Music at Mars Hill: Is Worship Just about Style Preferences?

Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.

This past week, I read an interesting article in one of Christianity Today’s leadership journals called “Bieber Fever and the Worship Wars.” The article talks about how the “worship wars” that churches have been engaged in have ultimately been fighting the wrong battles.

Quoting research done about what “familiar, favorite music” does to our brains, the article talks about how neurologists have found that “musical tastes formed in the teen years become part of the brain’s internal wiring, as that is the time when some neural pathways are solidifying and others are being pruned away. That’s why the music adults tend to be nostalgic for is the music from their teenage years.”

In other words, it doesn’t really matter if a certain kind of music is more suitable for worship—we’ll ultimately crave for the music we grew up with. If this is true, it makes a lot of sense why Christians would desire to worship in settings that resemble their spiritual childhood, or the formative years of their conversion and faith. This probably explains why I have heard a lot of people (especially worship leaders) say that they don’t really even like modern Christian worship music at all anymore, yet are still convinced that is the most appropriate context for worship.

So is worship just a matter of stylistic preferences? The writer of the article seems to assume so:

“Pastors would do well to help their congregations give up debate about which style of music is “best.” There are no winners in that battle. For the sake of dialogue, church members must acknowledge that their musical preferences are just that: preferences. God is not on the side of the organ, nor of the Stratocaster. Drop the pretense of righteous indignation and simply admit, ‘We like this music better.’ ”

This is where I begin to take issue with the advice that the article gives.

While it is true that no style of music is “better” than any other, there’s no question that different kinds of music and the way the music actually sounds can have drastic effects on how a congregation postures itself toward God. As we move from generation to generation and our church music changes along with it, we have new expectations for what an encounter with the God of the universe looks like. When a person walks into a church service on a Sunday morning, questions about the attributes of God will be answered more as feelings, impressions, and emotions than by head knowledge. Is God personal or is He distant? Is God loving or is He just? Is He holy or compassionate? The way a church chooses to spend its time of worship will often answer these questions for people before they even hear even one word of a sermon or doctrinal confession.

In a Western society that has always valued head knowledge more than experiential knowledge, we may not be comfortable with music carrying this much influence. But historically, the Church has always debated about even the smallest of musical details: whether or not chants should be polyphonic, what instruments can be used, who is expected to sing, or even the way the sanctuary is shaped to alter the reverberation of the sound. Whether we like it or not, these musical details have the ability to change our experience of God and the way we posture ourselves toward Him.

Besides, if church music’s only purpose is to make people feel the warm emotions of nostalgia in the same way that other music does, perhaps we need to reconsider why we do it on Sunday mornings at all.

About Luke Larsen

Luke Larsen is a freelance writer, music lover, and indie game enthusiast hailing from the Great Northwest. His writing has been featured in publications such as Paste, RELEVANT, GameChurch, and Prefix. You can find him tweeting at @lalarsen11.

  • Daniel

    Thanks for your thoughts, Luke.

    I agree that the type of music we use in worship does influence the way we perceive God, and the way an outsider may perceive the way we perceive God.

    But the distinction between “holy” and “compassionate”, or “loving” and “just”–of course, God is both of these things, not either/or. You are correct in saying that certain music will better communicate one message or another; but I don’t believe that the organ or electric guitar will better communicate one over the other. Even within one musical “style” (say “contemporary praise and worship”, “traditional hymns” or even “Orthodox Chant”) different pieces will communicate different messages. The feelings evoked from “As the Deer” (modern) and “What Wonderous Love is This” (traditional) may be far closer than “Victory in Jesus” (traditional) and “There is Fountain” (also traditional).

    A stirring traditional Baptist rendition of “Power in the Blood” will evoke a different feeling than a mega-Church version of “More Love, More Power” but at least in that moment, the mega-Church may give you a more reverent feeling towards God than the Baptist Church. But switch the songs to “‘Tis Midnight on Olives Brow” and “Then Shall the Virgin Rejoice in the Dance” and the mood–and lesson about God’s nature–will be switched. Is one lesson “better” than then the other? I don’t think so. Is one style “better” than the other? Again, I don’t think so.

    I agree that the medium can heavily influence the message. I don’t think, however, the traditional “worship wars” understanding of the “traditional” vs. “modern” is grasping the real difference. Both forms, when used for God’s glory, can evoke the same “mood” and teach the same lessons about God–and most importantly, be made to His glory (or sadly, not to His glory, if the heart is not right.)

  • http://thefeedbackloopmusic.blogspot.com/ Luke Larsen

    Thanks for your thoughts Daniel.

    Of course you are right that we believe that God is both loving and just, both very near to us and yet distinctly holy and without sin. But certainly different churches and denominations have portrayed God with an emphasis on one or a few of these attributes in the past, which is influenced by how they have decided to use their time of musical worship.

    Your examples are good ones. And again, although one style may not be better or worse than any other, they very well may be different, as you say. This is just an example scenario, but maybe when someone walks into a traditional service, they get a bigger picture of the reverent, holy God who paid the ultimate price for their sin. If that same person were to step into a modern, mega-church setting, they might be instantly hit with the dynamic power and presence of the Holy Spirit, of the God who is personal and very near.

    Different worship styles demand different responses from worshippers, but also demand different ways of perceiving God.

  • Daniel

    Good points, Luke.

    One point I’d like to add: this “mood” around the person of God starts before the service starts. If the congregation speaks to each other in hushed tones, children aren’t running around, the altar is treated as sacred space–this communicates something quite different than a congregation conversing with each other in conversational, even loud tones, children playing and no altar to speak of, let alone to reverence.


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