Closing the Gap with Music
Nothing seems to stir our emotions quite like the music selected for worship. Over my twenty-three years plus of ordained ministry this is the one area where I have witnessed followers of Jesus either be at their best or at their worst. By “best” I mean those times when the congregation is fully engaged in singing before the Lord, whether that be a traditional hymn sung to an organ accompaniment or a new song written only weeks earlier sung with a band composed of guitars, keyboard, and drums. I still get chills when I remember processing into Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska during Annual Conference to be ordained, hearing over twelve hundred people sing loudly
“O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
Likewise I recall the same passion and the same sense of God’s Spirit - in the same space -when the praise band from Denver lead the closing worship service at Annual Conference two years ago. One was organ music and “traditional” hymnody; the other was modern band and “contemporary.” Yet both brought me to a place before God that was amazing and beautiful because each instance of worship kept God as the primary audience - not the congregation gathered in Stuart Auditorium.
By “worst” I mean music where God is not the focus and not the primary audience for what is being offered. I have heard lackluster efforts that are rooted in personal preference instead of an attempt to offer something to the Lord. At issue is where our hearts are, not the skill of the musicians or the style of music. This has been the case in worship for all time - God’s ultimate desire is what is on the inside.
“You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart
” (Psalm 51:6 -NRSV). Worship music is directed towards this audience of one - it is meant for God as an offering from His people. Music in worship is always about God first and last; it is not about our individual likes and dislikes.
This is not to say that music preference is not a big deal because we all know that it is! But if we do not come into worship with an open heart the type of music will not matter one way or another. The style of music offered for worship is often the subject of much debate and contention in churches. This is not a modern issue either as we have been fussing about music for a long time. Consider this quote I found in an article by Dan Kimball who recounted a letter a pastor received criticizing the choice of Sunday morning music:
“I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it. Last Sunday’s new hymn - if you can call it that - sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon. If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this - in God’s house! - don’t be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship. The hymns we grew up with are all we need.”
This letter was written in 1863 and the song they were concerned about was the hymn
“Just As I Am.”
Music matters. It stirs our souls and speaks to the deepest parts of our being and is a true gift from God that is meant to be offered back to God. We will not all have the same preferences or the same appreciation for what is chosen each Sunday. Some of us will choose to worship in a “traditional” music style, some will choose “contemporary”, and some want a little of both. This is all well and fine - and this is crucial - as long as we remember that we are not first and foremost singing for ourselves and seeking to meet our own needs. We sing our praises before God, from our hearts toward the very heart of God. When we do this we can join the Psalmist in proclaiming:
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Pastor Todd will be preaching this Sunday. My family and I will be traveling to First UMC Norwood where I served as Pastor from 2003 - 2008; I will be their preacher for Homecoming. I’ll bring back a bulletin to prove I went to church! Worship well this Sunday, sing well, make God the audience and offer Him your whole heart and see what happens. I know God will certainly bless worship this weekend.