Occasionally we have posts about our favourite hymns or the role and choice of music in the liturgy. NEO comes from a church music background, so I am always interested to hear his thoughts on the matter.
Music is one of the ways in which the Christian Anglosphere is held together. Sharing English as a language, we are able to understand songs written in different parts of the Anglosphere (though we may need to reflect on some contextual matters to understand what a given lyricist has in mind).
Where the pastor organises the service, even if he does not lead various parts of it, it is common for him to pick hymns that are related in some way to the main message of his sermon. Thus, for example, a pastor preaching on the return of Christ might choose the following hymns for the service.
- “Lo! He comes with clouds descending” by John Cennick and Charles Wesley
- “Sing we the King who is coming to reign” by Charles Silvester Horne
- “Christ is surely coming bringing His reward” by Christopher Idle
- “Great is the darkness that covers the earth” by Gerald Coates and Noel Richards
New songs may be set to old melodies, and it is common for older songs to be sung to a variety of melodies and blended by worship leaders in order to create a fluent time of worship during the service.
The traditions of the Church and the use of repitition allow us to use songs to emphasise various seasons and doctrines. This brings stability and devotion to the Lord (cf. the use of litanies in private devotion, such as the Litany of the Virgin).
Our world of instability, rocked by the spiritual war and the tribulations of the physical world, weary our bodies and souls. Sung worship helps us to commune with God, to reflect on His character and promises, and trust in Him as the Rock upon whom our lives and His Church are built.
The ancient Church, taking on the traditions of Second Temple Judaism, understood worship on earth to be mystically linked to worship in heaven (see the scenes of worship in Revelation). They believed that angels would be present during our earthly services, taking part in worship (invisibly as a general rule). This provides part of the context for St Paul’s admonition to women to have their heads covered during gatherings (hence mantillas).
Songs are also used to augment certain parts of the liturgy (although this practice is also open to abuse). Thus it is common in many churches to have the worship band or choir perform during the eucharist. Choirs in traditional churches are often dressed in white surplices or gowns in order to reflect the worship of the redeemed and angels in heaven.
Songs, as mentioned above, are also problematic: things in this earthly realm can be used for both good and evil. The emotional intensity elicited by songs can make us vulnerable.
Passing the collection plate during worship has drawn the ire of many Christians, who object to this practice on the following grounds. Firstly, it is a distraction during a time when one is supposed to be focussing on God. Secondly, people may feel compelled to give in their emotional state when otherwise they would not. Arguably it is better to give in a fully rational mind when one chooses freely. Lastly, people can see each other giving: it is not private. The purpose of this paragraph is not to give a definitive position on this practice, but merely to point out that it is controversial.
Worship can also be a temptation for performers, composers, and leaders to draw attention to themselves, rather than to God. While succumbing to this temptation is probably rare, it does happen. Similarly, there is a danger for congregants: singing in order to make ourselves feel better as a primary goal, rather than to give worship to God. For this reason, the song, “The Heart of Worship”, was composed by Matt Redman.
Songs, gestures, declarations, and prayers are not the only part of Christian worship. The Bible teaches us that, if we truly love God, our whole lives will be one long act of worship. Obeying Jesus’ commandments out of love for Him is worship: giving to the poor, spending time with the vulnerable, being dutiful to our parents and those in authority over us, speaking the truth in love.
All of the above show the different intersections between Christian songs and our lives. They teach us, inspire us, and help us to show God our wonder and love for Him. But they also reflect the times in which they were written. For many today, the meaning of (parts of) older songs is obscure. Thankfully, we have opportunities to address this problem through sermons, emails, blogs, conversations, and bible studies.
Have a good Thursday.