What I want to suggest to you today is that church music, and more specifically the future of church music, is about neither of these. In fact, “church music” is no more a matter of the means by which we do it than “church” is about the way in which we make the building. So to try to look at the whole issue without getting bogged down in the means, I’d like to ask ourselves three questions:
The first of these is a trick question. “Why do we want music in church?”. For any church the question is not primarily “do we want it”, but “does God want it?”.
First of all, let’s be entirely clear that when we talk about church we’re not, of course, talking about a building – we’re talking about people – we’re not talking about a denomination (Anglican, Methodist, Baptist) or a style (conservative, evangelical, charismatic) or even an institution. You remember that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus speaks of Peter (or is he speaking rather of the faith that Peter declares?) as the “rock on which I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The word used there for “church” was a Greek word better known to us via the Latin ecclesia. It’s easy for us to overlay this word with our understanding of the word “ecclesiastical” and all its associations with the church institution, but ecclesia simply meant a gathering or association. It could refer to a secular committee or simply to any old crowd of people gathered for a purpose. In Jesus’ description the term seems to imply something similar to “community of followers”. So Jesus is putting together a group of people, and what does he tell them to do? Yes, he tells them go and “make disciples of all nations” (the very end of Matthew’s Gospel). This actually was as revolutionary as anything that Jesus had said, because ever since Genesis 12 (which I would argue is the real beginning of the Old Testament – the first 11 chapters having more in common with the New Testament, but that’s an argument we’ll take another time) God’s covenant had been with Abraham and his descendents, and not with the rest of the world. But now, the Resurrection is the dawning of the new age, the first act of new creation which foreshadows the resurrection of all believers and all creation renewed; it releases the world there and then from the bondage of that old covenant that was held hostage by the Fall. So Jesus is telling people that he in his Resurrection has effectively rolled back the whole history of the world since Adam and started a new epoch, with new rules. And on the back of that, he is putting together a community – a church – with a task – a very specific job. Everything has changed, and the church is commanded to engage in the task of creative participation in the outworking of God’s plan. So to come back to earth and talk in more practical terms, the church was not designed simply to sit back worshipfully and enjoy good services, but to engage creatively with society at all levels, socially, theologically, liturgically and artistically.
Having found a biblical rationale for the church, what then of music? One of the great accounts of creation is found not in Genesis but in Job 38. Job is a wonderful book which contains answers to so many of those “unanswerable questions”. In this scene, God is taking Job down a peg or two and saying “you don’t know it all”. Job presumably is in a small heap on the floor, whimpering, whilst God thunders at him:
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
It’s the creation, done in music. The same thing is still happening at the end of all time. Revelation 15 speaks of: “those who have the victory … having harps of God … sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15:2-3). They’re still at it. There’s music right through the Bible from the beginning to the end – and it’s God’s music. Music is God’s idea. What we see in the Bible is the whole of creation (including all created beings) pouring out endless praise to the Creator. It is important to note that this takes place not just at the beginning and end of earthly time but eternally. Through worship the church on earth can transcend temporal limitations and become one with this endless praise; not escaping earth to participate in something reserved for a distant heaven but, as we have seen, as part of the essential reality and purpose of creation itself.
The use of music in these contexts does not, of course, automatically make all music all right, nor does it necessarily mean that we have to use it in church. Like all of God’s gifts, music can be abused. The Bible also refers to music being used for evil purposes. You remember that Moses has been described as the biggest sinner in the bible because he was the only one who broke all ten commandments in one go – this being a reference to when he smashed the two tablets in his anger at coming down from the mountain to find the Israelites singing worship songs to a golden calf. And, according again to Revelation 18, in heaven the sound of Babylon’s “harpists, musicians, flutists, and trumpeters shall not be heard in you anymore”. God also tells us when our music is not acceptable!
