Music is an important part of Knox Church. Music in worship is not always a simple matter. There are countless varieties of music that can be used in worship, and of course, everyone has their personal preferences. Below, Pastor Chuck reflects on the various aspects of music at Knox and what it means to us.
Reflections on the Use of Music in Worship at
Knox Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan
It is difficult to overstate the power of music in shaping how we think, feel, live, and experience reality. The propensity of the youngest children to sing, and enjoy being sung to, reveals how fundamental music is to human being, let alone well-being. It touches us in primal ways from the earliest days in our lives.
What's more, even a cursory review of Scripture quickly reveals how fundamental music is to the Biblical faith. Israel sings at its deliverance from the Egyptians, as it enters into holy war, in its pilgrimages to the national feasts, in its worship before the Ark of the Covenant and later at the Temple. King David, the paradigmatic king of the Old Covenant, was known as the "sweet singer of Israel." The size of the Psalter itself speaks volumes about the place of music in Biblical worship. If that weren't enough, we also discover that God Himself rejoices with singing over His people and that heaven is full of singing. What else can we conclude but that a theology which does not sing heartily, thoughtfully and robustly cannot be God's. Realizing how fundamental music and song are to our humanity, both by virtue of creation and redemption, it is critical that we deeply and passionately employ music in our worship of the God who sings.
As one surveys the music of Scripture, one is also struck immediately by the breadth of its diversity. The tone, mood, length, content and literary forms vary more widely than those of any church we know of. The songs of Scripture know higher highs, lower lows, wilder joys and hotter furies, more intense longings and deeper satisfactions than any conventional hymnal or songbook.
More generally, the literary art forms of Scripture attest to the artistic diversity God employs in connecting to His people. He inspires true stories, fictional parables, songs, prayers, letters, apocalyptic visions, dramatic sketches, codes of law, prophetic oracles, the telling of history and other literary forms to draw near to His people with the revelation of Himself. Whether in poetry or prose, lament or praise, God deploys a vast array of art forms to impact our hearts, minds, lives and communities.
Considering that God uses musical and artistic diversity in Scripture in order to reveal Himself to us and connect us to Himself more fully, we desire to employ increasingly diverse musical forms in Knox worship. Over the long term we aim to stretch ourselves at multiple ends of the musical spectrum (assuming a multi-dimensional spectrum!). We want our congregation to be deeply rooted in the historic teachings, creeds, practices and liturgical principles that have informed Christian worship for over four millennia (yes, to include the Old Testament church, acknowledging the changes in light of the coming of Christ). We also want our congregation to be stretched by creative new musical expressions of our faith as developed in our own generation, in various cultures, in this new millennium (electric guitars, drums and all kinds of instrumentation included).
God is too big, too vast, too multifaceted in His truth, goodness and beauty to be expressed by one musical "style". For example, many contemporary choruses help us encounter the tenderness and approachability of God. Many of them convey intimacy, nearness, care. On the other hand, when we wish to celebrate the regal majesty, glory, and transcendence of God our King, anthems and hymns which have stood the test of time have proven most helpful. Our hope is that greater diversity in worship practices will stretch us in ways which help us experience new aspects of God's person and our covenant bondedness to Him.
If God is more vast than our minds can grasp, should it surprise us that His beauty is more vast than our aesthetic tastes can appreciate? If it is God's will that we increasingly explore how wide, long, high and deep His love is, is it not correspondingly true that we should explore how wide, long, high and deep His beauty is? Our aesthetic pursuit of God should be as rigorous as our theological pursuit of Him. Thus, growing in a full-orbed knowledge of God will necessarily entail a growing, expanding appreciation for music which reflects the multifaceted wonders of His being and work.
Eschatological Rationale ("Eschatology" means study of the last things)
The picture we have of the New Heavens and New Earth is of a new humanity made up of "every tribe, tongue, people and nation." In Revelation 21, the kings of the nations are seen as streaming into the New Jerusalem, bringing all of their wealth and tribute with them. God is revealing that the New Jerusalem will be filled with all of the goodness that the world's cultures have ever produced.
This same principle applies to the world's music as well. If the New Jerusalem (which has already begun in the life of the church) is globally diverse, and the wealth of the New Jerusalem is global in origin, should not the music of the church have a global taste? Should not the wealth of the nations already be streaming into the church, not only in the form of international converts but international music?
For example, Knox has a substantial Asian and Asian-American presence in the congregation. Shouldn't we search for musical forms and genres of Asian origin in order to recognize that the wealth of Asia is being brought before King Jesus in the New Jerusalem? The Church of Jesus Christ is a transnational community with primary citizenship in heaven. We must strive, where possible, to have our worship music reflect this Gospel-borne reality.
Knox is a unique church in that it is both reformed Presbyterian and broadly evangelical. We are very diverse ecclesiastically, an eclectic gathering of people from a variety of Christian traditions, teachings and musical styles. Given that history, we already have present within our congregation the seeds of tremendous diversity in music.
Not surprisingly, the selection of music used in worship often has been the subject of discussion since the beginning of our church twelve years ago. We have tried several different approaches, including having both a "contemporary" and a "traditional" service. In agonizing over these discussions, the church decided several years ago that having two different services was doing more damage to the community life of the church than good. As a result, our leadership decided to bring all services together and to pursue a strategy of "blended" worship, including both traditional and contemporary elements. What we're now endeavoring to do is stretch ourselves, and our "blend," in a variety of aesthetic directions.
Lastly, we want our worship practices to enable and prepare our members, whenever they leave Ann Arbor, to worship humbly and freely in churches of many different liturgical practices and traditions. Part of what it means to seek unity in the church universal is that we humbly and charitably endeavor to celebrate the presence of God in churches not necessarily like our own. By broadening our own range of worship music and liturgical activity, we better prepare our congregation in this mobile and transient community to worship God in other churches outside Ann Arbor.
Closing Reflections and Implications
Pursuing this vision has important implications which we need to face with our eyes wide open. We will all be introduced to aspects of worship outside of our past experiences and natural preferences. We will be stretched out of comfort zones in order to cultivate broader tastes and a wider appreciation for God's beauty in worship. People who love the "golden oldie" hymns need to learn that "oldness isn't next to godliness," and people who love contemporary music need to learn that "newness isn't next to godliness." We all need to be stretched into a broader aesthetic appreciation of God and His grace.
Sometimes this stretching might disturb us. For example, we hope to re-capture the element of "lamentation" in worship. Songs of lament have been a critical element in the Old Testament Church (30-70% of all Psalms are laments, and we have a whole book of Scripture called Lamentations) as well as in the historic African-American church (e.g. certain Spirituals). The practice is virtually extinct, however, in other American churches. There is a place for singing "the blues" in worship, this side of Heaven. We'd like Knox to help re-introduce this element of worship to the broader American church. This is both "old" and "new," as we try to access or create new music to express this very old element of worship.
We also recognize what all this means experientially: if we all get put "on the rack" in order to get stretched, we'll all experience the uncomfortable tension and soreness that always accompanies Christian growth. Every week, we expect the preaching and teaching of God's Word to challenge our ways of thinking, loving, aspiring, living. Correspondingly, we should expect Biblically-shaped worship forms and expressions to keep challenging our ways of worship. That will be at least a little unsettling for us all, we hope. After all, none of us should be too settled before Jesus returns and transforms us (and our worship) into perfection.