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.