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Music and The Word
by Matt Bynum

Orlando conference examines the state of contemporary church music

To everything there is a season, declares the Preacher, and a time to every purpose under Heaven. There is a time for pressing forward with vigorous action, and there is a time for stillness, to allow for self- assessment, to survey the landscape, to seek Wisdom, and to plan tomorrow's course of action.

CMAC (Church Music at a Crossroads) Orlando 2000 was a time of retreat when music ministers from throughout the southeastern United States gathered to consider many hard questions concerning the state of contemporary church music. What is the purpose of worship music? What is the difference between "worship" music and "praise" music? Is one style of music "better" or more effective than another? How can music and traditions of the past be integrated with contemporary culture? How can the quality of church music in general be improved?

The CMAC 2000 conference was held in Orlando, Florida on February 28 to March 1, with meetings held at Northland Community Church, Reformed Theological Seminary, and St. Paul's Presbyterian Church. The speakers for the event included John Hodges, professor at Crichton College (Memphis, Tennesssee); Marva Dawn, professor at Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia); Calvin Johannson, professor at Evangel College (Springfield, Missouri); and Rev. Michael Malone, senior pastor at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church (Winter Park, Florida).

How can church music properly communicate the mysteries of God? In Scripture, said Calvin Johannson, God reveals Himself paradoxically. How can God be both transcendent, totally above and apart from His creation, and immanent, within His creation and very near to us? Our theology and our music must express both of these attributes for our understanding of God to be true. The Scriptures present other apparent contradictions: the Christian is under both Law and Grace, those that are Last shall be First, Christ is both God and Man.

Music can be used to communicate these difficult concepts when words fail us. John Hodges gave an example from Mozart of how music can communicate emotions and ideas apart from words. As a result, words and music can be mismatched, and words may change or damage the music's meaning. Music has its own vocabulary, and what it communicates (quoting Mendelssohn) is far too specific for words. And each musical instrument has its own unique voice, said Marva Dawn. There are particular ideas that can only be communicated using a specific instrument, be it a french horn, piano, or cello. And then there are times when silence should be used - quite a counter- cultural idea, in these times.

Is there an objective standard for music? asked John Hodges. Yes, but the church does not have a good understanding of aesthetics, therefore, it has a difficult time discerning if a music work is good or bad. The church, he asserted, has done a fairly good job of defending Truth and Goodness, but what about Beauty? The church unfortunately follows the world's aesthetic which implies that there is no objective element of beauty in music. The church must understand that beauty is objective as well as subjective. What we say is beautiful says much about Who we say is beautiful. What is truly beautiful often causes a pain in the heart, because it grants us a momentary glimpse of our real situation as fallen sinners - a great tragedy that allows us to catch a momentary flicker of the Divine, transporting us, like Paul, to the heavenly realm.

Hodges stated that music is evaluated according to three criteria: Content (what the music and words communicate), Performance, and Composition (how skillfully the music has been constructed, and how well the music complements the words). In a commercial "jingle", usually the best studio musicians are hired, so its performance level is high, but its content and composition may be quite insignificant. In the work of a non-Christian composer, one can find good examples of performance and composition, but often its content is only a half- truth. In some church music, unfortunately, there is often bad composition, poor performance, and even the content can be questionable.

Simple music is not bad, said Hodges. Beauty can be found in simple things. Compare an orange with the Grand Canyon. One is simple and the other is complex, but there is beauty in both. There are times when simplicity is entirely appropriate.

But there is a difference between simplicity and simple-mindedness. The church should avoid the use of "pop" music, said Johansson, because pop music can not embrace gospel meaning. Pop music is made for wide-spread acceptance at the expense of compositional integrity. Pop music is made for entertainment, not edification, it is too easy to enjoy, it wears out quickly. But the gospel is not entertainment, and pop music is not a suitable vehicle for the gospel. Pop music is equated with immediate gratification, but delayed gratification is a gospel principle ("but now we see through a glass darkly"). The essence of true art is subtlety, but pop music is anything but subtle.

