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Dulling the Glory
On Musical Distractions in Worship
An adage in church media work says, “You know the sound man is doing his job when you do not realize he is there.”
I have been working in church media and music since 2005, and I can attest to the truthfulness of this statement. People only turn back towards the sound booth in a worship service if something unexpected or problematic happens. The squeal of feedback from a microphone, the flickering out of a stage light, or similar miscue from a media standpoint all constitute a distraction from the glory that is a weekly worship service of the local church. It is as if, each time something like this happens, it dulls the glory of the service by way of distraction for all those participating. This same thing can also occur when it comes to the music in a worship service.
‘Sing Praises with Understanding’
One of the Biblical principles that should undergird our thinking can be found in Psalm 47:7, which reads, “For God is the King of all the earth; Sing praises with understanding” (NKJV). What is meant by “with understanding” here? John Calvin, in his commentary on the Psalms, writes that understanding “no doubt speaks of knowledge in the art of music; but He requires, at the same time, the worshippers of God to sing the praises of God intelligently, that there may not be the mere sound of tongues.”As you would imagine, according to Calvin, a musical and textual understanding is necessary.
Elsewhere, theologian James B. Jordan has likened the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, to the Music of God. Spirit quite literally means “breath.” The connection of breath/air is integral to making sound and singing. Likewise, just as each of the persons of the Godhead seeks to show glory and honor to each of the other persons, so should the music (Spirit) seek to glorify the text/word (Logos), and the text should also glorify the music. Neither should be a distraction from the other. This mutual indwelling of word and music aims to glorify the other, not distract from their oneness. For a proper oneness of text and tune, the music should be skillfully and thoughtfully paired with it. Those singing it should not perceive it as a distraction or contradiction, but rather a harmonious agreement.
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Ways This Can Happen
Principally, our worship music should Amen the text, not draw focus away from it. Distractions can come in the form of a poor tune pairing with text. Distractions can also come when a song is not singable in the service by the average person in the pew. Maybe the music is less familiar or even unfamiliar. Perhaps it is too high or low in its range. Maybe there is a tricky rhythm in the refrain. Perhaps it is only the first or second time the congregation has sung through it. In any case, if the congregation is distracted by the challenge or unfamiliarity of the tune, then the text is not given the glory it deserves as the Word of the Lord. Elevating the words of Scripture through singing Psalms and Hymns should be a most glorious activity all around.
Warren’s Dismissiveness of Music
In the church and school tradition I’m a part of, we have been trying to recover a more deliberate biblical understanding of music in worship. We reject the idea just because the text of a song is scriptural, it does not matter what form or content the music should take. Others, like pastor and author Rick Warren, have insisted that “there is no such thing as ‘Christian’ music; there are only Christian lyrics. It is the words that make the song sacred, not the tune. There are no spiritual tunes.”Warren’s view of music as a seemingly hollow transporter of the text betrays a shallow opinion of music’s meaningfulness apart from whatever words may or may not be paired with it. Rick Warren is by no means alone in thinking that music cannot communicate a meaning apart from any sung words. Many evangelicals have unintentionally bought into this same way of thinking. It is wrongheaded but understandable. Many Christians are not skillful in singing and reading music, and they are unable to see music as a language that can communicate meaning and a message apart from words.
The Christian church must commit to music literacy again as she has faithfully done in past centuries. Men and women in the Christian church gave us the solfege syllables and hand signs used to teach people to sing and read music. This music training was and should again be geared at training worshippers first and foremost. Then, if we are faithful, the next wave of progress should give us church musicians and composers who can help move our music to more glorious forms of beauty and complexity. For that is indeed our call—to move from glory to glory.
We must mature in how we understand the glory of worship so that we don’t distract or dull the glory that is weekly worship of the triune God of Scripture. We don’t have to worry or fret. We must follow the exhortation from one hymn’s refrain when it summarizes our proper response to “Rejoice, Give Thanks, and Sing!”Our Heavenly Father will bless and work it out for our good in His good time.
See Volume 2 of John Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms.
Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 279.
“Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart” is an 1865 hymn text by Edward H. Plumptre.