Feed the people with truth, not music

There’s a famous line from the start of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: If music be the food of love, play on.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Christian worship singing. Music is not the food of a proper love for God. Music can never be the food of a biblical compassion for the lost. Truth is the food of a proper love for God and a biblical compassion for the lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I love music. I love singing. I consider it an aberration that I’ve never taken the time to learn a musical instrument. Having mixed worship services for the last 4-5 years of my life, I know first hand how excellent music can stir a person’ emotions. I even spend time analysing what an ideal mix sounds like, asking myself questions like: how does the bass line stir my emotions, what sort of drum tones are ideal for the type of music being played, what pitches and tones are pleasant to the ear, how can we layer instruments on top of each other so that the end result is more than the sum of its parts. In fact, I spend enough time thinking about these issues that I ask myself similar questions when watching a movie, i.e. what elements of the soundtrack are driving this visual experience.

Yet, like all of creation, music is employed in a fallen way. It is used to manipulate people. Music ought to be doxological, but it can just as easily serve pragmatic purposes. We all know that a steady bass beat and the right electric riff can get the heart pounding. We all know that playing in a minor key evokes sad or melancholic feelings in a person. Where we go wrong in Christian worship music is that we can easily give primacy to music to shape people’s emotional responses.

But there is something we can learn from good movies. The soundtrack never takes center stage in a movie. We don’t usually come out of a movie saying that was a good soundtrack. Rather, we come out with our hearts resonating with the story of the movie. The music simply confirms this feeling. The lesson is this: the story takes precedence over the soundtrack, but a good soundtrack enhances the story.

This is a truth we ought to come to terms with in Christian worship music. First, the story takes precedence over the soundtrack. If you want the hearts of your congregation to experience something real, then let their heart beat to the greatest story ever told: the story of redemption through Christ. Don’t ever let their hearts beat to a kick drum. We’re not going to spend eternity singing about kick drums. This is why the Bible places so little focus on music: it cares less about the way we praise and more about the God we praise. The simple truth is that God cares that we praise him for who he is, rather than mouth empty praises to empty things and false gods. Therefore, those who lead their congregations in singing should make it their primary goal to feed the people with truth, not music. If you want them to go off and spend the week praising God, then give them a sight of God they will never forget, not a sound that is drowned out by the next loud sound.

Second, a good soundtrack enhances the story. There are songs out there filled with solid biblical truth that are also written to really good music. Dig hard for these diamonds. Don’t be easily satisfied with the next big worship CD. Find both the right story and the story that is rightly told.

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