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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Turning the Beat Around

Today’s title? Sorry about that ... it just worked. And yep, that’s right: now you’re going to have Vickie Sue Robinson’s 1976 disco anthem in your brain all day. My bad.

Disco’s not my taste either. In fact, as a leftover child of the New Wave era, I’ve always thought it was the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse. But that’s not going to help you with Vickie today. Like it or not, she’s going to be in your head.

You can thank me later.

Isn’t it funny, though, how music goes beyond our wills? It reaches into our souls in ways that none of us really understands, moving us in ways that are almost magical. It gets around all our intellectual defences and goes straight to the emotions. We don’t just hear music: we feel it. Watch the kid bouncing down the street with his iPod in his ears, and you’ll see that appeal in its rawest form. See the military chant lifting the head of the weary marching soldier and watch how its rhythms empower him to persist beyond his normal limits. Or hear the thunderous swells of The Hallelujah Chorus filling a music hall, and see if you can stay in your seat ... these are powerful appeals to body and soul.

Honestly, if it weren’t a gift from God, I’d wonder if it was entirely safe for the human race to have it.

Music really moves us. It has a profound spiritual dimension. And anyone can see that our church music is changing rapidly these days; but it’s not always to the best effect. Sometimes there’s a trading down to the lowest tolerable denominator; at other times, there is a civil war started over whose musical tastes are to rule — those of the previous generations or those of the present and next generations.

To be frank, I find that it most cases any biblical motivation is absent from the controversy. Far too much that goes under the banner of “faithfulness” is really about personal taste, and far too much that goes under the banner of “relevance” is motivated by an equally selfish desire to innovate for innovation’s sake. On either side, it’s all too easy to baptize our preferences with religious language. But if we are truly sincere we all would have to admit that the real question has to be, “What music does the Lord want us to sing?”

It’s his congregation, after all.

Practical Music Reform

So let’s suppose you’re in one of those churches that is on the cusp of some kind of music reform plan. Maybe you’re wondering how to bring in new music in a right way, or maybe you’re thinking of how to preserve some of the valuable music resources of our older hymnology.

Fine. Both are good.

Now, how do we actually proceed? It’s all well and good of me to talk about better music; but if I have anything worth hearing, don’t I owe you some kind of practical suggestions about how to get on with it?

Okay, let me have a whack at that.

Clear Scriptural Principles

First, let me summarize what I’ve said are the key realizations, scripturally speaking, that ought to inform our attitude to any changes in church music.
  1. Congregational music is teaching — we must never teach anything but the truth.
  2. Congregational music is celebrating — we must only celebrate truth.
  3. Congregational music can be somber or joyful; but if the scriptures tend toward either mood, it is praise and celebration that they favour.
Practical Proposals

Now I want to make the rubber meet the road, if I can. Below are a bunch of what seem to me to be common-sense strategies, though I also think they flow from the spirit of scripture. I’m not infallible, of course, so feel free to take them with a grain of salt. I hope they help.
  1. Congregational music must serve the congregation; and I think this is also the spirit of the scriptures. Thus, arrangements that are unpredictable, stylized or improperly led are to be avoided, because the goal of congregational singing is that every person is enabled to sing wholeheartedly. A new song must be introduced and taught properly, not merely foisted on the congregation. The congregational situation should not be a chance for musicians to show off; on the contrary, the congregation should be enabled to sing.
  2. The instruments must serve the singing. Congregational music leaders should remember that the true instrument they are playing is not any of the instruments of wood, steel and plastic that the musicians may have in their hands. It is the hearts and voices of the congregation that are really being “played”. As much as God deserves the best in our instrumental playing, God is more concerned about their hearts and voices than he is about the cleverness of the performance, and the congregation should never be treated as a mere audience. I humbly suggest that perhaps we need to think carefully about how we use irregular arrangements and unexpected bridges if we have not prepared the audience as to how to follow us. If we see the congregation become bewildered in their singing, stumble in their rhythm, or even fall silent in temporary confusion, then this suggests that the conducting of the congregational singing has failed in some way and needs to be rethought.
  3. Congregational singing is about God, not us. Words need to be watched for their focus. Good hymns tend to contain a lot of pronouns referring to God (like “you”, or perhaps even “thou”), and adjectives that praise his character, and verbs that speak of his actions. Congregational music focuses on the Lord’s people as a “we”, not the private believer as an “I”. While there is a place for both songs of united praise and songs of private conviction, congregational singing should give a definite preference to the former. The focus should also tend to be away from our feelings and benefits, and toward God’s character, attributes and actions.
  4. The gifted musician and song leader is one who discerns two ways: a) the ideas expressed in the words of a song, and b) the relationship of music to those words. The music should suit the lyrics in mood. The singing is in no way a second-rate activity; it is as important as the message from the platform; both are teaching. It is as important as prayer; both partake of praise and thanksgiving.
  5. Finally, a matter of Christian charity toward one another. People have strong feelings about music styles. Some find it hard to worship or meditate on God when some kinds of music are played. Yet other people find themselves depressed, mournful and bored by other styles of music. We must take consideration for each other’s needs, and do our best not to offend or exclude anybody by the choices we make. We must also tolerate a certain amount of that which does not meet our own preferences. Gracious consideration of others, whether younger or older, is God’s way. All things are to be done for edifying (“up-building”) of the Lord’s people.
The End

Changing the music in any congregation takes time and adjustments by everyone. But it’s also really, really important to the life and health of the assembly. Music is not the most important thing we do, but it is certainly one of them.

That the Lord’s people should rejoice freely in the truth is a goal worthy of any church. Good music is a tremendous aid both to teaching and to encouragement. There’s something very special, very precious about the way good music can engage both the heart and the head. Singing and prayer, and singing and scripture have always been closely allied in history.

Making sure we have good music is not a matter of our personal choices, like changing the wallpaper. It’s actually spiritual work, a thing God has ordained for us to do for his glory. Did you not notice that singing is one of those few activities that we learn here on earth that we shall continue into eternity?

If music matters forever, why would we ever imagine it doesn’t matter now?

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