Maybe you don't think about church music much. It just IS for you. Some of it you like, some of it you don't. Today I want you to think about it. There is a trend in our Synod to change church music, to make it more contemporary, more like Top 40 or oldies and less like traditional or sacred music. This is the thinking: "We should give our culture what it likes to hear. If car companies, soft drink bottlers, and department stores promote their products with popular music, why shouldn't the church promote the gospel with it? Besides, traditional, sacred church music is so downbeat. People want to be uplifted when they come to church. So let's "turn the beat around." Many churches in our Synod have, and it's only a matter of time before you're exposed. So before you start turning the beat around, let's ask what church music is supposed to do.
Church music is supposed to uplift YOU, not necessarily your emotions. Church music is to lift your mind to the very throne room of God so that, as Colossians 3 urges, you can "set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God." Fifteen verses later Paul even mentions music as the means of doing this. He says, "Let the Word of God richly dwell within you…teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs." Notice, music in itself is not to uplift you but the Word of Christ conveyed by music.
But music in itself does bring out strong emotions. The whole music industry knows this. Before record companies decide to release a recording they do elaborate tests to determine if the song evokes strong enough emotions. They hook up test groups to machines that measure heart rate, respiration, skin responses, and more. The songs that produce the most emotion are the ones more likely to be marketed.
You didn't need to be told that music produces emotion. You've experienced it firsthand, haven't you? Whether you've gone running through the jungle with Creedence
Clearwater Revival or Dreamed the Impossible Dream with Frank Sinatra, you know music can get your heart pumping. Whether you've been with Bobby Goldsboro "where Honey lived and Honey played, and love grew up," or been up on Chaktau Ridge with Bobbie Gentry as Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Talahatchi bridge, you know music can bring tears to your eyes. You don't need to be told that music produces emotion. You've caught your toe tapping or your body swaying to music without consciously deciding to do it.
Music produces emotion, but music isn't neutral. It doesn't produce pure, impartial emotions. A writer, from a non-Lutheran church music background, says, "Let it be clearly understood that the only people on the face of the earth, in this generation or any other, who have tried to promote the 'neutrality of music" are Christians living after 1965"(Danny M. Sweatt, "Is Music Really Neutral?" "Church Music Notes & News," Biblical Evangelist, August 1, 1989). This is what those advocating contemporary church music argue. "If the words are Scriptural, why can't you sing them to the tune of "Bridge over troubled Waters?" And surely some Scriptural words could be written for a fine tune like John Lennon's "Imagine."
Well, if you think the music is neutral, then you wouldn't mind singing your beloved "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" to the tune of Gilligan's Island? And a favorite closing hymn, "Savior, Again to Thy Dear Name We Raise," let's start singing that to Helen Reddy's "Delta Dawn," —if the music is neutral to you. And if you like Lennon's tune "Imagine" so much, with a few adjustments we can sing "Abide O Dearest Jesus" to it.
The plain truth is, the music is not neutral to you or anyone else. Meaning is caught up in the music not just the words. You can prove this to yourself by switching around the tunes of familiar traditional hymns. Would "Abide with Me" mean the same thing if we started singing it to the tune of "Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord?" Or would you care to sing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" to the Good Friday tune of "Stricken Smitten and Afflicted?" Or on Good Friday would it really mean the same if we sang "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," to "Stand Up! Stand Up For Jesus?"
Okay, let's get real personal now. If music is neutral, then come Christmas let's sing "Joy to the Word" to the tune of "Alas and Did My Savior Bleed." And then let's sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" to the somber strains of "Jesus Lover of My Soul." And we could close this contemporary worship celebration by singing "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come" to the tune of "I Know that My Redeemer lives." It's obvious even to us without musical training that if the music doesn't fit the words two different messages are being conveyed.
Contemporary worship wants to put popular upbeat music to sound words using the rational that "a little sugar makes the medicine go down." To begin with, the Gospel isn't medicine. It's the power of God unto salvation. It doesn't need covering up to make it more tasty or jazzing up to make it more relevant. Secondly, if adding sugar to medicine changed the medicine what doctor or pharmacist would allow it?
Church music is to serve the Scriptural words; it isn't to change them or cover them up in anyway. Music that leads to toe tapping, hand clapping, and body swaying covers up the message of the words. This has also been proven by the music industry. They've shown that pounding rhythms suppress brain activity and lead to the unconscious actions of toe tapping and body swaying regardless of what the words are saying. The message of the music overpowers the message of the words. The body and senses follow the music getting in the way of the mind and soul following the words.
