Welcome to Catalyst on-line. United Methodist (UM) seminarians have been receiving Catalyst in their mail boxes since 1973.
is the John Wesley Fellowship Program?
WORSHIP RENEWAL: TIME TO FACE THE MUSIC
While worship renewal
encompasses everything from architecture to Bible translation, changes
in music are often the main focus of both effort and conflict in renewal
efforts. Not long ago the question was whether guitars, drums, projected
lyrics, and casual decorum would have any place at all in the Sunday worship
of mostly white, mainstream American evangelicals. Now, almost a quarter-century
after the appearance of such standards as Henry Smith’s “Give Thanks” (1976),
and Laurie Klein’s “I Love You, Lord” (1978), contemporary praise music
has become a fixture in much of evangelical worship. Consider:
The basic arguments for and against praise music have been endlessly repeated. Opponents argue that we are abandoning the gold of our heritage in hymns for the dross of noisy, theologically vapid ditties; that commodified pop/rock is inherently inimical to worthy doxology and spiritual maturity; and that the popularity of praise music is no more an argument for its spiritual value than the popularity of fast food is an argument for its nutritional value. Proponents argue that no musical style is inherently more spiritual than another style; that every generation has had to defend the legitimacy of its music against the music of its elders; and that believers should sing and evangelize in the music of their hearts just as they should read and proclaim Scripture in the language of their hearts. Is there a way to get beyond these entrenched positions?
As in so many areas of life, here it is largely the unbalanced emphasis of some valid principles to the neglect of other equally valid principles that fosters belligerence and polarization. In conflicts over musical styles for worship, there are typically two basic contending principles in play. These two principles are rooted in the first and second greatest commandments as pronounced by Jesus. We are told above all else to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” But we are told also to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31, NIV). I will refer to the first commandment as the “rule of self-offering” and to the second as the “rule of self-sacrifice.” Contention over music styles is largely a consequence of these two rules being variously emphasized, neglected, obeyed, and abused over against each other as they are applied to music in worship.
The Rule of Self-Offering
It follows that music in worship should be of a style that speaks as directly and fully as possible to and from the hearts of a particular gathering of worshippers. The music should emerge deeply and truly from their identity and life experiences, it should fit their personality and cultural manners, and it should engage them as holistically as possible. It should be fully their music.
But here is where the problems begin. If each culture were unfallen and had its own fully developed range of musical styles appropriate for worship, and if each local church setting identified with only one culture and had all the musical resources it needed within that culture, then the choice of music for worship in each setting would be self-evident. But neither of these options is ever the case. Available styles of music are limited in the range of meanings and emotions they can well express. Styles of music also all participate in the fallenness of humanity—that is, each style can and sometimes does express badly and falsely; and each style has some spiritually empty or destructive cultural associations. The available styles of music are never comprehensive for any given culture. Some cultures identify with many styles usable for group singing while other cultures identify with few or even none. Also, those usable styles vary greatly in how much of their cultures they successfully express. The African American church has music that well and deeply expresses the suffering and pain of its people. How many of our other church cultures also display this reality?
Furthermore, cultures are not discrete. They overlap in complex, inconsistent ways. Each individual’s experience of culture is even unique and ever-changing, with individual musical attachments, abilities, and aspirations. Individuals and churches are also moral agents, faced with unavoidable choices about whether and how to change and grow in response to God and neighbor, whether and how to bring not only the present “all” of ourselves to worship but also a greater future “all” as well as they (hopefully) develop and mature in both character and skill. While the rule of self-offering calls us to respond to God with as much of ourselves as possible, it turns out that “as much of” and “ourselves” are complex, changing, and conflicted matters.
The Rule of Self-Sacrifice
This rule of self-sacrifice can only be worked out relationally. What two contending musical factions in a church will do when each resolves to put the other first is not something that can be worked out logically, for it is a logical conundrum. It can only be worked out in real, living relationships. And the process of working it out will be as important as the eventual outcome. It may involve one side deferring to the other for the sake of evangelism. It may involve the younger deferring to the older to honor them and to make the most of their fewer remaining years. It may involve attending to other weaknesses in the fabric of a church community so that its musical life need not be so much of its “glue.” It may involve discovering, adapting, or inventing whole new styles of music. It may involve integrating different styles in a single service or segregating them into separate services. It may involve a sustained program of music education and exposure to visiting musicians. But whatever it may involve, it will always start by asking, How can I love my neighbor?, and then persevering through the hard, relational work that follows.
It is in such a world that God gives us this beautiful, powerful, contentious, life-giving, corruptible, transient, eternal, universal, infinitely varied gift of music. Music is God’s gift to us all. As we learn to share this gift we become God’s gift to each other, and in turn, together become a pleasing gift offered back to him.
For Further Reading
For a greater appreciation and appropriation of hymns, see any of the several books of E. Routley and P. Westermeyer; and issues of The Hymn (quarterly journal of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada). The Society’s website (www.hymnsociety.org) includes one-stop shopping for more or less every English-language hymnal and hymn-related book in print.
For the big picture of the history of Christian music, A. Wilson-Dickson’s The Story of Christian Music (Lion, 1992) is an accessible, illustrated guide; and D. Cusic’s The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music (Bowling Green, 1990) fills in the history of American popular developments including the early history of Contemporary Christian Music.
By Russell Yee,
Ph.D., pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship in Castro Valley, California,
and an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary/Northern California.
1999 Catalyst Resources
If you have problems viewing this site please e-mail email@example.com.