To value clarity in congregational music we often fight an uphill battle. Besides music styles and the history of our own local church, the ever-changing goals of what church music should be and “do” creates a moving target. Do we gather a congregation to be sent or do we attract to turn a crowd into a congregation? There is value, of course, in these two ideas about what a worship service should aim to do. They do not have to be mutually exclusive, but one will win out when it comes to church music. Do you have a cluttered desk of values? Does your church music make the points and support the goals that everyone openly understands? Or, do we keep things vague because the questions are too hard and it is politically expedient to muddle an issue that is often expressed emotionally? In other words, do we dumb down or water down our songs?Here is a value I hope we all can agree with: Church music that is uncluttered is the best for the church. Click To Tweet
Here is a value I hope we all can agree with: Church music that is uncluttered is the best for the church. What clutters the mix of music? How do we choose music that clearly lifts our church? If you believe that worship equals music, you will have a different conversation than with one who thinks worship is simply a warm-up act and not truly part of worship. Might there be a happy “both and” to consider? To help us discuss this matter, I am going to suggest several questions that I believe will aid decluttering our leadership of Sunday worship music.
Isn’t it true that music does not equal worship?
The logic here does not go both ways. Indeed, music itself is many things. It can be a love song for your woman or protest songs against a war. Music may soothe or stir a soul, depending on the song and context. So, why does it seem that many will say “the worship was great” and they mainly mean that they loved the music or what they felt during the music? So, music is employed to express our prayers, aspirations, confessions, theology, and the story of our faith. You can see why music is important. Add this to the fact that in the Bible when the word “sing” is used it is often synonymous with the word “pray.” We can argue that music and worship leaders are like the tribe of Levi, performing worship leadership. But, we should be careful to not over-value the expression of our worship music over what the entirety of worship actually is!
The Bible exhorts “singing” over 100 times! Indeed, there is much historical and biblical language about our expression of worship that clearly includes music and singing. Whether its a Psalm talking about lyres and cymbals or the New Testament admonition to “sing to one another” we fail when we simply call music a tool. It might be like saying “words” are simply logical tools or one’s physical posture is simply a biological act. What I believe the Incarnation of Christ–his being truly a human–teaches us is that we worship as humans. This includes both the emotions of the laments in Psalms as well as the powerful creeds quoted in the Apostles’ letters to the churches. There is something mystical to singing in worship. But, it is not the focus. It is a vehicle for God’s word and a preparation for his table. The bottom line is that we must stop calling music “worship” if we want to have church music that is uncluttered.
Why is congregational singing so important?
Church history is full of bloody battles that make our transition from organ to guitar seem tame. It used to be forbidden that anyone other than clergy or cantors sing in worship. Additionally, there once was a time when vocal harmonies were seen as vain so only unison could be sung. Only those of the male gender were allowed to sing the liturgy. Even the structure of our Western church music reflected a legalistic patter. Sacred and common music were to be distinct. For instance, music with harmony parts and in any meter other than a division of three were left to the worldly settings. Sacred music was sacred. And, when instruments were banned in the church by some in early America, there were debates about how your a cappella singing was sinful if you chose to use a songbook with printed notes. Class and regional differences played out in our church music as well A fancy organ could feed the poor in the 18th and 19th centuries! This sounds like modern debates in church board meetings about spending six figures on multimedia gear. Maybe we have not evolved as much as we think we have.
The Protestant Reformation cemented the idea of the “Priesthood of all Believers” for many Christians and forever changed our worship music. If any follower can represent Christ, then why can’t everyone pray and sing and participate fully in worship? Congregational singing reinforces this idea. We are all members of the choir, and God is the audience. When we pray together, it is powerful. When we sing together, it is the same but more with more of our bodies and more of our minds. Did you know that we actually feel the sound as well as hear it? To corporately be in unison with a prayer powerfully displays why congregational singing is important. For the same reason reciting a creed is important, we can with music recite prayers, creeds, and confessions. Uncluttered church music embraces singing that is more than a means to an end. If we simply are being entertained, then our singing is more about us as individuals than us as a people of God. Or, our singing can about acting out the liturgy and praying together. Which do you prefer?Uncluttered church music embraces singing that is more than a means to an end. Click To Tweet
Should I understand the lyrics?
