In church recently we had a visiting missionary comment on how 30 years ago, when he entered the mission field, he knew the songs sung in church. What is more, he commented that he could travel from church to church, not only in this country but in different countries as well, and find the same songs being sung.
He went on to comment how he had not known any of the songs sung that morning and if you go from one church to another on Sunday morning, you will find completely different songs.
This got me thinking that over the years I have visited a great many churches; some times simply as a guest, sometimes to preach and sometimes to interview. I have to acknowledge that I personally have also seen this change. This lead me to ponder a question, “In our striving to be ‘contemporary’ and ‘relevant’ have we lost a sense of unity and belonging which once permeated the church?”
Now before I go further, I know there are those who are saying, “Music does not define unity,” “There is more to feeling you belong than knowing songs,” and “We have to take into consideration the cultural context.” I understand these and agree. Please bear with me to the end.
First and foremost, without a doubt, our unity is found in Christ. Romans 12:5 says that “we who are many, are one body in Christ” and goes on in verse 16 to direct us to “Be of the same mind toward one another.” we also find in Philippians 2:2 we are called to be “of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” and goes on in verse 5 to tell us to “have this attitude in yourself which was also in Christ Jesus. Yes, unity and belonging are not dependent on knowing the music on a Sunday morning. It is found in Christ alone.
Second, certainly cultural context is important to engaging in worship. Now I personally have a musical background, having studied vocal performance and having many years of vocal and instrumental performance. Personally, I have a very eclectic taste in music covering pretty much all genres, though my favorite style is country. My reason for bringing this up is to make it clear that I am not, in this article, simply addressing the style of music being used. There is good and bad to be found in contemporary music in the church just as there is good and bad to be found in the old hymns. I understand that personal taste plays a role in your ability to engage with the songs being sung. Having said that, we need to remember that the end goal of a song of any sort is to engage the message communicated in the words and not simply enjoy the music. (Ideally the music should compliment and support the message of the words.)
Okay, so if our unity is in Christ and cultural context plays a role in our engaging with the music, what is my point?
Let me clarify that I did not say that we have lost unity. What I asked is if we have lost a sense of unity and belonging which once permeated the church?
You see my point in this article is not say that we have lost a unity within our local body. It is rather to say that we have lost that sense of unity with the church outside our local body and throughout history.
When I join with a body to sing “A Mighty Fortress” I can’t help but realize I am joining my voice with almost 500 years of believers. Think about it, for 500 years believers have been inspired, directed and worshiped through these words. Or “All Creatures Of Our God And King” (originally called “The Canticle of the Sun”) was written by St. Francis of Assisi in 1225. The traditional music did not come around until 400 years later in 1623. But once again for 800 years believers have recited these words and for 400 years sung these words to the same melody. Think of it, joining our voices with all those believers who came before. A reminder that worship is not about us, it is not about me. I am not the center of worship.
Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not trying to say that we should only sing old hymns. There is a place for new worship songs and hymns that have substance, but we can not forget what has come before. To do this is to cut ourselves off from thousands of years of history and to cut ourselves off from the church that sits down the road. No, our unity is not dependent on our music, but music is a gift from God that can remind us that there is more to our faith than just ourselves. It is something that brings us together. It is something that we join in, with all other believers, past, present and future, before God as part of our worship.