Note: Today’s post has nothing to do with yesterday’s post: Regular warship time.
Music in church is on my mind again this morning because it is one of the things that we are discussing in class this week. Here is, I think, one of my best short posts on the subject:
And then there is the following, which I am quite proud of, and which appeared on this blog a couple years ago in five parts (all five parts are below, bold has been added):
Also see this post, as this series leaps off from this foundation.
As I was recently preparing for a class, I was reading through portions of the Zondervan Handbook of the Bible (1999 – 3rd ed.). Commenting on Elijah’s simple dress noted in 2 Kings 1:8, it notes “The prophet’s clothing was rough and basic. He had no need of “power dressing” to impress his audience. The message was sufficient” (p. 293)
I had not heard that term before, but I like the picture this non-Lutheran handbook painted there.
And this gets me thinking: likewise with preaching or the music we play! With preaching, why should we not, like Paul, fast from eloquence, rhetoric and the felt need to plead, to convince, to impress (PowerPoint and video clips? Really?)? With music, why would we not let the words of our simple poetry (which of course makes reading and learning the words of the hymns easier) call the shots – and shun all attempts to produce “the feeling” through just the right musicians, choice of songs, lighting, and of course, the repetition of praise choruses, etc.?
In other words, it is like Gideon’s army being cut to 300 men, lest we forget “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zech 4:6)!
We should never think of the proclamation of God’s Word – or prayer to God – in terms of a “performance” that will be dramatic enough to impact, to move, or to overwhelm the “audience” – whether by us, the Spirit, or both of us. Whether “new measures” (a la Charles Finney of the 19th century up to today) or old (did you know that the Lutheran orthodox theologians – the non-pietists! – used to argue for “moving” opera music in church?), we shall not be “moved” by these!
Does this mean we don’t “perform” at all? Well, it all comes down to what we mean by perform. We should only do this in the sense of simply executing that which we have been given to do – corum Deo (before, in the presence of, God).
It seems to me that really young children just enjoy wearing simple clothes (OK, this is true for boys, of which I have five… and granted, dinosaurs on the clothes are appreciated), listening to simple stories (Bible stories and such, especially about that Jesus guy), and singing simple songs (yes, they do like hymns). We don’t need to “add power” to these things – these things are already plenty interesting as they are, right?
But alas, yet again, this is something kids get but adults forget. What we see all around us in the Church is evidence of this fact.
Yes, let me nevertheless play devil’s advocate… for the sake of argument, try to present things from a different perspective. Not only this, let me try to present what I see to be the best alternative argument in the strongest and most compelling way possible.
This means that you will need to read this post to the very end, because I’m going to sound like a serious contemporary Christian music advocate for a while. Hang in there.
Before I jump into my main argument, there are some preliminary issues that I think should be addressed.
Recently, Issues ETC host Pastor Todd Wilken, in discussing the practices of megachurches, said that those who tell people that they are experiencing God in those places – as opposed to experiencing the results of human efforts and manipulation – are charlatans, and that what they are saying here is evil (10/5/12, listener email and comment line)
I think these words are too strong. After all, more traditional folks would likely not say this regarding those who think that we should use the best art possible in our stained glass windows, sing hymns set to the songs of the best secular composers, preach messages utilizing the best rhetorical techniques, and think that some measure of pageantry and smells and bells are wholly appropriate for worshipping and revering the Lord. I know that one can argue that those who do these things want to glorify God first and foremost, but does such a person also not think that God will “move” others by using the works and efforts of these human creators? Do we not experience God and the eternal life that is in His Son through the actions and activities of others?
I will admit that it seems that what happens in the megachurch is more crass, and given over to every excess (and issues involving money can be more clearly linked as well). Nevertheless, how would we, for instance, somewhat objectively distinguish the efforts to “move” persons that happens in a megachurch vs. a cathedral? Do we deny that there is any effort on the part of those constructing the cathedral that the “cathedral experience” is something they have in mind at all? In any case, the argument that I will put forth here does not deal with the megachurch practices per se, but rather, the more “emotional” music of the “folk” variety.
In other words, it seems to me that there is indeed some difference between a black Gospel choir or Gospel songs of the Appalachian bluegrass variety, for instance – where persons are singing their hearts out to God in a very emotional way – and the megachurch praise band where proper ambiance (perhaps smoke machines and lighting, excessive amplification, a focus on the singers and the excessive “jumbo-troning” that often accompanies this…) and well-played, highly repetitive music all come into the mix (knowing that hymns sung by large traditional congregations can be very moving, I don’t bring up congregation size here).
Why do I go this route? Well, where the worship of one seems more like the way Paul describes the simple and inner beauty of a godly woman, for example, the other certainly seems more adorned (complex), or, if you are a high culture afficianado, contrived (bread and circuses come to mind). Nevetheless – and this is an extremely important nevertheless – the roots of most all the music played in the megachurch are largely from more Baptist and charismatic (Pentecostal) contexts. The real argument here, I suggest, is over what kind of music is appropriate and how God would use music. After all, not every large congregation that utilizes rather emotional contemporary Christian music (surprisingly, many large Roman Catholic parishes do this – I’ve been to one that did so quite impressively) is given to the excesses found in some of the larger megachurches.
