This is the first of five articles:
Current and Future Worship Trends
Current and Future Worship Trends
Music in worship has existed for millennia, and is perhaps one of the most common elements used in worship. Predominantly, the human voice has been the centerpiece of this activity.
In Christian worship, the Scriptures instruct worshipers to engage in psalms (the playing of instruments with voice), hymns (testimonies of God’s goodness set to song) and spiritual songs (improvised melodic verbal expressions to God, or songs sung in tongues). (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16)
Early church music in the Roman Catholic Church liturgy was mostly melodic, known as Chant. It was absent of metered rhythm and without harmonic structure.
As time passed, during the Renaissance Period, and into the Reformation, harmony and musical instruments began to be seen in liturgical Christian worship.
The music of J.S. Bach culminated past compositional developments from a wide range of regional styles in the 17th Century and was foundational for music that would be created in future generations.
Composers who benefited from Bach's established tools of thematic development, melodic counterpoint, and innovative compositional structures were Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, and others spanning the decades to the present day.
While serious musical compositions from the European examples above were brought to America, folk musical styles in various communities began to emerge as a unique art-form. Country music, stemming from the folk styles of Ireland and England, and the Negro spiritual (which ultimately became Blues) are the two most prevalent examples of this.
The Classical music America had inherited from Europe, which had been preeminent in the 19th Century, began to wane in its popularity toward the beginning of the 20th Century. Popular folk styles emerging from various ethnicities in the country began to overtake what had become an increasingly elite Classical music.
Jazz emerged as the leading musical style in the early to mid-twentieth century, not uninfluenced by classical music (i.e. George Gershwin). Jazz, being mostly harmonic in structure, generally departed from the linear melodic forms prevalent in Classical styles.
When Country and Jazz merged, Rock became the most influential style of the day, being highly rhythmic in nature, although retaining vestiges of jazz.
All of the above musical styles, in one way or another, have been absorbed into the Christian worship of their day, albeit generally trailing the secular culture by approximately a generation.
In current culture, there are two recent offshoots of Rock: one which features distortion guitars, aggressive drums and screemed lyrics, known as ‘Screemo’, and the other ‘Rap’ or ‘Hip-hop’. Both of these current developments lack melody, are scarce harmonically, and are rhythmically intense.
The early writers of Scripture instruct that music used for Christian worship should be predominantly melodic in nature. Singing is fundamental to this kind of music. Throughout Scripture even instruments are encouraged to be used melodically, whereas rhythmic expression is less emphasized. (Ps. 98:5; Is. 51:3; I Cor. 14:7-9; I Cor. 13:1; Eph. 5:19)
Most music scholars would agree that throughout the ages music is best represented in three distinct parts in order of priority: 1) Melody, 2) Harmony, and 3) Rhythm.
The Scripture seems to support this concept, "The singers went on, the musicians after them, in the midst of the maidens beating tambourines." (Ps. 68:25) [singers=melody; musicians (musical accompaniment)=harmony; tambourines= rhythm]
It is interesting to note that in Christian theology, there are three aspects to God: 1) The Father, 2) The Son, and 3) The Holy Spirit. (Jn. 14-17) This is known as the Trinity. The Apostle Paul further shows the human being as tripartite: 1) Spirit, 2) Soul and 3) Body. (I Thess. 5:23)
I believe there is a musical correlation to the Scripture’s view of Man. Most people can easily recognize how rhythm affects the body. Rhythm makes us want to dance or tap our foot. Harmony, however, makes us feel something in our souls. When there is a harmonic change in the music, we emotionally feel the change. When a minor chord is played, we connect the emotion of ‘sadness’ to it, while a major chord represents ‘happiness’ to us. Melody, however, is distinctly different from both rhythm and harmony, providing a sense of meaning and direction to the lyrics, rising and falling to convey a message more transparent than the ‘feeling’ of harmony. Melody correlates to the human spirit.
Through observing the condensed musical history given above, starting with the Gregorian chant of the early Catholic monks, music was almost exclusively melodic in church worship. Then, harmony and instrumentation began to be added through the Renaissance and Reformation periods. ‘Classical’ music used counterpoint (or melodic harmony) in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Subsequently, Jazz mostly used harmony in the mid-20th Century. Then Rock came on the scene with rhythm at its core, yet with guitar-strumming harmony still in place, while modern Rap and Screemo relinquish melody and most harmony altogether, relying almost solely on rhythm.
If one correlates melody, harmony and rhythm to the Scripture’s teaching of the components of Man's tripartite nature, then throughout music history, from the early Church to the present day, we see a progression from Spirit (melody), to Soul (harmony), to Body (rhythm).
In other words, the emphasis in music has shifted from Spirit to Soul, and finally to Body. The Apostle Paul admonished the church in Galatia, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3) Interestingly, our rhythmic focus in music seems to parallel the carnality of our culture.
So what does all this mean for Christian worship?
