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October 3, 2015, 12:00 AM

Thoughts on Music in Christian Worship | Rev. Charlie Wilfong

Christian Worship: Who Are the Players?

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, ethics, psychology, and the philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony, and parables.

On the subject of Christian worship, he said that most people consider the congregation as the audience, God as the prompter, and the preacher along with other worship leaders as the “performers” of worship. Kierkegaard suggested that the reality is that God is the audience, the congregation are the “performers” of worship with the preacher and other worship leaders serving as the prompters for the performers.

This suggestion from Kierkegaard organizes my thinking around worship to understand that in some way we, as human beings, give or present something to God. So, what do we have that God “needs”? What could we possible do or offer that the Almighty cannot obtain any other way? Our freely offered regard. What does God desire from us which can’t come from any other source? Our love! Jesus identified the two greatest commandments as “Love God” and “Love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:37-39).

 

Christian Worship Is.

So, I offer my definition here.

Christian worship is giving God --the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- all our love and all our attention in reverence of who God is and in joy for what God has done. Although this definition may not be exhaustive, I believe it is descriptive and instructive.

 

Music.

I find one of the foundational scriptures for the use of music in worship in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

Music certainly has the ability to richly express our love and other sentiments to God. The pipe organ is such a powerful instrument. By that I mean not just volume; but it is flexible and capable of such nuanced sound. Like having an orchestra all the time, when someone plays it as well as Michael and Jaime do. With skill, the pipe organ can help us triumphantly declare our faith, tenderly declare our love of God and neighbor, tentatively explore challenges, lament the ways God’s reign is not yet fully realized on earth, and the list goes on.

Singing engages the entire person, body, mind, and soul. It is nearly a complete way to give our love to God in reverence and in joy. These musical acts constitute an “offering” or “sacrifice” of praise and devotion to God. Psalm 22:3 suggests that with our praise of God, we enthrone God. We make Christ Lord in a real way, when we sing it.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is credited with having said “He who sings, prays twice.” He did, in fact, write, “Singing belongs to one who loves.”

It helps to remember that Christian worship occurs on the first day of the week, not the last. We offer God the first-fruits of our time, so to speak. Worship is a fitting beginning of the week as we focus and center ourselves in our love for God. As with all acts of worship, music expresses the Gospel, and it also forms the Gospel in us at the same time.

Part of our Wesleyan heritage invites a healthy balance of head and heart in our faith, service, worship, and music. God gave us both brains and hearts with the expectation that we use them both to love and honor God. So, we sing and perform music that is complex, intellectual, and stimulating as well as selections and styles that are simple, emotional, and moving. Educational professionals have known for some time that there are things we simply cannot learn until our emotions are engaged. Effective worship engages both left and right-brain oriented people.

John Wesley preached the Christian revival that dominated England in the eighteenth century. At the same time, his brother, Charles, wrote the musical soundtrack and thereby gave that revival a sustainable heart through the hymns. Charles expressed every bit as much theology in his hymn texts and poetry as John did in the pulpit.

Please take the time to find and read the Preface in the current United Methodist Hymnal. It not only explains the origin and intent in this latest in a long line of Methodist hymnals, but celebrates well our heritage of singing our faith. As part of that Preface, the Hymnal Revision Committee has also included John Wesley’s own “Directions for Singing”. The first six are mostly practical; but the seventh speaks to the core of Christian worship. Consider it well when singing in worship.

“Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.” –From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, 1761.

Rev. Charlie Wilfong
Plainfield United Methodist Church

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