December 8, 2014

What Doesn’t Help People Sing on Sunday (Part 3)

We’ve talked about why people do sing.

We’ve talked about why people don’t.

But for a worship pastor, most of these reasons are not within the realm of control (since that IS what this whole conversation is about, right?). Our job is not to give people a reason to sing; our job (or at least, a fairly substantial part of our job) is to enable and facilitate singing for those who have that reason already. We create and curate the environment; they participate with us. We pick the songs and set the sliders and write the transitions; they sing with us.  We can set the table and cook the food with the best nutrition and flavor we can, but they have to pick up the fork or spoon or chopsticks (or whatever) and choose to eat it. Worship is a freely-chosen response to what God has done (I’ll never get tired of Romans 12:1), and music is one of its forms. Forced participation is called “abuse” and is definitely not what God had in mind for the worship of His people. We cannot choose to worship FOR someone …

We can woo. We can encourage.

We can also distract and interfere.

Oddly enough, the theology of the music does not seem to make much difference as to whether or not most people choose to engage the music. There are, of course, exceptions to this - those über theological types who are fresh out of seminary, for example, seem awful keen on “perfect theology” if they’re to sing along. There are also plenty of us pastoral types who get over-focused on the details and can’t see the forest for the trees (and I’ll confess to plenty of moments of this, especially around Christmas or Easter when I’m stressed out). For the most part, however, I’ve noticed that there isn’t much about the theology of a song that helps the average Christian engage it or not. We’ll get to it later, but things like poetry help people engage; melodies and dynamics and performance practice … but not theology. 

While this might seem to be a bit of a shame, it’s actually kind of the point: music is a medium through which the theology may be communicated. If a song has bad theology, it’s a tragedy to be sure, but that won’t stop people from singing. In fact, the tragedy is worse when the song itself is engaging, if it sets up its point in an easily-remembered and catchy sort of way, to say nothing of the worship team who leads it well and brings people along with them for the ride.

Don’t believe me?

When was the last time you sang the popular “Mighty to Save”? It’s a well-known piece by Hillsong in Australia, and it’s been up on the top of the charts for a long time. In verse 2, however, we get this little gem: “I give my life to follow / everything I believe in”. Have you ever stopped to wonder what on earth that means? While not especially theologically inaccurate, it’s also not especially … anything. The lyric means basically nothing; everyone gives their lives to follow what they believe in. So while this isn’t necessarily some sort of heresy, we sing it with such fervor, such passion. Buried in what otherwise is a pretty decent piece of musical theology is this poetic oddity. But gosh, it’s so darn catchy! The theology isn’t especially unsound, but in song it sounds so good!

The conversation on music is so important is because people remember ideas better in song than they ever will from spoken words (sorry, preachers). By extension, music with bad theology generates bad practice. I will admit that this is a bit simplistic in the grand scheme of causality (because practicing good theology also helps us believe good theology), but it’s a useful simplification: we become what we sing. And there is very little point to theology if we do not act upon it.

Next time: so … what about style?


Scott Toren said...

Chris! Very much looking forward to your next post about this. Music has always been one of the most impactful parts of Sunday morning for me. I am as guilty as anyone else of getting into a song for the music and not paying close enough attention to the theology, but then I also don't equate the songs I sing with scripture unless it's a direct quotation. I assume there is some artistic license taken. I also think just as one can ignore bad theology one could also ignore GOOD theology in music. Singing passionately about Christ being all we want and all we need and then resuming life as normal after the fact. We sing it because it makes us feel passionate, but do we really embrace it like we should?

Will be on the lookout for your next post!

Chris Logan said...

Thanks Scott!

I wouldn't say that people can really "ignore" the theology in music, it's more that it doesn't seem to much affect whether or not they actually sing it. In fact, I'd go so far to say that ALL the theology affects us, as much on an unconscious level as a thoughtful one. Theology set to music FORMS us deeply, slowly, subtly, even when we're not aware that we're being formed.

To broaden the scope a bit, ALL music has theology (sacred and secular, if you use those categories), it's just a question of WHAT that theology is and how it's forming you. Even music that uses scripture directly can have bad theology, because it requires choosing a translation, picking what verses to use and whether or not we pull them out of context, which phrases to emphasize using dynamics and poetry ... you're right, there is usually "artistic license" taken in the poetry, but the best music will help that scripture or theological idea make MORE sense than it might have before.