I have heard that the price of becoming a thinking adult is the need to deal with all of the paradoxes and inconsistencies that life presents, the cognitive dissonance that is inevitably present as we flawed and fallen humans do our best to make sense of the flawed and fallen world in which we live. As a worldview, Christianity makes better sense of this than its competitors; its explanation of a perfectly created cosmos with humanity set at its head as bearers of the imago Dei, but then fallen and broken because of Man’s sin, is fully consonant with reality as we observe it. In both the created order and in Man himself we see immense capacities for truth, goodness, and beauty, but equally immense capacities for falsehood, evil, and ugliness. Both the world and our own souls yearn for redemption, for completion, for “fixing,” that which has been inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and will be consummated upon his return. In the meantime, we deal with the contradictions that continually present themselves in our originally-good-yet-now-fallen world, hoping to arrive at solutions that honor God, serve others, and satisfy our own desires for those cognitive dissonances to be resolved.
Perhaps more so than any other subject, church music is the area in which my intersecting professional, ecclesiastical, spiritual, and intellectual background and interests have generated conflicts and contradictions requiring tremendous amounts of thinking, studying, and praying to resolve. I should also say at the outset of this essay that I don’t think I’ve satisfactorily resolved all of this yet, but I’m trying, and writing about it helps me to continue to do so. Perhaps I should begin by describing the disparate yet intersecting threads that inform my thinking in this matter.
The first is my upbringing in medium-sized, conservative Southern Baptist churches. As is the case in evangelical churches both then and now, the liturgies of these congregations (not that they would have used the word “liturgy,” but every church has them) grew not so much from historic Protestantism as from the revival meetings of nineteenth-century America. Specifically regarding music, the selections had texts that were frequently—though not always—centered upon feelings and experiences rather than upon scriptures and doctrines, and “specials” by choir or soloists were largely popular in orientation, if “behind the curve” of trends in popular music. I began to wonder as a young man if this was really the best way to “do church,” and my early experiences as a professional musician exposed me to the music used by more traditionally liturgical congregations. Still, I was in my late twenties before I developed a theological understanding and vocabulary sufficient to give voice to my reservations about evangelical worship music. By then I had both discovered and embraced Reformed theology and decided to leave broader evangelicalism behind. Having observed further developments in this ecclesiastical “world” from the outside, I don’t regret that decision, and I have a hard time “biting my tongue” when observing similar developments in my present denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.
The second of these threads is my work as a professional musician. As a primarily “classical” low brass player (but with increasing excursions into jazz and popular music), I’ve been asked to perform over the years in services for nearly every Protestant denomination and even an occasional Roman Catholic service. Unsurprisingly, I’ve enjoyed the music in the more traditionally liturgical mainline denominations the most, but of course have not been able to accept those churches’ abandonment of biblical orthodoxy. I should also confess that I have had a great time playing in horn sections like those of Tower of Power or Chicago in certain large evangelical churches, but “enjoying the music” and “worshiping” aren’t necessarily the same thing, or at least they shouldn’t be. I’ve also long nursed an uneasiness with the tendency of many professional musicians to eschew regular involvement in a particular church in favor of constantly moving from church to church as itinerant performers. Without the discipline promoted by church membership it is difficult—or impossible—to maintain a consistent Christian life and witness, and indeed many of the musicians playing in churches every week are not professing Christians at all, a fact that would likely scandalize many in the congregations they serve if they knew about it. Although this is against my professional and financial self-interest, I have reduced my performing for a fee in church services to fewer than five weeks per year, and even in my own congregation I more commonly sit in the pews as a congregant than perform as a musician.
The decision to limit my performing in church services was influenced not only by my uneasiness with the current practices of professionalized church music, but also by my increasing exposure to Reformed theologians’ teaching on worship generally, which is the third of these intersecting threads that have informed my present thinking. Historically speaking, worship music throughout Protestantism was centered upon congregational singing, a practice which had been practically abandoned prior to the sixteenth century. Lutheranism and later Anglicanism still favored a more developed and professionalized music than did the Calvinists (whether Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, or Baptist), the latter groups largely eschewing instrumental music and in many cases limiting congregational singing to settings of the Psalter. In the intervening years the worship music in Reformed and Presbyterian circles has become less austere, but at least until very recently there has been a broad understanding that the worship service is to be centered upon the Word, sacraments, and prayer, with music placed in a subservient role. Regular readers of this blog know that I believe this understanding to be correct. Music is important, it is commanded, and it ought to be done well, but it also ought not be able to grow beyond its assigned place.
So what would a worship service with music in its rightful place look like? It should be primarily characterized by congregational singing, and the texts sung should be useful for instructing the congregation in scripture and doctrine. Consider Colossians 3:16, where we read
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
Here the singing is directly tied to “teaching and admonishing.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that songs expressing our feelings about God or our religious experiences are entirely out of place, but care should be taken that the texts sung primarily communicate objective scriptural truths.
Other than ensuring that music is subservient to Word, sacrament, and prayer and primarily focusing on congregational singing, I don’t think one can create universally applicable rules. The prohibition of musical instruments practiced by some groups seems unnecessary in light of the Psalms speaking of worship using instruments, and yet my own experiences working as a professional musician in churches leads me to think a certain austerity is advisable. What does that austerity look like? I don’t know. Questions like what instruments to use, whether or not a choir or soloists might be used, etc. seem to defy the crafting of simple answers to apply to all situations, and I have more than once inadvertently caused offense in the attempt to do so. Perhaps it is best to say only that we should choose good music, do it well in whatever configuration we choose, and limit it to its proper functions of expressing praise to God and instructing the congregation. And we should always strive for better reasons for our choices than “that’s the kind of music that I like.” That’s a good method for choosing concerts to attend and recordings to buy, but it is at best an incomplete method for choosing music for Lord’s Day worship.
Like I said, I still don’t have all of this worked out in my mind, and trying to approach church music with theological and intellectual rigor on the one hand and with the ear, tastes, and motivations of a professional musician on the other leads to much cognitive dissonance. Perhaps you’ll remember a review I wrote of John Eliot Gardiner’s 2013 biography of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a review which later appeared in Modern Reformation magazine. As I stated in that review, Gardiner presents Bach not as a perfect man, but certainly as a believing Christian who was doing his best to honor God in his vocation. At one point in his life Bach saw that his professional goals were not consistent with the policies of his employer, and was offered a new position elsewhere. Quoting from Gardiner, who in turn quotes Bach himself,
It is against this background, and in his request to the church council of the Blasiuskirche for his release from Mühlhausen, that Bach defined for the first time an Endzweck (artistic goal)—“namely, a well-regulated or orderly church music to the Glory of God and in conformity to your wishes.” (180)
“A well-regulated or orderly church music.” That’s a laudable goal for sure. Maybe one day I’ll be able to fully articulate what I think that looks like.