Stylized Soundtracks and Sunday Morning
Whatever happened to headphones? Or even earbuds, their scrawny successors?
Since the advent of the iPhone, it seems to me that more and more people project their music into the air around them instead of into their ears. I see this—hear it, rather—everywhere: the gym, the airport, the reservoir I walk around near my home. I’m constantly bursting into other people’s personal Beyoncé or Bieber bubbles.
I could talk about how technologies like tiny speakers only reveal the self-absorption already present in the heart, but I won’t. Instead, there’s a parable here I want to probe, a parable that portrays the difference between how we tend to listen to music individually and how we should approach music in church.
These projected musical spheres picture the fact that for many people today, music serves as a kind of stylized soundtrack to our lives.
Why do you listen to the music you listen to? The reasons are likely layered and sometimes subconscious. On some level, most people’s aesthetic judgments are intuitive: you like what you like. But musical preferences are also influenced by where you grew up, what your parents listened to, what your parents forbid you to listen to, and—especially—what your friends listen to. And preferences can shift over time in large and small ways.
What you listen to also depends on the mood you’re in and the mood you want to set. If you’re depressed, melancholy music can feel cathartic. If you’re exercising, you want to get your blood pumping. If you’re working or studying, you probably want music that will tune out distractions without turning into a distraction.
And what you listen to depends on present company. Hence the eternal struggle, in some families, for control of the car radio.
What’s the big picture here? In the late modern West, and increasingly throughout the world, music functions for many like a movie score writ small. It signals the cultural niche of the characters, sets the mood, and enhances the action.
That music works like this is more or less a fact of life today, but it’s not a fact of nature. Customized music consumption is possible only because of the technology and commercial structures that enable it. To paint in broad strokes, prior to the advent of mass media most people’s experience of music was just like all their neighbors’: they heard and sang the songs of their people. People used to hum folk songs, the common property of generations, while they plowed the fields and baked the bread. By contrast, the cornucopia of choice that characterizes today’s music consumption is a feature of advanced capitalism.
That doesn’t make it wrong. But it does mean we should look out for instincts programmed by the habit of customized consumption that might need to be deprogrammed when we step into church on Sunday morning.
Why? Because music in church is doing something very different from what it’s doing on our iPhones.
In Colossians 3:16 Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The parallel passage in Ephesians 5:18–19 exhorts us not to get drunk, but instead to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”
In these passages Paul addresses the whole congregation. He commands the whole church to sing, just as God frequently commands his people to sing to him throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 9:11, 30:4, 33:3, 47:6).
It’s not that the band plays music up front while everyone listens or maybe sings along, like at a concert. Instead, the church is the band. What accompaniment there is simply serves and supports the church’s singing.
In church, music isn’t something we consume but something we create.
And what exactly is this music for? It is a means by which we make melody to the Lord and give thanks to him. It is also a means by which we address, admonish, and instruct one another. Our singing in church is directed to God and each other. It aims at God’s glory and the good of the body. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:26, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson. . . . Let all things be done for building up.”
That this singing is corporate rather than individual is not accidental but essential. Paul prays for the church in Rome, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5–6). Paul wants the church in Rome to live as one so they can glorify God as one. He wants their unified songs of praise to express their unified life as a church. We glorify God by singing together because in Christ God has brought us together.
In the church, music is a means by which we all, as one body, glorify the Lord and edify each other by singing the excellencies of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Far from being a stylized personal soundtrack, music in church is more like a score for an orchestra: the church is the orchestra, and every single member is an instrument. Note that in moving from everyday music to music in church we’ve switched from passive to active. Again, you don’t consume music in church; you create it.
We’ve also switched from individual to corporate. The point of music in church is not that you would have a private spiritual experience of the presence of God as you sing or as others perform. Instead, the point is that your voice would combine with dozens or hundreds of others into one voice which praises God and proclaims his grace to his people.
When an orchestra shows up to perform, everyone knows it’s a team effort. Dozens of musicians play from one score so that the orchestra plays as one. Out of the dozens of musicians comes one unified sound. It’s unthinkable that the members of the orchestra would insist on only playing the parts that resonated with their personal preferences. For many to sound as one, the many must lay down any agendas that have potential to fragment their unity.
In moving from everyday music to Sunday morning, we’ve also switched from personal to prescribed purposes. On your own time, as long as you’re loving God and your neighbor, you can do whatever you want with music. But as we’ve seen, music in church has purposes that are precisely prescribed by God.
All music in church must enable the church to build each other up and praise God. That’s a matter of the whole church’s obedience or disobedience to the word of God. What matters most in church music is that it causes the word of Christ to dwell in the church richly. Substance, therefore, is more important than style. And the most important questions about style are not whether it meshes with someone’s preferences, but whether a song’s style serves the divinely mandated purposes of whole-church praise and admonition.
What then should you do about your musical preferences in church? To put it bluntly, leave them at the door.
You can turn your iPod back on as soon as you hop into the car and drive home. In church, though, lay down your preferences and gladly sing what the body sings. The eye, ear, hand, and foot may all have their preferences, but the body sings as one.
You should expect to check your preferences at the door, first, because of the differences between how we typically consume music as individuals and how we are to create music in the church. I’m not suggesting that most Christians think they can treat their church’s order of service like an iTunes playlist. But I do think our musical consumer culture is so pervasive that it takes hard work to give up preferences rather than insisting on them. We’re so used to crafting our own soundtracks that it takes effort to cultivate a musical culture where the many matters more than the one.
And giving up our preferences for the good of the body is exactly what the gospel calls us to do. The gospel calls us to give up so others can gain, to count others more significant than ourselves, just as Christ did for us (Phil. 2:1–11). So imitate Christ as you sing to Christ in the body Christ. If glorifying God in song is a sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15), don’t be surprised if it costs you something.