Summary: This sermon looks at Why do we have music in worship?
For nearly 2,000 years, those of us who have committed to the way of Jesus have been engaging in particular customs week after week…generation after generation…but why? For the most part, we do these things because we’ve always done it, but how much do we know about the “why”? That’s what this series is about. Today, we’re going to talk about something that has played a huge role in the life of the church: music. Everyone has some sort of appreciation and affection for music. We may not agree on music styles or volume level, but we all share a love and appreciation for music. We see this throughout history. Every known society and culture has had some form of musical expression. Music is the great uniter, across generations and cultures. But it has also become the great divider. For the last two decades, music has also been at the heart of what has become affectionately known as “the worship wars,” the struggle within churches between traditional and contemporary music. The problem is that what helped people connect to God in one point in history may not connect everyone to God today. And yet our worship styles become ingrained us and they become preferences dictatating what we feel is appropriate worship or not. Here are two letters written from individuals complaining about the song selection and music in worship.
"I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it. Last Sunday's new hymn - if you can call it that - sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon. If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this - in God's house! - don't be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship. The hymns we grew up with are all we need." This letter was written in 1863 and the song was "Just As I Am".
Another letter said: "What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn. Last Sunday's was particularly unnerving. The tune was unsingable and the new harmonies were quite distorting." This letter was written in 1890 about the hymn "What A Friend We Have In Jesus".
In the 19th century, there was only one style of worship, traditional, but these letters reflect the rise of new styles of music in worship beginning in the 1800’s and continuing through today. When I was at Rayne Memorial in 1990 and leading the early service, I chose a new hymn from our just released hymnal called, “Here I Am, Lord.” As I stood at the door at the close of the service to thank people for coming to worship, one elderly woman said to me in a very stern voice, “I didn’t realize we’re singing pop songs in church these days.” Music unites and divides.
When you study history, you realize that forms and expressions of worship and music have always changed to reach the culture in which the church is ministering. Culture influences worship, music and ministry. Even practices within the first century church borrowed from the culture around them. Sunday, our day of worship, was chosen to draw a distinction between Judaism and Christianity. But Sunday as a day of worship was borrowed from the Roman day of worship of the sun, hence the name Sunday. In our own Methodist tradition, John Wesley’s brother Charles, who wrote over 5000 hymns in his lifetime, borrowed the tunes from bar songs and put Christian text to them so that the unchurched they were trying to reach would be able to sing in worship. So when you’re singing a Charles Wesley hymn, you’re singing of a Top 40 song of the 18th century. Even today, much of what we do in worship stems from a specific point in time and what was happening in culture then. At Boston Avenue UMC where I served as an intern pastor, their website proudly states they have “historic” Christian worship, but when you look at what they do in worship, it dates back to the 1938 merger which brought the Methodist Church into being. “Historic Methodist worship” could well have meant the more pentecostal expression of Methodist worship in the early 1800’s when we were affectionately know as the “Shouting Methodists.”