Most churches in America have not yet seen Rap and Screemo used in their worship services. However, Rock, which was anathema to church worship less than 50 years ago, is now the main force behind contemporary Praise and Worship music in today’s largest churches.
What about the moral decline we have witnessed in America over the last 50 years? It doesn't take too long of a study in recent history to see the rapid decline in social values. Is it possible that the societal decay and the musical styles of our culture are intrinsically inter-dependant?
It seems to hold true that the Church trails secular culture by approximately a generation. Although the prevailing secular style in America in the 1990’s (a Hard Rock-based style) is currently the driving force in most popular worship music, the secular world has now moved on to Rap, Hip-Hop, and Screemo. Rap is beginning to be used in a few churches as “special music” for youth functions, but has not yet been integrated into mainstream worship. I predict that it will become predominant within the next decade.
Some believe that musical style is simply a ‘tool’ used to be relevant to the culture. I believe, however, when the culture is diametrically opposed to Scripture, it should not be followed as a model for church worship.
I want to clearly state that I am not against any particular musical style, in and of itself, as long as it can be used in a relevant, comprehensive and balanced way, ultimately leaning towards melodic worship. Every form of expression will have its proper contextual place (and context is a key factor). I am concerned, however, that most people are moving blindly along with popular culture, embracing its metaphoric patterns of influence, with little concern as to how it may be negatively affecting their lives and worship.
There are those who believe that musical style is a non-issue and that the motivation of the heart of the individual should be our only consideration. I believe, however, that the heart of the individual, if his or her intentions are pure, will best be expressed through an art-form or musical style that is not in direct conflict with his motivation. In other words, the expression in the natural realm should be congruent with the attitude of the worshiper's heart.
For example, a sine wave is a pure tone, whole and complete. A distortion guitar, however, is a chaotic introduction of multiple conflicting frequencies: noise. It is created by 'chopping the top off' a whole and complete wave-form. Which of these two examples best reflects the pure heart of a worshiper?
Some believe that only lyrics convey the heart of the worshiper, not the style surrounding it. I believe, however, that every part of the art-form used should convey the heart of the worshiper.
Again, I am not asserting that rhythm-based musical styles (or distortion guitars) should be banned from Christian worship. I believe, however, that these styles must be used and combined in ways that support melodic expression. From the body of Scriptural text we can deduct that an overabundance of rhythm, to the exclusion or suppression of melody is a musical context that is out of balance. It metaphorically correlates to the 'flesh' controlling or dominating over the 'spirit'.
Before all the drummers get mad at me, however, let me say that just as God views the Christian's body as His holy temple, I believe rhythm can be a successful means of worship expression. However, "the body without the spirit is dead." (Js. 2:26) Rhythmic expression devoid of melody cannot ultimately express the fullness of Christian worship.
The New Testament teaches the order and priority of the Trinity: first Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit. (Jn. 14-16) The Apostle Paul teaches the order and priority of the Human Being: first Spirit, then Soul, then Body. (I Thess. 5:23) He even doctrinally establishes that focus on the flesh, the Body’s desires over the desires of the Spirit, is sin. (Rom. 7) I want to clarify that the New Testament does not teach asceticism (that the Body is evil) but rather it is the desires of the Body, when out of priority with the influence of God's Spirit, that categorize fleshly behavior.
I believe music in Christian worship should exist in the same structural integrity as Trinity patterns seen in the New Testament. Melody (correlating to Spirit) should be preeminent, supported by harmony, then rhythm (correlating to Soul and Body, respectively). I believe only in this relationship is music in Christian worship functioning in a manner that is both Scripturally honoring and artistically congruent.
I have a deeper level of concern, however. When, week after week, a musical style is presented that is predominantly rhythmic, it may produce a result opposite from the Christian message, bringing focus to the Body (or flesh) of the worshipers, rather than the Spirit. This could, at the very least, encourage carnality, and at the most, produce sin and sinful passions in the lives of the congregants.
The Jacob/Laban Principle
The Bible story of Jacob and Laban reveals to us a principle that should not be taken lightly.
Jacob placed a picture of what he wanted Laban’s sheep to become in front of the feeding trough, where the sheep mated. Using this breeding technique, he fooled Laban out of a great deal of wealth. Laban, ignorant of Jacob’s scheming plan, agreed that the color of the new generation of sheep would become Jacob’s possession.
“Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white stripes in them, exposing the white which was in the rods. And he set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the gutters, even in the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink; and they mated when they came to drink. So the flocks mated by the rods, and the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted…So the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks…” (Gen. 30:37-43)
The “Jacob/Laban Principle” shows us that what is placed before people on a consistent basis is what people will become. Whatever we place in front of our lives on a regular basis becomes what we will produce.
In her book, “Who Switched Off My Brain”, Dr. Caroline Leaf states, “The power of emotions over the whole body lies in how they integrate systems and coordinate mental processes and biology to create behavior.” Again, she writes, “Toxic thoughts and emotions disrupt homeostasis and cause structural changes down to the cellular level.”
