Joining with the angels: some reflections after one year of music ministry

The sentiment I expressed in my opening letter to the congregation rings just as true today. In that letter I articulated that my primary goal has and will remain this: to empower all people who come through our doors to worship God fully.  Though the job of a worship leader is often viewed as a position rife with disagreement, in many ways it is the easiest job in the world.  Recalling the words of the Westminster Catechism, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”  With this in mind, my position is not one of conflict and disagreement, but of harmony and joy – one that is less concerned with pleasing people, and more concerned with pleasing God through His people.  What ceaseless hope and consistent joy it has been to work and serve in the ministry of our Lord!

I am forever grateful for the work laid out by Beth and Jim Pocock, who tirelessly and selflessly gave of themselves and stretched this congregation in new and at times very difficult ways.  One idea that they championed in their ministry is that we ought to sing each others songs – i.e. have open hearts and minds to the songs of other generations.  This gracious act of charity and love towards our brothers and sisters in Christ can be salt and light in our consumer-driven individualistic society.  It’s not just about us.  Going forward from here, let’s remember not only that learning unfamiliar music is an act of charity towards our friends, but that these songs have inherent value that we ought to pay attention to.  We are drawn to hymns because they have stood the test of time and have spoken to the hearts of Christians despite changing fads and fashions.  For that we celebrate and sing.  We are drawn to modern music because it encourages us to engage our whole body and speaks in the language of the culture we live in today.  For that we celebrate and sing just as heartily.  Can we get away from the bi-partisan attitudes that instantly dismiss music because it includes the organ, or the electric guitar?  Uses antiquated or overly modern language?  Can we move past the sectarian notion that because we are a certain age we must enjoy a certain kind of music?  Yes, with humble spirits and God’s help.  I promise to pick only the most excellent music of these (and other undiscovered) categories of music styles leading us into worship for years to come.

In this short letter I would like to share with you my vision for music at TCC for the years to come.  This does not represent a gut reaction to the climate at this particular moment, but from what I have come to stand for after years of thinking about worship, leading worship in all sorts of styles (from hip-hop to Taizé and everything in between), and studying in the classroom.  Here are a few concepts I have come to understand, and hope and pray that I will come to a fuller understanding in the months and years to come.

1.     Music is more than we give it credit for.  Too often we relegate music into a specific function.  For some music can be a means to draw unbelievers into the church, for others music can be a reminder of God’s trustworthiness and provision.  Further still music can be a means of experiencing God’s mighty power, or his relentless love.  Music can be something we make together; music can be something we rally around.  The truth is music is all of these things and more, but we must never assume that music is purely functional.  The minute we do is the minute we erect a wall that prevents the Holy Spirit from working through music to communicate truth in our church both individually and corporately. 

2.     Music is sacramental.  I apologize for the fancy theology word, but sometimes we can say in one big fancy word what would take many smaller words.  In short, a sacrament is a tangible sign of an intangible reality.  The best example of this is Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper.  Whether you view communion as the transformation of simple elements of bread and cup into body and blood, or see our Lord’s supper as a deep act of grateful remembrance that Jesus paid the ultimate price, in this meal we find that something mysterious yet real is happening.  Though it involves physical elements, our five senses cannot adequately describe what is going on.   The same applies for music.  On the surface, music is simply pitches and rhythms – vibrations, but we all know there is a greater reality underneath the physical hearing.  Anne Lamott gets at this when she asks, “How come you can hear a chord, and then another chord, and then your heart breaks open?.”  God, the creator of music has given us this gift.  How should we use it to give back to him glory?  We must never reduce music to simply a means to a greater end.  We can easily assume that as long as we agree with the sentiment of the words, the form (style) is neutral; simply a carrier of text.  The sacramentality of music reminds us that form is not neutral.  Form says something, and we must consider what we are saying through the style of our music as much as what we are saying with the lyrics.  As the saying goes, “it’s not what you say, it’s you how you say it.”  This is a potent criticism of contemporary and traditional music alike, and we need to be aware of the successes and shortcomings of both styles.

 3.     Music is congregational.  This may sound like an obvious concept, but we want to offer worship services where participation is not forced on a visitor, but essential for the regular congregant.  When our congregation is feels that participating in the worship services (and this is much more than singing loudly) is not only important but necessary, the newcomer will feel welcome and encouraged to participate, not forced or manipulated into false participation.  In addition, leadership should not be by a homogenous group, but one that accurately represents the congregation as a whole.  Let’s allow our young children and teenagers to lead us in worship for their benefit and for ours – all pleasing to the Lord.

I can help but share with you some of the conflicting reactions I’ve received for leading music in a church with multiple styles of music.  Sometimes people mention to me that the music is “too catholic sounding”, and that same week I’ll receive an email saying that they want to hear music more like the catholic music they grew up with.  Some people have come to associate me with smells-and-bells high-church worship, but others associate my song selection with the churches slow and steady movement away from hymns of the 19th and 20th centuries.  It seems I can’t win.  Believe it or not, this is actually a good sign.  We need each other in this season at TCC, and to go forward we need to seriously consider the other.  We need the budding energy of Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons” just as much the steady assurance of the old Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.”  I think back to the Kyrie we sang during lent.  I received a lot of mixed comments, both negative and positive for this from both young and old people alike.  But singing this song was good for a number of reasons.  For one, this song didn’t belong to any one particular group- young or old.  Instead it belonged to all of us: the church universal.  For another, it disrupted notions that ‘classical’ sounding songs are complicated and ‘contemporary’ songs are repetitive.  Here we had a super-traditional (4th century) song that was in fact very simple and repetitive.  Just 3 lines of music and 3 words!  Finally, it helped us not only to connect us with Christian worshippers across time, but across the globe.  As American Protestants, we need to remember our origins in the Catholic church, but also the Orthodox church in the east.  The Kyrie is one of the songs that all three churches still sing today – despite all the schisms and conflicts over the centuries we all still need to say “Lord have mercy!”  I am always on the lookout for these barrier-breaking songs for us to sing (Trisagion, the thrice holy hymn we have sung several times since Lou’s last Sunday is another example, as is Charlie Hall’s “Mystery”, which quotes directly the memorial acclimation as the chorus).  They are often the most simple but the most powerful.  We don’t need fancy words or loud guitars – those things are nice – all we need is a humble spirit to do what we were created to do.

I titled this letter “joining with the angels” because it is one simple concept I want us to remember this coming year.  It is a simple concept that radically re-orients our perspective: A call to humility in expressions of praise.  When we worship the triune God, it is not by our power or strength alone, but it is with the choirs of angels and archangels and the company of hosts in heaven – so raise your voice and praise God – for heavens sake!