No matter what kind of music your church uses in worship, you’re still missing out on the full power of sacred music to form your Christian faith.
How do I know? Because, by definition, the way we experience music in worship is fundamentally limited.
I don’t mean that our use of music limits worship. For most Christians, music is one of the primary ways we worship God. In fact, in common evangelical parlance, the word “worship” is often used synonymously with the musical “praise” portion of the service: the part before the praying and the sermon. (Personally, I don’t like that usage, as I think of the entire event as a worship service.) My point, though, is just to make it clear up-front that I do think music contributes invaluably to corporate worship.
LIVING IN A CRATER
I also don’t mean that we notice the way our experience of church music is limited. Like the most dangerous holes, the hole in the heart of church music is one that is easy to miss. As an analogy, I think of the people who for thousands of years lived in villages that were actually situated in crater from an ancient asteroid impact. Until the development of modern geology, astronomy, and advanced cartography, those folks had no idea that they were literally living in a hole.
Of course, it wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t a problem. But because they lacked a certain kind of knowledge – or perspective – they lacked a fundamental understanding about their place on earth. And maybe that didn’t matter. Every day, they went about their lives without that knowledge and things were fine. The ground beneath their feet was solid and level, and they didn’t know what they didn’t know. So what.
Yet today we recognize that, the more we know about our world – and, indeed, the more ways we learn to experience and describe that world – the better off we are. An expanded knowledge of the world helps us in ways that we could not even imagine before gaining that knowledge.
Like the folks living inside that vast crater, we Christians are inhabiting a world of church music that gives us everything we need. The ground is not just solid and level: it is unbelievably vast and rich. But whether we are singing a 4-part hymn, clapping along to a praise chorus, worshipping through an ancient musical liturgy, or listening to an anthem sung by a choir, we are still missing out on an apocalypse-sized opportunity for music contribute to our lives as Christians. We are living in a crater.
This crater isn’t a result of the style of music we use in worship, its quality, or even its quantity. It’s actually because of the way that we use music in worship. Or, to be more specific, because of what we don’t do when we use music in worship:
We aren’t listening to it.
Of course, we hear the music in church. And we often help to make that music. But what we rarely do – even when we attend to a classical composition presented as a choral anthem – is really listen to music as music.
Here’s what I mean.
MUSIC IN/AS WORSHIP
All music that appears in a church service must have a have a role or a purpose for the worshipping community in that specific moment. In churches that use contemporary worship styles, the choruses at the start of the service help us draw closer to God, giving us the chance to exult in God’s praise. In liturgical traditions, a choral anthem might prepare us for Communion. In an Orthodox service, the sacred liturgy runs through everything, making every prayer a unique and fragrant offering to God. And for many of us, the final rousing hymn on a Sunday morning inspires us to “go and show them Jesus.”
A church service is not a concert, and whether we are singer or congregant, we all know that our responses to music offered in church must be different than to music performed at a concert. We know that the church music is – pardon the pun – “instrumental”, in that it functions as an instrument or “tool” to help us worship God together. While we can appreciate the talent of the soloist, or the rich baritone of the guy behind us, we all know that we must not forget that the primary “audience” of the music is God. No matter what kind of music it is, church music must be at its heart an offering first to God.
This is true even when we sit and listen to the choir sing a classical anthem. While that may seem about as close to a concert setting as church music can get, it’s still a different animal. While we need to attend carefully to what we hear, we know that – for us to hear the anthem in the way that is most spiritually powerful for us in that context – we must experience it in a way that contributes to the act of worship. We must put on “worship ears,” not “concert ears.” It doesn’t matter how beautiful the choir sounds or how brilliant the composer was. If we don’t experience and understand the anthem as anything beyond something just to listen to, then we have fundamentally missed out on its power as worship. If we “just” listen, we are missing out on the spiritual power of church music.
You may think that this is what I’m talking about when I talk about the hole in church music, but it’s not. In fact, it’s the opposite.
We are living in a crater because we never just listen to sacred music. We only use it for worship. As a result, we never encounter it in ways that recognize its value to enrich our faith, deepen our engagement with the Bible, and even teach us how to be better Christians.
Like those villagers, we don’t know what we are missing. And it’s a lot.
What I’m advocating for is the spiritual value of experiencing church music as music. When our sole encounter with sacred music is as an aid for worship, we are missing out on an opportunity to experience it in ways can have enormous spiritual benefit.
I’ll explain more about what I mean – and suggest ways that we can explore the spiritual power of sacred music through listening – in the next part of this post.