So, this is all preliminary to my argument, which will I will now begin.
First, a reminder: At this point in the series, I am trying to put forth the most compelling argument that I can think of for the use of emotionally powerful music in worship, which is most often associated with “contemporary Christian music” (kind of a “best construction +” kind of thing).
I said before that we did not need power dressing, preaching, or music. I said that we don’t need to “add power” to these things because they are already plenty interesting as they are – something little children get but adults forget. But now: what if all the things that happen when a simple black Gospel choir sings, for example, actually has nothing to do with adding power, but is simply about receiving all that God has to give us and would have us use?
All of this is a theological argument of course. We know that in the beginning was the Word – the Logos – and yet, this is not simply synonymous with rationality, logic, and the life of the mind, but contains so much more.
Let me explain, starting with more simple things. First of all, I think we can all agree that the real thing that has the power to transform human hearts is the Word of God. That said, when God gives us the word for us to speak, He gives us not only the message but also the power to say it rightly (i.e. “gentleness and respect”, the “truth spoken in love”, etc – in other words, with the corresponding attitudes and emotions that properly go with these words).
In other words, God means to fill and move us by His Spirit to do this. And this of course means that this is not about “adding” anything on our own – like “our passion” for example – but simply receiving all the passion that He means to create in us when we not only hear words from Him but speak words to Him and words of Him to others. This means that we can “quench” the Spirit’s activity here via our sin – which means that in our sanctification we fail to grasp hold of all God means for us to have.
Now that this has been established, let us add music to the mix. Here, something similar would occur: God provides some persons – musicians – to accompany His words that are spoken, and the music – like the speaker’s emotions – should be fitting and appropriate to those words. We can be sure that such was the case when Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon break out into song in the Gospel of Luke (the first musical!), for example.
This statement would seem to be uncontroversial on the face of it, but we can all see where this is going: now we further propose that persons rejecting much (not all) of the more “contemporary” Christian music are rejecting that which God really does mean to give them for their proper use. In other words, while they are rejecting the music because they consider it too emotional and affective, the reality is that here to, the Spirit is being quenched. They do not want to consider that God’s words might be “properly enhanced” by emotional music that goes with what, in fact are, very emotional words, and should be recognized as such.
In other words, the Christian says “what do we have that we have not received” while simultaneously recognizing that we do not receive much of what we should due to our sin. We not only do not ask for things, as James says we should, but we even reject gifts from God he gives to us apart from our asking!
Again, there are some who are not even willing to consider that perhaps some contemporary Christian music really is appropriate. The argument here is simply that those who consider particular songs overly emotional are often wrong about this – simply because they are not comfortable expressing their emotions in that way when they should be. Yes, they may be the bride of our husband, Christ, who woos His people, but even the idea of singing “Jesus is our husband love ballads” (note: not my boyfriend songs, or ditties) is anathema to them. God is to be loved – but simply not in a way that is too personal, emotional or “passionate”.
Now, let us take things one step further and ask the inevitable question, and this is where things get more challenging for the proponent of much contemporary Christian music. If the above is true, might the music itself be able to carry God’s message to us – communicate it to us? (some more liturgical folks actually claim this for Bach, for example – they say that the music itself “preaches the Gospel”!). Might there be music that, coming from Christians, is actually “Christian” music – even without the words? (perhaps then, even a non-Christian could pick up and play this music which is distinctively Christian?). Not long ago, I had the pleasure of teaching an African American woman who came from a charismatic background, and in spite of her clear biblical knowledge, she once told our class that the best worship experiences she had had – those times when she felt the closest to God – were ones that were “wordless” – when only the music was playing.
Given that we will consider the times we feel closest to God as the source of our strength and security, the practical effect of this view would be that the spoken word (and given the song, this spoken word will be more or less – perhaps much less – in conformity with the Word of God) that the music normally would accompany takes a back seat as the music itself that supposedly “preaches” – comforting, nurturing, encouraging – takes center stage.
Now, all of us might get a bit nervous here when we think about this. And yet, given what we have talked about above, does not all of this make good sense? After all, in our lives, so much communication that occurs is non-verbal. Do we limit the idea of what the Word means – do we take this passage from John too literally? If we insist only that literal words can communicate God’s message to us – that only they are the Word of God – are we perhaps limiting God’s power and what He desires to do?
So what does this mean? What if this is true about music being just another way that God shares communicates with us – shares His “Word” with us? Well here is a preview of where I am going: the problem with this is the “What if?” question itself. As theologians – especially pastors – we do not operate in this realm, nor should we want to.
