The Return of the Curmudgeon: Disney-World Worship (Part 2): Musical Disproportionality

I’ve taken a few weeks off on the worship posts, for reasons I need not explain. I now pick up the series where in a previous post I observed similarities between Disney World and worship, noting that there are some not-so-flattering ways in which Disney World reminds me of certain aspects of evangelical worship. In this post I consider some of the ways in which we face problems related to the use of music in worship. For anyone who wants to know if I like music at all, or if I think music should be used in worship, see my “The Use of Music in Worship” in the book Authentic Worship.

In the Baptist tradition in which I live, music is highly significant in corporate worship. It may be that it is too significant, that it is overemphasized in some respects, yet I do not favor a Zwinglian approach that excises music from the public assembly. I do think we face some serious problems related to the use of music in corporate worship, though, and one serious issue is that music has a disproportionate place in our corporate assemblies. That is, we often emphasize the music over more equally important elements and expressions of worship. So, we have a problem with respect to the quantity of music we use, and then, we also have a problem with the quality of music we use.

With respect to quantity, I worry that we sing too much these days. Frankly, it’s wearing me out. It is as if we have to employ music in almost every aspect of the service. I’ll not be surprised if we soon start using background music to accompany sermons (and I’ll not be surprised if I learn this is already happening and I just don’t know about it). We sing and sing and sing and sing and sing. I find myself, in so many of the places I go (and I do travel a good bit in Baptist & Evangelical land) just praying that the music will come to a close. And we so seldom read from the Scriptures, or pray in anything but a cursory fashion, or recite a statement of faith or confession, or observe the ordinances. But we get plenty of music. More than plenty. I don’t know that this would be such a burden to me, except that we sing so much bad music.

Music enables us to give voice to a liturgical offering in which singing texts sometimes allows us to more fully express our praise than if we simply speak the words. Singing engages the whole body in a way that speaking does not. I believe this reality lies behind the repeated instructions in Scripture to sing to the Lord, and not to speak only. This is a fitting representation of what it is to offer my body as a living sacrifice to the Lord. Singing reminds the faithful that all of their being should be offered to God. If the people are to sing they must have music. I am concerned, however, that at both the textual and musical level we face some difficulties, not the least of which is the fact that we too often employ songs that are inadequate theologically. When I say “theologically” in this case, I mean it in its most literal sense – that our music doesn’t speak adequately about God. This inadequacy shows up, for example, in the manner in which some contemporary music fails to account for both God’s transcendence and immanence.

On the one hand, the music used in DWW is sometimes completely inadequate with respect to the transcendence of God. The music is maudlin, it is saccharine, and it lacks the richness, texture, and depth commensurate with the greatness and glory of God. This is true about both texts and music, by the way. I do not mean to single out contemporary music at this point. I could easily lodge the same criticism about Southern Gospel music, though its popularity is in some decline at present. One of my chief complaints is that too much of this music has us singing about us singing about how we feel about God, or how we worship him, rather than singing to and about God himself. (For those who want to quarrel that singing about God isn’t worship, please see, again, my piece “The Use of Music” for a correction to that tired old idea). I’ll not bother to names songs at this point; there are simply too many examples to name, and we sing them all the time – over and over and over (“na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na” – Do we actually sing this? Yes, we do. Surely we can express that we live and breathe and have our very being in Christ in ways more fitting than this. Can’t we? It’s seems that even some minor effort would enable us to do so.).

On the other hand, this music is also inadequate with respect to divine immanence. That God, the Holy One who is high and exalted is above us and beyond us, yet also near, with, and among his people who are contrite and approach the Lord in the name of Christ is one of the most precious truths of the faith. Rightly construed, Christian worship must account for both divine transcendence and divine immanence. In fact, you cannot truly have one without the other.

DWW makes much of immanence, but it is an immanence of man’s own making. On this account of immanence, intimacy and friendliness is key, and here again, we have this emphasis on singing much about how we feel about God, and less about God himself. And the music is made to match. There are two reasons why this doesn’t work. First, DWW doesn’t get transcendence right, so it is off to a bad start with respect to immanence. Second, the songs themselves often offer a cheap version of divine immanence that isn’t worth buying.

So,both with respect to lyrics and music, too much music employed in worship today is theologically deficient, formulaic, and banal. Much of this wouldn’t even make the stage at Disney World, to be completely honest. We use the term “artificial” to refer to something that is not “natural” or that is an imitation of what is real. I fear that too much of the music we use in worship these days is just that. Singable, memorable, well-crafted tunes, with fitting harmonies, settings, and instrumentation are too often a rarity. DWW provides music that is something like the products that fill the Dollar Store. There may be a lot of them, and they may be easy to come by, but they lack quality and they will not last. While the church has always used “disposable” music, historically we tend to cull that music and maintain the best songs. Too often these days we seem to maintain the “disposable” and dispose the valuable.

Here is a little test for a congregation to consider, to examine the extent to which we may suffer from the malady of musical disproportionality. Be honest about this. If forced to decide between keeping music in the worship service or keeping baptism and the Lord’s Supper, what would the people choose? I fear that in many of our congregations that decision would easily go in favor of the music, and the ordinances would be dispensed with summarily. We would not treasure those signs of faith given us by our Lord more than we would our music, some of which won’t last past the next year, much less endure for centuries. I understand that my critique will sting some, and some will be just plain angry at me. But I think these are questions we need to ask and answer, and quickly, if we are to recover a healthy life of worship in our congregations.