The Bible states, “Watch over your hearts with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov. 4:23)
Somehow, music has been side-stepped in our thinking as to its potential effect in our lives.
The topic of musical style, to many, is like ‘candy’. Even using the word ‘style’ to describe this subject sets it in a place of preference, instead of conviction. What style of dress will you wear today? How will you style your hair? “I like your style.” Style is individual, personal, and can change on a whim. Contemporary music is no different. The prefix ‘con’ means ‘with’. So we get “with temporary” styles of music as we are endeavoring to worship an everlasting God. Pop Christian artists are here today, forgotten tomorrow. We have ‘throw-away’ songs sung in popular choruses packaged in high-gloss, high-profile, money-making media, targeted at youthful generations who swallow it in search of identity.
What makes money? The answer: what is popular.
What is popular to the Church? The answer: what was popular to the world a generation ago.
The marketing scheme for the Contemporary Christian Music Industry is a path already traveled.
Compare this paradigm with the music of the Great Masters of the Classical tradition who would spend years crafting a Symphony that lasted half an hour, reaching listeners centuries into the future, becoming a landmark of artistry and a foundation of excellence.
The pressure of churches to conform to musical standards is very real, all in the name of Relevance. The mantra may be, “The message is sacred, but the method is not”, but certainly there are boundaries to relevance we would not cross in the name of reaching society. Our culture embraces too many dysfunctions to mention. Will the church give up its moral standards in the name of relevance?
You might say, “Musical style is not an issue of morality.” I believe, however, that every subject is an issue of morality when it is incongruent with God’s design.
American Indians were known to have herded buffalo in the direction of a cliff or precipice. As the creatures were stampeding toward the drop, it was impossible for them to stop as they were blind to what was coming. We may be much like those herds at the leadership of skillful Indians. While trying to keep up with the latest ‘advances’, working hard to keep step with the herd of culture that surrounds us, we don’t see the cliff coming that we are being driven over.
Music is a powerful force that all of us have experienced in one form or another. It is so powerful that we are unwilling to give up those precious ‘styles’ that we hold so dear. The emotions that are evoked, when a simple song is sung from the past, are still as real now as they were when we first encountered them. Those same emotions are creating cellular changes in people’s bodies. The same lyrics that would have been forgotten years ago are still resonating in our hearts, as they clutch to the music residing within us.
Music is much more than a style and much more powerful than we give it credit.
Young generations, listening to violent Rap lyrics produce violence.
You say, “It’s just the lyrics.” I believe it’s both the lyrics and the art-form it clutches as it rides into their hearts.
So what is to be done? What is facing the church today?
Soon the newest ‘styles’ of music will be making their way into our worship assemblies. The prevailing culture is music without melody, or even harmony. Should we become legalistic, demanding that these styles be forbidden? Should we go back to Gregorian chant?
As I have said earlier, it’s about structural integrity and context. The Trinity pattern here is crucial for the powerful results of music to be utilized responsibly and successfully in our worship assemblies.
If Rap or Screemo is to be used, and one can hardly avoid the flood of popular styles of the day, it must be counter-balanced with music of a melodic and harmonic nature. This may sound pedantic and purist, but let us also remember the Scriptural admonition towards melodic worship.
“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord…” (Eph. 5:19)
Melody, harmony and rhythm, in this priority, will reflect the proper structure of the tripartite Man and his worship of the truine God. As we give worship to God in the use of music, we should strive to be congruent with God’s divine order and relationship.
I believe music and worship that is sensitive to these principles will yield favorable results in the hearts of the congregants, who, like Jacob’s sheep, ultimately produced out of their lives what daily influenced them.
Music, however, not in proper structural relationship will produce unfavorable results in the lives of the consistent participants.
“This sounds Polyanic, contrived, legalistic”, you might say.
Why then is the church in America paralleling the contemporary culture in divorce, teen-age pregnancies, broken families and broken lives?
Is it because we’re doing everything right?
Is it because we’re so culturally relevant?
Is it because we love our musical styles so much, we’re unwilling to let them go? Or are we held in the clutches of our beloved music while thinking it’s just a ‘style’. Perhaps we are no better off than a drug addict, seeking the next emotional high produced by the chemicals released into our bodies by the effects of that music. Perhaps the musical ‘style’ is controlling us more than we would admit.
Let’s consider God’s way, even down to the seemingly benign subject of musical style in the church.
You say, “This is all philosophical, God doesn’t care about all this, He only looks at the heart.”
God cares about our lives down to most minute detail. How much more does He care about our worship?
“In Him we live and move and exist…” (Acts 17:28)
God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Should not our worship reflect Him? Should not our art-forms reflect the priority and balance of our Creator?
Music is a powerful force, more potent than we sometimes realize. Let us use it “for building up and not for tearing down.” (2 Cor. 13:10)