This truth came home to be at a Senior Youth Lock-In. While listening to the driving, pounding music of Pearl Jam, I asked the kids if they could make out the words. They said that they couldn't. And then I asked, "Why do you listen to it?" The answer was, "I like the beat." And that's why we listened at their age to the thumping, pumping music of the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, or the Who. We weren't listening for the words. Years ago one of my members confessed that when Creedence Clearwater Revival sang, "There's a bad moon on the rise," she thought they were singing, "There's a bathroom on the right," We all misunderstood words that way, didn't we? How could the words have been what was drawing us if we couldn't understand them? It was the beat and the beat goes on.
And that beat can and does pound rhythm into the brain but it can also pound words and meaning out. But in our sickrooms or on our deathbeds, it will only be the words we'll care about. We won't remember we like the tune but how precious will "Rock of Ages Cleft for Me" be? And if we do hum the tune Gethsemane, it will only be because the words "chief of sinners though I be Jesus shed His blood for me" are comforting. And no amount of upbeat music will be able to give us the comfort of hearing from "A Mighty Fortress" that "the kingdom ours remaineth."
One purpose of church music is to bring your mind to heaven to focus on Jesus. Another purpose is to give YOU something. Church music is not where you express your richness TOWARD God in praise and thanks, but where you revel and rejoice in being rich IN God. This is the real sense in which the beat must be turned around. Church music isn't your service to God but, yet another means whereby He serves you. That's why worship is called the Divine Service. It's the time and place where Divinity serves you. He forgives your sins, hears your prayers, and gives you His precious body and blood. In church music God serves us; in contemporary church music, we serve God. The difference is the difference between Law and Gospel. A doctrinal statement of Lutherans dating back to 1537 says this very thing: "The service and worship of the Gospel is to receive good things from God while the worship of the law is to offer and present our goods to God."
Church Music proclaims the mighty acts of God. It tells you all that God has done, is doing, and will do for you. This is not what contemporary church music does. The focus is on what I FEEL about what God has done, not upon WHAT GOD has done. A Lutheran pastor, advocating contemporary church music, admits that most of the 253 popular songs used in worship have only one verse.
This verse is sung over and over again, and focuses on how I love Jesus, I thank Jesus, or I trust Jesus.
Don't you see how sad this is? Church music is to make us aware of God's feelings for us rather than getting us wrapped up in our own feelings about God or anything else. It just doesn't matter what you feel about God, but it most certainly does matter what He feels about you! Besides, there's no comfort in what you feel about God. You yourself probably know people living in sin and unbelief who feel just great about God. They talk all the time about how the good Lord has done this or that for them. But their good feelings about God don't mean a thing. The only thing that matters is what God feels about them. I don't know about you, but I come here each Sunday with the same questions in my heart: What does God feel about me? What about my sins? Am I still a child of God? Does God still love me, miserable sinner that I am? This is the question that fires my heart, not do I still love God?
I do not deny that where God is present with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation there will be emotions. What I do deny is that where there are intense emotions - even religious ones - there you can be sure God is present. No, you can have spine tingling, heart throbbing religious emotion and still not have God. But church music that proclaims the Word of God guarantees you that God is present with His gifts. Music that stirs your heart without proclaiming what God has done only guarantees that your feelings are present. But feeling saved, feeling forgiven is not the same as being saved, being forgiven.
Church music sends you away with the forgiveness of sins ringing in your ears. It may or may not send you away with a good feeling. But you shouldn't be in church looking for a good feeling any more than you should go to a doctor looking for one. If you're critically ill, you don't go to a doctor for a good feeling but for healing, and any doctor who sent you away feeling good when what you really needed was major medical help would be a quack. Likewise, we come in here as critically ill sinful people; we need major spiritual help not good feelings.
"Oh but I feel so good because of all that God has done for me," you'll say. "I just want to thank God." Go ahead and thank God, but our music is not to focus on OUR thanks for what God has done but on what GOD has done. We live because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, not because of our thankfulness for it. Church music that proclaims what God has done gives us life. Contemporary church music that focuses on oh, how I love Jesus or oh, how I thank Jesus does not GIVE life. It TAKES, praise from us. But in the divine service it is God who wants to serve you. It is God who wants to give to you.
If the beat does get turned around friends, the emphasis is going to be on you. What you do or what you feel rather than on what God has done and feels for you in Christ. The emphasis is going to be on you being rich TOWARD God rather than on you being rich IN God. Then the misleading translation found in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) will be in our worship life. The rich man in the parable is judged not because he wasn't rich enough TOWARD God. It wasn't that he didn't give enough to God, or praise Him enough, or thank Him enough. No, the man who was rich in the world was poor in God. He had not allowed God to serve him. This man wanted nothing to do with the things that God gives: forgiveness, life, salvation. He may have very well sung songs of praise to God dwelling on how happy, thankful, peaceful he felt. But this rich man did not believe those hymns that dwell on what the blood and righteousness of Jesus does for sinners. He had turned the beat around. May we not. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
August 16, 2004