Music, Culture and Church – a postscript

Here are some further thoughts and clarifications (as much to my own thinking as anything). Stephen Kneale has posted here a response. There are some useful points in there and I’ll come to them in a second. The article if it is a response seems primarily to focus on the spirit of this point from my earlier article “But overall, what we sing in church seems along way away from what people are listening to outside.”  Stephen’s response is:

  1. That our primary focus with congregational singing should be whether or not something is appropriate in terms of is it singable and because they help us to remember the truths contained.
  2. That we should not assume that rap reflects all urban contexts.
  3. That if music is not culturally neutral then we have to consider whether or not the background and associations of a genre bring other connotations into church life.
  4. That there are a whole host of other preferences that have not been considered.

So here are some further reflections

  1. My own starting point with assessing songs for corporate worship is the same as Stephen’s I’m looking at the content, truthfulness  and singability and helpfulness l -for example will it help the truths to be remembered?  That’s the context in which I want to ask myself and people from within my own theological background some challenging questions.
  2. This means that if my answer to my initial questions is ” We need to attempt to do corporate rap worship” then I probably have asked the wrong question. The point about what our music reflects is at the end of a wider discussion about the wider variety of musical genres around.  So for emphasis and maybe to set a few readers’ minds at rest, no I’m not proposing that Bearwood Chapel starts replacing its current music choice with hip-hop because I don’t think that would be helpful to the congregation in terms of God honouring worship or the community in outreach. However, you will notice that the flavour on a Saturday with a stronger Hispanic feel is different and that there are other differences throughout the weekend that reflect a greater cultural diversity.
  3. Although I raised the point about what we sing, the question about music is wider than what happens when we stand up in rows and sing from books or screens because church life is wider than getting together for services.
  4. I am increasingly finding that what is considered “singable” by a congregation whilst not completely subjective does have a level of subjectivity -or maybe cultural contextualisation to it.  I have seen congregations attempting to sing some wonderful old hymns that with the right musical accompaniment and enough people are singable, beautiful and moving but ends up being a dirge.
  5. As soon as we say that “singability” matters we are acknowledging to some level that music matters. Whilst we start with the words, it is more than just words.  This is a point that often comes out quite clearly when someone picks up an old hymn and either says “Let’s sing this to…” or writes a new song.  Here are four  examples.
  • You can sing “Oh Breath of Life Come Sweeping through us” to the same tune as “The Day thou gavest Lord has ended” but most churches wouldn’t.
  • Tell out my soul and Go Forth and tell can be sung to two different tunes one stately in feel, one lively
  • One of the hymns that is beautiful done right but can also become a dirge is “Oh the Deep Deep love of Jesus.” A few years back someone set it to a new tune in order to get a new generation singing the hymn. The tune is catchy but I personally find that it loses something of the depth of emotion and awe provided by the original tune.
  • In more contemporary terms look at how Stuart Townend and the Getty’s have taken songs they wrote originally with quite a staid, “hymny” feel and given them a much more folkier feel (e.g. O My soul arise and bless your maker” and “Oh church arise.”) It is possible to improve a hymn with new music or new arrangements too.

6.  Yes we want people to remember what they sing but there is more to church life than conveying information educationally. Music helps us to express emotions.  Corporate sung worship is not just about saying the same things but expressing share emotions (see my earlier comments about the place for lament). This is one reason why I want to think about the music people use. And yes, that means I’m thinking about different ages as well as class and ethnicity.

7.  A little side point about this. When I first came to Bearwood, a few of our older people expressed their desire to sing a few more hymns. A couple of worship leaders tried to incorporate a few hymns. However, what they found was that there were different types of hymn tradition. If people are asking for hymns but they are out of the Sankey, Redemption Hymns or even Methodist Hymnbook tradition and you give them Hymns Ancient and Modern then you are likely to miss the mark.

8. If a musical style is alien to me I may not have an accurate handle on what you can and can’t do with it.  I have picked up that some of the Estate churches use recorded more urban style backing tracks, I don’t know if it is out and out rap, I don’t actually know if corporate rapping really is possible in the same way that corporate hymn singing is. I do know that in terms of memorability, it can be a very effective way of learning things and I understand Duncan Forbes used it to help his peer group learn for their Theology exams at Oak Hill.

9.  There’s a broader question about engagement with culture and the concept of posessio -what is and isn’t redeemable. Some Christians are over-confident in their ability to redeem the culture this side of Christ’s return but others are both pessimistic about that and as we have already note optimistic about the cultural neutrality of their own music, especially if and when they forget that quite often traditional hymn tunes were appropriated from the culture around them for exactly the same reasons we talked about.

10. The point about teaching people that things are not designed around their preferences is pertinent but is my primary concern with people that they need to cross my barriers and fit in with the insiders, or is there a point where I challenge myself and the insiders to cross some cultural boundaries.

And one post-script on the post-script. This is a good example of the urban missiology conversation that can positively stretch us.  Notice a couple of things.

  • Stephen and I are both Reformed in our theology and committed to sharing the Gospel in urban and deprived contexts.
  • Stephen and I would agree that our concern with corporate worship is to sing truth to God’s glory.
  • I suspect that both of us primarily see corporate worship as about the gathering of God’s people. In other words I (and I suspect) Stephen are not over-sold on the seeker sensitive model that completely redesigns the gathering as an outreach event.  At the same time, I get the impression that we both would have a concern to ensure that visitors are welcome and that they can engage and hear the Gospel. In that sense we would want to be “seeker friendly.”
  • Within that context I think you will also see cultural differences. These include cultural differences between our contexts and other contexts. However, there are also cultural differences between the Strict Baptist and the  whatever label you want to give to my upbringing in a Methodist Mission Hall but fed from scratch with Reformed Theology without anyone saying “this is Reformed theology).
  • This means it is possible to have meaningful discussion and even disagreement which also helps to sharpen our thinking.