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Forming the Life of the Congregation Through Music


There is indeed a place for texts which express aspiration rather than reality, wherein we speak what we wish were true, and hope shall become true, rather than what is now true. Still, it is problematic to give a privileged place to songs of concentrated emotional and quasi-physical intimacy because they imply that the individual Christian ought to find something comparably intense as he worships God. Some do. Some do not. The one who does not may conclude that he is spiritually mediocre, or perhaps that Jesus is just a little too clingy.

(Just as 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. Texts weighed down with abstract words like power, glory, and beauty actually say less than texts which create imagery about something powerful, glorious, and beautiful. But that is a discussion for later in this article.)


Question 3: What happens when music in the church borrows from music in the culture?

Singing together raises questions about the relationship between church and culture. In our time church music resembles cultural practices in a way that (say) medieval church music did not. In the year 1256, it was not possible to confuse the sounds of the cathedral with the sounds of the carnival. Today almost all church music is either derived from or directly imported from a style in the broader culture. This situation is neither good nor bad; it is complex, and calls for deft navigation.

Setting the volume control is an act of ecclesiology.

We are created by God to live within culture, and all our activities from gardening to systematic theology will show our culture’s influence to some degree. Though it shapes us in ways we do not perceive, we are not quite like fish swimming around unaware of the water. We do in fact notice some of the tendencies of our own culture, and we can cultivate some while resisting others.

In other words, we will inevitably assimilate from the culture, but we may also choose to innovate upon it.3 (Some problems of assimilation will be presented here, while suggestions for innovation will be given in the closing section.) The culture offers many goods for our assimilation. The tonal system, with its major and minor keys, is a wonderful gift. And we do not need to invent instruments from scratch, but may assimilate guitars, fiddles, pianos and drums.

At the same time, it is possible to assimilate things that are antithetical to the Kingdom of God. The pervasive obsession with sex, debauchery, and violence within popular music culture has been thoroughly critiqued by others, and I will not explore that issue here. Instead, I would like to suggest that a more subtle assimilation continues to occur with little notice and even less critique. The church readily assimilates two things from the culture: celebrityism and consumer passivity.

Because nearly all our music is made for us by the entertainment industry and delivered to us by celebrities, we cannot help but import some of the practices and assumptions of that system into our Christian worship. A celebrity does not merely provide music, as a chef provides dinner. We may enjoy the dinner greatly and never care who the chef is. We care greatly who the celebrity is. The experience of encountering the famous person projecting her stage personality through the medium of the song is more important than the actual aural experience of the music. A celebrity will be forgiven for singing out of tune or forgetting the words as long as she has cool moves, attitude, or whatever combination of intangible but unmistakable qualities make up her stage personality. We are unlikely to forgive the chef for bad food on the merits of moves and attitude.

Living within a culture in which songs are delivered from an industry via celebrity personalities results in a kind of spiritual formation in which we become passive spectators. Congregations have been taught from childhood that music is a thing done by stars, and the role of the crowd is to observe and be entertained. Assimilating celebrity culture discourages the ordinary Christian from participating fully in worship, and gradually shapes him into a consumer expecting entertainment rather than a disciple expecting participation.4

The Christian music industry functions as a business, not a ministry, and serves the interests of the church if and only if doing so yields a profit. (Are there any Christian record labels that operate at a loss because of their commitment to the gospel?) For the last two decades within the industry, many performers have represented themselves as worship leaders.5 Their business goals include convincing us to buy their CDs and DVDs for our personal worship time, license their songs at our churches for corporate worship, buy tickets to their live shows, and see their products as indispensable to our congregational and private lives. They want to act not as entertainers only but also as worship leaders, chief emotional officers6, and interpreters of life’s events.

But these business strategies assume that such a role, which is essentially pastoral, can belong appropriately to someone who is unknown to us, who is not a part of our local faith community. Only by convincing us to allow that role can they remain profitable. But because they are also entertainers who market their goods to consumers, their posture toward us is that of the salesman: They offer flattery rather than exhortation, or at least exhortation exactly as we would have it, which is to say, flattery. So our posture toward them, and toward their products, is that of the consumer: a complacent expectation to be pleased, with reasonable demands on our wallets and no demands on our souls. By depending on the entertainment industry for our worship music, we assimilate passivity and allow ourselves to be spiritually formed as consumers.7


Part Two: Practices That Form the Congregation

I have drawn a picture of obstacles to good music-making. Taken together, they are daunting. That is why it is best not to take them together, but rather choose a few small matters for attention and labor. Several simple practices are within the power of the ordinary pastor and worship leader, and some do not require musical ability.


Narrative and Imagery: Picturing the Gospel Story

The power of well-chosen words is worthy of… remarking upon in well-chosen words. I suggest three practices, in ascending order of difficulty, for bringing interesting and descriptive texts to our congregations.

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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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