Does the church idolize music?

Does the church idolize music? February 16, 2016

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© 2009 graybyte, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Idolatrous Introit

Inevitably, any discussion of corporate worship eventually seems to descend into a competition of musical preference. Everyone wants to get their way all the time. And the church has bought it. Like I alluded to in my post on the problem of multiple worship “styles,” the almighty right to get our own way now governs much of what our congregations do.

Of course, the issue has been clouded by our American culture, with our long-held consumerist, “customer is always right” mentality. Indeed, it has spilled over and saturated Christian culture, as well. I have the right to pursue what makes me happy all the time. To suggest otherwise is seemingly worse than denying the basic tenets of Christian belief.

I can think of one word that seems to perfectly describe this situation.


I think we’ve often made an idol out of our music.

Litany of Lies

The truth of the matter is that we are all far too willing to bow down in front of any number of God-substitutes. Like empty carbs in place of well-balanced meals, it’s easier, it’s quicker, it’s momentarily exciting, it’s addictive. But it’s a lie. It won’t last. Like striking a match, it erupts into an thrilling flame, but then it’s gone. Just like that.

In the words of great hymnwriter Dennis DeYoung (you know, the guy from Styx), “All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have turned into idols of clay.”

Instead of being an ideal vehicle for proclamation – for praise, for expressing the truth of the Christian story, and for reflecting the imago dei within us through human creativity – I think we’ve often expected far too much out of our music.

Perhaps the underlying problem is that we’ve expected it to provide a good emotional experience for us. Instead of using music as an aid to something infinitely more satisfying and lasting, we’ve sought for one emotional high after another, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. And when one congregation can’t provide it for us anymore, we go looking around for a new place to get our jesusy thrills.

If my suspicions are true, then it shouldn’t be any real surprise why the christianized rock concert has taken over, and why the purported encounter with the Holy often looks an awful lot like an emotional high. Maybe we’re bowing down at the wrong altar without realizing it.

I read this guest post on the terrific Jesus Creed blog a while back. Though I suspect the author and I might differ on some things, I found this to be a helpful discussion. Singing, like most other parts of gathered worship, is a spiritual discipline.

Problem is, discipline isn’t always a lot of fun. That’s a reason why relationships fail, why workout routines slide, why educations aren’t completed, why projects collect dust, why results fall short of potential. Those things require oceans of patience and effort in pursuit of something of real value. But in the end, participating in the Christian story is something much more beautiful, much more enduring, and ultimately much more exciting than an emotional high.

Call to Look at Worship Differently

If we were to begin looking at our worship, especially our music, as a discipline instead of bowing at the altar of individualistic and emotional experience, I think our gatherings would be drastically different.

  • We would stop mistaking music-making for worship. Music can be an important worshipful act in a number of ways, but it is not the only mode of corporate worship. Though good songs give an added dimension to truth, all elements of a service are to be worshipful acts.
  • We would stop mistaking evangelism for worship. We gather for worship because God is worthy, because God is working through human history, because we are called out as covenant people to play a part in the Christian story. If observers come to Christian faith through the drama of liturgy, that is great, but we don’t worship to attract unbelievers, or our gathering ceases to be Christian worship.
  • We would re-frame any discussion of corporate worship from preference to meaning. Most churches ask subjective questions like, “What are people going to like?” or “What will connect with people? in essence asking “What will get the most positive emotional reaction from the majority of our audience?” Better questions push for more concrete answers: “What does our music mean textually? Theologically? Musically? How well does this song communicate the Christian story? What instrumentation best supports the congregation voice? Even when the answers aren’t cut and dry, we should always be pushing for better answers.
  • We would be free of slavish pursuit of our own personal preferences, and avoid the obligatory nod to the false egalitarian ideal that all opinions have equal merit. All options are not equally valid or edifying. Meaning, not taste, should be the primary criteria for choosing music.
  • We wouldn’t be reactive if the merits of our favorite songs were questioned.
  • We would open our eyes to the fact we can’t worship “corporately by ourselves.” We don’t gather to find music that creates an individual experience. If that were the case, we might as well stay home and opt for comfort and convenience, without the community and covenant.
  • We would see increased pursuit of musical and artistic excellence, and a reduction of congregational loafing. Not because our music has to be perfect, but because it’s part of the discipline of worship. Some of us are more talented than others, but each must do their best.
  • We wouldn’t split our churches according to worship “style.”
  • We wouldn’t mistake emotional stimulation for divine interaction. As the Palmer article mentioned, music can easily manipulate us into believing we’ve sensed God’s presence (Was it the Spirit or the kick-drum?). There’s nothing wrong with emotion, and good music will at times draw it out of us, but if it’s essential for us to believe we’ve worshiped, we may be bowing at the wrong altar.
  • We would see a broader range of human emotion during worship. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard congregations labeled as “dead” only because their emotional displays weren’t boisterous or bombastic enough. That illustrates the problem quite clearly.
  • We wouldn’t run from the discipline of liturgy, or mistake it as being a lifeless, rote exercise. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard congregations labeled as “dead” only because their emotional displays weren’t boisterous or bombastic enough. That illustrates the problem quite clearly.
  • We would expect to be changed, renewed, re-centered, and reoriented by the retelling and reenacting of the Christian story, instead of looking to be emotionally charged. It’s the work of the people, not the pop culture entertainment of the people. If you’re bored, you might need to look in the mirror.
  • Music would fulfill specific functions in specific places in the liturgy, instead of being a 30 or 45 minute submersion in a crowded musical wave pool. I think Luther’s assessment is right: music is the handmaiden of theology. It’s not the worship. It serves worship. It gives dimension to our sacred storytelling.
  • We would stop being so sensitive and reactive when someone asks us to take a deeper look at how we worship. Just read the comment section on any of my posts to see what I mean.

A Changed Charge

It’s like a lackadaisical college student who eventually develops a love of learning. What was once a drudgery turns into a quest for deeper meaning, for something that will last, for the vision to see God in what we used to think was boring or mundane. Disciplining ourselves to forsake the idols of emotional experience in our music-making is not easy, but it is imperative.

Otherwise, we may look up and see the god we’ve been worshiping crumble into mere pieces of clay.

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© 2013 r. nial bradshaw, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

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