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On Music and Tradition in the Modern Church

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Recently my blog has been predominantly tech-oriented, which is likely not much of a surprise to people who know me well; I really enjoy working with computers, and I like helping others do so more effectively. However, I never envisioned this blog as a one-subject pony, and as such, I’d like to take some time today to post about something else important to me.

See, I’m also a musician, and even more importantly, a Christian; accordingly, I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the role of music in the church. I’ve been to a lot of different types of churches and experienced a lot of different types of church music: choral hymns with organ accompaniment, choral hymns with orchestral accompaniment, contemporary praise and worship with a rock band, jazz services…it goes on and on, and part of the reason it goes on and on is because of my very first point:

Church music has almost as long and variegated a tradition as secular music.

Every generation attempts to redefine (in their own words, “improve upon”) the role of music in the church, and done properly, this is a good thing. Each generation gets its own time to shine, its own opportunity to express its faith in its own style, its own chance to punt what it believed was weighing the earlier generation down in its great upward quest. To put it more simply, believers of every generation think that their style of music communicates and engages with the love and glory of God more effectively than their fathers’ did.

Unfortunately, we humans have a tragic tendency towards sin in everything we do; more often than not, our attempts to kick aside the sins of our fathers simply leave us with a new set of problems, many of which we may not even recognize for years and years and years. This is my second main point:

The new is never wholly better than the old.

No matter what we do to try and improve upon previous ways of doing things, it is always ourselves, not our fathers, who tie the noose that hangs us (incidentally, this is also true if we change nothing at all).

Consider, for instance, the manner in which my generation is attempting to change church music. My generation’s experience of popular music happens, for the most part, through the iPod and the downtown club. We love the music of the indie rock band…gritty, emotional songs performed by soaring tenors to the accompaniment of driving guitars. Church folks, noticing the vast difference between this club scene and traditional organ-and-choir hymn-singing, decided some time ago that it would be easier to connect with the younger generation if they gave us this same kind of music in their services; this, in turn, was to lead to a greater incidence of genuine Christian life change (and often has). Thus was born the contemporary praise and worship genre.

So is this a good thing? I mentioned earlier that I don’t have a problem with each generation redefining how music is done in church; after all, in Luther’s day, the organ was a bar instrument! And, Biblically speaking, there is exactly zero justification for saying that a rock band would be inappropriate for Sunday services…the Bible says pretty much nothing about musical genres, especially in the New Testament. Given that the genre is Biblically acceptable and that the effect (connecting emotionally with the unchurched) is laudable, it would seem that this is, in fact, a good thing.

Most folks would end the argument there. In fact, if you’d talked to me four or five years ago I would have ended the argument there myself (probably). But as I pointed out earlier, the new is never wholly better than the old. Over the last year or two I’ve started to see that, by solving one problem (musical irrelevance), we may have inadvertently introduced another; this brings me to my third and primary point:

We have improved upon our ability to connect with the younger generation on its own level, but we have lost a great deal of community, participation, and humility as a result.

That’s a bold claim (and not just because of the typesetting…har, har), but you don’t have to take my word for it; as it turns out, the scriptures are pretty clear about this. No discussion of the role of anything in the church would be complete without a quick glance at 1 Corinthians, particularly the 12th chapter. Please read that chapter in full before continuing on*.

Done reading yet? Good. Now, let me risk a definition or two:

  • spiritual gift: an individual believer’s talent in and propensity toward a certain skillset, granted by God for use in lay or professional ministry. Although not everyone agrees on this point, I consider musical talent to be a spiritual gift, even though Paul never lists it explicitly; his lists do not appear to be exhaustive in any case, as they are never quite identical.
  • body: when Paul uses this term here (and in quite a few similar passages), he’s referring to the Body of Christ, a common metaphor for the church. I believe that the Body metaphor is applicable both universally (to all Christians in every place and time) and locally (to individual churches, and even smaller groups within those churches).
  • members: Paul talks about the body being made of many members (hands, feet, etc.); these members are symbols of individual believers qua their spiritual gifts…so, musicians qua musicians and preachers qua preachers, as opposed to musicians qua warm-bodies-that-could-do-anything.

The first part of the passage (vv. 15-18) is very frequently preached upon. Here are some of the takeaways:

  • We need to be involved in the church.
  • We need to be using the spiritual gifts God has given us.
  • We shouldn’t be jealous of other people’s gifts, even when they receive more honor for them than we receive for our own.
  • Neither should we refuse to participate in the church simply because we’ve been given a less impressive gift; if we do, we’re missing out on an important part of the Christian life, and robbing others of the benefit of our gifts.

The second part of the passage, on the other hand, is almost always ignored by preachers, possibly because it’s the part for which church leaders are most directly accountable. In verses 21-25, Paul states (oh, to heck with copyright):

And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

Here, Paul seems to be pointing out the same issue from a different perspective. Not only are we to avoid being jealous of others because they have different gifts from ours, but we must also avoid designing our ministries in a manner that implies that gifts God has granted are not actually necessary.

