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Forming the Life of the Congregation Through Music


Some songs are too romantic, resulting in an implausible mental image, others may be so abstract as to result in no mental image at all.

Theologians and pastors might conceive of “standing before God” in educated terms, with a nuanced understanding of justification thrown in. But less trained folk are more likely to draw their ideas from the physical and emotional happenings of the worship experience. People who are bored during worship are likely to think of life with God as boring. People who do not understand the language and actions of the service will think of God as distant and incomprehensible, and those who find themselves excluded by barriers of culture, race, education, or socio-economics will think of God as unwelcoming. And of course, those who enjoy worship will think of “being with God” as enjoyable.

For these reasons, the experience of shared singing will quietly and subtly shape the church’s notion of their identity in the faith. Our singing may go wrong, and thus wrongly shape us, in a variety of ways. I will name and consider three such forms of exclusion.

A. The Christian may be excluded from singing by unsingable or unlearnable melodies. Normal folk are not adept singers; their vocal range is about one octave (considerably less for some of my friends), and they cannot execute fast notes, certain syncopations, or large melodic leaps well. They require numerous repetitions to learn a song. As most worship draws heavily on the Contemporary Christian Music industry (CCM) in which the singers are often quite agile, many melodies leave ordinary people unable to sing along in confident participation. Little consideration is given to the layperson’s vocal range (CCM songs are often too high or low) and the constant syncopation of the melodies, while culturally appropriate and sometimes musically compelling, is at times too skittish for a large group to follow. The cruise ship cannot keep up with the jet ski’s moves.

This problem is not deliberate. No one writes music to exclude others. However, because CCM derives from the recording industry, those songwriters are attending first and foremost to their own vocal abilities, to what will sound good when they sing it.

People cannot read music, so churches project words on screens, which is helpful as far as it goes. But how are the people to learn new songs if they have only words? Worship bands often indicate that they are “teaching” a new song, when in fact they merely perform it for the crowd that has no choice but to listen passively while standing awkwardly. This is why I call such songs unknowable: they are so inadequately taught that even an earnest person has little chance of catching on.

B. The Christian may find herself excluded by a loud sound system. When volume reaches a certain point, only people with microphones can be heard. It is common to find worship services in which thousands are drowned out by the speaker system. Some may argue that loud music can be enjoyable. I agree. Nevertheless, worship experiences form the people’s sense of identity, and if the volume is too loud, I contribute nothing if I sing, and am not missed if I don’t. The band is everything and I am nothing. My identity is that of an inactive spectator, or perhaps a useless bystander. Overly loud sound systems are an unintentional way in which ordinary people’s voices are excluded.

C. The Christian may find himself at odds with song texts that portray ecstatic spiritual experiences as normal and expected. Among the most-licensed CCM songs of 2008 one often finds lines like these:

Hungry I come to you

For I know you satisfy

I am empty

But I know your love does not run dry and I wait

So I wait for you

I’m falling on my knees offering all of me

Jesus, you’re all my heart is living for


Hungry (Falling on My Knees), Kara Williamson

Songs like this do speak to the experience of some, but they can be radically alienating to others. Not everyone lives the Christian life primarily as an emotional experience, and a steady diet of songs which depict fellowship with God as an almost physical intimacy (complete with double entendres) may encourage the assumption that a right-living Christian should live daily in a warm, tangible spiritual embrace. But that is wildly out of sync with the lives of many ordinary people.

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Category: Fall 2009, Ministry

About the Author: John Mortensen, D.M.A. (University of Maryland), is Professor of Music at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. A teacher of classical and jazz piano, he frequently appears as a concert artist and masterclass teacher at colleges and universities across the USA. Dr. Mortensen also performs and teaches Irish and American roots music, playing mandolin, octave mandolin, Irish flute, Irish button accordion, five-string banjo, Uilleann pipes, and Irish whistle. He created America’s only college-level traditional Irish music session class.

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