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After writing my last post, it got me to thinking more and more about the state of church music in today’s fast food, “have it your way right away” kind of culture.  The word relevant gets thrown around pretty often in churches these days.  We don’t want to be outdated or archaic.  Cutting edge is the goal that many churches are striving to reach week in and week out.

I can’t help but wonder, however: what exactly does it mean to be “relevant”?  To whom exactly are we trying to be relevant?  Are we really trying to be relevant to the culture at large or are we using countless time and energy to keep up with the latest trend or fad in the Christian subculture that the rest of society couldn’t care less about?  Why is it that it is the exception for a “Christian” artist to make it big in the mainstream arts world?  When this happens, such an artist often gets labeled with terms like “sell-out,” “compromise,” or “hypocrit.”  Does this lack of success merely reflect the cynical nature of the mainstream culture, prejudiced against anything that might resemble faith?  Perhaps.  Or maybe novelist Madeleine L’Engle had her finger on the pulse of the situation when she wrote:

Too much concern about “Christian” art can be destructive both to art and to Christianity. I cannot try to write a “Christian” story. My own life and my own faith will determine whether or not my stories are Christian. Too much Christian art relies so heavily on being Christian that the artist forgets that it also must be good art.

I read an article recently in an issue of Worship Leader Magazine (the fact that we even have such a magazine might very well be an indication of exactly what I’m talking about, and the fact that I have a subscription may also say something about my own complicity in this whole enterprise) that suggested that the average “shelf-life” for contemporary praise songs in today’s church is about six weeks.  Could is be possible that the main reason that many of these songs are here today and gone tomorrow is that they were never really that good to begin with?  Isn’t it sad that we have to have our own specialized stores to carry Christian music?  Isn’t is pathetic that we put up little charts that say, “Do you like this mainstream band?  Then try this Christian alternative?”  It’s as though Christian music music is nothing more than a cheap imitation of what is really driving the culture (actually it’s not “as though,” this is exactly what is happening).

For me, it begs the questions: (1) What is the role of music in our faith anyway?  (2) What is the role/function of music in our church?  Music has a way of touching us in places that words alone cannot.  I have come to believe that just as everyone has a “heart language” (i.e. the language that they were spoken to as a child and which is the language of their emotions), everyone also has a “worship language” based on where they grew up, the kind of music they grew up with, and significant influences on their spiritual development.  Music is more than just a soundtrack for our lives.  It has the power to take us to places where words alone fall short, and allows healing to happen when all else has failed.  It has the power to unite our hearts when we are separated by linguistic dialect and the power to transcend cultural barriers.

What, then is the role of this music in our churches?  If it is merely for entertainment, why do we use second rate mainstream music?  Let’s do the very best cover tunes from the Billboard charts, or better yet, get some of those acts to come perform in our churches?  If music is nothing more than a space filler, then why not get rid of all the live singing and everything all together and just used prerecorded CDs bought in the store?  But if music is to have any significant impact the actual ways that we live our lives and our faith, we are going to have to give it time to sink in and begin to work its transforming power in us.

One of the powerful aspects of many of our hymns is that they were ways to teach people theology.  Some have argued that hymns in the free church offer a similar function to the liturgy of the high church tradition.  Rich Mullins once said that many of the church’s hymns were 1st rate theology set to 6th rate music.  I’m not sure that he was entirely accurate in that statement, but we get his point.  My concern here is that our consumerist attitude towards new worship songs causes us to discard them long before they have had time to go from our head to our heart and from our heart to our character.  (The radio playlists and top 10 charts are so fickle that songs are here today, gone tomorrow.  It is unlikely that anyone will be radically transformed by songs when we barely sing them long enough to feel comfortable with them, let alone long enough to have spent time meditating on them).  Additionally, so many of the songs just contain bad theology.  Why do we want to reinforce bad theology through our song selection?  It just doesn’t make sense.

Here’s my bottom line: music ministers, worship pastors, and worship leaders need to be very intentional about the music they choose.  In my opinion, most need to select fewer and better songs.  We need to reject the practice of being relevant if by that we really mean being relevant to the Christian subculture.  We need to dare to “unleash the arts on the church” and in the world.  Maybe we might dare to allow the church to be the cutting edge of culture, driving the best music and art of day once again.

If you want to read more on this, check out these books:

Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner

It was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Buster
Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle
(I’m sure there are other great books on this topic, these are just some of the goodies from my own library)