm

    Thanks for the comment Virginia. Barth might be with you in saying, theologically, that prayer is the highest form of human expression. That, or love. I am more apt at preaching than singing but I’d say preaching can be both the heights and the lows of human expression.

    As for the point of worship, I’m not sure I’d gauge it, at least in its corporate/communal expression, according to “how my heart connects with the Father.” Instead I’d want to look at Matthew 5:23-24, Isaiah 58, Matthew 18, and 1 Corinthians 11 and suggest that if it is not well with the community and its ministry and mission of reconciliation then the worship is ringing hollow, if not offensive, in the Father’s ears. That is one reason why I might suggest that a good many congregations would do well to apply Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11 to their corporate worship and ask themselves if it might be time to put down the instruments for a bit and get this right. I get a bad taste in my mouth in my experiences where the communion table is a brushed-over tag on a service that basically has to get out of the way so we can sing and be sung to. I’m not sure God loves this worship, except by the intercession of our Lord.

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