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Growing up, I used to pretend that I had refined musical tastes and would justify all my musical selections by citing critical acclaim, social/musical significance, or technical ability. Now that I’ve grown to be less insecure, I can admit my musical tastes are pretty much random and arbitrary. On my most played list in Pandora I have everything from classic b-sides from The Who to video game theme songs. My wife is not thrilled about our two-year-old bouncing around the house shouting “Hey, hey, get out of my way,” but when you got a punk rock spirit it’s going to come out sometime. Ezekiel just found his niche early. I still try to cling to a bit of my musical elitism by listening to “vinyl” (which normal people call records) on my “turn table” (which normal people call a record player.) But I recognize that there is a glass ceiling to my coolness when our classic Sesame Street album gets the most spins.
Music is important. Listening to music has a whole host of benefits. Music can help your mental health, reduce stress, relieve pain, and even boost your immune system.[i] These effects are amplified when you are the one that makes the music. Singing together creates a sense of unity and a feeling of acceptance.[ii] From the very beginnings of our religion, we recognized music’s importance. The earliest Biblical writings we’ve discovered was the Song of Deborah (and Barack, but let’s be honest Deborah was the Jack White in that duo). Our own Methodist tradition is heavily influenced by the music of Charles Wesley. Since music is so significant, I think it’s time to talk about the music problem within the church.
Music is a form of personal and cultural expression
Think back to the music you listened to growing up. I’m not talking church music, the United Methodist Hymnal in all its glory hasn’t changed that much since we added the word “United” to the cover. What sort of “secular music” did you listen to growing up? For most of us, that music was initially whatever our parents listened to (I still know every lyric Neil Diamond has ever sang. Thanks Mom), then around 12 or 13 we started listening to whatever our friends thought was cool. In almost all cases, our musical tastes find its roots into the culture and community we were a part of.[iii] Years ago, this created a sense of commonality. You knew about the music other people listened to, even if you didn’t enjoy it yourself. You could talk about, share, and even enjoy listening to somebody else’s favorite song. For almost thirty years the two musical groups with the most number one hits were The Beatles and Elvis. I am a hardcore Beatles fan myself, but I still can name about a dozen Elvis songs off the top of my head. A few years ago, Elvis got bumped out of his number two spot by Mariah Carey. Mariah Carey has had nineteen #1 hit songs, but I can only name two.
This shows how the world, and music, has become a more multicultural. This is a good thing. Every culture has its own sacred musical traditions. For generations they were either ignored by mainstream music industry, or worse, appropriated by white musicians. Now, thanks to technology, media, and ingenuity, music from all cultures has a chance to shine. When I was a kid “Feliz Navidad,” and “La Bamba” were the only Latino songs I had ever heard. Now half of my playlist is multilingual. My kids can watch musicals like Vivo, Coco, and Moana. With all of this diversity, we can miss a sense of commonality if we don’t adapt to it.
Does our church music reflect a multicultural world?
John Wesley has some very harsh words about using music not of the hymnal. The next time you get the chance, look at his general rules concerning singing and try not to laugh. Funny as Wesley’s antiquated attitudes might be, the church has adopted his stance, especially in smaller churches. We have the hymns “we all know.” After serving eight rural churches, I can definitively say that the hymns “we all know,” change from congregation to congregation. There is comfort and peace in our traditional music, but musical rigidity creates a barrier to would be members. I grew up in the church, and as we just talked about, musical tastes are a reflection of culture and experience, so I know and love the old Hymnal. Would somebody who didn’t grow up in the church feel the same way? If we are serious about attracting new and nominal Christians, we need to realize that our attachment to traditional hymns might be an impediment.
Do our worship songs reflect the theological and emotional depth of Scripture?
I will admit, I have a personal vendetta against the song Days of Elijah. I will do my best to interrupt, disrupt, and shut down any praise band that tries to play that song. The second verse says, “These are the days of your servant David/rebuilding a temple of praise,”
David didn’t build the Temple, much less rebuild the Temple! It’s kind of a big deal that David didn’t get to build the Temple! Did the person who wrote that song even bother to check the names they dropped or did they just put it in there to sound nice?
