Are we expecting too much out of music in worship?

Are we expecting too much out of music in worship? February 5, 2015

Opening Hymn

And now, let us please rise and sing hymn number twenty-one, The Royal Telephone. All five stanzas.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have here one of the best of the worst. I mean, this thing is beautifully terrible. Frederick M. Lehman, who also penned the more reverent and subdued “The Love of God,” seems to be comparing old-fashioned telephone service to the spiritual privilege of prayer.

Fail to get your answer? Satan’s crossed your wire…


Offertory Anthem

If you’re really curious, check out this song in all of its mighty, mighty mojo through the performance genius of disgraced televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, but be ready to have your life thoroughly changed.

Okay, so this song is a joke. And it’s a reminder never to write hymns that incorporate the latest and greatest available technology unless you want it to be soon outdated. How might the same song be written today? The Royal Wifi Bandwidth? The Royal IT Specialist?

But hidden deep in this unfortunate little ditty is a tiny morsel of truth.

The royal telephone is already plugged in.

Litany of Disconnection

We seem to have arrived at the understanding that worship is defined by being connected with God. This concept can be traced back in several directions, but perhaps most directly to the Pentecostal movements of the 1970s, in which songs became vehicles to a personal encounter with God, an idea that continues today with Hillsong, et al. The pneumatology behind this idea has now flooded mainline and more traditional evangelical circles, including many that still practice traditional corporate worship specific to their own denominational background.

Now, many churches advertise their multiple worship “styles” as if the variety is necessary in order to make sure congregants find themselves mystically connected to the Creator.

Just check out these statements.

We are a family church with multiple generations, and our goal is, by providing these choices regarding musical style, that we help more people to really enter in and connect with God during the worship times.

____________ is a contemporary worship experience that will touch your soul, energize your spiritual journey, and help you connect with God.

Come and experience both our traditional and contemporary services and see which one best connects you with God…

We really just want to create a comfortable atmosphere for you to connect with God.

We believe that each of us has been created differently and connects with God in different ways.

_______________ is a community that includes people of various ages with differing preferences in the way that they connect with God. Because of this, _______________ has multiple services, each with its own unique feel. Regardless of your life stage or preferences, _______________ surely offers a service that fits you and helps you connect with Jesus in worship.

But does this emphasis on personal connection represent an accurate view of what corporate worship is supposed to be? No, I don’t think it does.

For one thing, these statements reek of our American preoccupation with entertainment, our commercialistic insistence on being able to have it our way all the time, and our need for more and more stimuli for our ever-fading and failing collective imagination.

Oh, yeah, and I think it might be idolatry, too.

Jesus is our mediator, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Forgive me for saying it like this, but he’s the Royal Telephone. Our favorite music doesn’t connect us to God, and if we think differently, well, we’re relying on a God substitute. And it won’t work. Music can’t do that. Only the Word can.stmarys

Invitation to Communal Worship

So let’s take an honest look at the whole worship spectrum thing.

If we affirm that Jesus the Christ is our one true mediator, our one clear connection to God, well, our obsessive offering a smorgasbord of differing music products to choose from on Sunday morning, we’re not connecting a varied and diverse church membership to God. All we’re doing is trying to keep everyone happy by playing their jam on Sunday morning.

And that’s just not the idea.

The idea that we should “turn the lights down low” and “get in touch with God” (oops, there I go again with the outdated technology-based gospel songs) just doesn’t get to the heart of what we’re supposed to be about in corporate worship.

If any worship service is geared toward appealing to the musical appetites of anyone, well, that’s a real problem. And it’s complicated by the fact that music is, in a sense, potently powerful. It’s capable of evoking huge emotional responses that can fool us into thinking we’re experiencing a supernatural connection with the divine, when in reality our wires are crossed, and we’re only connected with ourselves.

I’m definitely talking about what goes on in contemporary worship, modern worship, seeker-sensitive worship, emergent worship, Gen-X worship.

I’m also talking about traditional worship.

Yes, our compulsion to be current and relevant in our worship services is a ultimately an arrogant, vain motivation. But traditional worship can often end up the same way. Too often it becomes nothing more than a trite exercise in sentimentality. You know what I mean. Surely you’re familiar with this kind of thing.

I miss the old favorites.

Those old songs really made me feel close to God.

Oh, that was my mom’s favorite hymn.

Please sing “The Old, Rugged Cross.”

Have you heard of the Gaither homecoming? We should get a gospel quartet together!

In the words of the great hymn-writer, Rick Nelson, “If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck.”

We’re not connecting anyone to Jesus with our all-request-hour traditionalistic worship any more than with contemporary commercial worship. If any worship service is geared toward appealing to the musical appetites of anyone, we’re no longer about the worship of God.

It’s not about cuddling up on a comfy sofa-God with our favorite tunes and getting lost in good feelings.  It’s about a response to the Almighty’s game-changing self-revelation. It’s about being changed from glory into glory, remade in the likeness of our good Creator God, so that we can be kingdom people.

The Charge

So let’s get back to what we’re supposed to be about. Let’s return to our historic liturgy. Let’s keep Word and Sacrament at the forefront. Let’s be oh-so-careful with the content and amount of the music we choose.

There are a lot of things music can do for us in corporate worship.

Music coupled with good texts can give new dimension to our Christian story.

Music can symbolically unite us with each other as the body of Christ.

But music has no power to connect us to God.

Only Jesus can do that.

So let’s tear music from his throne, and worship only him.

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