What does the skeptic think about your music?

01Feb10

Imagine a skeptic visits your church.  She is not sure what she thinks about God, Christianity, or organized religion in general, but she came because her friend  invited her.  She walks in late and the first thing she encounters is the music at your church.  As she absorbs the scene–the musicians up front leading, the congregation singing, the ethos of the room–she instantly begins forming impressions about your church and about God.  What does she see?  What does she hear?   Most importantly: what impressions about God does the music at your church communicate to this skeptic?

As a music leader, my initial gut instinct is to say, “I hope she thinks our music (and, by extension, the band making the music) is cool.”   And that makes some sense, doesn’t it?  It’s better if she thinks we’re cool than if she thinks we’re complete dorks, right?   Well…not necessarily.  I should be thinking, “I hope she realizes that the God we are worshiping is Good, Beautiful, Loving, and worthy of her worship.”

But how in the world is she going to get that impression?  Well, obviously it helps if the lyrics of the songs we sing say that God is worthy of our praise.  : )   But it is equally important how those words are sung and who she notices singing them.

Today, I want to argue that the best thing for a skeptic to observe about the music at your church is how loudly and whole-heartedly the  people in the pews are singing. Not how good your band is.  Why?  Because the way in which a congregation sings says something about the God to whom they are singing.  And, believe it or not, having a cool band upfront can actually distract from the message we really want skeptics to hear: that God is powerful, good, and worthy of praise.

Let me explain why I believe this.

1) A cool band says more about your budget than it does about God.

It is the 21st century, and the curtain is pulled back on music production.  Anyone who has watched TV in the last 20 years knows that money equals polish when it comes to musical productions.  We know about Britney Spears lip syncing with pre-recorded vocal tracks.  We survived the Backstreet Boys in the early 2000s.  We know that with enough money, you can hire the right people, buy the right equipment, and make a band look and sound really good.

When a skeptic walks into a church and sees a cool band up front playing cool music, nothing important is actually communicated about God.  A polished musical production communicates that the church cares about having great music, and that it has the money to pull it off.  But, anyone who is looking for reasons to dismiss Christianity and explain away your worship service will be quick to connect the dots: “Oh, this is just a well-funded production and all these people come here b/c it’s cool.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I believe churches should spend money on music and make the arts a priority in their budgets.  I am not knocking polished musical productions.  I just don’t want anyone to labor under the delusion that if your worship band makes cool music that you are therefore making God more glorious in the eyes of an outsider/onlooker/skeptic.

But what’s the alternative?   Should we have bad music?  No.  We should have…drum roll please…congregational singing!

2) Whole-hearted congregational singing sends a message about God.

If a skeptic walks in and the first thing she sees/hears is a room full of people singing loudly with visible joy and delight, a different message is communicated, a message about God.  The message is essentially this: “The God to whom we sing is worthy of our praise.”  (On the flip side, half-hearted singing by the congregation communicates that God is boring, a figment of our imaginations, or simply not worthy of praise).

This is yet another reason why churches should make robust, heartfelt corporate singing their highest musical priority: because it says something about God that no worship band, no matter how polished or cool, can communicate.

No matter how good the worship band sounds or how culturally relevant the music is, the band simply cannot send the same message that is conveyed by a whole bunch of ordinary people singing their hearts out.

3) In fact, “cool music,” if it detracts from congregational singing, can actually obscure the message about God.

1And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” I Cor. 2:1-5

If Paul had spoken with lots of wisdom and cleverness, onlookers might have gotten the impression that people were converting and worshiping Jesus just because Paul was a smooth operator.  Likewise, when all that a skeptic sees at your church is a cool band up front, it’s easy for her to explain the phenomenon away as money and charisma from the leaders.  But robust corporate singing, (especially at those moments when the music is not so great), declares that the God to whom we sing is good.  And it demonstrates His power to call the hearts of ordinary people into worship.

So let me close with this question: what sends a better evangelistic message to a visiting skeptic?   a) great musicians performing cool music, or b) a church full of ordinary folks singing their hearts out to God?

