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Music in church: Michael Jensen

© Australian Christian Pty Ltd 2010
This article was first published in eternity.biz and Eternity Newspaper, 26th February 2010. It is reproduced here with permission. For more information about Eternity, visit eternity.biz.

I know there’s no subject more likely to get Christians weeping and gnashing their teeth, but I’d like to put forward some observations about music in church.

Musical diversity & culture

The days when you’d hear people talking about rock’n’roll as ‘the devil’s music’ are happily long in the past (…um, like the term ‘rock’n’roll!). Modern-day churches have, on the whole, moved beyond the sacred/secular divide when it comes to styles of music. They have decided that there is no genre of music that is necessarily more holy than any other; and that the matter of style in music is merely a matter of personal taste. This is a theological decision (i.e., no music is inherently more sinful); but it is also an aesthetic judgement (i.e., there is no objectively beautiful or universally ugly music).

Nowadays, most evangelical churches imagine themselves choosing a style of music on the basis of its cultural relevance. The right style of music, then, is the style that clicks best with the congregation of the day, roughly speaking. To cite an example drawn from the US: when megachurch pastor Rick Warren arrived in the Saddleback area, he researched the kind of music that people in his target group were listening to, and that became the music-style of his new church. And ministries targeting special groups adopt the music of that particular tribe.

There are good theological instincts at work here. The Bible does not mandate a style of music, though like an opera it is full of people bursting out into song at the drop of a hat (Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, David, Isaiah, Zechariah, Mary… the list goes on). What is more, the gospel does not come to us bound hard to a particular cultural expression - in fact, the missionary genius of Christianity is that it transcends cultural expressions. Church singing in Africa and church singing in Indonesia are going to be different, and yet still absolutely Christian – and thank goodness for that.

Musical adaptation & transformation

Furthermore, a robustly Biblical doctrine of creation and a cursory glance at church history both show us that the church adapts forms of music that it finds to its uses rather than needing to invent them from scratch. So: today’s beer hall song is tomorrow’s Lutheran hymn; that familiar sea-shanty will be turned to use in the Methodist chapel; the work songs of the slaves morph into gospel music.

But does this mean that church musicians are aesthetic relativists? I don’t think it can mean this. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that (for example) the organ is a more sacred instrument than the electric guitar. That is just silliness in spades.

No: what I mean is this: I would expect that as music is pressed into the service of congregational singing and worship of God, it will be transformed as music. And this means that the church will continually be generating fresh styles (or freshening up old styles) as it puts the music it hears to holy purposes.

Which means that, while church musicians ought to be open to repeating what they hear around them, they ought also to be encouraged to innovate and develop their musical style as a reflection of what they are doing.

Music of the people & for the people

How might this work out in practice? A preacher I greatly admire once said to me, when I put the relativist/pragmatic argument forward: “no, there definitely is a style for church music. It’s called ‘folk music’.”

Originally I thought this was hogwash. But nowadays I think there is something in this – so long as we take a broad definition of ‘folk’. He didn’t mean Peter, Paul & Mary or Bob Dylan before he went electric! He meant ‘folk’ in the sense that means ‘of and for the people’ - as opposed to elitist and alienating.

That is, a style of music that achieves a marriage between the words of praise and the use in congregational singing can never be stylistically arbitrary, though it may vary enormously over time and place. And ‘folk’ isn’t a bad designation for it if it is in the service of the people of God. It is in that sense ‘music of and for the people’. This is the criterion we get for the use of any gift in church from 1 Corinthians 12-14 – and music shouldn’t be exempt from this. It is truly the music of love if it up-builds the church.

It is no accident that Christians have been responsible for developing some highly original and sophisticated forms of music from asking ‘what musical style best serves and edifies the people of God?’ and ‘what musical style best helps us let the word of Christ dwell in us richly’ (see Col 3:16)? These styles have been very different from one another – think gospel music and choral music – but have had a common purpose. Putting music to this purpose is truly transformative.

So here’s my tentative thesis: ‘folk’ music is the best way to describe the form of music that ought to be found in churches. This is a particular expression of a theology of church of course. It is missional, in that adapts to local conditions; it is non-elitist, in that it is accessible by the community without asking extraordinary skill or learning (thus reflecting the priesthood of all believers); and it is open to being sanctified for its use by the Christian community.

The Christian pop music genre

And so (and here’s the controversial bit), some forms of music are going to be excluded because they are not aesthetically shaped to the purpose of singing together to God. While no particular form of music is commanded or sanctified in scripture, as we try to adapt different forms of music to use in Christian fellowship as expressions of common life we will soon realise that some styles are just so ill-suited they will never work for this purpose without a great deal of adaptation.

In each age, certain musical styles offer themselves in different ways for adaption for use in church meetings. The traditional tunes that we find used in ‘Be Thou My Vision’ or ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ are already deeply embedded in the history and culture of the community from which they emerged as an expression of commonality - the pride and security of togetherness is the note they immediately sound.

These features really work for church music because of the overlap - Christians want to express precisely those feelings and truths about their God. The return of Celtic-sounding melodies in the music of Stuart Townend and Keith Getty works because we associate that style of music with rousing fellow-feeling. If anything, the danger is that the Celtic style is a little militaristic - they all sound like national anthems in the end!

Since the 1970s, much new church music has followed the form of the popular song, with its verse and chorus pattern (and sometimes a middle section), its use of repetition, and simple and rather short melodic lines. In a sense, popular songs are the ‘folk’ music of the era, given the mass appeal of the form – so it has made good sense to use them. What are the implications of using this genre for church music?

Music for our maturity?

Broadly speaking, the popular songs of the mass communications age are all about romantic love and desire. The (usually) bright and hooky melodies are meant to match the content of the words. When we hear a popular song, we immediately associate it with this erotic theme, even before we hear the words.

The singer of a popular song is most often an individual singing about his or her longing or loss. That’s the genre: when the Beatles play around with this genre and began singing about walruses and paperback writers and what have you, we recognise that this stretching of the genre is taking place, and ride with it. The music of U2 (beloved of many Christians) is an interesting case of course: they express desire and love, but most often it isn’t for another human being. In fact, it is often suggestive of a desire for the transcendent.

And this is quite apt. Psalms such as Psalm 63 give Scriptural voice to this theme of longing and desire for God. Christians have recognised that the popular song is a ready-made vehicle for the expression of longing and desire of an individual for God, because we instantly think of this when we hear it.

However, this is where the pitfalls lie, too. Since way back in the 1930s, the popular song has revealed itself to be capable of quite complex and even profound expressions of grown-up and mature emotions. But it has also been the musical vehicle for short-cuts to emotional fruition.

So: while the popular song expresses much of what we might want to say to God, it doesn’t capture all of the gestures and attitudes that are available to us. If Christian musicians don’t work hard to transform the popular song for a higher purpose, it may not help us mature in our Christian affections.

Dr Michael Jensen teaches doctrine at Moore College. The original version of this article was presented at EMU Music’s TWIST conference in 2009.
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