This is a topic I’ve been reflecting on for awhile now, so while I know it doesn’t fit ideally with the current Thanksgiving motif, I didn’t want to squander these thoughts.
Visiting a church last weekend in Wisconsin, I discovered that I was unable to participate in very much of the singing portion of the service. No, I didn’t have laryngitis, and though I’m typically quite bashful with my fellow congregants on Sunday morning, I am not prevented from my time with the Lord in song...unless I don’t know the song. This isn’t something inherent to visiting a church, sometimes I experience this in my own church. There are times when I can’t participate even a little in some of the songs because I’m given only words by projector, I have no access to any of the musical notation—unless it happens to be in a hymnal, which is rare in my experience.
Petty concern? Perhaps you’re right, maybe it is. But I persist. I recollect as a child that before I knew how to read music, I closely examined the musical notation in the hymnals. Worship was something I was always able to participate in because at the very least, I could follow the directionality of the notes. I knew when to sing higher or lower....and after more experience with the notation, I was able to determine which notes moved faster than others. Once I did learn how to read music, participation became even easier and, in my opinion, more fruitful.
Prior to my interest in theological studies, I was playing the trumpet actively and passionately, to the extent that I was involved in leading instrumentalists on a worship team. When I began my theological studies, I began to ponder the relationship between music and God. For instance, inherent to music is logic. It makes mathematical sense and is as coherent as a grammatically correct sentence. It also manages to speak to our affections, even without lyrics. That doesn’t mean that we will always like or enjoy every manifestation of music, but it does always seem to make sense, even when it doesn’t. Music often enjoys the paradox of being logical and beautiful, and in my case there was the byproduct of helping me learn fractions. I will spare you that particular detail.
My understanding of music history is very weak. I don’t know anything about the history of notation or when it became common to use notation within congregational worship settings. The Psalms, obviously, are full of references to music and worship and the New Testament references the importance of corporate worship and individual participation (Colossians 3:16). But corporate worship requires the involvement of each of us as individuals. I am left to wonder if, not only has the seeker movement or other similar phenomenons proved damaging to the church by adding the hi-tech aspects to worship in order to make it entertaining or friendly, does the inability of the individual to participate reinforce the idea of the worship-performance team?
Are we also raising up generations of young people who may never enjoy the language of music because they are seldom exposed to it in its written form? Will they ever experience God the way generations before them have discovered truth in musical scales, chords, and rhythms often learned through the visual?
These are just some of my thoughts. I’ve been around church for a lot of years, so when I discover that I don’t know some of the more contemporary songs and choruses, I wonder how much more a new believer is in the dark. Not only is there the risk of alienating visitors to a congregation, but the church may even come across as clique-y because of the manner in which worship is portrayed.