Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some Thoughts on Church Music

Thinking about religion raises the subject of worship, and inherent in worship is the issue of music. The Music Director/Committee in the local church has been called euphemistically “the war department.” Probably in no other setting is it more true that “you can’t please all the people all the time.”

Certainly music has a legitimate affect on the worshipper. We are creatures of time, place, and sensory perception, and all of those combine in music to affect us in powerful ways. But this does not mean that individual taste, or even cultural tendencies, are the arbiters of what constitutes good church music; music in the church is offered to God, and it is not meant primarily for our entertainment. Selfish individualism and a hedonistic culture certainly tries to tell us that if something is not pleasurable we are not to be faulted to dismiss it, but such an attitude is antithetical to the essence of Christian Faith.

Inherent to Christian Faith is a confrontation to the world-spirit. To the degree that a given culture embraces things which are antithetical to the Spirit of Jesus (e.g., the kingdom values of the Sermon on the Mount), Christians need to learn to turn away from cultural expressions and give a counter-witness. All cultures fall short, yet some show more effect of gospel permeation than others. I am among those who believe that Western culture has embraced a post-Christian mentality with growing openness to paganism coupled with an acceptance of multi-culturalism that, in thinking all cultures are equally legitimate, denies the belief in the exclusiveness of Christian Faith that was foundational to the Western Civilization which formed the traditional American society we are quickly losing.

What does this have to do with music? Music is a key expression of culture and the pop-music of our culture reflects our post-Christian mind-set. Among other things, it feeds hedonism. So, when churches use the culture to offer people the alternative of kingdom values, how are those values to be perceived and how are people to know they need to change –– be converted –– if churches look and act mostly like the world? How does a Christian community teach the language of Zion if it does not “speak” it and model what conversion and transformation looks like? (How many Christians today understand the biblical allusion in the previous sentence?)

This is not to say that Christians (who, as I said above, are all creatures of time, place, and sensory perception) should not learn to use their own culture in the expression of Christian Faith (this has happened repeatedly through the history of the Church). I am saying, though, that Christians should not capitulate to the culture and so lose the wealth of what the Lord has worked into the Church through all the past years. Good music is not merely what pleases us; good music can both teach us in a way that contributes to our transformation and also offer to God something more than we could ever give Him when left to our own selves, time and place.

In all of this there needs to be a true Christian attitude. Two esteemed voices have spoken to this in a way that is worthy of repeated exposure. The first is C. S. Lewis and the second is Eugene Peterson

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (esthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste –– there, we may be sure, all both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost (C. S. Lewis, Christian Refections, 96–97).

You say that you have almost nothing in common with these people. But isn’t that just the point? You have nothing in common with them; but God does. This just happens to be the way that God goes about making a kingdom, pulling all sorts and conditions of people and then patiently, mercifully, and gracefully making something of them. What he obviously does not do is pre-select people who have an aptitude for getting along well and enjoying the same things. Of course you don’t have much in common with them. The church is God’s thing, not yours.

....The church is not a natural community composed of people with common interests; it is a super-natural community. And the super in that word does not mean that it exceeds your expectations; it is other than your expectations, and much of the other is invisible to you as yet.

I’m sorry if I am sounding a bit sharp-tongued on this, but I don’t want you getting off on the wrong foot in this church business. Trust me, there’s a lot more going on than you will ever have in common with anyone there....

No, you don’t have to like the hymns. And yes, you do need to sing them –– hopefully in approximate tune and rhythm with the rest. It’s an excellent exercise in humility (Eugene H. Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, 26–28).

Let’s be open to the music truly birthed by the Church. Let’s encourage our pastors and music directors to nurture us with music which expresses and teaches the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Wondering who originally described music as the war department? Luther? Wesley? Trying to find a definitive answer.
Thanks for your post. You may find some of my blog posts go in a similar direction.....Church music is a great place to exercise humility!

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