But music plainly was used in worship throughout the Bible. The Old Testament ordinances in 1 Chronicles 9 speak of singers being “free from other duties; for they were employed in that work day and night”. Paul writes to the Ephesians that they are to: “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Incidentally, the difference between “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” here and in Colossians 3:16 isn’t clear because all the three Greek words mean pretty much the same thing. Various people have suggested possible solutions, but I’m convinced that the use of the three terms together is simply cumulative: it strengthens the implication that the spiritual life should be full of “singing and making melody … to the Lord”. This Ephesians passage, by the way, is unusual in attributing to music a creedal or pastoral role (“… to one another”) as well as the biblically more-usual role of expressing praise and worship to God. Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover; “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30). Paul and Silas spent time in jail “praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
These and other passages clearly portray music as a dynamic and integral part of worship – never as background decoration whilst worship is in progress. The Psalms, being particularly concerned with worship, command us to “sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Ps 96:1) and to “break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp, With the harp and the sound of a psalm” (Ps 98:4-5). Conversely, being cut off from God is marked by the absence of music: “By the rivers of Babylon … we hung our harps upon the willows …How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:1-4).
So why do we have music in church? It was God’s idea – blame him! But in practical terms there are all sorts of reasons: pastoral, theological and missionary. Pastoral, for instance, because the choice of music in services and funerals is a matter not so much of aesthetics as of pastoral response to the needs and preconceptions of the congregation. Pastoral again because it’s a source of inspiration or an agent of liberation from the 21st-century requirement that everything can be logically expressed and explained. It can be a way of capturing the attention of small children, for whom a homily may be meaningless, or of re-kindling awareness among age-related dementia patients for whom a long-remembered hymn tune evokes years of faith. Theological because any musician’s primary function towards a congregation in relation to hymns is not one of playing notes but of communicating the theological insights of texts. Missionary because music can be a means of outreach – a means of addressing people in a language they will understand. We can reach people with teaching, comfort or joy. The command to “sing a new song to the Lord” is not only one of the few biblical imperatives concerned with liturgy but also reminds us that while God’s Word is constant, our response to it must reflect who we are now, in our generation. As we move through life, as our ideas and society around us change, so too will the expression of our relationship with God change. Music moves with us in that pilgrimage.
When I go to places where I don’t speak the language – Russia, Japan, Tyneside – I can still communicate. When I met the parents whose two children had both been killed in an accident I couldn’t find words to say to them, but music crosses that divide. Music transcends the limitations of earthly grammar in a wonderful way. I think that’s why those angels in Revelation are playing harps. It’s not because they’re Welsh angels: it’s because music is a language. We can see it as the very language of heaven itself, and it’s one of the great privileges we have that we can speak and understand that language, and use it both to hear and express spiritual truths where words can not.
So I really want to stress this point. Music is doing something. David plays the harp to help heal Saul, not as waiting-room muzak – it’s the actual vehicle by which he is reaching Saul. It’s not enough for us to say “church music is just something we do, so we must keep doing it better”. We need a sense of purpose and expectation – and that requires a prophetic discernment of how and when and what at this very interface between God and people.
So let’s move on to the second thorny question. What’s the “best” sort of music? I have an old evangelical friend and colleague in Wales who I respect very greatly. He told me years ago that all rock music was satanic, that drums and rhythmic music were unspiritual. But I can also think off hand of two evangelical, mildly charismatic, theologians who would argue that the kind of church music exemplified by Hymns Ancient and Modern is killing the church; that music must be in a modern rhythmic idiom if it is to reach hearts and minds in a modern world. Both sides have a point, but both are equally wrong, I think.
The answer, I think, lies in music as a language. Language is about two or more people communicating on the basis of a shared understanding. It’s not just about knowing what the words mean. If I say “seventeenth of May” to you, unless it’s your birthday or something you’ll look at me fairly blankly and say “yes, that’s the day after the sixteenth”. If I say it in Norway, then we immediately have a shared understanding and image of a parade and church service, of sausages and party food, the year’s first ice cream, brass bands, games in the village school. Seventeenth of May is Independence Day and it’s celebrated in style. So language presupposes a common understanding: it presupposes that those sounds or symbols appeal to a shared cultural and emotional experience. If we look at the Tower of Babel narrative in Genesis 11, the “crunch” of it is that people stopped “speaking the same language” and therefore became split up, tribalised. And that was the end of that whole Genesis 1-11 epoch that we referred to earlier – of God’s direct relationship with all people. After that it was only Abraham’s tribe that were “God’s people” right up until Jesus came and changed it all back (and look what happened at Pentecost, by the way – the day the Christian church was “baptised”, so to speak –people could suddenly understand every language again). And when we say nowadays: “we just don’t speak the same language”, we’re not talking about linguistics but about a far more fundamental lack of communication.
