Worship: Color Crazy

Friends, I feel compelled to alert us all to a most serious issue lurking beneath the surface of our current apparent tranquility. I refer, of course, to the issue of color. This potential crisis can perhaps be best described by examining some of my hypothetical friends, each a mostly normal individual, but within each is a certain quirk. Now each of these hypothetical friends is a Christian – seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, growing in grace and knowledge, but …

For example, take Pat, who is passionate about greens. In Pat’s residence only green is seen. Pat’s car, work place – both green. Nongreen gifts are exchanged, dyed or painted. Pat even has special spectacles so that, when outside the controlled environments, the entire universe is perceived to be green.

Terry is equally fervent about blues.

Alex approaches Terry’s affinity for blues, but allows yellow in some places.

Chris, more or less equally, likes greens and blues, but only if from organic dyes.

Then there is Jamie, who seeks to live in the ultraviolet.

It is interesting to see these Christians together when the subject of color comes up. Pat can wax on how life is so wonderful in the world of green: it sets the stage for a truly Christian existence, God is near, light is widely spread. If only the others could see what Pat sees. Terry doesn’t exactly appreciate the interest Pat shows in making a change in Terry’s color preference. Life is going along just fine in the blue world and Terry can tell you of many good things happening there; though Terry isn’t above trying to get Alex, the fellow blue-lover to “grow” out of liking yellow. Chris, because of a two-color taste, gets along, to a degree, with both Pat and Terry, through they both have reservations about his sincerity. After all, Chris likes “that other color.” Chris reciprocates this attitude since the other two, while each liking one of the two colors, sometimes get them from questionable sources. Everyone agrees that Jamie, in the ultraviolet world, is really off the deep end.

Can you see the problem here? If each makes taste in color the dominant factor in determining the quality of relationships, divisions will come! Well, this is the time to nip this situation in the bud, before the passions that may be in some of us go too far. Let us all accept now that God created all the colors; that one’s like or dislike of a particular segment of the spectrum does not make one Christian or unchristian. Some colors inspire some, other colors inspire others. Let us tolerate different tastes in color and rejoice that across this wide diversity Jesus is finishing a work in all of us. I am glad that I could address this vital subject before things get out of hand.

Relevant to music?

You know, it just occurs to me that this issue of color could be applied also to MUSIC. Friends, it has been claimed by some that there are divisions among us: Some say, “I’m of Handel.” Some say, “I’m of Maranatha!.” Others, “I’m of Jars of Clay,” or “I’m of Gospel.” Some will even say, very profoundly, “I’m of chant.” Is Christ divided? Over music?

I would like to approach the subject of music and the part it plays in worship from the perspective of balance, borrowing a formula from the book Music and Worship in the Church by Austin Lovelace and William Rice (Abingdon, 1987). The authors contend that balance is a resolution of tension between contrasting extremes. Here’s an example of balance:

Old – new

Here’s an extreme: “I sing and listen to only that one hymn played the day I was baptized, 35 years ago.” Contrasted with that is the Athenian philosopher’s credo: “New, new, always something new.”

Balance would suggest that something may be gained from hearing music that I am already somewhat familiar with and music that is new – both new within my areas of taste and, from time to time, from outside my areas of preference. Exposure to a new style does not mean that I must now “make it my own,” but neither is that occasional encounter an evil.

Comfort – challenge

One important theme in the history of music and the other arts is the breaking of traditions. The extremes in this dynamic can be characterized as always wanting music that relaxes or soothes and always wanting something that unsettles. There are many aspects of music that might challenge us, such as harmony, volume or message.

Balance suggests that sometimes music needs to make us feel that things are just fine and sometimes needs to shake us from our complacency. Great art frequently challenges society, demands that we confront the need to change. In the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, just before the singing starts, the orchestra plays a chord that includes all the notes of a harmonic, d-minor scale. The average Viennese listener of the 1820s probably experienced some discomfort at that moment of the music. But the purpose is to get the listener’s attention for the important words that follow. To the atheists and the class-conscious this is sung: “Brothers, surely beyond the stars, there a loving Father must live,” and “All of mankind shall be brothers.”

Consider a more recent song. Do you share my discomfort when hearing “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin? The father’s sad realization about his emotionally distant son: “And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me.”

Or an even more contemporary song: “Seize the Day” by Carolyn Arends, which tells us: “Hey, wake up, redeem the time.”

