Music, the Opiate of the Masses: Communicating the Eternal with the Transitory
[excerpt from God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To)
...many worship songs... were first composed for a solo voice, usually the lead vocalist in a band. In the church service, the worship leader becomes the lead vocalist, usually attempting to make his voice sound like the pop entertainer’s voice who first popularized the new song. This can be difficult, even entirely inaccessible, for untrained voices of the congregation to imitate. Allow me to switch from popular to higher-culture singing to illustrate the point.
Imagine trying to sing like Luciano Pavarotti, the “king of the high C’s” as he was known. Imagine him leading worship. Imagine trying to follow his booming tenor. Though he was one of the greatest tenors of all time, and could do astounding things with his highly trained instrument, his voice, almost nobody in the congregation has the capability to follow his leading. We would be inclined not to sing. We would want to listen, not mess up his performance. What is more, we would be wholly embarrassed to attempt to sing like an opera singer. Our neighbors would think we were putting on an affected manner of singing. They would be correct. Whether we appreciate opera or not, even those of us who do, do not think it would be appropriate to try to make our congregational singing sound like Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.
But that brings up the question: Why is it that we have wholly embraced the popular entertainer’s voice and ethos but not an opera singer’s ethos? Why would it be inappropriate and unworkable to pattern our corporate worship singing after the music in Handel’s Messiah, or Mendelsohn’s Elijah?
Though pop entertainers are aiming at an entirely different vocal objective, it is, nevertheless, one that is highly specialized, requires a stage full of props, has its required conventions, though these are transient and based on the latest new bands and ever-evolving popular genres. But popular entertainment singing is not singing in the normal human fashion. We must be conditioned by popular entertainers to sing or attempt to sing the way they do.
One of my granddaughters as a two-year-old heard opera and thereafter for months she attempted to use her version of vibrato whenever she sang anything—which was often. It was hilarious. None of us could keep a straight face when she did it.
Children don’t naturally use vibrato or croon and cavort when they sing unless they have been conditioned to do so by loads of screen time watching entertainers do that kind of performance singing. Without the entertainment conditioning, however, children just sing: clear, joyful, unaffected singing. It whelms up from within them as image bearers of God. Their singing often can be full-voice, uninhibited, unaffected singing, like God sings, rejoicing over his children with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).
While God’s singing would make Pavarotti sound like a novice, hearing God singing would make us want to sing with him and like him. Far from intimidating us into silence, God, who exults over us with loud singing, made us for singing, calls us to sing back to him, to sing with him, to make a joyful noise unto him with our instrument, our voice.
The overwhelming evidence suggests that the typical worship leader, however well-intentioned, is not even striving to awaken the congregation’s instrument. Keith Getty urges worship leaders to self-assess after worship: “How well did our congregation sing? Our role is simply to be an accompaniment to them as they sing.”
Accompanying the human voice ought to be the principle thing any worship leader is doing. Whatever instruments are used to accompany the singing (not all instruments are as well suited to this role as others), it ought to be the objective of musicians to create an environment whereby the congregation’s voice will be heard above all other sounds in the room. God-honoring worship leaders will be like C. S. Lewis’s London cabby: “Stop your noise,” they will say to any sounds that compete with the voice of the congregation as it teaches and admonitions one another in corporate sung worship.
But it is not like that in the average contemporary worship service. It is far more the reverse. It sometimes seems as if the band is saying to the congregation, “Stop your noise,” listen to my guitar, this cool riff, this clever bridge, my drums, my keyboard. Murmur along if you’d like to, but what’s most important here, is us and our instrumental music.
Music in many churches has become yet another concert, the gathering of God’s people on the Lord’s Day merely another venue for that concert. The band has been practicing for the concert all week, and hopes you enjoy it. As at many concerts, you may even join in on some of your favorites, but don’t mess up the performance.
Subverted by the entertainment ethos, the chancel becomes a stage on which a performance occurs for the pleasure or amusement of the audience—who are welcome to applaud after we’re done. Whatever other context where this kind of performance might be appropriate, it’s awkwardly conjoined, at best, with the vertical nature of Christian worship.
FOLK MUSIC FOR FOLKS
If solo entertainment music, pop or classical, are difficult for the congregation to emulate, what genre remains?
Perhaps it’s music composed by folks for folks to sing. Folk music from many different traditions is far more accessible to the normal singing experience of untrained musicians and singers. Perhaps this is why so many of the most enduring hymn tunes have come from German, Scandinavian, English, Welsh, African-American Spiritual, and Irish folk music traditions.
One of the great strengths of Stuart Townend’s 2001 hymn lyric “In Christ Alone” is that it was set to a melody composed by Irishman Keith Getty. “Being brought up [in Ireland],” said Getty, “gave me a sense of melody that is very attuned to congregational singing.”
Whatever our ethnic upbringing, something resonates in the human soul with the ancient Irish folk tune Slane when we sing “Be Thou My Vision.” It needs no tampering. The timeless melody perfectly supports the rich lyric. The music compels us—not merely to clap, sway, and listen—but to sing, really sing, with full heart and voice, and minds wholly engaged.
Not all musical styles can do that. Many were never intended to do so. Is it even possible to begin with pop performance music that was produced for a multi-billion-dollar industry and then expect it to work for congregational singing?
Appetites for music change over time, and the changes are usually driven by philosophical and moral agendas. The musical style that takes center stage in most churches today was produced in the last fifty years as both outgrowth and catalyst to the sexual revolution of what Paul Johnson called “the decadent decade,” the 1960s. I state that not as opinion but as manifest fact. The sexual revolution did not produce polka music; it produced rock and roll, and its derivations, including middle-of-the-road pop music, as employed in most churches.
Though not a fan of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, I find his cultural prognostications uniquely perceptive. As a publicist he was constantly observing cultural changes and had this to say about the shift to what was popular in his day, a world on the cusp of the “decadent decade.”
"Pop entertainment is a purely commercial enterprise, an imitation and perversion of folk
culture. It is addictive but transitory, appealing to an appetite for novelty and distraction. Pop entertainment is truly the opiate of the masses in a leveling society: numbing, anesthetic, escapist."
If Eliot is at all correct, we are forced to ask ourselves: How can the eternal, unchangeable truths of the gospel be communicated in a transitory medium that appeals to listeners’ love of novelty, escapism, and distraction, that numbs them and anesthetizes them? Eliot proceeds to contrast pop entertainment as a perversion of folk culture which “is enduring, noncommercial, and anonymous, and it is perpetuated by families, schools, and clubs. It unifies the members of a local community, living, dead, and not yet born, a source of collective memory.”
He should have added, “and churches.” If Eliot is at all right, which one is most suited to congregational singing in Christian worship? Which one unifies, perpetuates, endures, encourages us collectively to remember? If “Pop entertainment is a purely commercial enterprise,” as Eliot insists, and as a cursory glance at the CCM industry discloses, it becomes ingenuous in the extreme to sing:
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure thou art.
Singing these words surrounded by an ethos scripted by the multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry—the stage arrayed with glitz and glitter, high-tech volume pulsing throughout the worship center—may prove to be far more than merely a “perversion of folk culture.”
Douglas Bond is author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) and twenty-seven other books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours in Europe. Watch for his forthcoming book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), from which this post is an excerpt; pre-order a signed copy of God Sings! at bondbooks.net and receive a free Rise and Worship cd.