If the answer is as clear to you as it seems to me, then the next question should be obvious as well: What should be the primary purpose of music in corporate worship?

… To get the congregation singing their best.

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12 Responses to “What does the skeptic think about your music?”

  1. Its all about your faith. REMEMBER 🙂

  2. Wendell, Great post. Its a timely message in today’s “modern worship” climate. Peace, Marty

    • 3 churchmusicblog

      Thanks, Marty!

  3. Hi Wendell,
    Nothing warms my heart more during corporate worship than to hear great congregational singing. So, in general, I think you’re right on with this post. However, what about the use of instrumental music (music without singing) during worship services? Does it have a legitimate role? What is it? I’ve encountered varying opinions (some strongly felt) on this. It might make an interesting topic for a future post. Thanks for having this blog!
    -Chris Mc

    • 5 churchmusicblog

      Chris,
      Thanks for reading, encouraging, and commenting. Thanks for the good question, too. I may do a post on instrumental music at some point, although at this point I’m not sure I have enough to say about it to make it interesting. Basically just this: I think instrumental music is important and can be really useful in a worship service. In other words, I don’t mean to imply that congregational singing should be the only priority of music in worship, just that it should be the highest priority.

      I’ll give this some more thought. Maybe you have some ideas we could discuss at some point?

      Thanks,
      Wendell

  4. nail on the head. greatly encouraging.

    • 7 churchmusicblog

      Rich,
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and thanks for adding me to your blog links on your own blog. I enjoyed what I read there, especially the Newton quote. Good stuff. Thanks!
      -Wendell

  5. 8 matthewcasteel

    Incredible insight. Thank you for setting this question on the table. Am I really leading worship if no one is really, intensely, passionately worshiping? Wasn’t the point of my great band and expensive sound equipment and band practice to create and atmosphere of passion and praise where people are captivated by the presence of the Living God?
    What do I want to do? Lead the congregation in worship or lead a great band. Who is my hero? Paul Shaffer or King David. Both skilled, incredible musicians. Both talented song writers, both move and add the right sound at the right time. One leads a band, one leads the people into the presence of the King. One brings us back from commercial breaks, one brings us back to the reality of our condition and need of a saving sacrifice. One makes a silly little host look good. One pulls back the veil to reveal the Living Almighty God. One is polished and dresses funny. One is rugged and sometimes not dressed at all. One “slayed em tonight!”. One slayed the giant.
    I want to lead like David, Moses, Miriam and the hosts of angels-lead right into the holy of holies.
    Thanks for sharing. Very thought provoking.
    Matthew Casteel
    http://www.matthewcasteel.com
    http://www.twitter.com/holyoatmeal

  6. 9 Hilary

    Hey, Wendell-great post. I have been to different churches where I’ve thought, “Wow, this band is amazing, talented, whatever…” and left feeling cold, without really knowing why. And it has made me realize that the point you’re making is absolutely true-if the laypeople in the congregation are just standing there, it comes off as a performance. I’ve also been to services where there wasn’t really even a worship leader or band, simply someone banging some hymns out on the piano. And the congregation was singing with all their might, and I felt like I was in the presence of the Lord. It truly is about communion with others. I’m looking forward to talking with you about instrumental music during worship services-it’s something I’ve gone back and forth on quite a bit.

  7. 10 Marilyn Saba

    Some of us are traditionally trained musicians playing an organ (aghast!!) with no band. At my parish we have some wonderful guitar players and use piano and guitar on some of the hymns from the Gather hymnal, but otherwise, we use organ for traditional hymns out of the 1982 (Episcopal) hymnal and most of the service music (i.e., prelude, postlude). Thanks for your insight, though. I agree with what you say, only wish you had not used bands as your only example of congregational church music. Good job!

  8. 11 Michael C

    Greetings Brother,
    I was up late here tonight with this whole issue of congregational singing on my heart. Thus, leave it to Google (um, I mean the Lord, right?) to lead me to your blog. Felt like you had been reading my mind. Awesome Bro. You have encouraged me greatly.
    Mike <

  9. Thanks for posting. I’ve just started leading one of the bands at church, and this is really helpful to remember when rehearsing.


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