6 The issue of music in Church

Chris and I (editor) have often spoken about the use of music in church. There are lots of aspects that can be discussed in this area and no doubt we will come back to some more of these in the future. The place that I want to begin at is the observation that ‘successful’ evangelical churches devote a lot of effort and money in providing a good choir and instrumentalists to lead worship. This will always be an attraction to the people who like the kind of music on offer. The tunes are catchy and it would not be wrong to say that many people find this ‘entertainment’ a good reason for attending a particular church. Without at this point making any judgement on the merit of the music or indeed the lyrics being sung, it would not be unfair to say that emotions are stirred and hearts are warmed by music in church long before the brain has been engaged with the message of the preacher or leader.
This reflection wants to focus on the possible disconnection between brain and emotion that takes place in many churches where endless singing and music during worship is commonplace. If there is this disconnection, and here the readers of the blog may have opinions, then there is a situation of true danger. The danger is that religion is permanently associated with spungy pleasant feelings aroused by sentimental music. Thus the engagement of the brain with issues of faith and decisions about life may never happen. In short religion or faith has become permanently associated with ‘feelings’ and the possibility of actually thinking about faith cannot easily take place.

Two further dangers follow from this. One is that the individuals who are swayed into automatic religious sensations and emotions when certain music is played are going to be vulnerable to the kinds of abuse that this blog is concerned about. The capacity to think critically about leaders, whether or not their preaching is good or even rational is going to be diminished. So congregations can become fodder for financial, spiritual and emotional exploitation by their leaders. What I have written is provocative but I want to create some sort of reaction from my readers. Is music sometimes used to ‘soften up’ worshippers for exploitation of various kinds or is it a genuine handmaid of growing deeper into faith and Christian maturity? What do you think?

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

12 thoughts on “6 The issue of music in Church

  1. I agree with Stephen’s comments on the dangers of ‘Christian music’. In particular I would like to draw attention to the demonstrative thumping fervor of praise bands. The danger that this phenomenon can disengage the brain from the normal cognitive process of using the mechanics of logic can hardly be overstated. If this is happening (And I can testify that in my case it did!) then the most subtle power control is taking place. The great danger here is that people begin to look on life not as it really is but how they would wish it to be! Put along side this the fast growing Christian celebrity culture, with a professional music industry and the celeb/Christians on the testimony circuit, and to me it spells Big trouble coming! Chris

  2. Many cathedrals have wonderful music. That tends to work to make people come to church for the music, . . and nothing much else. When the choir’s on holiday, they don’t come. I also object to not giving the congregation the music for the hymns. It impoverishes their singing. A service is not supposed to be a concert.
    Many ordinary churches have pretty awful music groups. There the problem is low quality. But what to do if high quality causes the above problems? How do you justify offering less than your best to God?

  3. If the environment of the church is not a place of absolute difference to the world, the sense of wonder of God’s presence will be diminished.
    Pop music is mostly concerned with romantic sentiment, a hymn or worship song should be so much more than this. Is it any wonder that people tire of ‘praise bands’ and leave the church?

    1. Maybe. I have to say I’ve heard some very good Christian pop music. One of my children prefers this type, the other prefers Cathedrals! The problem in most churches is that the way it is sung is like the cd rather than like the service sheet, so if you’re not in with the in crowd, you haven’t a clue what’s going on.

  4. Anonymous. Would you explain how you think that ‘a place of absolute difference to the world’ can be created. I think we all want that but it is not easy to see how this can be achieved. Of course individual taste comes into the equation, but I am, I think, right to claim that some music does debase an atmosphere rather than enhance it. There is bound to be other music that ‘does it’ for some and alienates others and it would be difficult to say where the border between potentially edifying music and sentimental trash is to be found. But there is a problem to tackled and a debate to be had.

      1. Of course some of the older hymns are ‘sentimental trash’ but I think overall they are less of a problem than sentimental ‘pop’ that Chris has complained about. I have to say that I avoid churches which use this kind of music but it matters very much to individuals like Chris who were fed on this stuff when they first became Christian so that the music and the faith became all part of the same thing.

  5. I think English Athena has a point, some traditional hymns are sentimental trash. ‘The rich man in his castle and the poor man at the gate’ However, back in those days there was never a thriving capitalist music industry normalizing the happy clappy theaters and mausoleums of delusion that held me captive for 38 years. We must keep focused on how mush damage is being done to the poorly educated blind followers trapped in these ‘fellowships’.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply,Chris. If your so called Christian community makes you feel trapped, that’s poisonous. I can’t speak from personal experience of music making me feel this way. But actually I do understand the power music has. I trained as a singer, and some of my experiences have been incredibly powerful, emotionally. And I can easily see how this can be mis-used. I’m not a huge lover of noisy, happy clappy stuff. I’m over sensitive to noise, and prefer silence anyway. I’ve come across some very nice modern worship songs that are also singable. But I have, confession time here, also watched as some people seem to go into raptures during a song that quite honestly is, shall we say, not doing it for me! Now granted that I understand the power of music, are they getting carried away by the sound, and not really engaging with the words? Or, cynical old me, only pretending? I’m sure some people are afraid of being excluded if they don’t go into raptures along with everyone else. When you go into it, there’s a lot of ways that people can be manipulated by music, that is not to the good. And I think you may be right about the Christian music industry being capable of corruption. I just mostly thought of it as naive. And frequently poor quality. I shall certainly think more about what you say.

  6. Thanks English Athena. When I fell away and lost my faith I went back into drink drugs, I went down to a place worse than the place I was “Saved” from. The people I met down there regard the Christian Faith rather like a virus you catch if you get too close! When My wife had a car accident and was recovering I took her to Spring Harvest (She meets her family there each year) I was shocked at the demonstrative theatre presentation there, especially the praise band volume. While there I met christians running stalls who spoke of ‘Having a passion for souls’ – My present utter bewilderment can be put like this. If these evangelicals really care about ‘Souls’ then they must surely ask themselves, Do we really care about how the outside world sees us? I believe that there are thousands of people genuine seekers being betrayed by this inverted mockery of the Jesus of history. Also thousands of former evangelicals, damaged victims are experiencing this bewilderment. I want to use this blog to challenge those who hold to the certainties that the praise band and celebrity culture that has been so normalized in recent years, is a force for good? There is a urgent honest debate needed, the collateral damage that I have witnessed demands serious consideration. Chris

    1. Oh, goodness. You’re so right about not realising how it looks, and indeed sounds, to an outsider. There’s a massive lack of understanding about the real world. What’s that phrase of Rabbie Burns’? “ah the gift … to see ourselves as others see us”. We’re supposed to be out there telling the good news. Meeting people “where they are”. Change the sense of “where they are” and how can you hope to spread the good news if you are not meeting them mentally? If they just think we’re all bonkers? What you describe of the damage caused makes these extreme evangelicals cultists, basically.

  7. Thanks English Athena! Oh how I wish that I could communicate this to those who are involved with these ‘fellowship’ theaters, christian music industry and christian celebrity. I believe that this is one of the most important issues facing modern Christendom. Perhaps they just don’t want to know? All I know is that an inverted spirit has entered these cults, “Me and my selfish salvation” seems to be the rule rather than the exception. When I look at all the horror of the brokenness and desolation that I see in former evangelical victims, I honestly truly despair. If this is what modern evangelical activity is doing to people, again I ask, what happens to the genuine seekers out there in the wilderness of the present day? What is so difficult about asking, how are we perceived by the outsider? Chris

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