Monday, May 08, 2017

The Reformation Project: what about the Music?

In the previous three posts, I addressed the subject of worship while scarcely mentioning the issue of music. This may mystify many readers, as Christians often reduce discussion of worship to the matter of musical style. When people talk about "worship wars," they actually are talking about battles over music. In my own analysis of visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, most of my discussion of what took place in the meetings other than the sermon centered around music, with relatively little attention given to other elements other than to notice their absence; however, this was not because I accept the assumption that music equals worship. It is difficult to spend much time describing things that aren't present, and many elements of historic Christian worship were minimized or absent.

Nonetheless, music is an important element of worship, and, additionally, many of these large churches would consider their music to be a major selling point to attendees. They may be correct. Tremendous amounts of time, money, and effort go into producing music with the highest production values that these churches can generate. If quality is sometimes lacking, energy, effort, and passion are not. Nonetheless, from the standpoint of proper Christian worship, these productions leave much to be desired.

Why is that? Is modern church music really adverse to correct Christian worship, or is this aging blogger merely showing his over wrought fixation on old ways of doing things?

Watching congregations divide, often along generational lines, over questions of church music has been sad to see, and one can be excused for feeling a sense of relief when recent writers have declared those skirmishes, with their sometimes devastating impacts on local churches, largely over. That said, it is possibly even more sad that such divisions have often taken place without important and substantial questions about the place of music in worship ever being asked. Churches have divided over style with very little controversy over substance. If many of the criticisms of "traditional worship" (meaning that which dominated the middle portion of the 20th century) had merit, and I believe that they did, then it is unfortunate that so much effort went into changing musical forms without really doing anything to understand the place of music in biblical worship. For all of the energy (which is sometimes confused with the work of the Holy Spirit) that goes into making modern church music, one might argue that the church is worse off than it was 50 years ago, not because styles and instrumentation are worse (that would be open to debate), but because congregations rarely addressed the substantive questions.

Thus, one might have wished that controversies over music had begun by addressing the most fundamental question of all: what is the purpose of music in worship? If that seems too basic, one might argue that churches still should have asked it, if for no reason other than to identify common ground prior to drawing swords. However, such a foundational question may prove not to be so basic after all, as rationales for the purpose of complex and dynamic music programs in churches are all over the map. Without agreement on purpose, it is no wonder that churches lapsed into conflagrations over personal taste and recent tradition, for without a common mission for worship music that is integrated with a robust appreciation for other elements of worship, one might not ever get to the questions of biblical basis, content, congregational involvement, and so forth. In fact, the vast majority of churches never did. While recent years have seen some music leaders adopt mission statements (everything seems to require a mission statement these days), this has largely come in the aftermath of churches establishing their musical direction, meaning that the influence was retrospective, not formative.

As a result, much of the music featured in the large, pacesetting churches I visited centered around performance by musicians using fairly sophisticated production lighting and sound before an audience that behaved no differently than middle aged audiences act at a pop concert -- some in the crowd watch and listen, some make some effort at singing along, some clap their hands and bounce and sway as their spirit moves them, and others stand with their hands in their pockets and perhaps even talk with those around them. Content is for the most part minimal and repetitive, with sentimentality trumping any clear biblical content. There were exceptions, but for the most part the congregation was not expected to sing. Though the words were printed on the screen, singing was difficult and at times nearly impossible due to the volume of the band (it is hard to sing when you can't hear your own voice), the use of unfamiliar music that often included unpredictable bridges known only to the band, and the use of music difficult to sing for undirected amateurs who had not practiced it.

Thus, if part of the point of church music is for congregants to praise with their mouths, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. most of the music in these churches failed in that regard.

The biblical model of worship music is the Psalms. While some groups of Christians go so far as to say that only canonical music should be used in worship, this writer would not take that stance. Nonetheless, a look at biblical music (meaning that found in the Bible) reveals sharp contrasts and deficiencies in the modern church. For one thing, the biblical songs are substantive and God centered, qualities often lacking in modern church music, which often is thin and vague on content and centered on human experience. In addition, the emotions of modern church music are very different from its biblical counterparts -- biblical lyric is much MORE emotional. Almost all contemporary church music captures one, and only one, category of emotion -- celebration, joy, victory. As Carl Trueman has said, there is hardly any music in modern churches that can be sung by miserable Christians. In contrast, the Psalms, to borrow Calvin's phrase, carry the anatomy of the parts of the soul. Though God centered in approach, the Psalms manage to convey the entire range of human emotional experience.

Over the last half century, young Christians in particular were dissatisfied with music that seemed outdated and irrelevant to their experiences. To a large extent, their complaints were valid. However, ignoring the biblical data, they set out to make music reflective of generational experiences and tastes. For that reason, church music, like the rest of modern worship, remains in drastic need of reform.

In the next post, I will turn to the subject of preaching.

This is part of a series entitled "The Reformation Project." The table of contents for the series is here.

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