There is a famous sculpture at the U.N. building from (of all places) the Soviet Union, of a man beating a sword into a plow. As we view it or pass it, can we hear it speak? “Seek peace.”

Consider the movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Is it just entertainment, or do we hear its cry against injustice and racism?

There is a sharp edge to some part of each of the arts, the purpose of which is to grab us by the shoulders, give us a shake, and say, “You should be better than you are; aspire to a godly standard in beliefs and actions!” But this needs balance. Too much challenging of self may be as debilitating as too little.

Let me tell you a little secret: Here is where many musicians and artists make a big mistake. Seeing that art sometimes unsettles us, they conclude that the way to do art is just to shock us, and we sometimes see the results in galleries and hear it in auditoriums. There is a fallacy here. While art may confront and challenge us, just because something confronts and challenges does not prove it to be art.

Similarly, while Christianity sometimes leads to family dissention, having family dissention doesn’t prove your Christianity.

And here’s a tough one, leading to the next balance: while worship involves emotion, the presence of emotion does not prove that there is worship.

Emotion – reason

Worship involves both emotion and reason. To lack either is a serious flaw. Since we are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, worship must similarly engage all the aspects of our being. As I listen to a choral fugue from Handel’s Messiah, I might give it an in-depth analysis: the key, meter, first statement of the theme, second statement in the dominant, variations, overlappings, etc. – all very intellectually satisfying. Or I might savor the feeling of the piece, sensing the pathos in the quality of the music and the singer’s voices and get a wonderful emotional charge.

Might I suggest that while both these approaches have their value, our use of music in worship must be for more than stimulation of the intellect or the emotions. In worship, music has a spiritual value. I take a liberty and rephrase slightly part of Ephesians 4: The gifts he gave include music – to equip the saints for ministry, for building up the body of Christ until we all come to…maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Singing the truth in love we must grow up in every way into him, who is the Head, into Christ.

Consider a Messiah concert. There can be many performers and concert patrons who marvel at Handel’s skill to produce such a work in only about three weeks; are enthralled at the artistry of the soloists, singing all the fast notes and ornaments; love the beautiful choral singing and orchestral playing; adore the skill of the conductor to put it all together; and completely miss the message of the oratorio. That message is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The music’s purpose is to focus our attention on him and the salvation he brought. Though they stand during the “Hallelujah Chorus,” they might just as well have listened to 20 monkeys banging garbage can lids together for 2½ hours. That judgment is probably too strong. God may yet use their memories of the performance to draw them closer to him. But the meaning is this: spiritual music is intended to produce results of a spiritual nature.

A balanced position would involve each of us examining ourselves, from time to time, on the effect the music we use is having. Am I edified? Is Christian growth facilitated? Am I properly building on the foundation of Christ? In the hours and days after I listen to this music, am I more Christlike? Do we, who have so much more instant access to so many different types of music, live as convincingly a Christian life as our brothers in centuries past?

Someone once didn’t say, “By the intellectual satisfaction you get you shall know them.” Nor did he say, “By the emotional reaction you feel you shall know them.” Rather, he said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” If the music I like is not aiding the producing of good fruit, what does that indicate? And as I examine self and music, I examine myself and not my brother, remembering something about taking the General Sherman tree out of my eye before worrying about the molecular speck in my brother’s.

Participational – presentational

Some music is good when everyone sings it together. Some music works better with a soloist, some with a choir or small group. Exposure to just one of these might be unbalanced. To approach balance we must change a certain paradigm that may affect the way we view church services. In today’s world professionals play sports while we watch. Professionals act on stage, in film, or on television while we watch. Professionals dance or sing in auditoriums or arenas while we watch. Do we then come to the church service where some people up front worship while we watch? Absolutely not! Our services do not fit into a performer/spectator mold. The speakers, singers, readers, and the listeners are all co-worshippers. When I listen, am I not one in Spirit with the singer or the preacher? Shouldn’t I be? I suggest that balance is being at ONE with the music and its message whether I am presenting or participating by listening.

Direct – indirect
Individual – collective

Have you noticed that some hymns and songs are sung in the first person, singular? (e.g., “I sing the mighty power of God.”) Some are in the plural. (e.g., “Come Thou Almighty King; help us thy name to sing”) The first example is also not sung directly to God, whereas the second is.

