By Bernard McDonagh
Never mind the ‘Year of the Horse’, or whatever. It always seems to be the ‘Year of the Corn’ as far as church music goes. I don’t say that with any pleasure, but with real concern for the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is sad to see how far church music and church musicians have fallen; plunging from an important place in music history, to where we are almost musically (and culturally?) irrelevant.
Our standards of music? For so long they’ve been dreadful. "It’s for the Lord" we say, as God’s wondrous grace, and His unconditional love become our excuse for not caring things are so bad. (That, plus many don’t even know things are bad!) We have somehow confused God accepting us as we are, with His accepting anything we do, and have become comfortable with mediocrity. The result is appallingly low standards for Him in return for His grace! Are we still the "salt of the Earth"? In Matthew 5v13, the Lord Jesus said that when salt becomes tasteless it is good for nothing, but to be thrown out and "trodden under the feet of men". What a description of so much church music!
Wait a minute, aren’t all those praise and worship albums really good? Well, yes and no. Yes, because there are some fine songs, and there are churches with some good music. But no, for this is very rare, and takes place in such a musically tiny area. (i.e. in terms of style and content.) In any case, this alone cannot begin to compare with the Church’s glorious past, when many of the great artists and composers of the times were God’s people. In those days the Church employed musicians and composers in it’s service to the Lord. Sadly this is no more the case, and generally it would be a cultural abnormality for churches to have music of depth and quality. Why? There is no escaping the reality that we just don’t think it’s important anymore.
Reformer Martin Luther described music as a "beautiful and gracious gift of God", which could "drive away the devil and make people joyful". Yet in our own times an all-prevailing super-spirituality is entrenched, and the arts have been either forgotten, ignored, or banished. Why? Because they’re not ‘spiritual’ enough, they’re not convenient enough, and they’re not religious enough! We have sold the good and perfect gifts of God, and bought a wasteland.
I find there to be an unspoken assumption that music and the arts are only peripheral to the ‘real’ things in God’s kingdom. Being an artist or musician is not really a ministry is it?; not an important one anyway… It may be due in part to the Church’s theology of the arts having strayed from the biblical patterns; the Psalms for instance, which are full of musical references. Can the lineage of what our own churches say about music and art be traced to biblical roots? Or to modern doctrines of men, who openly disregard the Word of God? (see Matt.15v1-14.)
However, the decline in Church music can be traced not only to the attitudes and beliefs of the 20th century Church, but also to our hierarchy of family and social values as well. Music is not seen as a valid career is it? If this is not true, then tell me where are all the Christian young people studying art and music at university, etc.? Please don’t talk to me about ‘Asian values’. The society I see is all about ‘face’, prestige, wealth, and ‘security’; and these alone. Music, on the surface at least, does not seem to offer these things.
There are also other factors to consider when looking critically at current Church music. Some Christians are very good musicians, yet seem to have little heart for worship or serving in the church. Much of the time it has been the standards and quality of church music itself that has scared them away. The shallowness that produces such a culture of mediocrity is not exactly an incentive to stay and put down some roots is it?
Yet, to be frank, it is also too often due to a lack of spiritual maturity. Growing in the things of God is a command of scripture, and serving the Lord is a vital factor in this growth. With an improved attitude these musicians could help their local church a great deal. They could also find a meaningful ministry; helping not only to revive glorious worship, but also to rebuild the Church’s cultural and aesthetic life from the ruins that we see now.
Yet it could also be that church leaders are guilty of inadvertently scaring musicians and artists away. They are prone to seeing higher musical standards as having the ‘world’ coming in the back door. It’s as if music was not a gift from God! It’s high time that the Church once again supported musicians in their profession. It seems to me that up until the last few decades it always had done! It’s also time that musicians got rid of some bad attitudes, and got serious about their gifts and callings, and about serving the Lord.
Yet for those who are serving in the church, finding the inspiration to continue remains difficult. There are individuals who excel but, sadly, enduring quality is not wanted, sought, or even welcome in most churches! Week in, week out we go through the motions; creating music we feel is "good enough". But good enough for what, and for Whom?
Then there are those really ‘spiritual’ folks who "trust in the Lord", or "the leading of the Holy Spirit", to make something out of their horrible, amateurish music! It’s as if offering any old rubbish to the Lord were acceptable! Do we "trust in the Lord" to do our daily work for us too? If we offered that kind of effort to our employers, what appraisal would we earn? In Malachi chapter one God exposes the "who cares" attitude of the priests; those entrusted with the service of God. Read it brothers and sisters! The LORD is grieved when we offer Him ‘sick lambs’, and when we serve Him so half-heartedly! I’ve already said it, but we just don’t give music and worship due importance! It is seen as just a prelude to the real ministry. I have news for you: preaching and church administration will some day pass away, but worship will never pass away!
We talk about ‘revival’, but what long-term vision do we have? How about a restoration in Christian culture; a spiritual ‘renaissance’? What models do we have for such a renewal? We have a Church history full of them! When I look at someone like John Wesley, I’m staggered by what he achieved in his lifetime. So too, when I consider the phenomenal amount of music written by Johann Sebastian Bach in his lifetime; and brethren - what music it is! I’m sometimes overwhelmed by my fellow man’s achievements. What now can we do? What could we accomplish, under the guiding hand of God?
I live in hope that the Church will emerge from years spent in a musical and cultural wasteland. We need much prayer, study, teaching, and development if this is to happen. I believe we the Church, need a new renaissance; an enduring move of the Spirit of God in us all, to bring deeper spirituality, greater substance in Christian music and culture, and ultimately a more beautiful testimony to our Lord Jesus Christ.
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