Hope Network Newsletter: Music That Makes Sense (Jan-Feb 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

Doing Business in the Coin of the Realm

by Lynn Anderson
January – Feburary, 1993

9My two sons and I headed into the Rockies to conquer a few more “fourteeners.” The first morning we drove till we ran out of road, then hiked uphill for half a day and tented for the night. Next day we day-packed several hours up even steeper trails, climbing far above the timberline. Solitude at last!

But as we scrambled around a final switch-back, we spied a lone figure on the summit. We shouted a greeting. No answer. Closer range solved the myster. He was signing off-key and “bobbing to the beat,” totally enwrapped in a world of music from his Walkman headphones!

Rock music? Deep in the wilderness? Why? Because he is part of a new culture that takes its “tunes” wherever it goes. Music is actually the most powerful language of the culture.

Music is the coin of the realm!

Music’s appeal is nothing new, of course. Since the days of Jubal, we’ve loved it! But never before has music been the cultural force it has become in our times. A hundred years ago an occasional musician came through and filled a concert hall for a couple of hours. On special occasions, friends gathered around the fire to “pick and sing.” Sundays they heard “church music.”

Then sound recordings exploded on our ears. Until dens, automobiles, bedrooms, offices, and malls are flooded with music. And now portable Walkman stereo sound follows us into the wilderness! Today, msuci is indeed “the coin of the realm.”

Alan Bloom in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, asserted that the most powerful influence in the lives of young people is their music, more powerful than parents, than school, even than peers. Bloom said, “If, in our culture, we do not communicate with the young through music, we simply do not communicate.”

Some of the strongest role models of the culture, for good or ill, are musicians. From Elvis to Madonna, music is power. No wonder someone said, “Let me write the songs of a nation and I care not who writes her laws.”

Music is not the universal language.

An old saw says, “Music is the Universal Language.” Music may be universally appealing, but music is not “the universal language!” In fact, various subcultures are set off from each other by their music, especially among youth. an adolescent can expect to be clearly “out” of a given group if he or she is “into” the wrong music.

Adult subcultures cluster around music, too. At the world congress on evangelism in Manila in 1989, Barbara King introduced me to the small but growing field of study called “ethno-musicology.” Ethno-musicologists count eight major distinct music groups on our planet. Among our own Euro-American musical kinfolk, we find country music, rock music, classical music, mariachi, reggae, etc. They tell me Bill Clinton’s home state has “rock, Bach and razor-bach.” Music may flourish universally, but music is definitely not a universal language.

Is your church ‘alive with the sound of music’?

In workshops, I frequently ask, “When you’re driving down the freeway and flip on the radio, how many of you will likely select country western? Let me see a show of hands. How many rock? Easy listening? Acid rock? How many actually listen to a classical station?” I have run this poll all over the country and roughly five percent listen to “classical music.” Yet, have you noticed, in a lot of “middle-of-the-road_ congregations the “classicals” appear to plan the worship assemblies! No wonder many-church goers find “church music” boring and unrelated to life. And for the unchurched visitor, our music is a foreign language.

Try planning a worship service in a church made of several subcultures spread across several generations. What songs will connect with them all? Usually the entire congregation is subjected to the tastes of the minority who happen to be in control. This leaves the rest scrambling to “translate” or else feeling emotionally left out!

And, if a sensitive song leader chooses music to connect with the heart language of the fringe folks or the unchurched, then the “control” people get upset. The folks who don’t connect with the music of the “control” group just fade away. Folks with traditional music tastes may not even notice they have gone, much less understand why.

Not vanilla and strawberry, but a Baskin-Robbins world

Back where I grew up most people were first generation western Europeans, same color, similar values, common life-style. Possibly it was like that for you in Muleshoe, Texas, or Sweet Lips, Tennessee, or Pumpkin Corner, Illinois. But not now, not by a long shot!

During 1991, I officed in Las Colinas, a yuppie suburb of Dallas, on the seventh floor of a business tower. En route from the parking garage to my office door, some mornings I heard five different languages! These languages represent differing value systems, cultures, world views. If the church connects with this new Baskin-Robbins world, it must speak a variety of “musical heart languages.”

Variety of musical languages

By musical languages, I mean two things: idioms and formats. Musical format is the way in which w e present the music, including “presentational” music (where the audience listens and the singers present) and participatory music (when we all participate or sing together). Other formats include such variety as congregational singing (where everybody sings together), antiphonal singing (when we sing to each other), choral music (a group presents singing to an audience), and solos.

On the other hand, different musical idioms, or forms and styles of music, include such things as classical, traditional, Stamps-Baxter. And contemporary music, such as country, rock, pop, etc. Idiom is the type of music. Format is the style of presentation.

A new song

In addition to the call of culture and heart language for a variety in idiom and format, we mentnion a “spiritual” reason. When we look through Scripture, new songs are frequently written to encompass expanding experiences with God. New songs express new spiritual vistas. Wineskins of the old songs may not stretch around the vintage of new spiritual growth.