When you are saturated with poor music, said Hodges, it is possible to lose the ability to appreciate greater beauty. Music is a language, and the style of music you enjoy may speak well within the limits of its own musical vocabulary, but, because of its limits, it will not be able to speak to as much of the human experience as can a style of music with a larger musical vocabulary. A "classical" music vocabulary might have the equivalent of 10,000,000 words, but a "pop" music vocabulary might be limited to only 10,000 words. For example, both may be able to say the musical equivalent of "why are you dissin' me?" but only one would be able to say "wherefore was I to this keen mockery born?"

A music minister should teach the congregation how to listen, said Hodges. There should be no divisions in a congregation regarding style (i.e., having both a "traditional" worship service and a "contemporary" worship service). The music minister should gently choose music that will benefit the whole body and allow them to grow, rather than choosing music to pander to the preferences of one group or another. Our culture is saturated with entertainment noise. We should understand that music is not a commodity, but a Language, a means for one soul to communicate ideas and experiences to another soul.

What is the difference between worship and evangelism? asked Marva Dawn. We have put the burden of evangelism on worship. How often does what we do in worship form the believer? Genuine worship is not the satisfaction of our desires but the shaping of our desires. What does praise mean? Praise is not necessarily upbeat. Praise shows us who God is. Praise does not equal happiness. In Psalm 9, we praise God with a whole heart, a full will. Praise depends on God's character, not on how we feel. Joy does not equal happiness.

Tradition is good, said Marva Dawn, but traditionalism is sticky sentimentalism that has nothing to do with God. What is the best carrier for the eternal? What portion of the worship service should include materials untouched by time? Tradition is not a four letter word, said Hodges. It is a mistake to say that what is new is inherently better than what is old. Why should the dead be denied a vote?

John Hodges presented a short history of music patronage. Most of the significant music up to the time of Bach was composed by church musicians. Even Bach's "secular" works were dedicated to the glory of God, so in his mind and in the minds of his contemporaries, there was no division between the sacred and the secular worlds. After Bach, musical patronage by the "State" began to draw the highest salaries and thus led the best composers (such as Mozart) to the courts of kings, princes and other royalty. Starting with Beethoven, the state's patronage began to give way to that of the "common man" or the middle class. It was then that music became an industry, with a composer's living being made by way of tickets sold for public performances and through the sale of sheet music, and in the 20th century, through the sale of recordings. Today, music has no "patron", individuals or groups that protect and nuture the art of music. Hodges suggested that the church should once again take on the task of nurturing and developing the world's great composers, those that will create music that is fresh and vital. These composers will create music not to appeal to the masses (as does "pop music"), but compose settings of the great church texts, assist in the design of liturgies, and help believers see the beauty of God through their gift of composition. They will offer musical works of excellence that will give glory to God.

On Tuesday evening, the conference attendees met at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, to take part in a worship service presided by the Rev. Michael Malone. As Rev. Malone explained, St. Paul's is attempting to implement many of the ideas that have been suggested by speakers at previous CMAC conferences. Ministers of music should take part in educating the congregation to appreciate good music - music that is richer and more expressive than is normally heard within contemporary culture. As part of the pre-service section of the worship service, the organist (Terry Yount) played "Sleepers Wake, a Voice Is Calling" by J.S. Bach, "My Heart is Filled with Longing" by Johannes Brahms, and Adagio in E-Flat (from Concerto No. 3) by W.A. Mozart. These musical selections may not necessarily be appropriate during a worship service, but they do serve a purpose as part of the preparation for the worship service.

The use of music and symbols in worship is important, Rev. Malone explained. "I stand before you dressed in a black robe welcoming you, bidding you enter into the Temple of the Lord. But know that one day, you will be standing before Christ, who will be dressed in a white robe, and He will welcome you into His Father's house." Worship should appeal to all the senses, said Rev. Malone. For instance, what about the sense of smell? Could incense be properly used to worship God more fully?

For more information on the work of Church Music at a Crossroads, see http://www.musiccrossroads.org .

Recommended Reading:

Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down by Marva Dawn. A Theology of Worship for the Turn of the Century Church.

Music and Ministry by Calvin Johannson. A Biblical Counterpoint.

A Royal "Waste" of Time by Marva Dawn. The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum