The Musical Cart before the Liturgical Horse
Recently I made a statement to some friends while discussing liturgical design and worship service structure. The statement was simply,
“Music is a hard task master. If you let it rule, it will rule with an iron fist!”
As you might expect, in response to my reductionist proclamation I received quizzical looks that ranged from ‘Did he just say what I think he said?’ to ‘That’s ludicrous; music is and has always been a key element of Christian worship.’
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I thought I’d take the opportunity to clarify my statement.
Firstly, music has always been a key element in Christian worship. Throughout Christian history the people of God (the Christian Church) have gathered to hear God’s word and sing His praises. Bob Kauflin (2011) writes, “Singing allows us to seamlessly combine doctrine with devotion, intellect with emotion, and objective truth with our subjective response to it” (p. 30). Music (specifically singing) enables us to join together as one. When we join our voices together we simultaneously, and harmoniously (for the most part J) give distinction to God’s attributes (faithfulness, goodness, greatness etc.). Music’s general standing and continued use in Christian worship is assured; and in my opinion a continuing gift to the Church. But that does not change the fact that music can, when left unchecked, become an unruly dictator. Allow me to explain…
For much of the first 2000 years of the Christian Church’s history, the debate around music has often centred on its emotive nature. For me, this argument is settled (though I understand for many it is not). Music is a part of the wider creative arts. The creative arts move us; they move us to reflection, and to action. In this, music is no different. Music does have a significant impact on our emotions; it causes us to contemplate the present and at times to respond in a manner appropriate to our contemplation. Warren Wiersbe (2000) notes, “If true worship is the response of the whole person to God, then we do not neglect the emotions” (p. 23). Music and emotions are, and should be, powerfully linked in Christian worship. Does this mean that we should abandon ourselves to wherever our emotions lead us in worship? Absolutely not! Marva Dawn (1995) warns us that,
…subjectivism focuses only on the individual’s feelings and needs and not on God’s attributes or character. Some subjectivity, of course, is necessary; worship cannot be vital without feelings. The problem arises when emotions predominate in mindless subjectivism and God is lost in the process. (p. 50)
As with most things, balance is the key. So how can music be a ‘hard task master’? How does it, if permitted, ‘rule with an iron fist’? It happens quite easily. Music starts to direct and fashion the liturgical design the moment it is given a place of prominence in the genesis of said design. Simply, when you build your service structure around the style of music that should or should not be used, music will start to direct and fashion the service structure. The moment it does so the musical cart has been placed before the liturgical horse (so to speak). For example, if a church was to commence using contemporary songs with the agenda (stated or otherwise) of attracting (or retaining) young people, then that church has given the important decision making required for liturgical design over to music. The music is now in control. From hence forth the music will need to be consulted in order to maintain the attractional modelling of the service design.
Does this mean we shouldn’t use contemporary music? Of course not. The cart still needs the horse! John Jefferson Davis (2010) warns us against the swinging pendulum reminding us that, “…the greatest strengths of the evangelical tradition – preaching and evangelism – …unwittingly contributed to its greatest weakness: lack of depth in the theology and practice of worship” (p. 10). Ultimately we need both: Word and song. We must continue to strive for a balance in our liturgical design where music is used as a tool to enrich the worship experience of the worshipper; but also in a manner where it is not permitted to direct or primarily influence how the service should or should not be fashioned.
When I started writing this post this morning, I initially titled it “The Elephant in the Room” because I think there are a plethora of examples where music has become the elephant in the room. I believe many in the western Christian church have fallen prey to the lures of music and in doing so have handed over the reins of their liturgical design to a dictator that will not relent from its constant need for reinvention. It is a metaphorical treadmill that exhausts the runner even though they have gone nowhere. I will finish the post with a statement made to me when I was a young worship pastor; a statement that I have only recently (some 15years later) started to appreciate for its depth of wisdom: “If you focus on having excellent music in church – all you’ll have at the end of it all is excellent music in church!” (Anonymous).
As always, I am keen for your views on this topic regardless of whether you agree or disagree; remember iron sharpens iron! Let’s talk…
Davis, J. J. (2010). Worship and the reality of God: An evangelical theology of real presence. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching out without dumbing down: A theology for worship for this urgent time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Kauflin, B. (2011, November/December). Why we sing. Worship Leader, 20, 28–31.
Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.