Frustrated with the Music at Your Church? Think about These Things
I like music. I really do. However, being at ground zero of thirty years of “worship wars” about music styles has, frankly, made me like it a lot less than I used to like it. I have very eclectic tastes in music. My music play list on my phone/ipad has stuff ranging from The Carpenters to Bon Jovi and Bluegrass to Baroque and One Direction to Classic Hymns and Kenny Rodgers to Travis Cottrell. And “shuffle” is ALWAYS on when I’m listening.
Nothing will get a church congregation exercised quite as quickly as a change in music style, it would seem. I often joked, when I was a pastor, that I could have preached naked with my hair on fire from the Book of Mormon and get less negative feedback than if the bass in the praise team number was set a little too high. During my lifetime in church, I’ve heard everything from some of the most doctrinally unsound Southern Gospel selections to (no joke) a service that started with “Sweet Home Alabama” (and for no apparent reason) and I’ve also heard music that left me breathless in its simply beauty and shaken by convicting lyrics.
I certainly don’t want to re-hash the myriad facets of church music controversies here and now. I do want to leave my readers with a few thoughts to consider as it relates to the music in YOUR church.
1. Like it or not, music changes.
We are NOT singing the same songs that once rang out in the house churches of Thessalonica or the catacombs of Rome. We are not even singing the same music from two hundred years ago. We will not be singing “Oceans” in church in 2085 either. Instruments have become more sophisticated. Each generation has fresh inventions in performance, lyric writing and musical expression. Technology has been a big game changer. Life is filled with changes. Embrace it. It is neither Biblical, nor helpful, to try and turn our musical style preferences into issues of spiritual fidelity. It’s 20-30 minutes of your week. We need to get over it.
2. Music isn’t JUST about YOU.
I’m old school. I’m OK with that. I know that doctrinally, culturally and musically, that sing-songy old Gospel song “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, I’ll be There” is pretty much indefensible. But I still like it. It reminds me of revival services and a hefty piano player in a country church that threatened the viability of the bench as she made her artistic runs on the ol’ upright and the theatrical way the song leader (this was WAY before “Worship Pastors”) would have us hold certain words and it just warms my cynical old middle-aged heart. My kids however, would have snickered over the term “yonder” and challenged the notion of a heavenly “roll call” in our future had they heard this song growing up as I did. What DOES give me great pleasure, however, is to hear young people today creating their own future nostalgia belting out the lyrics to a new song in church to which I have great difficulty making out the words. And in my world, if I have to give up having “my songs” played at church to see them blessed by “their songs”, then I’m perfectly cool with that. I can listen to “my songs” anytime I want throughout the rest of the week. Plus, I’ve found that some of “their songs” are quite capable of catching on with this ol’ coot and I find myself humming them under my breath the rest of the day.
3. Music can be about worship, but worship is not confined to music.
We need to re-think “worship” in the context of the 20-teens church. Worship actually begins a long time before the first chord or guitar strum. It is more than lyrics and melodies. It is listening and giving and being silent and forgiving. It includes alignment and submission and sacrifice and investment. It is not to be observed, but to be embraced. We are not observers, we are participants. It transcends musical instruments and starts in our own hearts. So maybe our attention and expectations are misplaced when it comes to the entire topic.
4. Choose Your Battles – they aren’t all worth fighting
I once was in a deacon’s meeting where the music style issue was being debated for the umpteenth time. One guy was getting quite red in the face, so I decided to try to offer a conciliatory reflection to him. I said, “Brother Loud Mouth (not his real name), I see you in church on Sundays sitting next to your sons and grandsons. Can you imagine being blessed to looking at your spiritual legacy down the pew as you see your children and grandchildren singing songs of praise to the Lord, perhaps raising hands in personal worship and participating in a multi-generational way in the church to which you’ve given your life for these last 30 years?” He looked over at me and nearly spit out his response. “Not if I have to listen to their dang music!” He got his wish, as each of his grandchildren reached adulthood, they left the church and either went elsewhere…or sadder still, nowhere. He won the battle. He lost the war. The battle isn’t over what brand of music we prefer to have played for 20 minutes on a Sunday. It is about what each of us, every generation, is going to do with the Truth of Scripture and the Gospel of Christ. Not every battle is worth fighting.
5. Don’t Leave Your Church Over Music
Seriously. If Truth isn’t being preached, deal with that. If sin isn’t being dealt with, make a deal out of it. If the Gospel is being compromised, head for the door as your last resort. Changing churches simply over music is shallow and damages the greater body. If you are only going to church because of what it does FOR you, then you are missing the point. Part of going to church is so that YOU can play YOUR role in building up others, teaching, encouraging, sharing Grace, discipling, giving, praying and so much more than listening to a handful of songs every service. You will be poorer if you walk out of your church over something like “I just want to use the hymnal more” and so will your church.
Times change. Styles evolve. Tastes transition. Truth – it always stays the same. Just grit your teeth and power through that song that gives you an ear worm for the next three days. And then, find someone who needs a voice in their life that points them toward Scripture and Grace and Love and Compassion and Generosity and Blessing and let that be what occupies your mind. You’ll find that if you do, your irritations will ease and your blessings will increase. Give it a try. I dare you.
I can imagine that an article like this has the potential for a whole bunch of uproar as we all try, for the millionth time, to make our case for why music is the most important element of the church today. Please try to resist the temptation to be defensive. Reflect on what is still going to matter in a hundred years. I simply don’t think song choice or music style or instrument selection is going to be at the top of that list.
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