I was visiting a church a few months ago and the worship music was great. My four year old was alongside me, I had recently been teaching him to read the lyrics on the screens during the songs. Now it was time to encourage him to try to actually sing – to join in with me in worship. His reply shocked me: “But Daddy, my voice is too small”.
The band was good and the sound was loud. The adults in the room, with their ‘big’ voices, could attempt to join in and lift their hearts in worship. But for my little one, he was left feeling he couldn’t contribute. That there was no way he could match the volume of the music; that there was no space for his voice to be added to the sound. It felt like there was no place for his heart to be added to the heart of the people of God that day.
Music Over and Music under
Music is an immensely powerful thing and power tends to have two effects on people. It can get under people, be a platform for freedom and make them more than they thought they could be. Or, all too often, power can get over people, making them less than they know they are, bringing a ceiling to expectation and blocking the road to freedom.
How do we, as worship leaders, worship teams and musicians handle this power that music has? How do we harness the God-given gift of music whilst ensuring it is always a power under the people of God, rather than a power over them? How do we handle music wisely and release the voice of the people of God in worship?
This isn’t a recent problem. Music and the Church have had a rocky relationship. Anything which can ‘madden…console, exalt, heal’ and have ‘implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self’ (George Steiner) is something to be taken seriously by the church. In fact, music is so ‘incarnate’, such a ‘bodily business’ (Jeremy Begbie), that it has been said that to ask what is music is to ask what it is to be human itself. And so Music has been simultaneously drawn close by the church whilst being, in some ways, kept at arms length.
The great reformer, Jean Calvin for example, maybe did more for the spread of singing than anyone by having metrical psalms in the back of his early bibles. Suddenly not only did scripture spread, but singing too – in the fields and villages of Europe. Yet, Calvin only allowed unison voices. (‘No harmony please, it’s too powerful!’) Even in the last 50 years, drum kits in church have been controversial and more recently, the so-called ‘worship wars’ of North America have raged. Lying beneath the surface of these debates is all too often different perspectives on music and how to handle its ‘power’.
Even in the Vineyard Church, a movement that places sung worship so central, this tension has been felt. Over 30 years ago, the late musician and church leader John Wimber warned about handling wisely the power of music in worship using the analogy of the theatre: “there’s been a progression towards theatre… theatre presumes the ability to control audience interest… it eliminates the exercise of the unknown, taking of chances, reaching out for the something you’re not sure of, listening for the nuance of the Spirit’s breathing and speaking to you…it becomes safe.”
As a worship leader of 20 years experience, including conferences of thousands of people, I recognise Calvin’s fear and Wimber’s wisdom. Music offers a ‘safe power’ to the worship leader. Its strategy is to offer predictable ’safe’ results: “Once you have mastered me, you can use me and I will always give you reliable responses.” Such a tempting invitation when the ‘success’ of worship is judged purely on what is seen. Rarely is music’s power harnessed deliberately in this manner in the church but ‘power over’ is a subtle invasion, gradually eroding faith in the things unseen.
How do we keep Music ‘under’ us?
So how do we keep music ‘under’ us? The answer lies in Wimber’s wisdom. We’re supposed to lead by faith, not manage by sight. As Christians, we are the power-less ones, most alive when we’re open handed, most powerful when we’re undone: Isaiah 6 shows us that – our weakness is His strength (2 Cor 12.9). Our leadership starts when we unite with Christ (Rom 6), exchange our sin for his singing life, and get raised up with him by the Spirit’s power to share in His experience of Gethsemane grace, of undone power – obedience to the Father.
The truth is, you can control a something, but not a someone. Music is a something, the Spirit is a someone. And it is the Spirit’s playing we need on stage. It is the results the Spirit alone can bring that we need as we gather – the glorification of Jesus, the life of Jesus: his power and his character infused in us as we surrender afresh and praise our God.
Now this is where it gets complicated. Music and the Spirit seem related in some way, which is why sung worship is so important. Paul in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:15-20 seems to be hinting at this and Revelation 4 and 5 depict it. There is something about being filled with the Spirit and singing; about having the life of God in you and celebrating that life through song. Singing seems to be a sign of the Spirit: both his presence now bringing the life of Christ to us, and the future hope coming. We sing to be free, we sing because we are free, we sing because freedom is coming.
The power in gathered worship comes when the people sing, because when the people sing they open themselves to the Spirit’s work, surrender themselves to God’s power, unite themselves to the life of the risen One, and complete themselves in the love of the Father.
Music from and for the Maker
So as worship leaders and musicians let’s keep music’s power sourced by the one true power: the life of God: Father, Son and Spirit. Let’s receive music as a gift from God and use music as a servant of God. Music is the Alabaster jar broken for Jesus. Music is the wood that held Jesus to death for all the world to see. Music is Mary whose womb carried the king. Music is the star that led those far off to come to worship. Music is the scream of death breaking, the sound of sin reversing, the silence of the empty tomb. Music is the first trumpet that sounds as resurrection spreads. Music was the grass in Eden and will be the golden streets of the City. It is something under us. Something given to exalt us, to lift us up.
Music is not God. But God loves music. It’s the colours in the rainbow of his faithfulness that we can’t see; it sounds like him, it communicates his love, it celebrates his life. It is to be used by the church to release the heart, direct affection and unite creation in thankful reconnection to the source, the first and last note – Jesus.
This is a sound that needs every voice. A music incomplete without the unique song of every heart – young and old, near and far. True worship is a gig which is never sold out; a ticketed event for everyone; an invitation with every name on it. In true worship, there’s always space.
So let’s not allow music to be a power over us, to steal the praise that is rightfully His alone. To make us feel smaller, like we aren’t an equal contribution, like our voice doesn’t matter if its there or not. The power is not in the drummer’s hands, the sound engineer’s buttons, but in the mysteries harmony of the voice of the people with the voice of the Spirit. The eternal epiclesis of weakness and power. Of imperfect made perfect in the hands of God.
The ancient power that can’t be tamed, the desire of our hearts, the answer to all our questions, the rest in the bar, is always God himself: the love of the Father in the face of Christ whenever we call on his name. May his reality be the center of all musical praise in the Church. And let’s be graceful to one another as we continue to do a very difficult job: (re)uniting the power of music to its source and end – making music for the music maker.
© 2016 Nick J Drake. All photos: Nathan Adams nathanadamscreative.com