No-brainer music

In a research project across the country, ABC radio discovered another need for new songs. ABC discovered that once a song is heard 10 times, listeners no longer pay attention to its meaning. Even the excellent “old” hymns must often be recast in alternative arrangements, or illustrated visually, or sung with new emphasis, to recover meaning afresh.

Without variety, music which was once living worship falls into “meaningless repetitions.” With over-familiarity, songs come in our ears and out our mouths without ever touching our hearts.

Contemporary music

To connect with today’s heart language, we will need more contemporary music. Contemporary simply means “that which is common right now, current.” Even so-called “classical” music was contemporary somewhere, sometime. Though Fanny Crosby’s beloved hymns are traditional to us now, they were “contemporary” about a hundred years ago. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach was “contemporary” in his day, although we now call it classical.

In order to communicate in the changing heart languages of the people, musical styles in worship must also keep changing.

Baskin-Robbins music in the Bible

Changing music in worship makes us nervous, however. Among churches of Christ, we hold long-standing and deeply-entrenched traditions about acceptable and non-acceptable music. But most of us are not afraid to go where the Bible takes us. So let’s ask Scripture to diminish our fears.

One Sunday a four-person worship team led us in some new songs with words projected on screen. Since no sheet music was available, they sang the four parts using amplifying mikes, so each worshipper in the congregation could follow the part most comfortable to him or her. The “song service” that morning was mostly congregational singing; however, a trio sang to the congregation during the Lord’s supper. A number of people affirmed, “Sure the Lord was in this place today!”

Later in the week, a card from an out-of-state visitor reached me, written in ball-point pen with such intensity that the point broke through the card at some places. “Why do you do these things? Why four song leaders? Isn’t one biblical enough? Why do some people sing while others listen? Why not all sing together like the Bible says in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3?”

I couldn’t wait to check those texts to see if I’d missed something last time through! I opened to Ephesians 5:19-20 and found these words, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.” I didn’t find four song leaders in the passage. I didn’t even find one song leader!

I found something else: several different musical idioms! Psalms. Hymns. Spiritual songs.

And I also found several different musical formats! “Speak to one another.” My parents taught me it was rude to speak when someone else was speaking to me. Ephesians 5 actually says that (at least some of the time) one group of people sings while another group listens. That can happen in several different formats: solos, trios, antiphonal singing, quartets, in addition to “everybody singing at once.”

Then I flipped over and Colossians 3:16 to see what I had missed there: “Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” Combining Colossians with Ephesians, I found three purposes for music in worship. First, exaltation – “to the Lord.” In the biggest and oldest songbook in print, 150 psalms are addressed “to the Lord.” A significant but subtle shift in many worship assemblies recently has us singing more to God, not merely to each other about God.

Second, I found edification – “teaching one another.” It is very difficult to learn while we are talking. We must listen to learn. To “teach with songs,” some listen while others sing.

Third, I found communication – “speak to one another with songs.” Thus, rather than forbidding singing groups in worship, Scripture actually enjoins them.

In 1 Corinthians 14:26, I found something else that I had not included in my old sermons on worship in assemblies: solos. “When you come together, one of you has a hymn (RSV). (Or ” word of instruction, tongue, prophecy,” etc.) “Speak one at a time” (v. 27). If worshippers are to “speak one at a time,” with a tongue, an interpretation, or a prophecy, then when some Christian brings a song, he or she also should “speak” solo.

So as it turned out, I’m thankful for my critical visitor’s card. It drove me to discover that rather than commanding us to “all sing at one time,” Scripture actually says exactly the opposite! Much tension over music could be avoided if, instead of asking “What am I comfortable with?” or “How did we do it last year?” we would simply ask, “What does the Bible say?” Biblical, scriptural worship is liberating. Powerful. Alive! We are, after all, a people of the Book.

“Yes, but what about …?”

Healthy change welcomes questions. Here are some questions I have heard concerning changes of musical format and idiom in worship:

1) Isn’t this faddish-ness? After a century of congregational singing, must we now introduce singing groups just because others are? Think about this: We started congregational singing because someone else was doing it The pejorative word “faddish” can simply be a negative way of saying “current” or “in touch.”

How many worshippers drove to your church last Sunday in a 1950 automobile? I drove one in 1958, but I haven’t owned one since. Today’s cars are better, more appropriate for our times. Of course, we do not simply want to jump on faddish bandwagons, but we must be authentic and effective. Fear of “faddishnes” must not drive us to “Amishness.”

2) Does not scripture command all Christians to sing? Of course. One great treasure of our heritage is congregational singing. When congregational singing is vibrant and alive, some who hear it for the first time are enchanted. That is wonderful. But Scripture does not command all of us to sing at once. In Scripture, congregational singing is augmented with presentations by solos or singing groups.

