3 Errors of Musical Style that Stifle Community

It is ironic that music, an element meant to draw Christians together in mutual love and service (see Colossians 3:16) has become a force for significant division within the church. It just goes to show, I guess, that we can make a mess of pretty much anything. In their book The Compelling Community, Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop point out 3 common errors of musical style can stifle local church community:

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Music that’s difficult to sing corporately. If your music appeals strongly to the taste of American twenty-somethings, you’ll get a lot of accolades from American twenty-somethings. But the African Christian in her fifties may feel decidedly out of place. If you want music that embraces the natural diversity the gospel brings to a congregation, you’ll need to think hard about your goals for musical style. Consider the cultural backgrounds of your congregation. Consider the cultural backgrounds of the non-Christian neighbors you hope to see in your church. How difficult is it for this diversity of people to sing the songs you choose? One factor at play is rhythmic complexity. Many Christian songs you hear on the radio are rather complex from a rhythmic standpoint. That’s part of what makes them interesting. But that syncopation and changing meter and tempo may make them difficult for some in your congregation to learn—and especially those who come from cultural backgrounds where rhythmic simplicity is the norm. Unless your congregation is in a setting where musical complexity is common, you’ll generally find that rhythmic simplicity will make your music accessible to the widest variety of people. When you shape your musical style with the entire congregation in mind, you battle a consumerist mind-set that wants music that “appeals to me.” And you emphasize the breadth of community we should expect to find in a local church.

Music with limited emotional breadth. Much of church music is happy music. But if that is all we ever have, we substantially dilute the Christian experience. And the tone we set in our services will inevitably carry over into relationships. If we teach people through our music that feelings of doubt, despair, and bewilderment are not acceptable starting points for worship, we teach them that these topics are not acceptable in private conversation either—to the detriment of depth in relationships. I tell new members at our church that I want music that helps them worship God if they got engaged the previous evening, and I want music that helps them worship God if they broke up the previous evening. When you select music with a variety of emotional starting points, you teach your congregation that God’s promises hold true no matter our emotional condition.

Music that feels like a performance. Revelation 5:13 pictures the worship of heaven as the song of an entire congregation. Our churches should provide a foretaste of that. Musical accompaniment can help by leading us in song and helping us through sections of songs that are more difficult to sing. Or it can overpower congregational worship and turn us from active worshipers into passive listeners. Consider the volume and complexity of your musical accompaniment: does it help congregational worship? Or do people mumble softly while listening to the worship band or the organ? To be sung well, some melodies require an exceptionally talented congregation and accompaniment. Yet good congregational melodies can work without accompaniment. If you don’t already, try going a cappella (without accompaniment) on the last verse or chorus of some of your songs. Little can build a feeling of congregational unity more than hearing the whole church sing their hearts out in passionate praise to God. We should design our musical style with this in mind.

Above all, we must teach our congregations that congregational worship requires sacrifice. That’s why the corrective action at the beginning of this section is not “aspire to a simple musical style that a broad range of people love” but that a broad range of people can use. If we’re serious about displaying the diversity that the gospel brings to a local congregation, then each of us will make sacrifices in the type of music we sing. Some may need to work to enjoy a particularly simple style of music. Some may need to work harder to worship God on Sunday morning. But through that small sacrifice, we enable congregational unity that sings a much more profound note of praise than any individual could ever produce on his own. And having experienced that taste of heaven, your congregation will gladly make the sacrifice.