Still , let us go on – so that we can see where all of this goes logically. Let me concede for the sake of argument that this may indeed be true – that God does share His life-giving Word with us via the “language” – the “emotional language” of music. The point is simply this – we can’t have certainty about any of this! We are back with Luther and the “monster of uncertainty”. After all, we know for a fact that music, being a gift that God gives all of His human creatures, can be used to powerfully affect anyone – Christian or not – emotionally. How are we to distinguish a simple human experience from music from a distinctly Christian experience, where one can be confident that they are really experiencing a secure relationship with the Lord? If we feel we are close to God during a powerful worship chorus how do we know that it is really God, and not just the musicians, atmosphere, etc., which is affecting us? Of course, not everyone will ask these kinds of questions, but there are many people who can’t help but ask these kinds of questions!
And perhaps more persons than you think will ask these questions. What if your world comes crashing down and then you start asking these kinds of questions? Am I really connected with God? Does He really love me? Does He really forgive me? Is this really Him that I feel? In times like that, do we really want our answer to that question to depend on whether or not we get the “feeling” when musicians in Church try to “lead us into the Presence of God”? Even if we ourselves feel secure in our faith – because perhaps we come into that “worship experience” already seriously grounded in God’s Word – what about our family and friends? After all, do we not believe that their spiritual growth is predicated on their knowledge – heart knowledge if you prefer – of the Word of God? (incidently, just the other day I heard from a very theologically astute layman that the only theology classes that he had had were the great hymns… I had thought he must have gone to seminary)
Doesn’t the question ultimately come down to what God has promised? When, where, and how He has given us certainty that He meets and comes to us? This is the main point, right? We can have absolute certainty about the Word of God! For example, when the pastor baptizes, gives the Lord’s Supper, or pronounces absolution, because of the promises that we can find in the Scriptures, we can have certainty that we are “experiencing” God and His presence – even if we don’t really feel like that is the case. The Gospel is even for people who strongly sense that they don’t – and never will – love Jesus and His people quite like they should.
The Lutheran blogger Scott Diekmann quotes Pastor Jon Sollberger shared his experiences while in a church praise band (from here, at the 31 minute mark). Its powerful, and is a story I have heard from many others as well:
“This was a couple lifetimes ago, and I was very much involved in the church where I grew up – that church was all about the show and how it made you feel. And so I was a guitarist and I got into that, and we really did the whole thing where we got everyone going via the music, the beat, the feeling, the great progression of the music. That’s how we equated successful worship. And then I took my act out on the road, I traveled all across the country, I did recordings of this so-called Christian contemporary music, I lived it, I performed it, I produced it, I recorded it, and spent a good decade doing this until I actually found out that I was burnt out on it. …It’s a very successful thing outwardly speaking. I mean, all we had to do was show up, plug in, and play, and we had an instant reaction and enthusiasm from all the people, young and old, both, and it was really something. But then you start to – it becomes normal to us, all the music and the generational feeling that it creates – and we started evaluating our worship experience on how the people were reacting to what we played. I mean we could get ‘em up there with some fast paced high energy music, we could get them to be very very mellow and contemplative with some slower, more heartfelt type of music, and when we didn’t get those reactions we didn’t feel that the Holy Spirit was at work because obviously the people weren’t reacting – there was no “success.” After a while you kind of just get burnt out on this sort of thing and that’s when I kind of quit the whole church thing for quite a while and my wife dragged me, kicking and screaming, into a Lutheran church, and I really saw that there was a difference there. I thought it was a cult. I thought it was spare, Spartan. I didn’t think there was any spiritual energy there. I thought it was way too formal, and I could not wait to get back for the next service. And I didn’t know why obviously, but it was because the Gospel had been not only preached, but presented within a context and in such a manner that nothing else got in the way, not my feelings, not how I was doing, not how well dressed the people up front were or anything like that, or how impressive they were to me, but simply the Gospel – that I was a sinner who had been saved by the grace and merit of Jesus only.”
Diekmann sums this up: “This is a powerful quote, because it contrasts the often un-evangelical emotional roller coaster ride that you’re treated to at many “contemporary” church services with a doctrinally sound proclamation of the Gospel, in which the Word does its work.”
It is instructive to see what the Apostle Peter, who really could have assurance that he had felt the positive effects of God’s presence at the Mount of Transfiguration – a “mountaintop worship experience” if there ever was one – had to say his hearers about the sure and certain experience of hearing God’s very words:
“…. we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…” (2 Peter 1)
Surety and certainty that lasts a lifetime!
Especially for those who remain unconvinced, there is one other matter I must also bring up: we are all to be concerned not to offend those we consider the weaker brother – for the one who feels constrained, or limited in one area or another (perhaps you think this is me – that in spite of my evident concern that God’s people be healthy and vigorous in their emotions towards Him, my concerns are nevertheless overkill, overly scrupulous, or perhaps too intellectual). Further, in a healthy marriage, both partners will limit their freedoms out of love for the other. When one fails to do this, the marriage will inevitably weaken, face strain, and be in danger of breaking apart. I think that this is where we are : some believe that there is an advantage here in using this kind of music that must trump the love and public harmony of the church.