I’m not what some would call “musically inclined.” I can play some acoustic guitar, but remain safely in the realm of the basic four chords (G, C, D, Em). Also, I have a singing voice that’s not so much Sinatra as it is Scuttle from The Little Mermaid. Yet, I also love singing karaoke and belting out classics in my car or shower. Also, I love singing along to worship songs in a church setting. There’s something about the members of the Body uniting in an expression of song to raise praises and the contents of their hearts to God.
Music has always been a part of worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many songs are found in scripture, such as the song of Miriam after crossing the Red Sea and the Magnificat of Mary. Plus, there’s the book of the Psalms, a compendium of 150 songs often sung in conjunction with prayer and worship throughout Judaism and Christianity.
Music is simply a part of worship; one that helps us connect with God on an emotional and experiential level.
Over the span of Christianity, however, music has undergone dramatic shifts. It has switched from a more communal setting to one of performance in choirs, professional singers, bands, and worship leaders. It’s not a new development, but one which has occurred over centuries.
While it is necessary to have people skilled in the musical arts in church, the average Joe can be left behind in the uplifting of the musically gifted. This can happen in a variety of ways; auditions, competitions, showcases, etc. While these things are not bad in and of themselves, they can still establish a sort of curtain that seems to indicate the average layperson may not cross into the realm of the musical and that such a place is only for the properly gifted.
I saw such a demarcation for myself when I attended a Christian university which prided itself on its music department. Though not all of the department majors and student participants displayed any sort of musical snobbery, several did. They could be heard stating how they could sing a song better than classic performers or berating lovers of musical genres they didn’t enjoy, telling them songs of said genre “weren’t really music.” There were also instances where they would casually suggest to someone, “Maybe you shouldn’t sing.”
Sadly, this form of snobbery isn’t limited to Christian university music departments. It’s also found within the Church itself. Musical snobbery has become prevalent in the modern worship era with the huge influx of songs geared for church worship coming out of the Christian music machine. This elitism can come from a litany of places, from the certainty in one’s own talent to the confidence one has to judge the “goodness” of certain songs or genres. Regardless of the source of the arrogance, it still serves to erect a wall between the gifted and everyone else, creating the illusion that God and churches may prefer the gifted.
Many worship songs have come up in the past few years and taken Christian radio stations and worship stages by storm. They may be decried by the musically inclined for a number of reasons such as cheesy lyrics, overly simplistic musical structure, excessive repetition; the list goes on. They may be looked upon with contempt for their source. How terrible it would be if a church were to play a song from Hillsong UNITED or *gasp* Chris Tomlin! And yes, there may be a fair amount of songs some of us may want to leave sealed away in our youth camp days.
But there are also many people who – however cheesy, hastily written, or badly structured some songs may be – have been deeply touched and affected by them. These songs have met them where they are at in life and expressed the love and character of God to them. Sure, some may think “Good, Good Father” comes from the bottom of the barrel. Yet, I have seen a youth camp where the song was introduced and many of the boys who grew up with horrific or no relationships with their fathers were brought to tears by the reality of God as a good Father for them. Some may decry “Cornerstone” as just a rehashed hymn with a different chorus. Yet, I’ve seen many in seasons of turmoil and uncertainty touched deeply by the reality of God as constant through the storms.
Most recent is the song “Reckless Love” by Cory Asbury. Let’s not even get started on the debate of whether God’s love can be considered “reckless” or not, but the first time my wife and I heard the song, we were both deeply touched as it resonated with places we had both been; places where we were far away from God with little to no interest in him and yet God kept pursuing us. It served as a powerful reminder of the ferocious love of God present in our own lives. Many others share this vantage point with this song, or vantage points with other songs.
Despite whatever problems we have with the details of certain songs, God used them to reach people and work within them. So, perhaps it can be seen how insulting pieces of music over paltry details seems to also invalidate the legitimate spiritual good they have done in other people.
Do I seek to harp on musically gifted people altogether? Of course not. There are many people in my life I admire and love deeply who are vastly gifted in the musical arts and are among the most sincere and humble I know. Yet there are those who carry a form of hubris stemming from their gifts, and whether consciously or unconsciously, say and do things to diminish the valid experiences of those deeply touched by pieces of music simply because they don’t meet some personal standard.
It’s important to note that this destructive arrogance is not limited to the musically talented. It can be found among gifted writers, holders of ministry and/or theology degrees, powerful speakers, or other sorts of artists and/or experts. Regardless of the forms snobbery may take within the Church, the point is it doesn’t belong there.
Hubris has no place in a community built on humility.
Whether it be a song, book, painting, poem, blog post, etc., art has a power to speak to people, no matter how “good” or “bad” it may be. In the case of songs, some may be founded more in emotion that sound theology or doctrine. Yet out of that ground they reach people on an emotional level and show them a picture of “God with them.” Some are the inverse, more founded in doctrine and somewhat lacking emotionally. Yet they also manage to reach someone where they are looking for God. So if the song in question reaches someone for the kingdom, then what right do we have to dump all over someone’s experience?
Am I saying artistic critique is off limits? Absolutely not. Music, writing, art, etc., will always be open to analysis and criticism. However, the role of analysis and criticism should be to build up and improve the artist and their quality of work. To direct this criticism to diminish the valid experiences of those touched by work deemed “less than worthy” is simply cruelty stemming from arrogance.
If you’ve been spoken to and affected deeply by a song, yet have seen it picked apart and dismissed via social media, direct or indirect conversation, or any other format, know that it does not diminish the validity of your experience. No matter how good or bad it has been deemed by others, God bless it for speaking to your heart. Never let any such assessments make you think you are any less of a person for how God has worked in you, reached out to you. No matter how it may sound to yourself or others, sing and play your heart out to praise the God who loves you.
If you’re one of the musically inclined who is openly critical as we have discussed, first of all, praise be to God for your gifting and kudos to you for building upon it. That being said, please take time to back off and consider the weight and implications of your assessments of songs, singers, songwriters, and those who hear and enjoy them. Regardless of your criticisms, the work you malign has been used by God to work in the hearts of others. So please examine your own heart and also use that criticism to create beautiful work of your own that God may bless. Do not build an ivory tower in which to hold yourself or music above the rest of us. Remember that your gift is given to you for the glory of God and the edification of the church and it’s people.
Music has ever been with humanity and has evolved in countless ways since it’s inception. It has always and will always retain the capacity to touch people deeply – especially in the hands of God. God bless it and may it always retain that power and may no form of hubris or shame diminish it.