So if we’re to regard music (church music in particular) as a language then it has to operate within a framework of common experience. Naturally, that doesn’t mean that everyone has to like exactly the same pieces of music (any more than that everyone has to agree with every statement someone makes). Music, in short, has to connect with people. Music has a definite purpose – we’ve talked about that already – and it has to do with communication – communicating our innermost thoughts and feelings to God and to each other, and communicating God’s meaning to us. It isn’t to do with promoting or defending one particular artistic style or tradition. Everyone should be able to worship God in their own language; or, to put it another way, any church will be a place where its members will be able to recognise Christ’s call through the words and the patterns and styles of worship. Of course there is a danger in rooting our worship so firmly in our own interests and tastes that it merely confirms for us what we already are and shows us nothing of God’s greatness, but unless the language of worship is one with which we can interact then it will not be the basis of any kind of communication.
We’ve mentioned several times the well-known command to “sing a new song unto the Lord”. Why new songs? Is it a stylistic fashion statement, or are we supposed to be bored of the old ones, or is it that we’ve got to keep working to make songs better and better? It’s none of those things. Leaving aside for a moment the implication of improvisation here, the point is surely that the song has to be new in order to connect with where people are at that time. Maybe we could paraphrase it as “sing a relevant song unto the Lord!”
Go back a century and more to the Christian missionaries in Africa. They went in obedience and faith and did wonderful things. And God really blessed their work. But in one respect they really failed, which was in forcing the natives into a Western cultural strait jacket – both in terms of clothing and also liturgically and musically, making them sing hymns in a musical idiom that meant absolutely nothing to them. This has left a legacy of confusion and resentment that still echoes.
So what does this tell us about today’s church music, or, to answer our current question, “what is the right sort of music”? To generalise a little, we can divide attitudes to church music into two camps in two different respects. In terms of style, there’s traditional hymns and church music and there’s a contemporary, freer, rhythmic style. In terms of ethos there is a “performance” ideal in which we “do it well” and people are inspired by it, and there is the “participational” ideal in which we judge the music by the extent to which everyone is able to join in. So that gives us four different pictures of church music:
We haven’t got time to analyse each of those four models, but I’m sure that they’re familiar to you, and equally to the point, I’m sure that you see each of them as having a role for the people who seek out those particular churches. They are four different languages, if you like, which operate within their own cultural contexts. Within these four languages there’s a multitude of dialects.
The idea of performing music – traditional or contemporary – in order to inspire or edify a congregation seems to have less obvious biblical justification and to most easily degenerate into a professional smugness. It’s not a new idea, by the way: as early as the fourth century, the period when the Church was busy defining what it was, what it believed, writing the Nicean Creed and so on, the Council of Laodicea effectively prohibited congregational singing by saying that only the designated experts were allowed to sing. However, attempting to construct a biblical “theology” of church music is a difficult and dubious pastime because other than a few general instructions (“Sing a new song to the Lord, all you people”) biblical references to liturgical music are circumstantial and obviously relate to a particular context. We can defend the concept in two ways that have at least tenuous biblical parallels:
As well as promoting music as personal and corporate praise and as a means of mutual encouragement (as implied by the Ephesians passage we’ve already read), music was regarded by The Reformed Church as a tool for teaching and encouraging the people. This could be in the form of catechism (such as the hymns of the great Norwegian writer Petter Dass) or of preaching (as we see in some of Wesley’s great hymns). The late-18th and 19th-century tendency to professionalise music making in general was reflected in an increasing dichotomy between a homespun congregational singing in rural churches and a specialised church music for which the people were observers rather than participants. In this way, idiom and style have become interlinked.
