Why limit music to congregational singing?

Nuns. Creator: Nesterov, Michail Vasiljevič. Date: 1893. Institution: Slovak National Gallery.

This semester I have had the privilege of teaching a course in the Master of Arts in Worship program for Visible Music College (Memphis, TN). The title of the course is Worship, Aesthetics and the Arts. Frankly, this course was a stretch for me. It forced me to explore relatively unknown territories, including the deep waters of aesthetics and vast regions of the arts. At this point, I’m still swimming in shallow part of the pool.

During the fourteen-week course we explored how congregations might feature one or more of the arts in their Sunday morning services. Assisted by Glimpses of the New Creation, written by W. David O. Taylor, we explored visual arts, architecture, poetic arts, narrative arts, theater arts, kinetic arts, graphic arts, and musical arts.

Our pit stop in musical arts prompted this blog. Studying music in worship reminded me that, since the time of Martin Luther, congregational singing has been a hallmark of Protestant worship. Luther, a musician himself, believed that Christians must celebrate the goodness of the Lord; they “cannot be quiet about it; (they) must gladly and willingly sing.”  Centuries later Karl Barth shared a similar sentiment: The Christian community sings. It is not a choral society. Its singing is not a concert. But from inner, material necessity it sings. Singing is the highest form of human expression… The praise of God which finds its concrete culmination in the singing of the community is one of the indispensable basic forms of the ministry of the community.

Consequently, when we gather as a congregation, we may speak words of praise, perhaps through a unison reading of a Psalm or by a spontaneous “Hallelujah.” We may accompany our spoken words with the clapping of hands (Psalm 47:1), or with the lifting of our hands (Psalm 63:4 and I Timothy 2:8), or even with dancing (Psalm 149:3). Finally, however, we must sing.

But must we limit the use of music during our Sunday services to congregational singing?

In my current role as an occasional Interim Pastor and Church Consultant, I have the privilege of worshiping with a variety of congregations. I have noticed that the role of music in worship varies from church to church. In the more traditional churches, music still plays a multifaceted role, while in the self-described “contemporary” church the role of music is typically limited to accompanying the congregation as it sings.

I wonder if in this area the traditional church has something on the contemporary church. The traditional church typically finds room for music to fill four roles. Prone to iteration, I refer to them as the doxological, didactic, devotional, and decorative.

Music plays a Doxological role. The word doxology refers to an expression of praise or glory to God. Music plays a doxological role when it accompanies congregational singing, when it supports the praises of God’s people. I don’t know of one church that doesn’t employ music in this way.    

Music may also play a Didactic role. Didactic meaning: to teach something. In the church what is taught is rooted in the truths of scripture. We often find didactic music in our ministry to children where scripture songs help children learn the Bible. Remember the wee little man named Zacchaeus? Or, hide your light under a bushel basket—NO!? Didactic music in the church also includes hymns, particularly those written in previous centuries, with several verses of doctrinally rich lyrics.

Music may also play a devotional role, warming our hearts in love for the Lord.  Personally, this role is most powerful during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The combination of Scripture and song (such as: How Deep the Father’s Love for Us by Stuart Townsend) with the bread and the cup has a way of sealing the promises of the Gospel in my heart.

Finally, music plays a decorative or aesthetic role; it simply makes the time we spend in worship, and the space in which we worship, more beautiful. Traditionally, music has played this role before the service (prelude) and after the service (postlude) and during the offering (offertory). However, there are many other avenues for music to enrich our worship time. Choir voices joined together in fine-tuned harmony may remind us of the Heavenly choir that awaits us someday. Talented musicians may share a solo, or perform on an instrument they’ve mastered. (A trumpet, trombone, flute, guitar, or saxophone are examples from just one congregation I’ve worked with.) A pastor may find a song on-line that perfectly underscores the sermon and play it as part of the message. All these forms of music are gifts from God and meant to be shared. Music in many forms adds beauty to our worship experience.

Doxological. Didactic. Devotional. Decorative.

Let’s not limit our use of music to just one, or two, of these forms. Let’s allow music to minister in multiple ways to enrich our collective time of worship.

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