3) Where does Scripture “command” singing groups and multiple song leaders? The same place it “commands” congregational singing and one song leader! One song leader and congregational singing is not the only biblical way to worship; it is simply one cultural way.

Where I grew up, churches of Christ didn’t have church buildings, so we didn’t have the “assembly rules” which have grown up around church buildings. We didn’t always have designated song leaders. In fact, different people in the congregation might start songs, sometimes even a woman! The first time I saw a song leader stand up front and beat time with hand motions, I didn’t know what was going on. I wondered if he was chasing mosquitoes! And I wondered where Scripture “authorized” that!

4) This next question is on a more serious note: If we use singing groups and solos in worship, is there not a danger this will become entertainment, rather than worship? Yes! Singing in worship must never degenerate to the level of entertainment. Christians don’t come to worship to be entertained.

But there is another way to look at this. What does “entertaining” mean? In part, at least, it means “interesting.” Why do you prefer some Bible class teachers over others? Because they are more interesting, right? We lvoe the preacher who sometimes uses humor and who tells stories well. We listen to him better and learn more because he is entertaining!

One biblical purpose of singing is edification (teaching) and another is communication (speaking). Since good teaching and good communication involve elements of entertainment, good music will naturally be somewhat “entertaining.”

5) Will not singing groups and solos exalt persons and puff egoes? Yes, oh yes! And so will preaching. Eldering. Song leading. Even bedpan service can be done in order to be thought “humble” and “sincere.” Most major blessings of God can be distorted. In fact the more “spiritual” the blessing, the more vulnerable to distortion.

6) Will not the congregation be passive, while only leaders express their worship? If we only hear solos or singing groups – yes! Hundreds of churches across the country have become so dependent on a choir, a soloist, or instrumentation that their attempts at congregational singing are pitiful. Churches of Christ definitely don’t want to lose our rich and precious tradition of congregational singing. But at curcial moments and occasions congregations can be powerfully engaged by musical presentations.

7) Will not these kinds of changes upset some people? No question about! The story of the people of God in Scripture is a story of repeated change, which usually disturbed some people. Why did some Israelites want to return to Egypt? Why was Paul stoned at Lystra? What was so disturbing about Stephen? Why was the book of Galatians written? Why the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15? And why did they crucify Jesus?

We must, of course, be very sensitive to beloved brothers and sisters uncomfortable with change. I feel deeply troubled when would-be prophets march out and trample over the hearts of Christians who are not yet ready to move at the prophets’ pace.

On the flip side, little growth or progress comes without painful stretching of wineskins! And “long-time Christians” or those “uncomfortable with change” are not licensed to consider their own interest over others either. This is also immature insensitivity.

You tell me. What should we do when young people are leaving us in droves because we are not connecting with their heart language and when hundreds of searchers check out our churches but don’t come back because they don’t understand the “foreign language?” Whose needs and feelings matter most to God? We must learn to navigate the white waters between the needs of the young and the searching, on the one hand, and the feelings of those uncomfortable with change, on the other.

Conclusions

Finally, let us summarize what we are not saying. As we call for new musical formats, we are not implying these should replace congregational singing, nor replace a cappella singing; neither are we advocating instrumental music.

And as we call for contemporary musical idioms we are not suggesting that we trash traditional hymns. Memory is a great treasure. Traditional hymns maintain ties with the past and preserve faith history.

Let us also summarize what we are saying:

1) We are calling for some new ways of “doing music” in worship so as to connect with the new and varied heart languages of our culture.

2) At times, singing groups can do what congregational singing cannot do. The special communion trio I mentioned earlier sang, “Create in me a clean heart, Oh God.” The congregation did not know that particular song, so the trio sang it to us and expressed emotions for which the congregation knew no song. The congregation sat profoundly moved and with uplifted faces as tears rolled.

3) Singing groups can connect with a culture who are watchers and listeners, but not participators. The average person that comes in from the world as a guest on our pews is used to being “sung to.”

4) Variety in musical idioms and formats enters people’s hearts through many different doors. Congregational singing is one beautiful land powerful means of expression. Presentations by singing groups is another.

5) A variety of musical idioms and formats connects with a wider variety of people in our culture. How many people in your own church are hanging in only because they have learned to survive your tastes? Out of loving concern for them, why not move outside your tastes and comfort zones? In so doing you may also connect with a wider circle of unchurched seekers. This is Paul’s sentiment when he says, “I have become all things to all men that by all means I might save some.”

6) Music that makes sense will harness the power of contemporary music for the Lord. Why let the devil have it all? The real and central reason for variety of musical idiom and format in worship is because the Bible calls for it!

Some Christian friends here in the DFW Metroplex invited their unchurched next-door neighbor to visit church with them. Monday afternoon, over the back fence, they eagerly fished for her impressions. “It was nice,” she said.

“Nice?”

“Well, you won’t be offended if I get honest? Where in the world did you get that weird music?”

Could that have been your church? or mine?Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Anderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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