One of the dangers of “traditional” music – traditional in style or in idiom – is that tradition can become a goal in itself. Some years ago, the author Pete Ward pulled no punches in his hard-hitting book Liquid Church in which he argues that the whole structural basis of the church is out of touch with contemporary life. Tradition is the subject of some of his most astringent comments:
Far from being a turn-off, for some people the weekly visit to church is attractive precisely because it offers a slice of living history. Worship has become part of the culture industry … The music of the church choir and the organ has an aesthetic of high art. For those attending worship, keeping the heritage site going is much like any other historical preservation society … The emphasis lies upon preserving for future generations that with which we have been entrusted.
To a great extent, however, these divisions of style and concept can both be delineated and resolved in terms of excellence. There are two opposing views of excellence in church music.
The one view says that the root of the Christian faith is that God has come and sought us out, as we are. Our worship is our response to this, and it is neither necessary nor proper that we should compete with each other to stage impressive performances that demonstrate our own accomplishments. Focussing on perfection disenfranchises people: if only the trained choir can sing “properly” then the congregation cannot join in, thus damaging the fellowship of the church. Focussing on technical accomplishment encourages a liturgical professionalism that can easily turn Pharisee-like. We should focus on God (the object of our worship) not on musical technique (the means of our worship). Our worship should be enabled by the Spirit rather than by skill.
The other view says that music is part of our response to God’s love. It is a “sacrifice” – something we offer to God – and as such should be the best we can offer. No effort should be spared; nothing slovenly or careless should be offered, just as only the finest materials were used to build the Temple. 1 Corinthians 12 points out that: “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” It is therefore right that those who have a musical gift should exercise it. The alternative to seeking excellence is carelessness and lack of respect. Music and art are sources of inspiration that point towards God.
Both of these views contain elements of truth, but between the two lies a bottomless chasm into which falls a great deal of church music today. Some traditional churches with few musical resources strive to “improve” their music by hopelessly trying to copy a cathedral style which is entirely inappropriate – and similarly some contemporary church music groups try equally unsuccessfully to emulate big church / conference bands, -- while some other churches deliberately turn their back on any form of musical preparation in order to “give free rein to the Spirit”. It is absolutely right to seek the Spirit, and I wouldn’t, for instance, decry singing in tongues as an example of this, but to have congregational singing that is so disorganised that it takes people’s attention away from the One whom they are worshipping achieves nothing.
It seems that we’re looking in the wrong place for excellence. Skill and excellence for a church musician is not just about being able to play a C major scale – we take appropriate musical skill for granted as part of the necessary equipment of the musician. What we term “skill” in this context is a matter of spiritual discernment, of prophetic vision – prophetic in its proper sense of hearing and making known God’s message to the church today.
Let’s look at a couple of the people Jesus praised for different sorts of “excellence”:
the widow’s mite (Mark 12:42) is a good starting point.
Another is the three servants in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In human terms the one who made the most money “did best”, but the two servants that tried wholeheartedly (despite the different quantifiable result) were told: "Well done, good and faithful servant!”. The third servant used no imagination and took no risks. He may have felt that the resources he was given were so derisory that to attempt to develop them invited failure and ridicule, but his inaction judged him as a “worthless servant”.
When Paul writes that we should present ourselves as “a living sacrifice … well pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1) he reminds us that in dedicating our God-given gifts to his praise, we are able to please him. We do not earn God’s favour by our own skill in singing choruses, playing instruments or by the regularity with which we attend services, but like the good servants we can and must please him in our glad, obedient and wholehearted response to his grace.
Servants are people who have been appointed to do a job. In Christian circles we talk about a “calling” (or, if we are charismatic, an “anointing”) to a particular ministry. Those who are called to a particular ministry may carry it out with small resources. Consider Jonah, a poorly-equipped prophet who with the greatest reluctance and bad grace stomped into the city of Ninevah, said just eight not very well-chosen words (“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” – Jonah 3:4) and stomped off again. As a result of this, an entire city was saved – not by the professionalism of one man, but by his (reluctant) obedience.