Ok, sorry about that, stepping off my soap box now. But our worship songs often fail to accurately express the Biblical narrative. Additionally, they all generally have the same hopeful praise-y feel to them. Praise and adoration are important, but there is a wide variety of emotions expressed in Scripture that we miss in music. Where’s the grief? There’s a whole book of Lamentations in the Bible, but can you name a truly sad hymn? Most hymns might reference something sad, but always end on an up note. Think of the saddest hymn you know. Listen to it real quick. Now compare that level of sadness to Gary Jules’s cover of Mad World. I’m in a good place right now, but man, just the opening chords of Mad World send me into an existential sadness. And that’s a good thing. Listening to sad music helps us regulate our emotions and create mental stability. More importantly, listening to sad music creates a deep sense of empathy to those who listen or sing along. If we sing the “it’s sad but will be ok” songs in our worship, we fail to create that sense of empathy. Worse, we often alienate the members who are experience grief.
Does our music reflect the Churches mission to radically transform the world?
If a new Christian came into your church and heard your music, what impression would they get about the church’s mission? The church has a prophetic duty to fight injustice and oppression in the world. There are seventeen prophetic books in the Bible, as compared to four Gospels. Our denomination was founded upon John Wesley’s mission for “Social Holiness.” Sadly, these truths aren’t often reflected in our music. Tom Morello, the greatest guitarist of all time and founding member of the group Rage Against the Machine once said “Every revolution needs a theme song.” What’s the church’s theme song? We talked about it earlier, but music can have a unifying and clarifying effect on groups that sing together. Singing songs in church is an opportunity to connect our congregations to the vital missions of the church Our songs need to address the challenges we face, the wrongs we wish to right, and the people we seek to help. Now, I’m sure most people would argue that Rage Against the Machine might be a little too harsh for church consumption, but remember Ezekiel 23 is in the Bible, and Ezekiel has a way harsher tongue than Tom Morello.
So what can we do?
Well, first off, we need to connect through music. When was the last time you asked another person what their favorite song was? The benefit of having young kids in the house is that I am reminded constantly of how important it is to ask about other people. About a month ago, a little kid asked me what my favorite dinosaur was when I came to pick up my kids at daycare. It’s been so long since I’ve been asked, I struggled to remember how to pronounce ankylosaurus. That curiosity was flattering. It was just nice to have somebody care. Music is deeply personal. Asking somebody to share that part of themselves builds deeper relationships. Even if the person has horrible tastes. When I first met my wife, I asked her what her favorite band was, and she said Nickleback. I’m glad I chose to stick around, but it was hard not to walk away in that moment. Very hard…
Make space in youth ministries for kids to share the music they like, guilt free. Kids are very self-conscious and are quick to feel shame. If we tell kids that what they like isn’t appropriate for church, then we start to alienate them. Besides, I am not sure there is a song out there more risqué than Song of Solomon, and we still read that in church. Giving the kids the opportunity to express themselves with music builds that sense of belonging that we all desperately need to feel in church.
I want to close with two points.
1. I am no musician. It’s easy for somebody who doesn’t make music to say “Learn new songs and like it!” We like familiarity. The vast majority of pop music utilizes the same patterns. There’s a reason for that, our brain likes to know what’s going on. If it can predict what will happen next it releases happy chemicals. If it gets confused or surprised it sends out scared chemicals. That’s why nobody likes jazz and why pop songs use the same four chords. As musical leaders who have to lead a congregation of varying musical talents, new songs are hard. Do what you can.
2. Music is not why we worship. The pandemic has been hard. I had so many congregation members tell me they weren’t coming back to church until we could sing again. It’s not church without singing. Fun fact, there is only one mention of the Disciples singing in the Gospels. Singing is a powerful and wonderful part of worship. It can help us feel connected to God, but always remember, God is the reason we sing. God is the reason, the only reason, we worship. As our churches continue to struggle with how to safely adapt to the pandemic, and as we prepare for possible future pandemics, remember God is there no matter what we sing, how we sing, and even there in sacred silence.