The easy answer is: YES! Occasionally, we find a song that we all love like “How He Loves” and lose context. The writer, John Mark McMillan did not write it for the church in America or even his own local place of worship. But, once it caught on the lyric “sloppy wet kiss” had to be explained to local church people. Someone recorded it with “unforeseen kiss” to clear up the confusion. The song is a metaphor-rich anthem that plainly is talking about the depths of God’s love for us. So, it is actually pretty clear, in my opinion. But, if it isn’t in your church you should explain it! I used John Mark McMillan’s explanation of his vision of his toddler running and giving him a slobbery kiss. What a picture. This seemed to help my church people accept the potential confusion. Here is good advice: Give people empathy by explaining the context. This was also necessary when “raise my Ebenezer” was sung while singing the hymn “Come Thou Fount.” Old hymns, for those who don’t know them, can be very cluttered. Don’t stop using them, however! Simply, make things intelligible. Give your congregation the necessary context. If we don’t readily understand the lyrics of a worship song, we put unnecessary barriers to the prayers of our congregation.
There is a new song by Joel Houston that might be “explainable” but not necessarily accessible. The song “So Will I” uses the word “evolution” intentionally to share a specific scientific opinion that the songwriter has about the Creation. Houston’s Twitter account said the following: “Evolution is undeniable–created by God as a reflective means of displaying nature’s pattern of renewal in pursuance of God’s Word–and only ever in part–not the SOURCE! Science and faith aren’t at odds. God created the Big-Bang.” This may not be enough to give proper context. Are we singing about the theory of evolution?
Many take the first instance of the Creation story in Genesis as literally a 6-day period. To be honest, I hold to what I call a “biblical” theory of creation which some call “old earth.” In other words, God created it all–just not in a literal 6-day period. I believe we can and should be okay with having different views! So, I am not complaining about that. I am not a scientist, but as a worship musician and student of the Bible, I think the church is really not that place to sing about science. Maybe, in this case, it clutters the worship music when we sing the word “evolution”–even though the intent is a good one. In my first example of John Mark McMillan’s song “How He Loves,” the undeniable is the idea of God’s love. In the second–“So Will I”–it is not as clear so the lyric potentially robs the congregation of clarity. The principle to follow is that clarity of lyric and context matter greatly if you desire uncluttered worship music.The principle to follow is that clarity of lyric and context matter greatly if you desire uncluttered worship music. Click To Tweet
Are preferences in music really that important?
This is important to ask because often I hear worship leaders and pastors coach people in their congregations that their preferences are not what matters. Indeed, we all have to give a “sacrifice of praise” but would we force people to eat a plate of habanero peppers? Music is a very physical, human element. When we disregard the impact culture and experience has on what people are willing to easily accept we are shaming people into denying the fact that they are simply human. If you walk into a house and it smells like garlic, you either feel at home or are appalled. Is there anything wrong with either response? If you were raised on garlic, that smell warmly greets you. If you never have tasted garlic before, you might run for to the bathroom.
The human component isn’t separated from the spiritual component in our worship music. I used to say, “We worship God as humans, not as Vulcans.” God wants people to be people! To not be sensitive, intentional, and prayerful about the style of music means you are allowing clutter into your church music. To not understand how the older saints react or how the uninitiated feel towards the language and sound of your worship is not acceptable. Effective worship and music leaders know that some things will turn of good people. It is not always there depravity that is in the way. It is not a sin to have taste buds trained by your native culture.
Having said all that, I believe we fail in leadership when we don’t challenge people to grow in their tastes. If you want to reach the cultural diversity of your town, you have to try their food. Soon, you might actually grow to love garlic or eat curry. While that plate of habaneros will be too much for most of us, growing our physical acceptance of the church is necessary if you want to have a church that truly is open to new people. One case in point, my former pastor Dr. Porter, used to consult churches in the Plymouth Brethren movement to employ modern music. The key factor was that he showed the grandparents that their kids would be the ones leading them in singing. This was successful. Dr. Porter, being a very skilled and pragmatic scientist by profession, understood the tensions preferences provided and addressed them. The bottom line is this: Church music is a family issue.The bottom line is this: Church music is a family issue. Click To Tweet
Keep asking questions!
The more we are willing to ask the tough questions the more we are open to listening. Here are the same questions re-asked for our benefit:
- Is church music the same as using the word “worship?”
- How much does the clarity of song lyrics matter in our church music?
- Do we see church music as a family issue or simply as marketing?
What other questions about church music should we wrestle with?