Viewed in this way, the pursuit of excellence in service is neither competitive nor individualistic. It does not stage a performance designed to impress, but seeks rather to enable worship. This doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be good. Worship can in fact be disenabled by ambiguity, hesitancy, inadequate preparation or stylistic inappropriateness in the music. A poor music group may be distracting from the focus of worship by drawing attention to its own inadequacy.
So what is the “right” sort of music? It’s like the “right” sort of sermon. We know it by its fruits. It could be any of the styles and any of the idioms we’ve discussed. You know it by what it’s doing within that congregation at that time. The “right” music is the music that will serve God’s plan – and this brings us right back to our earlier statement that the church musician needs above all a prophetic discernment.
This prophetic discernment is exercised in many ways. Perhaps one of the most obvious of these is choosing the songs or hymns. Graham Kendrick recently observed that: “It could be that the most influential theologian in your church is the person who chooses the songs”. Although this remark was intended as a swipe at poor preachers rather than as an affirmation of the theological importance of hymn choosing, his point is nevertheless true. After all, a member of the congregation is far more likely to walk home humming the tune of one of the hymns (and thereby remembering the words) than reciting the main points of the day’s sermon. This in no way undermines the value or importance of other forms of teaching in church, but reminds us that the way we learn and remember is not always the way we believe that teaching is carried out. Few aspects of service planning make such a direct impact as choosing hymns – and few are surrounded by so many pitfalls.
The business of choosing hymns and songs actually involves an element of musical skill. That may seem surprising, but consider this: if all the hymns texts have the same metrical structure, are all in a similar literary style, or are all in the same voice (for instance, all speaking God’s voice or all addressing issues from the perspective of “I” the individual worshipper) the focus of the service will become unbalanced. It is undesirable for all the hymns to be extremely long (exhausting) or extremely short (frustrating). In other words, we are looking for musical and poetic variety in our choice of hymns not for its own sake, nor as a measure of our skill in hymnology, but simply in order that the hymns do not begin to obtrude and draw our attention away from the message they are offering.
But the many considerations, both musical and textural, that should be varied within a service are nevertheless subordinated to the main aim — to choose hymns that will:
A good selection of hymns will invariably leave a congregation feeling blessed, whatever the reaction to other aspects of the service. Before we consider the characteristics of a “good selection”, it is necessary to define a “good hymn”.
A hymn consists both of text and melody. These two elements can function independently – a hymn text can be read as poetry or a hymn tune can be hummed. A good hymn, however, is more than the sum of its parts. The melody is not simply a peg on which the text is hung, not only a means of remembering the words. The melody and the text should enrich and enhance each other.
There is no single recipe for a “good hymn”. A good hymn will fulfil several of the criteria listed above, and will meet the congregation’s need at that particular time. The hymn may have a deeply-theological text, a sermon in its own right, which carefully expounds a scriptural principle, or it may simply highlight a single truth or provide a vehicle for worship. Its melody may be traditional, impressive, modern, simple or sophisticated, but it must be able to captivate and inspire the congregation. In the context of a service, a hymn is neither a literary nor an artistic exercise but a spiritual one. We’ve already said that we know good music by its fruits – and this is the true measure of a hymn.
Each generation can and must build and draw upon the experiences and styles of its own culture to create hymns that are meaningful and have contemporary resonance – in other words, must constantly “sing a new song to the Lord”. Some of these hymns will live on to become the “classics” of future generations; others will be so tied to their own era that they will rapidly fall from use. Both types are valuable and are not to be despised.
It is above all essential to avoid the implication that a specific music style is a prerequisite for a genuine Christian faith. This may seem self-evident, but in reality we closely identify our worship with our music. If we equate our favourite music – or the sort of music that expresses our particular spirituality – with “real” Christianity, then we effectively make the idiom more important than the message and exclude those who do not share our artistic tastes.
