Corporate Worship: Hymn of Response and Preparation

Dear Church Family,

In the discussion of our first hymn, we talked about the uniqueness of singing and the way in which both the words and the music of worship songs help us to engage the whole of our beings in worship – mind, heart, and body. This week, we want to think about what we might call the hymn of response and preparation. It is a hymn of response in that we are responding to our confession of sin and receiving of the assurance of pardon. And, it is a hymn of preparation as we prepare to hear the reading and preaching of God’s Word in the sermon.

Discipleship or Pleasure

At this point, however, this might be a good time to talk a little bit about music as it relates to corporate worship. First, let’s consider the purpose of music in worship. Simply put, the purpose of worship music is to mature God’s saints – to aid in maturing discipleship. One way that I have often heard this put is to think of worship music as plowing the hearts of the worshippers in order to prepare them to receive the seed of God’s Word. Unfortunately, we usually don’t think of the role or purpose of worship music in this way (to prepare or mature us). Instead, we often use the criteria of ‘pleasure.’ Consider these thoughts from Calvin Johannson:

“Religious terminology often masks the out-and-out honesty of simply saying, ‘We will respond only to what we like.’ Instead, we say that the criterion for church music is that it ‘bless me,’ ‘move me,’ ‘minister to me,’ or ‘bring me closer to God.’ Such statements camouflage the real criterion by which we judge music’s success – pleasure. Hedonists within the church believe that liking something is the prerequisite for its effectiveness in ministering. Seldom do parishioners tell musicians, ‘I disliked the music today, but it helped me grow in Christ.’ We are so attuned to amusement that worship music must pleasure us – or else! The hard sayings of Jesus, such as, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’ are seldom translated into ‘hard’ musical sayings. No matter what is said, most Christians prefer amusement to discipline…When personal gratification is worship’s objective, worship is invalidated. To leave the service with the query, ‘Now what did I get out of church today?’ is to misunderstand the nature of worship. Such worshipers define it by their own pleasurable self-satisfaction, another way of saying that hedonism is not all that secular.” (Johansson, Calvin M. 1992. Discipling Music Ministry: Twenty-First Century Directions, 49-50).

Criteria for Evaluating Worship Music

So, if the purpose of music is to mature God’s saints, then the criteria by which we evaluate that music ought not be influenced merely by whether or not it brings pleasure. Rather, the criteria by which we evaluate worship music ought to be whether or not it accomplishes the task of maturing God’s saints. Here are six helpful questions for discerning the criteria for music used in Christian worship (these six questions come John Witvliet, author of The Conviction of Things Not Seen, and director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship as quoted in On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories, 2006, by Sean Michael Lucas, 126):

(1) Do we have the imagination and resolve to speak and make music in a way that both celebrates and limits the role of music as a conduit for experiencing God?
(2) Do we have the imagination and persistence to develop and play music that enables and enacts the primary actions of Christian worship?
(3) Do we have the imagination and persistence to make music that truly serves the gathered congregation, rather than the music, composer, or marketing company that promotes it?
(4) Do we have the persistence and imagination to develop and then practice a rich understanding of ‘aesthetic virtue’?
(5) Do we have a sufficiently complex understanding of the relationship between worship, music, and culture to account for how worship is at once transcultural, contextual, countercultural, and cross-cultural?
(6) Do we have the imagination and persistence to overcome deep divisions in the Christian church along the lines of socioeconomic class?

Music is Not Neutral

While some people default to the criteria of personal enjoyment in evaluating music (as discussed above), there are others who take a very different view: some people believe that the music of a song, especially in worship, is irrelevant and simply a means to get at the text. As Scott Aniol explains, “Several hundred years of post-Enlightenment rationalism has influenced us to see music as amoral, without inherent meaning, and merely neutral “packaging” for lyrics. However, this is not how Christians in the past have viewed music and its role in life and worship. In fact, this is not how anyone viewed music prior to the Enlightenment. And it is certainly not how Scripture views it.”

In his article, Aniol explains and defends the Biblical basis for recognizing that music (and all art) embodies ideas. Music is not simply a neutral or irrelevant medium. Consider this striking illustration:

“The words themselves express ideas, but even the word choices, images employed, and word order already express an interpretation of those ideas. Add music, and now the artist is further expressing interpretation of the ideas present in the lyrics. One of the best illustrations of this is the infamous example of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. The words she sang were certainly not controversial, but her tone, body language, and performance style created a scandal…In this case, the textual content and even the musical form itself were far from offensive. Yet Monroe’s vocal performance, delivery, dress, and image embodied messages that were missed by nobody. The point is that music—in all of its complexities of melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, and performance style—embodies interpretation of ideas that extend beyond merely what the words themselves express.”

Scott Aniol’s writing about the importance of aesthetics in worship, and how we ought to think about these things in corporate worship are very insightful. I recommend reading his article, “How Music Embodies Theology” in its entirety.

Hymn of Response and Preparation

The hymn which we sing immediately following our confession of sin and receiving of the assurance of pardon is usually selected as a response to the specific emphasis of these elements that precede it. In this way, our singing reinforces our prayers and God’s Word. Sometimes this hymn is a mournful song that expresses our sorrow over our sin. Other times, this hymn is a meditation on the promises of God to forgive the sins of His people for the sake of Christ. Or, this hymn may be a song of praise for the forgiveness that is ours by faith.

Whatever the case, this hymn also serves in the order and liturgy of our service as a means of preparation to hear the voice of Christ in the reading and preaching of His Word in the sermon.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch