Earlier this week, I did an e-mail-based interview for a friend writing an article about music and specifically music in the church. My opinion is just one of the opinions she was seeking, and I’m really excited to see the finished product. After the interview, I was professing my undying love of music to my friend and Revolution Annapolis founding pastor, Josh Burnett, and it occurred to me that some of this information might be interesting to some of you. So, I made some adjustments and additions to my original answers and have posted it below. The questions I was asked are in bold. My answers are in regular type. Warning: this is probably the longest post I’ve ever made. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on my thoughts. Enjoy!
1. Where does music fit into the foundations of Christianity?
Music has been a part of Judeo-Christian worship since long before Jesus came. The Psalms have many references to singing and playing instruments. The word Psalm itself comes from a Greek word meaning to sing and/or strike a lyre. Even before that, primitive Hebrew cultures would have interacted with other cultures known to have had rich musical expressions. Musical instruments or artistic evidence of musical instruments have been found in Egypt, Sumer, Babylonia, Phoenicia, Assyria and Greece; all cultures Israelites would have interacted with. Music was rooted in the act of worship from long before Jesus. I love the description from 2 Samuel 6 of celebration and worship when the ark of God is brought into Jerusalem: “David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.”
When Jesus came, music would have already been a part of the culture. There is not abundant reference to music in the New Testament, but the mentions that exist are rich. In Ephesians 5, Paul says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I love that music and singing are alternatives to the temptation of drunkenness. Instead of numbing ourselves with intoxicants, Paul says to encourage ourselves and one another with songs. I know that abandoning myself to meaningful music is intoxicating in its own way; a certainly more productive and healthy way than drunkenness.
The intrinsic nature of music to effect people emotionally has always been a part of religion. In my view, music is described in the Bible as the outpouring of emotion to God. It is the natural response in moments of awe and rejoicing (Mary’s Song in Luke 1) as well as in moments of desperation (Psalm 40). Music creates and demonstrates an emotional connection to the Lord. That type connection is essential and foundational to wholly surrendering to God (Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength). There are ways to accomplish that connection without music, but music has always been a dominant (and easy) way to accomplish that connection.
2. How important is music when it comes to a typical Christian service or ceremony?
In many churches, across many denominations, music plays a central role to most services and ceremonies. In terms of time, music typically consumes approximately the same amount of time in a service or slightly less than the teaching time or sermon.
Philosophically, singing provides an expression of the emotional and spiritual connection to Jesus. Practically, putting Biblical quotes and concepts to music also provides a memory touchstone for people in the service. How many times have you heard a song and walked away whistling the melody or singing the words of the chorus to yourself, maybe for a week or more after hearing it? By putting Biblical quotes and concepts to music, it becomes easier for the people in the service or ceremony to remember them, associate them with the teaching for the day, and ultimately act upon how God is speaking to them through His Word.
Additionally, it is important to recognize that different people connect with the Holy Spirit more readily in different circumstances. Some people feel closest to God when they are deep-dive studying on their own. Some people feel closest to God when they are serving others. Some people feel closest to God when they are praying. Some people feel closest to God when they are out in nature. Some people feel closest to God when they are alone with their thoughts. Some people feel closest to God when they are listening to a great teacher. Some people feel closest to God when they are doing some physical activity. And some people feel closest to God when they are singing or experiencing music. Recognizing and engaging these differences is the challenge and mission for many people in pastoral roles. Excellent churches will facilitate all of these throughout the year, but on a Sunday morning, some are difficult or impossible. That said, during a typical service or ceremony, you will see evidence of many of these connection styles, but especially teaching and music.
3. What would the Christian experience be like if music was absent?
When I was a kid, I went to church with my dad’s dad a couple times. He attended a church that had a Saturday service where there was no music and no singing, and that was his favorite service. I can’t ever remember music playing in his house. I believe the Holy Spirit was alive and present in that service. It appealed to people who experienced closeness with God through teaching, quiet contemplation, intentional prayer, and ritual practices. I know church experiences can still be vibrant and powerful without music, but it requires an intentionality with other elements of the service to recreate the visceral, feel-it-in-your-bones emotional-spiritual connection that music facilitates and demonstrates.
Many (perhaps most) people are hardwired to feel something when they listen to (not just hear) music. As I stated in the previous question, music triggers memories, implants memories, and moves us to action. It is not surprising that people are spontaneously moved to dance or lift their hands or just tap their feet when certain songs play. That is a natural response to music. When you combine these natural reactions to music with the call and desire to worship and praise Jesus, it can be a wonderful moment of synergy that draws us close to the Lord.
A Christian experience without music would be different. I hesitate to compare the experience or suggest that an experience without music would be lacking. It would be different, though, and special care would have to be taken to accomplish the praising of God in a holistic way that includes all your heart.
4. You sometimes play songs in a genre other than the one they were written in. Why do you do that and how does it fit with your primary mission?
All music fits into a genre. A genre is a style of music. “Christian” is not a style of music per se. “Christian” has more to do with the content than the style. A genre would be rock and roll, electronic, bluegrass, punk, hip hop, gospel, heavy metal and so on and so forth. Something I have always felt passionate about is taking a song that was originally written in a particular genre, uprooting it, rearranging it, and playing it in a new genre and/or with a modified melody.
A downside of music and the way it imprints in our brains is it can often become rote. We can sing a song or a melody without thinking. For example, I can sing every word and hum every guitar solo on Metallica’s Master of Puppets album while it is playing, but if I was challenged to write the words down without it playing, it would be very difficult. If I was asked to explain the heart and spirit of the words, I’d be straight outta luck.
In the Christian setting, this is problematic because the words are a vital piece of the expression of praise, hope, desperation, etc. in most of the songs we have at church. As a musician on stage, you can actually see on people’s faces when they go into autopilot because even though they sing and raise their hands or whatever, there is a lack of emotional and spiritual engagement. They are just singing. The words may as well be Fa-la-la-la-la. The words might be coming out of their mouths, but their minds are wandering to what they are going to have for lunch or how they are going to get their kids to the next lacrosse game.
My job as a music leader in church is not simply to lead a band in playing music in an excellent way (more on excellence later). My job as a music leader in church is to lead people in an experience of worship, praise, supplication, thanksgiving and confession through song. If people are effectively singing Fa-la-la-la-la because the song has become rote, then I am failing at my job. If people fail to connect to the full experience of the song, which almost always includes thoughtful, intentional lyrics, then people are not actually praising or do anything above. They are just participating in a social ritual of singing because it is part of the culture. They are just like a speaker in your car, reproducing music because that is what they are supposed to do and not making any spiritual or emotional connection to it or through it. As stated in previous questions, singing and songs in church are not just cultural, they are meant to be spiritual expressions, the outflowing of our feeling and experiences with God as we seek to love the Lord our God with all of our heart.
In order to combat the threat of rote behavior, I started rearranging songs into different genres in order to break up the routine of singing those songs. Most of my music-in-church experience has been playing variations of rock and roll genre worship music from bands like David Crowder, Bethel, Hillsong United, Elevation Worship, and on and on and on and on. With intentional thought, teams I led would sometimes take those songs and rearrange them in order to play them in a different genre. The first time we did this, we moved several of these songs to play them in the genre of bluegrass. Subsequently, we have had electronic renditions, punk rock renditions, jazz renditions, A Capella renditions, marimba renditions, hip hop additions, and probably others I can’t even remember.
By doing this, we draw people’s attention back to the song as an expression rather than a routine. People read the words again and reacquaint themselves with what they are expressing. People move away from the rote behavior of singing as a social norm in that environment back to the meaningful expression intended by the song. Instead of humming along to the music because it is imprinted in their mind, they re-engage with the music and experience anew the feelings the different chords and melodies carry.
Then, the next time the song is played in its original format, listeners re-engage again with the meaning and recall the altered version of the song. I’m no psychologist, but it seems that when we change things from the routine like this, it creates new memory pathways that for a time obliterate the pre-existing ones that led people to sing by rote instead of from a place of passion.
5. How do you choose the songs, style of instruments, and music to use in your weekly worship practices?
There are a lot of factors that go into choosing songs, types of instruments and genre of music in a weekly worship service. In general, I have tried to be scheduled several weeks in advance so that the musicians can arrange their schedule to include a during-the-week practice as well as extended involvement on Sunday mornings. Scheduling far in advance also allows more opportunity for the band leader to connect with the teacher (preacher) for that week in order to develop thematic cohesiveness between the songs and teaching.
When scheduling, I will often pick a week that will be “out of the ordinary” and work with the lead pastor and perhaps a few other leaders to determine what we will do differently that week. Sometimes, it is a whole themed week (i.e. bluegrass Sunday) and other times it may be shifting the way the room is arranged (i.e. in the round vs. theater style). Once that week is determined and the style of music for that week is determined, I will reach out to the musicians in the church (or sometimes from outside the church) who have particular expertise or potential in that particular style. For example, if I plan a bluegrass Sunday, then I need to schedule someone proficient on banjo, and if I want to plan a punk rock Sunday, then I need musicians proficient at playing fast.
For regular Sundays, the musicians and types of instruments are often based on the availability of band members. I always try to have at least one guitar, bass, drums and obviously, vocals. Sometimes we have a second guitar, a keyboard, and/or another instrumentalist (violin or flute, historically).
When picking songs there are a lot of factors at play. First, I want to bring the congregation on a journey thematically and musically that engages the story of the Gospel. I like to think of this as Creation Fall/Redemption Action Praise. This doesn’t happen perfectly every service, but it is a rubric I try to stick to.
Practically, this means that I try to start service with a song of praise that recognizes who God is. These are songs that focus on God’s glory, power and majesty. When possible, I try to use songs that don’t even have a human element and exclusively focus on the character of God.
The next movement of the service is into songs that illustrate our relationship to God. These are songs that focus on the fact that without Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, we are dead in our sin. Often, these songs are more down-tempo, minor sounding with lyrics that express desperation for God and relief at receiving His grace.
As recipients of grace, we should feel moved to action, which brings us to the next movement of the service. Action songs have some expression of gratitude for receiving grace and when possible will also contain lyrics of action or asking God to work in us in a specific way.
Finally, I like to end services with songs of joy and praise. My hope is that when people leave a church service, they carry the energy of that final movement out into their week, and it fuels them to act, reminds them to be grateful for the grace they’ve received, and spurs them to worship God in his glory and awesomeness.
Another factor that goes into selecting songs (and sometimes makes the rubric above impossible) is working with the teacher for a Sunday to select songs that reinforce the message. On rare occasion, songs will be selected first and the message will be written to support that, but in my experience, that has been very rare, so I won’t go into that. I always try to select songs that will reinforce the message because of the way emotion spurs us to action and songs influence and guide emotions. Also, as I said before, music is a trigger for memory, and by having songs that are consistent with the message, you make the takeaways from the message more memorable for the listener as they head out of the service and hopefully act on the things the Holy Spirit prompted them to act on throughout the message.
When it comes to picking the style of the music outside of those Sundays where we have intentionally changed the style of the whole set, there are a few factors that come into play. First, we generally start with the original version of the song or if not the original, a particular, professional version. We then modify that based on the instrumentation we have at hand. Sometimes this in and of itself changes the genre. For example, if the perfect song lyrically and “feel” is something that is very electronic and we only have acoustic instruments avaialble, we by necessity change the genre of the song to something more toward folk or roots rock.
The next factor that could change the genre of music is the talent level of the musicians in the band. Some members have different talent levels or may have types of music that they just aren’t as good at. Therefore, we may change a style or genre to match the talents of the band playing.
The third factor that could change the genre of music is the raw creativity of the band. Some of the best moments of mid-week band practice are when someone raises their hand and stops a song midway through, and says, “What if we did this instead?”
One last factor that could change the genre of a song is trying to have songs fit in the emotional and spiritual rubric above. It’s pretty powerful when you rearrange a song that was originally written in a major key and play it in a minor key or vice versa. It forces you to rethink the song and also sometimes imparts new meaning to the lyrics. Sometimes songs that were originally written as songs about taking action become songs of confession or vice versa.
The ultimate goal in everything we do as musicians leading a congregation in worship is to be excellent. “Excellent” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but it is rarely defined, which means people make up their own definitions for what they think it means. I have been the bassist for way more than a dozen band line-ups and nearly every different band leader I’ve worked with has a different definition of excellent. Often, and especially in church, my experience has been that the word “excellent” is defined as playing all the right notes in the right places at the right volume. With the proliferation of tracked instruments, autotune and click tracks via in-ear monitors, this definition has been gaining serious momentum in the last decade.
Sadly, I think this is horribly incomplete. Sometimes the rawness of a note out of place expresses ten times the emotion a precisely placed note does. When I lead, I take into account all the factors above that lead to the generation of a song and run it through my formula for excellence which is Vision + Inspiration + Preparation + Passion = Excellence. Simplified, when you are intentional and passionate, you can’t help but be excellent. This may mean playing to a click track. I personally love writing and performing with pre-programmed tracks. But sometimes, this means the guitarist Kenny pounding a barely in tune acoustic guitar and stomping his feet to something close to the rhythm while raw, minimally reverbed harmonies sing the lyrics.
6. Does Christian music have a place in normal daily life or should it be reserved for worship only?
Christian music definitely has a place in normal daily life. It can and should serve as a reminder of our relationship to God, how awesome God is and so on. It can provide us a voice when we are having a hard time expressing ourselves. Most of the time, I do not listen to Christian music, but I almost always find it refreshing when I listen to it. I can’t emphasize enough how tied music is or can be to memory and emotion for many people. Christian music throughout the week for someone really engaged with how the Lord is working in them can be an incredible encouragement, timely reminder, or an indirect confronter. Sometimes, it is just a way to find the words or feelings you’ve been searching for ways to express.