A good hymn or song melody is one that will inspire the singing congregation. The distinction between (congregational) hymns and (solo) songs is of vital importance here. It is easy to be inspired by the atmosphere and worship of a large Christian conference, and subsequently to wish to introduce into one’s own congregation the wonderful songs heard there, without appreciating that their effect depended on the soloist’s particular quality of voice, the rhythmic flexibility of the guitarists and the extraordinary skill of the professional percussionists – not to mention the atmosphere of the “crowd”. In many cases, these very complicated songs will simply not be singable by an average church congregation, and this will strip the songs themselves of the effect they should be creating. Modern, rhythmic songs can function very well for congregational singing – it is in any event essential that our starting point should be today’s expression of faith – but congregational songs must be composed for that purpose.
A familiar hymn is a powerful force. We mentioned earlier the common experience in residential homes for the elderly senile that patients who have retreated so far into their own worlds that they do not react to any form of conversation will suddenly smile and join in singing when they hear a long-loved hymn. Even those of us who are still young can be powerfully reminded of past experiences: we may recall people or events that have shaped and defined our faith, or – as we experience at communion – we can be reminded that the problems and temptations we face today are merely a single point in a continuum stretching throughout our own past and future as well as through the whole of the church’s history. While services must remain relevant to the present and the future rather than sentimentally looking back, it is clearly important to promote a sense of lifelong continuity in our journey of faith — an aspect that becomes steadily more important to the older Christian.
The importance and influence of the familiar in church music poses two dilemmas. Firstly, familiar hymn gives the congregation such a sense of pleasure, confidence and reassurance that it is tempting never to introduce new material, knowing that to do so will be challenging and potentially distracting. If we fall into this temptation, however, our experience and concept of hymns will steadily become more and more retrospective and divorced from contemporary relevance. We will also fail to lay the foundation for this and the next generation to benefit from the insights of the theology and hymn writing of our time. Secondly, language that is familiar and natural to one generation becomes old-fashioned and unnatural to the next.
This question of language is complicated. As well as communicating directly with us, hymns – music and text together – have a power of association. We see this at its most obvious in Christmas carols where we sing often trite and unsound lyrics (“the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”) simply out of enjoyment of tradition. A text written in an old-fashioned language may by association have a value and power for the older Christian far in excess of that which it directly communicates. We need to be aware, however, that we are also creating new associations for a new generation, and this needs to be balanced with the old. For this reason there is constant tension regarding the updating of hymn texts.
A few years ago, I had a discussion with a group of Norwegian teenagers, in which I asked them what they saw as the shortcomings of hymns in the Norwegian Church’s hymn book, focussing particularly on a long and theologically-“heavy” hymn entitled “Kirken den er et gammelt hus”, which dates from a Norwegian hymn tradition not dissimilar to Wesley. Surprisingly, their chief complaint was not that the language was unapproachable (although this was mentioned as an issue) but that “old-fashioned” theology itself was too bound up with ecclesiastical ritual, liturgy and church matters rather than with the heart of the Christian Gospel. When we read through the hymn together, however, we found that its message was that church buildings, rituals, books and structures in themselves were without value – that the church was not the concrete trappings but the worshipping community of people saved only by the Cross. This was precisely the content that the teenagers had been wishing for, and they concluded that by looking beyond the difficult language of older hymns they could find a relevant message full of contemporary significance.
A traditional service in most denominations will consist of an alternation between individual hymns and spoken liturgy. It can be difficult to see how to fit a short chorus into a scheme of this sort. There is a powerful argument – even in traditional congregations - for the practise of singing a succession of choruses or worship songs in one or more of the customary “hymn slots”. The term “worship time” often used in this context is a poor one, implying as it does that the rest of the service is not “worship”, but it does give us a sense of cumulative effect that is absent when we stand up, sing a hymn and sit down again.
Whether the hymns be chosen by the minister, the church musician or (as should be the case) both together, the first step in the process should always be the same. The first priority is not to read the set texts, nor to summarise the main points of the sermon, nor to look at themes relevant to the specific day in the church year. It is neither the preacher nor the lectionary to whom we ultimately look for inspiration, but the Holy Spirit. It would be a poor preacher who embarked on a sermon without first praying. If we have the remotest respect for the role of hymns in a service, then the process of choosing them must begin in the same way – pray!
