Discipling Music

By Randy Sheets, Director of Music Ministries and Organist

Persons who know me well know that I dislike the current practice of using words as verbs when they were previously used only as nouns—an example is the way “impact” is now used; we say that something “impacts” us in a certain way. And so it is after careful consideration that I title this essay “Discipling Music”. The phrase comes from a book that had a great impact on me several years ago (it “impacted me”!), and to which I have recently returned—Discipling Music Ministry: Twenty-first Century Directions by Calvin M. Johansson.

In the book, Johansson deals with many of the core issues of music and worship and leads readers to examine our assumptions about worship and the role of music in worship. Its basic premise is that a primary function of music in worship should be that it helps to form us into ever more mature spiritual disciples of Christ—music in worship should be music that “disciples” us.

The belief that music should “disciple” us is radically different from prevailing ideas about music. In general, we believe that music is to be enjoyed—we only want to listen to music that activates our musical pleasure center—and thus we are “consumers” of music—-shopping, surfing, and turning the dials in search of music that provides pleasure. We ask “What is wrong with that? Should it be any different in church? Shouldn’t music in worship make us feel good, move us, uplift and inspire us?”

Johansson’s premise, which is not new, is that music’s role in worship is much deeper and richer than providing quick, easy pleasure, inspiration, or other desirable emotions. The title of the book names that role— music that is included in worship should have certain characteristics that help us move closer and closer to spiritual maturity—it should be music that “disciples us.” The premise that music can help shape our character and behavior is not new. From antiquity to the present, great thinkers, saints, and theologians have affirmed that music is powerful and that it is not only a means of self-expression, but a force that assists in forming us and shaping our character, our worldview, and our behavior. For example, the ancient Greeks believed that young men should be trained both in athletics and in music—to do otherwise would create a serious imbalance in the personality and behavior of the men and of society. Music written in different scales (modes) had different effects on humans, and could be used to strengthen respective aspects of one’s character. For example, the Greeks believed that music written in one scale will soften one’s cruelty while music written in a different scale will strengthen one’s courage; effectively balancing the types of music performed in a society would help to create harmonious individuals and a harmonious society.

I am reminded of my father’s belief that everything we encounter and everything we do has the possibility of shaping us— why read comic books when we can read great books; why watch trite television programs when we could study great art? We must be careful about what we read, watch, listen to, say, and do, because over time we are shaped, for good or ill, by what our minds and spirits ingest and by what we do, even if we don’t realize it. Choose good and lasting over cheap and fleeting and your life will be richer and your character stronger.

If music can help shape us, the natural question for Christians in worship is “what kinds of music have the ability to disciple us and what kinds of music might put up barriers to spiritual maturation? “ Johansson has strong ideas about this, some which I agree with only in part. I believe that making value judgments about musical styles is a difficult task; we cannot glibly pronounce that this music is necessarily good and that music is necessarily bad. In making any proclamation of this sort, we must beware of the arrogance of personal preference, which is a particular danger in speaking of music, which evokes such strong feelings and opinions. No type of music, in small doses, is likely to cause harm or good. I find it helpful to think in broad terms about the worship and musical life of a congregation, to try to describe its essence, its character, its ethos. The essential character of a congregation at worship, over an extended period of time, is our concern.

Although the task of distinguishing between discipling music and its opposite is challenging, it is important to explore the issues and Johansson helps us to do so. Here are some ideas about types of music that can be barriers to spiritual maturity, when a strong part of the worship life of the church. (I have gathered, condensed, and summarized Johansson’s ideas, as well as some of the ideas of Erik Routley, from his book Church Music and the Christian Faith).

1. Music whose words are self-centered (“me-centered”) can lead to worship whose essential character is idolatrous—the worship is focused on our own wants and needs, rather than on God. It is often easy to identify music of this sort, because its words include profuse use of “I,” “me,” “my”, “mine.” The emphasis is on me, my feelings, how God makes me feel, what God does for me. God is to be praised because of what God does for me. Feeling is the frame of reference. When the ethos of worship is overwhelmingly “me-centered,” our worship is idolatrous and spiritually immature.

