Church Music: Simultaneously the Bane and the Heart of Worship
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.