Choosing hymns is often regarded as a time-consuming task that gets in the way of weightier matters. Kendrick, however, is right: it is a theological and a musical exercise at the highest level, concerned both with the congregation’s interaction with text and theology and with specifically musical aspects such as key, metre and harmony. Above all it is a spiritual exercise, built on prayer and the inspiration of the Spirit.
Our final question was, what can we expect of church music? If we follow our language analogy, we might ask “what can language do for us?”. To this, the answer is that language only helps us to communicate something that is already there. In other words, if you’ve nothing worth saying it doesn’t matter how beautifully you say it – but even if you do have something important to say you can mess it up and make it ambiguous by a poor choice of language. It is what is said, and how, and when, that counts. In terms of music, if we focus exclusively on the style of music – the dialect, if you like, we loose sight of the substance that it is conveying.
But music can have a wonderful role in a church. We mentioned right back at the start of this talk all the things that music can do. This is what so many churches seem to have lost sight of. Old Testament ordinances defined the work of the Temple musician as a full-time occupation (look at 1 Chronicles 9, for instance). One of David’s priorities at the Temple was to get skilled musicians in place. Music was in the forefront of both physical and spiritual warfare (elements that sometimes seem synonymous in the Old Testament). Trumpets contributed to demolishing the walls at Jericho. Singers were deployed before battle (2 Chronicles 20). Military bands are still a feature of army life, but the modern church musician is not always seen as central to the church’s spiritual warfare. Why not?
It’s something that’s crept up on us over a long period. The function of church music was described in a sermon preached by John Newte in Tiverton Church, Devon in 1696, as to hide or cover over “little whispering Disturbances, through the Levity of some People, … and the nauseous Rawkings, and unnecessary Coughing and Spitting, which are made by the People”. In other words, music is regarded as “wallpaper” – something that beautifies the church and helps set the scene. No spiritual warfare there! The concept of music ministry has become entirely alien to the Church of England, for instance, and the church (as opposed to cathedral) musician is a peripheral figure. The Church’s official Guide to selection and training for ministry defines ministry as “the administration of the sacraments, pastoral care, teaching and preaching”, thereby excluding both outreach and the enabling of worship.
The relationship between clergy and musicians is often described as delicate, cautious or downright confrontational. This is not a sign of Christian ministry properly exercised by either party. Conflict between pastoral ministers and musicians is usually rooted in a lack of understanding and appreciation of each other’s role and skills. Much of this misunderstanding is based on incorrect and often unvoiced assumptions about each other’s motives and intentions. The organist assumes that the minister is anxious to maintain control over all aspects of church life and that the minister has no understanding of the way that music helps a congregation relate to words and concepts. For this reason the musician does not attempt to discuss long-term strategies but merely sulks quietly because the minister does not invite the musician’s opinions. The minister assumes (indeed, may even have been taught at theological college) that the musician is only interested in music performance and would not be competent to consider the theological or pastoral implications of it. The minister does not air this view because it would seem confrontational but instead worries about how to keep the musician out of the way. Both parties try to put up with the situation in order to maintain a fragile and uneasy relationship, until harboured resentment eventually erupts into conflict.
A proper situation, on the other hand, is encapsulated by the fitting if rather generalised term “ministry team” in which the spiritual leadership of the church is exercised corporately (under the overall direction of the pastor) by those with the appropriate gifts. The church musician should have an expertise in church music and its pastoral, theological and liturgical role that far outweighs that of the clergy, and should have a spiritual commitment to match.
A good relationship between pastor and musicians will be of limited use unless the musician also enjoys a good relationship with the congregation – is, in fact, a part of the church. Where musicians – be they an organist or a music group – regard themselves either as defenders of the music tradition or as the ones who have to stage a convincing performance, then they are not ministers but dictators.
