by Brian Hayes, Staff Writer
Every Sunday morning, Christian congregations around the world gather to lift their voices to God in song. In many languages and in various musical genres, Christians sing assertions about God and themselves. But how often do we really stop and think about what we’re singing? Whether we are aware of it or not, the music we sing forms us in the faith in significant ways. Because of this, it is critical that we to pay attention to what our music leads us to think, feel, and do.
Congregational music is a locus of religious education. While we often think of teaching taking place in Sunday school classes, small groups, and preaching, the reality is that the songs we sing also teach. Sacred music makes powerful claims about the nature of God and the roles of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in the life of faith. Song lyrics are arguments. All of the deeply theological questions we engage in Divinity school are present in the words we sing on Sunday mornings. Who is God? How does God relate to humanity? Who is Jesus? What was the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? Our congregational music presents answers to these extremely complex questions.
As current and future Christian leaders, we need to examine whether the answers we often sing in churches are sufficient. Do our lyrics accurately describe God? If we pay attention, we may find that the songs we sing completely contradict what we typically proclaim about God. We may also realize that our understanding of Jesus is entirely undermined by the words we lift up in song. This should be concerning. Congregational music inherently teaches participants about the nature of the Divine. As such, it should reflect the Sacred’s life-giving essence. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Songs glorifying fear, self-abasement, suffering, and death abound. Maybe we need new songs to sing.
But songs not only teach people about who God is, they also teach people about who they are. The way we learn to imagine God and follow Jesus directly affects how we view ourselves. Through their music, congregations sing their way into a particular way of being in the world. The essential anthropological questions we often grapple with in Divinity school are answered in our songs. Who are we? What is the role of the church? How are we to live? What is the meaning of salvation? What is the nature of the Kingdom of God?
If we pay attention, we may realize that the songs we often sing in church lead us to view ourselves and others in harmful ways. Our music may even counteract the manner of relating to God and to the world that we otherwise declare. Again, this should be concerning. Our congregational music innately shapes people’s identities and leads them towards particular actions in the world. Because of music’s power in this respect, our songs should express the love, peace, and justice God calls us to. If they fail to do this (which they often do), then maybe we need new songs to sing.
As developing ministerial leaders, we need to be aware of the educational and formational influence of congregational music. We owe it to our congregants to create worship experiences that holistically portray the God of life and the way of justice we are called into as followers of Jesus. This may mean using our prophetic voices to move the church towards songs that more accurately personify who God desires us to be in the world. In light of the embeddedness of our traditions, this will undoubtedly be difficult. But the songs we sing are an integral part of the church’s embodiment of its identity and its work in the world. We cannot sit idly by while our music misses the mark of God’s compassionate character and Jesus’ respect for the dignity of all people. Instead, let us learn to sing our way into being the people that God is urging us to be.