The principle of balance suggests that each of these has a purpose. The direct/individual text expresses one’s personal love and devotion to God. The direct/collective wording allows a congregation to express that same love and devotion as a unified body. The indirect/individual lyric expresses ideas in a way that witnesses those same sentiments and thoughts to those around you. The indirect/collective message expresses a similar witness of the entire body to the guest and the unbeliever. To consider one or some of these modes as superior or inferior is to miss out on some aspect or aspects of what spiritual music can do in our worship services. Note that neither old style nor new style songs exclude any category.

On another level, these categories are artificial. Because of one’s upbringing, one may be uncomfortable in expressing worship in the first person. Does that necessarily make that worship “impersonal?” Not at all. The inward expression of the heart and mind may be deeper and more spiritual than the outward “personal” expression. The personal meaning of sung words is just that, personal.

The actual meaning of the words may differ from the literal meaning. That is how the expression “Hallelujah!” (which means “Praise the Lord!”) is most likely now to be taken as an expression of praise rather than a command to praise. If the command to praise is now taken to be an expression of praise, I might very well misjudge another’s spiritual involvement in worshipful singing just because the wording of that expression doesn’t appeal to me as much as other wording.

Balance suggests that a variety of these types is appropriate for services. That way the needs of all are served.

Strength – weakness

Paul once wrote this principle: “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak.” Is any one of us strong in all areas? In all areas of music? Some people do not like hymns written by Dwight Armstrong. Some can’t stomach listening to a carol about Jesus’ birth. Others may crave hearing these to the point of considering them indispensable. Which person is weak: the one who has a dislike or reservation, or the one who has the need? (Hmmm) Why, it should be obvious. My qualms and my needs are significant. Yours? Come on, get over them.

Balance suggests that I tolerate some of the things I don’t like to accommodate the wishes and needs of my brother or sister in Christ, and I expect that they will do the same for me. Paul also wrote: “In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Unappealing music – what should I do?

How do we respond to worship music we do not like? Considering balance, several possibilities suggest themselves:

    1. Maybe this is an opportunity to expand my musical tastes. Maybe at some particular circumstance in the future this music might be useful. For example, Brahms’ German Requiem is probably much too heavy for most people’s daily fare of music. Many would call portions of it a dirge. However, at a time of deep sorrow over the death of someone near, its music can be particularly poignant – picturing mourning, sorrow, and also hope, comfort, and the triumph over death God makes possible through Jesus Christ. But if you don’t even know that this music exists, how can it serve at such times?
    2. Maybe it is being explored to see if it has usefulness. Every style, every piece of music was new once. Someone had to try it out on others who may not have appreciated the “opportunity.” After that, some music lasts, and some gets a ticket to oblivion. Sometimes that is deserved and sometimes not. An 1,880 page, four-volume list of over 20,000 English language hymns written between 1530 and 1820 was recently published. (The average hymnal has 500-600 hymns.) Counting hymns, anthems, and solos, there must be hundreds of thousands or millions of pieces of religious music. Many were good for a time, but most have not lasted. Time is needed to see which produce really good fruit. An immediate judgment by me is not necessary. I could take Gamaliel’s advice (from Acts 5): If it isn’t of God, it will soon be gone. If it is of God, you can’t stop it and better not try to!
    3. The Holy Spirit may be working through music I do not find appealing to reach others whose tastes differ from mine. Consider: If the burden of circumcision was not to be laid on gentile converts, how can I put the “burden” of hearing only classical music on teenagers, or of hearing only contemporary styles on others? If, through any style of music, sinners are led to Jesus, isn’t that wonderful? If salvation is encouraged only through a style of music I find appealing, what of Christians in the first 15 centuries of the church. My favorite style hadn’t been invented yet!

Look at it this way: While Paul was in prison in Rome, some were preaching Christ out of good will, but others out of rivalry, seeking to add affliction to his imprisonment. What was Paul’s reaction? “Whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached: and I therein do rejoice.” If Paul could rejoice in that circumstance, I must bring myself to rejoice when other Christians proclaim and receive the gospel through music that differs from my tastes! “But, sometimes ‘that music’ just offends me.” Really? I ask myself: if, under the old covenant David could write that “Great peace have they who love your law and nothing shall offend them,” how much less than nothing should offend me in whom Jesus, the living law, now lives?

