What are congregants really doing when they complain about church music?

In the churches of which I have been a part – the Protestant, free-church, evangelical variety with little formal liturgy – form is often treated as irrelevant. This attitude typically appears when someone has a complaint related to music, and the approach that leadership takes to such complaints is often to simply suggest that they should not be made at all. What matters is doctrine and beyond doctrine what matters is relationship, community, and unity. Issues of form are matters of preference only and are therefore debates into which only the “immature” enter. Arguments over form are not arguments over doctrine and are therefore mere threats to unity. We should therefore strive not to critique or enter into conversations about form at all. Certainly not everyone feels this way and I don’t know that everyone who gets frustrated with such arguments would express it in this way, but I frequently hear a variation of “there are more important things to talk about” in response to such critiques.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have also experienced liturgical services in which form matters immensely. These services accomplish the creation of a whole reality through forms – musical, visual, spatial forms, but also rhythmic forms. In fact, it is the rhythmic form that conducts all the others. The liturgy organizes the musical, visual, spatial dimensions of reality through rhythm, through flows and punctuations performed in voice and body. This rhythm shapes a small slice of space-time differently than the rest of life so that one can perceive and participate in a hidden but true reality that is typically obscured by all the other rhythms of daily life. In these contexts, form is often highly standardized precisely in order to ensure that a specific vision of reality is communicated.

I think these more formal liturgies can help us to understand what the “immature” are trying to communicate when they complain and argue about forms like worship music. They have a specific understanding of the reality to which the gospel points, in which they want to participate. It is form, which in many non-liturgical churches has been reduced to musical form, that does or does not reveal such a reality and does or does enable participation in it. In this sense, I find myself on the side of the “immature,” who – concerned with “superficial” matters like music and seating arrangements and the organization of the worship space – may be pointing to something important that the “wise” have overlooked but perhaps need to hear nevertheless: form matters and it matters theologically. It’s the way that we practice imagining ourselves as part of the more significant reality of the kingdom of God of which we are a part, but which we are prone to forget throughout the week. If the church does not make this possible for its participants, it is failing at part of its task.

This is not to say that all visions of how the kingdom of God ought to be manifest through form are equally appropriate. It also does not mean that such disagreements over form are always done well. But these squabbles in the pews, which some of us might be tempted to look down on, may be pointing toward a theological conversation that we ought to have about the rhythms that manifest what we believe. Rather than dismissing questions of form as irrelevant when they come up from the pews, granting that we may be tempted to do so because they’re not always put in the most helpful ways, how can we help our congregations to have those conversations better? How can we help our congregations make the connections between their preferences regarding form and what those preferences suggest about the kingdom of God?

2 replies »

  1. Maybe some have utilized the rhythms of worship to cultivate an awareness or poster of anticipation to see God’s spontaneity visit their experience. As in multiple contexts of tribal rituals, percussive choruses prepare the worshipers to receive a visitation from their spiritual overseers. These squabblings might be an attempt for the individual to recreate the past environments of the unexpected, the times when divine improvisation arrived as a visitation from heaven gifting a miracle, a emotional healing or perhaps an encouraging word.

    Awesome ponderings!


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