We continue series with Northern Seminary DMin grads who summarize their chapter from Wise Church.

This post is by Julie Murdock.

“Music is a time-honored way of lifting our voices together in praise and thanksgiving to God our Father as well as introducing and reinforcing important lessons of our faith.” (p.87) Music and, more specifically singing, has been integral to Christianity at our defining moments; the angels sang celebrating the birth of Jesus, and Jesus and the apostles sang hymns as a part of the Last Supper. Regrettably, music has also been a source of conflict within churches, especially during the last 200 years. I would imagine that most, if not all, church leaders at some point in time have encountered “hymn wars.” These conflicts are emotionally charged because music speaks to our emotions, our traditions, and our soul. Although music in most churches serves in a secondary or support position, the dissensions surrounding hymns and music often take front stage in the life of the congregation. Traditional or contemporary, organ or guitar, the musical preferences often pit segments of the church family against one another: younger versus older, conservative versus progressive, tradition versus innovation. The time and resources spent in finding solutions or options to please everyone tax the church through the creation of multiple services, multiple hymnals or songbooks, multiple groups of musicians, or any other multitude of solutions the church has witnessed over the last 50+ years.

This is a most unfortunate development and, in the truest Proverbial sense, foolish. Music has been and can continue to be a powerful tool in the transmission of wisdom and in building a culture of wisdom. Like no other mode of communication, music has the power to transcend the spoken word and relate what is being said to the emotional and spiritual self in addition to the rational self. In discerning how music can be used wisely as a tool for growing wisdom, it is important to examine how the church has used music throughout its past to worship as well as teach. Additionally, it is important to understand how music impacts the listener as they listen and after. Knowing the history of music in the church, the traditions that have been passed down for millennia, and understanding the conscious and sub-conscious reactions to music can nor only help leaders of the church choose wise music, but also address the conflict which arise from musical choices.

The early church, born from the cradle of Judaism, sang Psalms and hymns as they had been accustomed to in the synagogue. Gentile converts to Christianity also were comfortable with singing hymns to God as it was common in the worship of pagan gods as well. This early music was centered around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, it was also engaged as a pedagogical tool for the transmission and reinforcement of the basic beliefs of Christian faith. Singin hymns and psalms was also encouraged as a practice not only as a form of personal worship and devotions, but also as a way to keep the church’s teaching in mind. As teachings began to diverge, the church used hymns to promote orthodoxy and combat heresies. In the 4th century CE when Christianity became legal and churches were no longer required to meet in small groups in secret, congregation size swelled. At the same time, hymnody increased; many believe that this was in part a result of less intimate practice of the Eucharist. Also during this era, there surfaced some debates on whether or not hymns should be used in services at all as some church fathers were uncomfortable with the similarities between Christian and pagan practices. Specifically, the flute and cithara were viewed as pagan instruments, whereas the harp and lyre were thought to be acceptable due to their use in the Psalms.

After the reformation, church leaders discovered a new use for music, involving the congregation in worship, although this view was not unanimous. Up to this time, hymns were composed mainly of psalms and scripture. However, in the 18th century, and most notably in the Methodist tradition, hymns began to be written and sung as a guide to Christian living and practical doctrines of the Christian faith. While remaining true to scripture, they attempted to answer questions on a more practical level. Some examples of these new topics were the goodness of God, rejoicing of fellowship, and songs appropriate to the seasons of the church calendar. There were churches who resisted this new direction in hymnody, notably the Church of England and Catholic church. The Great Awakening saw hymns which combined worship and teachings with experiences of the community. No where is this more evident than in the moving Negro Spirituals which were created in the 19th century and are still sung today. Throughout the history of the church, music has been used to praise and worship God and to teach scriptural truths and doctrines which are important for the congregants to rehearse.

As noted above, in addition to rich traditional heritage, we are impacted by music in more ways than singing or listening. Through the experience of music, we benefit from a synergy between the words and the music, creating an experience that is more than the parts. On a corporate scale, uniting voices in praise and worship reinforces feelings of unity and koinonia. Additionally, when the music is chosen in agreement with the sermon or scriptural teaching, the message is reinforced, underlined, if you will, by the emotions encountered through the singing and participation. On the individual level, each hearer participates mimetically in the music, whether through singing, humming, or simply moving in rhythm. This mimetic participation fosters feelings of achievement as well as belonging. The more familiar a listener is with a piece of music, the more powerful its impact in that the mind receives a reward as sense is made from the music and the message is reinforced. Mimetic participation motivates and forms conceptions in the mind of the congregant. Combining a message with music which will reinforce the aims of the message and help listeners to conceptualize the message results in a powerful tool. As a tool, this mimetic action can be used wisely, or a tool which can cause damage and misconceptions.

In conclusion, the church has always used music and hymnody first for praise and worship, and secondly as a pedagogical tool. They have also been used to address Christian living in practical means and celebrate the Christian life of love and fellowship. These messages and lessons have a lasting impact on the congregants as they leave the church. They will reflect on the music and the message well past Sunday morning by mimetically participating in the music. Church leaders can use this influential tool to guide their congregations and foster growth in wisdom by choosing hymns that maintain the church’s original focus on worship and the life of Christ and using it to communicate sound doctrine and guidance. Great care and attention should be given to the selection of music for the service understanding the lasting and impactful effect the hymns will have on their listeners. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “What should I do then? …I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” (1 Cor. 14:15)