  1. Maybe the music isn’t for me. A survey cited in Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church asked church members in many denominations why the church exists. About 89 percent said that the church is here to meet their needs. In contrast, 90 percent of pastors answered (the “right” answer) that the church is here to win the world for Christ, to fulfill the Great Commission, preaching the gospel to the world. Do we hold that view, or has the excessive selfishness from this world’s culture crept in? While the church and the music in it does have a pastoral function to the members, maybe, just maybe, my needs at a particular service are not the most important ones. Maybe others have greater needs that the Spirit is acting to satisfy. Here’s a possibility: maybe the music is for just one brother or yet-to-be-converted visitor whose trial is known only to God. Am I here, at least occasionally, to serve, or always to be served? Is the area of music exempt from the admonition to esteem others better than myself?

Music and worship

Here is a truth that is tough for me to say: “There are some things more important than music.” If not, some scriptures need to be amended.

  • When Jesus says, “Follow me;” I say, “Yes, Lord; but first let me go get my CDs, sheet music and piano.” And Jesus says, “Oh, of course, I forgot. Those are indispensable if you are to be my disciple.”
  • Paul would have told the Corinthians: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, him crucified, and the Cantatas of J.S. Bach and the Maranatha! Praise Book.”
  • Jesus would have told the Samaritan woman: “The true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit, in truth, and with synthesizer, guitar, and drums,” or “…in spirit, in truth, and with organs and choirs.”

Don’t get me wrong – music is a wonderful gift of God and can do many positive things, but when compared to faith, self-control, patience, love, unity or many other things, it must take a back seat. We do not worship music, nor a type of music. We use music in worshipping God.

In conclusion, other points about worship should be mentioned here:

The first can be rather disconcerting to a Christian musician. In all the Bible there is only one place where the word “worship” and some musical activity are mentioned together: Psalm 66:4 – “All the earth shall worship you, and shall sing unto you; they shall sing to your name.” The significance of there being only one coincident usage of “worship” and music eludes me, but as a musician, it concerns me greatly. Maybe the next point reassures.

A portion of traditional Christianity seems to consider “worship” to be something done on Sunday morning “in church.” Others seem to think it occurs only with music. I believe that these views are much too limited. Maybe our terminology and its usage need to be modified. Do you know this anecdote?

Chateauneuf, keeper of the seals of Louis XIII, when a boy of only nine years old, was asked many questions by a bishop and gave very prompt answers to them all. At length the prelate said, “I will give an orange if you will tell me where God is.” “My lord,” replied the boy, “I will give you two oranges if you will tell me where He is not.” (from 2500 Anecdotes for All Occasions)

Similarly, the question today is not: “When is the time we should worship God?” Rather it is: “Is there any time when we should not be worshiping God?” Worship is a 100 percent of the time activity. The formalized activity in church services is only one part of worship.

I believe that as one matures on a spiritual level, the balances described above will be seen to be artificial constructions. All music is new to me once; yet, unless I have remained static (an impossibility) in my Christian journey, even the music most familiar to me is new when heard again. And each so-called new piece has a certain familiarity as it is properly utilized by the mature new person God is making.

Likewise, music that comforts or challenges, that which calls to emotion or reason, and all other aspects of music (and of life) combine to make each an individual, but an individual being brought into conformance with the complete, balanced, mature man, Jesus. And our “strengths”? God’s “weakness” is greater than our greatest “strength.” We properly seek to forsake our weaknesses and our strengths for the maturity of Christ.

Some experts on worship believe that a congregation must decide on one style of music to use, because if you vary styles you don’t please anybody. I suppose a congregation can be founded with that philosophy, but most congregations are already established and the members already have diverse musical ways of expressing themselves. So what do we do? You’ve heard it said, “blood is thicker than water.” Maybe culture, age group and musical tastes are thicker than water. But the Holy Spirit is the thickest of all! The church has an opportunity and a responsibility here: to practice diverse styles in worship services, to encounter various types of musical groups, to sing differing types of music, and maintain our unity in Christ!

I believe that it would be a great tragedy if Christian fellowships find themselves going past diversification to division over an issue like music. The question is this: Will the diversified services of the church, in our varying tastes of musical COLORS, be a sloppy painter’s drop cloth or a rainbow? My hypothetical friends are interested to know what we decide.

by Allen Andrews, worship leader,
New Hope Christian Fellowship

Author: Allen Andrews

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