2. Music that communicates the values of popular culture, rather than the values of the kingdom of God, is destructive of spiritual maturity and unworthy of use in God’s worship. This is a complicated minefield of an issue. Let us confine our discussion here to noting that Johansson believes that musical elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, performing forces, etc.), not just words, can and do communicate values, and that the hedonism and self-indulgence of popular culture may be expressed in music even when set to sacred words.

3. Music that is created cheaply does not nurture spiritual maturity. Cheaply created, undisciplined music (whether “popular” or “classical”) is written by composers or songwriters who have refused or failed to engage in the rigorous study, practice, and sustained effort of mastering the craft of musical composition. Generally such music does not endure, but it may achieve its creator’s purpose in becoming a short-lived “hit,” much as many secular pop songs or church anthems marketed by music publishing conglomerates. The shallow, easy appeal of such hits communicates a casual, even lazy, attitude about discipleship and affirms the motivation of commercial success and of self-aggrandizement (widespread fame and recognition as a “star” of sacred music of one style or another).

4. Music whose creator‘s intention is to manipulate listener’s emotions by the use of cheap, vulgar effects is music unworthy of the worship of God. Organists know that it is easy to impress some people with fast finger-work and loudness, even when the music is poorly composed, but worship leaders must not attempt to manipulate people by using cheap music merely to impress them or to provoke certain emotions or applause. This manipulation by musicians is antithetical to true worship—it is cynical and self-serving behavior, not disciplined and discipling. One of the arguments against the practice of applause in worship is the real possibility that it seduces musicians to the goal of manipulation. To try to judge the success of worship music by the overt, immediate response it evokes is dangerous. Only God can judge.

5. Music for entertainment is unworthy in worship. Johansson says: “”Entertainment results when the backbone of musical reason is discarded in favor of musical emotionalism…it is one-sided and too easily enjoyed, costing the listener little in the way of personal involvement in the art work. Entertainment music is not disciplined and therefore, not a fitting symbolic representation of gospel meaning. It is purposely immature.”

Johansson summarizes his views: “it is discipline which makes a disciple…church music becomes disciplined as it embraces artistic elements of delayed gratification, honesty, and integrity. It becomes undisciplined when it utilizes elements that make for easy acceptability and becomes undisciplined when it utilizes elements that make for easy acceptability and triteness…we should not expect that worship components can be designed so as to give worshipers that self-seeking pleasure satisfaction they so desperately crave and which culture leads them to believe is theirs by birthright, and yet produce Christians who are healthy…the song of the faithful must be a disciplined song. As music incarnates Christian discipline, it disciples us after the very heart of God.”

What do these ideas mean for us at Spring Hill Presbyterian Church? Of course, they have enormous implications for me, the person charged with leading the music of the church. I must be vigilant against the tendency to choose only music just because I like it. Rather, I must have a deep commitment to guiding our music ministries in the light of the Gospel, a Gospel that frees us through discipleship to Christ. For the members of our choirs and all of our people, these ideas mean that we must be vigilant against the mindset of asserting our right to personal musical tastes and preferences. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that “my kind of music” is the only music for worship, we must pause and examine our motives and our hearts. We must try to hear God in each musical note, alert to the possibility that it may be in music that we dislike that God is speaking the truth we really need to hear. If we believe that music in worship, at least partly, has a “discipling” role, we view worship very differently than if we expect music and worship to produce certain immediate feelings in us. We should think of music a little more like we think of the sermon. We don’t expect the sermon to always make us happy, reinforce our own ideas or create good feelings in us, thus feeding us spiritual baby food. We expect sermons to help us hear and understand God’s Word, a Word that may often be challenging, indicting, and prophetic, and therefore sermons help us, through the Holy Spirit, to grow in God’s wisdom and maturity. May our singing, playing, and listening at Spring Hill Presbyterian Church help us thus to grow.