I began a thought process a week or so ago (see this blog) where I began wrestling with the questions of memory, hymnody, and the struggle that faces much of Christendom to become intergenerational. I want to turn now to the analogy of music as language, and begin to explore these themes over the next several blog posts.
As is the case with so many things in our society, we experience life through the lens of a common cultural experience. In a sense, music is as much of a vernacular of language as are the idioms made popular by modern teen icons. This goes much beyond the lyrics of the music, to the heart of the expression of music. People are conditioned to understand and to hear music in a certain way, and this in turn affects how they relate to music that is outside of that common cultural experience. A similar phenomenon happens when we are exposed to the works of Shakespeare. We do not get the jokes, the innuendo, or the artistry until someone who is an expert in that time period explains it to us. Paul had a similar dilemma in his day as he related to the church at Corinth. During public, stated worship, tongues were being used freely with no interpretation. The apostle had significant issue with this, because of the fact that not everyone could relate to the experience that was taking place around them. We see a similar problem in our churches today with music. Without interpretation of classical hymnody and other expressions that do not contain relevant instrumentation and poetic literature, people cannot fully appreciate that form of music that is outside of their common cultural experience.
What is the biblical mandate? How should we go about our public worship? Shall we just expect people to “catch on” to what we are doing, and at the same time be edified by it? Or should we take great pains to make what we are doing accessible to people? And does this mean being seeker sensitive, where we have in a sense “dumbed down” worship? Why is the common cultural experience no longer the symphony, but the electric guitar? In thinking through these issues, we want to examine the biblical mandate, and then turn our focus to the societal and cultural shifts that caused a dramatic change in the public’s perception of music in the early 1900’s. Only then, after exegeting the culture, can we hope to meet our congregations where they are.
Following the lead of the advertising world, many churches and worship services target specific age groups to the exclusion of others. They forget that, according to the Bible, the church is an all-age community, and instead they organize themselves around distinctives dividing the generations: Busters, Boomers, Millennials, Generations X, Y, and Z. Many churches offer a traditional service for the tribe who prefer older music and a contemporary service for the tribe who prefer newer music. The truth is, however, that if the only type of music you employ in a worship service is old, you inadvertently communicate that God was more active in the past than he is in the present. On the other hand, if the only type of music you employ in a worship service is new, you inadvertently communicate that God is more active in the present than he was in the past.
For a church to resist employing contemporary hymnody and song is to say that we have
peaked at a gold standard of worship. Dr. John Frame’s thoughts on this are helpful, because at the end of the day, if love and charity towards the other are not ruling us, then we have missed the gospel and failed to obey the second of the two great commands expressed by Jesus to his disciples in his ministry.