For a while I’ve been pondering the role of music in worship, and particularly the whole band led style, though this post has taken a few days to sort out because it kept turning into an essay. I declare a direct interest in that I play in a worship band that I happen to think are very good (even when I’m not playing with them!) so I guess I’m part of the system. I also really appreciate and am helped by good band led times of worship and the occasional Delirious gig. But, as musician and as a congregation member, I’m sometimes both blessed and frustrated by the way we do music in worship. So here are a few thoughts to offer.
Music has always had a prominent place in Christian worship – it has the capacity to be uplifting, to proclaim the truths of scripture, to teach and to give people forms of words that they can take with them into their day. However, I think we need a little more wisdom and theological literacy in some of our current songwriting (see my post Jesus is my boyfriend about semi-erotic lyrics).
Music can sometimes overwhelm our worship – It’s too easy to sing lots of songs when you can’t think of anything else to do. The hymn prayer sandwich has morphed into the worship song, talk, worship song burger. After a while you begin to wonder if there’s something missing from the menu. Too many worship songs in one go can often dilute the value of sung worship and I’ve been to too many gatherings where it’s clear the congregation have logged off long before the worship band have finished their ‘set’. (Hint: you can tell because people start sitting down or texting their mates). My appeal is for worship that includes the vital role of worship music but integrates it more creatively into other forms of artistic expression and congregational involvement.
But I also think music should have a higher place in worship – people today may not sing much (apart from in church, at football matches or at gigs), but they listen to more music than at any time in history, whether intentionally (e.g. iPods etc) or incidentally (background music). The act of singing a worship song can sometimes have the effect of insulating us from its meaning. So why does all music in church have to come with the expectation that everyone will join in and sing? (Some people hate singing anyway!) As long as there’s a reasonable degree of proficiency, what’s wrong with a worship band sometimes performing a song to a congregation as an aid to reflection or response? Or how about playing a song from a CD? I know many people, including young people, who have been touched more by the act of listening and reflecting on a song, and not always a Christian song, than belting out a rousing chorus.
Music is a gift from God, which means we should be able to harness it creatively in the service of worship to the gift giver. I just think there’s more to music in worship than singing lots of songs. Now that ‘worship leader’ is synonymous with ‘band leader’ I wonder whether we’re in danger of creating an unspoken assumption about what worship is. Thirty or so years ago people were struggling to break out of the stronghold that the organist & choir had in many churches. I hope we’re not creating an equivalent for the next generation.
UPDATE 14 Feb: I’ve just found Paul Walker’s post, why has worship come to mean singing which comes with a great picture too!