By Randy Gariss
Within the American church, few topics have brought out more absurdity, immaturity, and blind passion than the discussion of “what shall the music in our worship services be like?” Of course, there are exceptions, but if one listens to the discussion in blogs, small groups, church hallways, and around Christian family dinner tables, let’s just say our finest behavior is seldom on display when we are discussing worship music.
Why has the style of music in a worship service been such a lightning rod for disagreement? What has caused this issue to tower over the landscape of church life, when other issues—vital issues like discipleship or lost people or poverty—should demand our attention? And worse yet, how has it grown past the stage of congregational discontent to something even more repugnant, a prime cause for broken relationships within a church?
Quite a Collection
First, let’s recognize that music in worship is a “collection issue.” When you find a magnet in a drawer, you’ll likely find quite a few other things attracted and attached to it. Worship is the same.
A discussion of worship brings with it not only our understanding of God, but also an assortment of other complex ideas and emotions. This “collection” may be harder for us to identify and articulate, but even more than our theology, it explains why we think on this issue as we do.
One item in the collection is the assortment of deep emotions shaped out of our past experiences. A young woman, for example, may forever have the hint of tears come to her eyes when certain songs are played or sung, because she had sung those songs as a 12-year-old at Christian camp, when she was first beginning to grasp God’s love for her. Her grandmother may have a similar reaction to different songs, of a far different style, for she too has memories shaped in her heart decades before her granddaughter was born.
Each of these believers has a unique musical “heart language.” Our musical heart language for worship is usually acquired at that time in life when we first came to know what it means to trust and love the Lord. We may learn many other styles of music, we may even enjoy and be fluent in multiple expressions, but there remains something very special about a heart language.
Illustrated another way: I have a pair of friends, a married couple, who are fluent in many languages. They use those languages for various purposes, and are enriched because of them, but whenever they want to express their deepest emotions to the other, they go back to their first language, their heart language, the language they both knew when they first fell in love. They can communicate several ways, but they communicate deepest one way.
When worship music is being discussed, something far more than just a preference is involved; we are talking about the inclusion or exclusion of an individual’s heart language and of the deep emotions that music evokes.
A second item that attaches itself to worship music is the role music styles play in group identity. Look at the cultures around the world; most every group has “markers” that help the group establish its distinctiveness and help the individuals know their place within the group.
It may sound odd for this discussion, but consider gangs and their “colors,” prisoners and their unique tattoos. These two examples are extreme caricatures of a normal life pattern. We may pretend not to notice, and pretend that we are above it, but we each want to belong somewhere and to know our place in that group.
Music has long been a marker. Do you remember high school? Did you recognize that country music did not pull together the “cowboy crowd”? Rather, the people were friends, and country music was a marker. Their knowledge of the same songs, their shared life, with the radio on in the background, was all a part of their group identity.
So what happens at church when you don’t know the songs, you don’t recognize the rhythms, and everyone else seems to be doing what they do, but you don’t feel like you fit? The question quickly moves from music to something much deeper. You wonder if this is your group. Am I in or out? Do they want me? Do I belong better in a group somewhere else?
That question will occur to the young adult who hears music in the church unlike the music she chooses throughout the week. It will also occur to the elderly couple in a church that seems to be abandoning the music that has connected them to God and others of their generation for decades. No, music style in the church is not just a theological issue; it is also an issue of “am I wanted?”
Personality is another part of the collection. Some individuals crave change and delight in it, while others feel safest in the secure routine. Therefore, a variety in music feeds the hearts of some, but unsettles others. Both groups may attend the same Sunday morning event, but have very different experiences.
What Do You Say?
So what do we do with all of this?
Here are five possibilities:
• “I must have my heart language and my style of music. Give me my music or I will go somewhere else.”
The problem with this answer is that, while God is collecting to himself a people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9), we’re saying, “Not here! At least not until you change your heart language to mine.” We might be on shaky ground there.
• “The majority rules. Whoever can collect the most votes wins!”
That seems democratic, but consider the multiple passages in Romans and Corinthians about not pleasing ourselves. Instead, each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself (Romans 15).
• “We who were here first should have our music. We’re entitled because we paid for this place.”
(A good argument, but see the previous paragraph.)
• “The old people have had their time, and it is up. It is time for younger generations to have their shot at advancing the kingdom.”
While that sounds progressive and for a good cause, remember the Pharisees claimed to be doing kingdom good as they “dishonored” their parents. Jesus used words about them that frighten me. And it seems a bit unloving to tell Grandma there is no longer any place in our gathering for the music and lyrics that gave expression to her faith.
• “Here, let me make room for you. Not just room in this row, but room for you in my praise of the King who redeemed such a motley bunch. Our singing may sound a bit ‘international’; you will hear a variety of heart languages used here. I want to sing some of mine, but I want to sing more of yours . . . for when we gather, I want to celebrate more him, more us, and less about me.”
In short, music is a complex issue. As such, it serves as a primary litmus test for the maturity of a great number of believers and churches. Will the leaders incorporate multiple “languages” into our gatherings? Will the believers fight for the unity of the many or will they fight only for themselves? Will our music be a marker that celebrates our diversity or our exclusivity? Will our music reflect our unity or our divisiveness?
Randy Gariss serves as preaching minister with College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri.