Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. –Ephesians 5:15-20 NRSV
Music and church have always gone together in my life. I can recall sometime around age 10 when my piano teacher (who coincidentally not only lived down the block from my house but was also the primary organist at church) began scheduling me to play the piano for “early church” (a short worship experience just before Sunday school) and preludes and the occasional offertory music for the 11 o’clock service.
A few years after I started piano lessons my older brother developed an interest in keyboard music, and within no time he far surpassed me in ability and technique. Initially in college he majored in organ, an educational plan that was rudely interrupted by the Vietnam-era military draft. He wisely joined the Navy instead, where during and after medical-corpsman training he got out of a lot of regular military duties to serve as organist at base chapels. But I digress.
During our teenage years he and I regularly played piano-organ duets at church. Fast-forward several decades to find that several times a year I take my turn at the piano in my home congregation. What once was my primary involvement in church is now a relatively infrequent occurrence.
During those same decades much has changed regarding worship music in church. Certainly, one can still find the singing of grand and often-powerful hymns that capture core Christian theology. My denomination has published several hymn books: the biggest one back in 1981, with several smaller booklets in the intervening years. A new and already much-acclaimed hymnal, Community of Christ Sings, was released a couple years ago. It includes hymns (text and tunes) from around the world. Several social-justice-themed hymns, in particular, move me to tear every time I sing or play them. Here’s my new favorite, “For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table.”
But, of course, a whole lot more than hymns have been happening in Christian music over those same decades. One prominent feature is the trend toward what’s generally referred to as praise music. As you might expect among church people, there’s been a mixed response. My own thought is that some praise music is good; much of it, however, is–well the word that I’m trying to find a kinder, gentler replacement for is “crap,” so why not just go ahead and say it.
That no doubt offends some–maybe many–people. I’m sorry about that. The reason I don’t care for so much so-called praise music is this: What does it say about God if the kind of music God wants to hear constantly repeats a few words (think: marvelous, awesome, holy, great, “Jesus”) over and over and over while this Deity looks down benignly from somewhere “up or out there” on creatures who spend all their time waving their arms and swaying back and forth? For me, at least, the answer would be a “God” who is self-centered and egotistical and insecure. And I don’t believe God is anything like that.
So there I’ve said it. Maybe I’ve stepped in it, too. I don’t expect everybody to agree with me, so if they want to carry on with that kind of praise music, well then that’s their privilege and right. Now it’s not that I think hymns are the only way to use music in worship. Far from it. Nor do I think emotion should play no part in a worship experience. Here’s what I do think: Whoever or whatever “God” is, my responsibility in worship–as in all aspects of Christian living–is to use my mind as well as my heart, my spirit as well as my body.