It’s All About Praise
Sing to him a new song;
play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts. – Psalm 33:3
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord. – Psalm 40:3
As I think I’ve said before, with the exception of money, nothing will stir up a fight in the local church like music. I think that’s a good sign that, at the very least, some members of the congregation understand the importance of music in our collective worship life. All the same, I think our churches and clergy have done a poor job teaching our churches* what worship is and how music fits in the worship life of the congregation. A couple years back, at the last United Methodist General Conference, there was a lot of discussion on what made “vital congregations”. Not listed among the criteria was an openness to a variety of worship and music styles in the same service. We tend to have “traditional” services separate from “contemporary”, as if somehow the tradition wasn’t a living thing, contemporaneous with our lives of faith. Arguments over worship, and the place of music in worship, get so confused precisely because we ignore the most basic Biblical mandate – the people of God are a singing people, specifically singing praise to God, always looking for a new song.
One of the worst, most self-indulgent, and lazy “worship” alternatives is the “hymn sing”. The same hymns get sung, the same way. There is nothing wrong, of course, with “How Great Thou Art” or “Amazing Grace”. At the first church my wife served, a member insisted on singing his favorite hymn, “Take Time To Be Holy”, and not only have I come to appreciate this beautiful hymn, but I will always associate it, and its expression of deep faith with the person who loved it so, a gift I am happy to carry with me. All the same, this is not the purpose of worship, and certainly not the way music is to be used in worship, i.e., to sing the same songs, either out of habit or the need for some kind of emotional comfort. While part of worship, to be sure, is to receive the comfort of the Holy Spirit, assuring us of our salvation, this is not the role music is to play. Nor should we, as congregations, be indulging in nostalgia or lazy habits when it comes to how we use music in our corporate worship.
Worship is primarily about our corporate praise of God. In our declarations of faith, in hearing the Scriptures read and proclaimed, in receiving the Sacrament, and in our music – all of it is for God. That we receive comfort, or perhaps discomfort; that we feel accepted, or perhaps rejected; that we leave filled with the Spirit, or perhaps wondering where the Spirit has gone; anything to do with us, either individually or collectively, is incidental to the primary – I’m tempted to say sole, but I won’t go that far – purpose of the gathered Body of Christ, which is the collective proclamation of faith in and through our collective praise of God.
Now, the setting of the Nunc Dimittis just above is nearly 500 years old, yet for most North American congregations, it would probably qualify as a “new song”. At the same time, many would find comfort in the style: the instrumentation, the use of polyphony, the aesthetically pleasing harmonies. Some might be put off by the Latinate verbiage. Others might not like that it is more a performance than anthemic, an expression of faith and praise by a portion of the congregation representing the whole. For an anthem, something such as the following might “feel” more suitable:
For many, however, something like the following not only “feels” right, but fits with the kind of comfort we seek from corporate worship. At the same time, there are many for whom this style of music and the words attached certainly qualify as “new”:
Several years ago, I taught a class on how to theologize from music. One of the songs I used to promote the class was Black Sabbath’s “After Forever”.
Juxtaposing thinking about God with a performance from Black Sabbath is certainly shocking. At the same time, this early song, with lyrics written by Ozzy Osbourne, who was troubled by the band’s reputation, would certainly qualify, in the proper context, as a song of praise. Shocking, yes. Certainly worthy of getting people’s attention, getting some discussion and dialogue going, to be sure. Nonetheless, I will always maintain this song has no less theological merit than anything in our hymnals. Precisely because it is a plea to remember that we are a people who are to love (and despite their reputation, and thematic content, most of Black Sabbath’s material, especially early in their career, was a lament at the state of a world as seen from the crumbling industrial confines of Birmingham), and that love is from God, it is rooted in Scriptures and tradition and reason and experience. The only thing “wrong” with it is a musical style many find off-putting. Of course, many people find The Gaither Vocal Band off-putting.
The point of all this is simple enough: It’s all up for grabs, as long as God is praised. There is no reason, other than avoiding local church conflict, not to integrate any and all musical styles in our corporate worship. The Biblical mandate to let the LORD put a new song on our lips, to sing a new song in praise of God should guide how we incorporate music in our worship. We shouldn’t allow habit, or the felt need for comfort, or personal taste, interfere with the possibility of praising God in new ways. When all is said and done and sung, our worship is about praising God. That should always be the goal. We can use various means to teach this to our congregations, and give them a sense of new possibilities for praise.
*This is a particular insistence of mine: If there’s one area where our churches just haven’t done what they should, it’s the teaching office. We relegate that to Sunday School and Education Committees, instead of seeing all of our collective life as opportunities to teach. That’s a post for another day.