There are all sorts of issues that we just don’t have time to go into today. Should church musicians should be paid? What about agnostic musicians – those who do not share the faith of the church but who enjoy church music as an art form, appreciate the social contact and professional challenges of directing congregational or choral music, regard a church post as a “part-time job”, or who simply wish to contribute to society in a way that they see as worthwhile? These musicians provide the church with a greatly valued resource of professional expertise, but what they cannot and would not profess to provide is a prayerful Christian ministry in music. Without spiritual anointing the result of their work seems limited to the level of their own professional input – but God, of course, is able to use all things for His glory. How about the “reluctant musician”? This is usually the organist of a country parish – a long-standing faithful member of the congregation, with a good knowledge of its traditions and practices, who at some point has been asked to play the organ “temporarily – just to tide us over”. The temporary arrangement gradually becomes permanent and the reluctant organist struggles valiantly on. The dedication of these organists, and the stress involved in doing such a difficult job without training, is seldom properly acknowledged. Yet without the “reluctant organists” many churches would have no music. They enrich the lives of our churches beyond measure. There are so many issues that affect the future of music in our churches and that we just don’t have time to discuss today.
I would like to make one point in passing, which you may not have considered. Spiritually, an organist is in a uniquely precarious position. Mere attendance at most or all of the church’s services does not promote the organist’s spiritual welfare – indeed, may actively damage it. During the sung parts of the service, the organist concentrates on the various challenges of leading the music. During the readings, prayers and sermon the organist finds the correct music and text for the next hymn, prepares the tempo, looks over the introduction and chooses the registration – while preparing to respond to the appropriate cue. Not only does this mean that the organist misses out on the content of the service but – even more seriously – this engenders a feeling of controlled professionalism. The organist’s attitude to the service becomes that of an air-traffic controller with all aspects of the service neatly plotted on the radar screen but no personal sense of journeying. Years of this gives the organist a feeling of dispassionate superiority, of being in charge, that is entirely at odds with the Christian model of coming humbly in worship and prayer before the Creator. This is a problem that can also affect pastors, church wardens and others with a demanding fixed role. The organist, however, has a second problem – isolation. The instrument is usually situated either in a dark alcove, on a gallery or, at least, discreetly behind a pillar. As the organist is playing whilst the congregation arrives and, after the service, whilst they depart, and is seated at the console throughout the service, the sense of being apart from the congregation is magnified. In those churches where the organist is expected to play throughout communion, thus excluding the possibility of joining the congregation around the Lord’s Table, the sense of exclusion is complete. The organist exercises control over something in which he may not participate. It is not surprising that so many organists withdraw from an active expression of faith within the congregation: the wonder is that any retain a living personal faith at all. It is vital that musicians must be encouraged to participate in every way in the congregational life and in the spiritual mission of the church. Retreats together with the minister and attendance at theological courses can all contribute to this (as well as helping to improve working relationships).
But to return to our question: what can we expect of church music? We should expect a great deal more of it. If we – like that 17th-century Rector of Tiverton – see it as decoration; if we see it as the warm-up act before the proper spiritual content; if we see it as a style that needs updating or as a noble tradition that needs defending, then we are taking God’s gift – a vehicle of communication – and turning it into an idol of our own construction. We’re as shocked as Moses was at those Israelites singing worship songs to a golden calf, but it still happens.
We’ve been given the very language of heaven. We can join in with those angels; we can now be a part of that same eternal song of praise. We shouldn’t be asking whether the language is that of Maurice Greene or Steve Green, John Redford or Matt Redman; we should be asking whether or not the language serves to connect the people in that place with God. The goal of church music is intertwined with the goal of church itself: a congregation with hearts inclined to God, church musicians full of the Spirit, consecrated, trained (musically, theologically and pastorally), supported and using their skills and knowledge in the widest service of the church, and all Christians showing a genuine respect for each other’s musical tastes, ready when necessary to lay aside their preferences (and potentially to let go of what God has given only for a season when it is time to move on) in order to see the Kingdom grow – and not to strive for something that they are not and for which they are not equipped. Music must be able to capture hearts and allow God to speak in them. Then we will have a church where heaven meets earth and the world is changed as a result.