Considering this half of the passage, we really ought to add another couple of takeaway application points to our original list:

  • You should never let your church tell you that your gifts are unnecessary; that would be unbiblical, and despite the fact that church leaders have legitimate Biblical authority, they can still be wrong, and must still be held accountable to the Scriptures when they are. Questioning the church leadership isn’t the same thing as opposing God, and any church that thinks it is should terrify the junk out of you.
  • Churches must never let their ministry philosophies dictate which gifts (or how individuals with a particular gift) are necessary in their church. Doing so ignores the sovereignty of God in the composition of a church; if, for instance, you’ve got more teachers than you think you need, don’t assume that God made a mistake…reduce your class sizes or encourage team-teaching to make use of the extra talent that God has given you.
  • Churches must never exclude gifted believers from participation in ministry simply because they “already have enough [musicians, teachers, evangelists, etc.].”
  • The man-measured merit of a spiritual gift is not necessarily proportional to its necessity. Paul says that those members that “seem weaker” are in fact necessary, and should be given special honor, to preserve the unity of the body. Keep reading if this isn’t clear; it will be in a few paragraphs.

So how does this apply to the church rock band? Well, most secular rock bands (after which church rock bands are modeled) have very few members, at least compared to choirs, orchestras, or concert bands. Church rock bands often follow this same paradigm; each Sunday service is played by a single group of fewer than ten musicians.

This isn’t necessarily a problem if there are only ten musicians in your church, but what happens if you’ve got twenty? Do you put them in a rotation, such that each ten-person group plays every other week? What if there are thirty? Forty? Fifty? The larger the number gets, the harder it becomes to involve all the musicians God has brought to your church; if you’ve got several hundred skilled musicians (which in large churches is not that uncommon), you end up either cycling them all through once every six months or so, or simply saying to some of them, “sorry, we have no need of you.”

There’s another problem. If you’re OK with excluding some of them (which is already biblically problematic), how do you determine who gets the gig? Suppose you have twenty musicians in your church; ten of them are famous, gigging professionals, and the other ten are amateurs who clearly have a musical gift (they can carry a tune or pick out a beautiful harmony), but aren’t quite as good as the pros. Since you’ve only got ten spots in the Sunday service, do you tell the amateurs (the ones that “seem to be weaker”) that you “have no need of” them? If so, where will they use the gifts God has given them? (You could take the reverse approach by putting the amateurs to work in Sunday services and telling the pros that they’ve already got plenty of opportunities to use their gifts outside the church, but that’s not exactly right either. Or, you could tell the amateurs that they can serve in less public arenas, like small groups or children’s church…but this doesn’t really uphold the “more abundant honor” principle Paul is espousing.)

There’s a third problem. Suppose you have exactly ten gifted musicians in your church, but three of them are only classically trained, and have no penchant for indie rock. Or what if their primary expertise is in orchestral or band instruments? Where do they fit in? Ultimately, if you’re fully committed to the relevant rock band, you have to say to those folks, “sorry, we have no need of you.”

All of these examples clearly show the danger of my generation’s insistence on limited-participation contemporary worship services; it seems that no matter what we do, implementing this kind of service results in a violation of the guidelines Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 12. Our goals may be laudable, but we need to find another way of accomplishing them, a way that doesn’t run contrary to the scriptures. Please note once more that I am not criticizing the genre here; if one of you can come up with a way to maintain cultural relevance (for everyone) without sacrificing participation (for all gifted believers), I am all ears.

Before you do that, however, I’ll leave you with one further problem, which is less Biblical and more paranoid dystopian (for what it’s worth). I’ve said several times in this post that “the new is never wholly better than the old;” really, though, what I’m suggesting is that there is an importance to tradition, not just insofar as we can learn from history, but insofar as we are a part of it.

I remember one occasion, shortly after I committed my life to Christ, when I sat down with my pastor back home in North Dakota to talk through some of the new things I’d experienced since that leap of faith. I told him that I really appreciated the authenticity of contemporary praise and worship services…that I felt like singing with your eyes out of the hymnal and your hands lifted high was a more honest form of worship, a more sincere way of connecting emotionally and spiritually with the Lord. Looking back on that conversation, I really appreciate that he didn’t punch me in the face, since that was a pretty stinking rude thing to imply. But instead, he said something along the following lines:

We sing hymns because they are a part of our tradition; they connect us with generations of Christians gone by, reminding us that we are a part of a long and storied faith, whose truths are timeless.

Tommy Nelson, lead pastor of Denton Bible Church, said pretty much the same thing a few months ago; this time, however, I think I finally understood it. The thing about tradition is that it grounds you deeply in a real world, whose strengths and weaknesses you know as intimately as you know yourself. The other thing about tradition is that it reminds you that what you’re doing, what you’re believing, is as authentic as it gets. Finally, the third thing about tradition is that it keeps you safe in the context of established, tested cultural norms. Throw those out, and the only thing left is the loudest voice, the biggest fist, the squeakiest wheel. And with all its faults, I choose tradition over that any day.


* I haven’t reproduced it here because I’m not totally sure of the copyright ramifications…strangely enough, most translations of the Bible are very strictly protected under copyright law, despite the age of the original work…but translators need their wages too, so I don’t suppose I can object too much.

Written by jazzslider

October 5, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Problem Solved

with one comment

Adam, after several years of philosophical training: “Can God make a rock so big that even He can’t lift it?”

Jamie, after several months of teaching high school English: “Do you really think God is that stupid?”

Written by jazzslider

March 30, 2006 at 10:47 pm