There’s More to Worship Music Than Propositions

Saved in my digital library are a collection of about 10 songs that I formed into a playlist for running in the background as I am working at my desk. Now, I think the whole idea of running songs in the background needs to be examined (especially playing Christian songs since I do not want to break the third commandment). But this is not the night for that work of meditation.

The last song on that list is a contemporary worship song whose propositions are great. If that were all that a work of art could communicate then this would be a very different and much shorter post. And if that were all that a work of art could communicate the human race would be lamentably poorer.

The song begins mildly—don’t they all?—and builds until the last verse when we have reached the climax of the piece. The song nicely summarizes the doctrines of grace with a few memorable metaphors, and the melody is refreshing. Carrying the potential to communicate truth and beauty, I expect this song to serve our assembly in the near future when we publish a new booklet of songs for our church.

But this particular recording includes some features that I think are common to many songs—a whole genre even. So, let me describe it a little. First, it is intended to be a worship song, and the recording was made at a gathering of Christians. Following the last verse are two minutes (about 33% of the total track length) where the worship team repeats the two-line chorus. Somewhere around the half way mark, the lead singer shouts out one of the lines before it is about to be sung. This is not his only venture into the arena of shout; he’ll do it again in the chorus, but certainly not the whole way through the song as if he were trying to feed the audience the lyrics. (And who doesn’t use a screen anyway?) Once while speaking over the singers, he adds in some words to the text. Right at 3:56, he erupts with a spoken statement of the line about to be sung, and the effect is certainly attention getting. In one verse the ladies voices are especially clear, and their singing fits hand in glove with the rest of the picture.

Trying to determine where the drums and electric guitars started is difficult since they grew into the song like a thermostat being slowly increased in a cold house. And as we might have guessed, they certainly affected the temperature until they were driving the atmosphere on the last few runs of the chorus.

Overall some of the paint colors used on this canvas created an image that everyone is familiar with. The use of repetition, leader talking or shouting, female vocal techniques, and drums most definitely communicated. Whether you liked this song or not, or whether you liked this style or not, no one would act as if those gears did not fit in that machine. They fit like clockwork. Everything worked together in that recording to send a unified message.

And wouldn’t it be nice to get a group of evangelicals who could talk about what that message is? It is wearying and juvenile to act as if that set of ingredients did not have its own flavor. What should be discussed is what kinds of loves are being endorsed. What emotions are being raised? What sensibilities are being formed? What habits are being crowded out until they are forgotten altogether?

Just today I was with one of the young men in our church while we were building on our church stand. In Tsonga, I asked him if we could use the lyrics of “How Deep the Father’s Love” (which we have translated) and play it with house music in order to attract more people to our church. He laughed awkwardly and said, “No, they will not think about the words. They just want the music.” I asked him why they liked that music, and he said it makes them feel good and they want to dance. I don’t think anyone would deny his conclusion, but really, was that so hard?

There is something in all of us akin to our olfactory nerve which tells us immediately the mood of a piece of music. Certainly, there are complexities in interpreting the message of music, but let’s at least drop the notion that music doesn’t communicate. Or, its inverse, that if all the propositions are true, then the whole song honors God. Can’t we all admit—what should really be as basic as ABC’s—that music itself apart from lyrics speaks?

Musical styles send messages that are often louder and clearer than the propositions, but I commonly hear evangelicals talk about lyrics alone as if the only issue with the style is how to get the few remaining musical conservatives to shut up about it.

Could we do this in every aesthetic area? Try building a large corrugated iron shack with dirt floors and no lights for worship in America, and tell everyone that the only thing that matters is whether we hear true propositions when we’re packed in.

“That’s an easy one, Seth.” Replies the guy across the way from me, “We’re supposed to give our very best to God because all of life is worship. So I give the very best rap [as just one example] to God. You should read a little Abe Kuyper.”

To that anticipated objection, I would ask two questions. First, will you give the very best death metal to God? Will you build the very best mosh pits for Sunday worship? If you say, “yes,” then the gap is probably so wide, that further discussion would be a waste of time. If you say, “no,” then I’d like to see your criteria for cutting out death metal as a valid cultural pursuit for a Christian. Maybe those same standards would keep on cutting right past that particular style.

Second, before we can determine what the very best rap music is, we have to determine what the very best music is. What is the best music? And now we are right back where we should be, we have to ask aesthetic questions about the nature of communication within the arts. It may be that if we answer what is the best music we might find that some music is actually less than the best. Is it possible that somewhere in this post-modern world of ours some music might even be classified as bad?

One thing is for sure, we hear a lot more when we listen to worship music than just the propositions.

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