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Worship - a Musician's View

By Geoff Colmer.

As I reflect as a musician on my view of worship, I realize that my experience of worship, and music in worship, goes back a long way. The majestic organ viewed from the gallery at Barking Baptist Tabernacle is one of my first memories of church as a child. Actually, I remember thinking that heaven was behind the pipes, and Uncle Bob, who had just died was there! As a teenager in another Baptist Church, my experience of music was captured in a story told by John Wimber of a woman, just about to sing a sacred solo, who said, 'I just want to give my voice to the Lord', to which the imagined reply from the Lord was, 'Lady, you keep it!' Certainly this was the case every Good Friday when the choir along with soloists, sang either Stainer's Crucifixion or Olivet to Calvary. As a child I sang stirring songs like, 'Gone, gone, gone, gone yes my hair is gone' - sorry 'sin' not 'hair', although the former was what we sang - the youth leader was going bald. And then there were the heady days when Youth Praise came on to the scene when we sang 'Can it be true', and 'Jesus is the Saviour whom I love to know'.

You might ask, how did I become a professional musician having grown up in such a climate? We have a God who specialises in the miraculous! But I ought to say that it did very little for me, and when I went to the Royal College of Music it made the whole business of holding together faith and my new experience of 'the world' as lived by musicians, all the harder. 'The world' won - for a time.

After several years in the music profession and playing in the orchestra of Opera North (opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, sings) I made tentative steps back towards the God who was beckoning. And I was back to the experience of music in church, again. Actually, most of the time it was just bland. But then there was something different. I went to a church which was gently and thoughtfully charismatic, although I didn't realize that at that time - it just felt warm and welcoming! On occasions there was a newer expression of music in worship which really engaged me. This was, firstly, because it was done well. And secondly, because it seemed to fit, for the church, and for me, at that time. It had an integrity.

I have come some way since then. Having bought into an accomplished 70's soft-rock style, I went to Spurgeon's College (a Baptist theological college in London) where I encountered what I now refer to as 'Macho Praise'. We took very seriously John Wesley's direction to 'sing lustily, and with good courage' whatever the hymns or songs. Try singing 'As the deer pants for the water', or 'I love you Lord', as though you are singing 'Jerusalem' at the Last Night of the Proms and you will get my drift.

During that time I began to work with Dave Peacock, in establishing the Baptist Youth Orchestra, and in training Christian musicians. One of Dave's gifts to the Church is a considerable breadth in worship resources and styles, and for me as a musician this was energising. I discovered Taize, Iona, St Thomas More Centre, worship music from different parts of the world, and contemporary traditional hymns (if you get my meaning!), as well as the latest hymns and songs from Spring Harvest. This has continued to be a feature of my approach, as a musician, to worship - to enjoy a breadth of musical styles, not necessarily all within the same service, but providing variety.

How does a musician view worship? Well this one is increasingly interested in the dynamics of music, and how they integrate with the dynamics of worship.

Although in church, music normally accompanies words, music is non-verbal communication. It is a means of expression which doesn't necessarily use words. Music has power. The sheer volume of music has the power to stir us; the gentle movement of music has power to soothe us; the rhythm of music can alter our conscious state. Music can produce direct physical reactions: the dilation of the eyes, change in blood pressure and pulse rate. Music can evoke strong feelings of joy, sadness, hope and despair. Chris Bowater the contemporary Christian song writer has said, 'Music has inherent power - it can stir or soothe the spirit, it can inspire or incite, bring deliverance or destruction'. William Edgar, in 'Taking Note of Music', writes, 'Music calls forth the deepest things of the human spirit.' Yet music is mystery. We can dissect it, know it thoroughly, and still it has that unknown about it which causes us to react in uncontrollable ways. I remember Paul Tortellier the celebrated cellist stating dramatically in his heavily French-accented English, reminiscent of the opening of John's Gospel, 'In the beginning was music'.

As a musician I would say that music is a gift of God, one of his best! God has provided us with sound and given us the creative gift of ordering that sound into a form which we recognize as music. And as with all of God's gifts, music may point beyond itself to its creator - not the musician, but God. 'There is some fundamental encounter with transcendence in the creation of art and its experiencing.' I can't remember who said this but I agree! Brian Beck, a Methodist Minister, has written, 'Music has properties to heal, to cure, to dispose the spirit, to uplift, to liberate, to give a sense of being transported to another dimension in a different world, to take us out of ourselves' It can therefore become in itself a vehicle for communion with God. Indeed, the argument can be taken further. Not only is music a vehicle for the worship of God; the transcendent quality of music is itself a witness to God in his creation'.

If all this can be said about music, how does music relate to worship? As I have said, of itself, music may point to God. In the words of Hans Rookmaaker, 'music needs no justification'. But then, in worship, music provides the means by which a variety of moods may be expressed. Music is a vehicle for worship, in other words it carries worship.

This raises some problems. Firstly, music can be used manipulatively. I have already spoken of the power of music. Jeremy Begbie writes of the 'enormous psychological power' of music. Manipulation in the church context is not limited to music. What of theatrical preaching and prosaic praying? But because music, perhaps more than anything else, can have such a variety of effects upon us, its use needs to be checked.

This last Easter I attended an early morning Eucharist at the local Anglican Church, and it was early, 5.30 on the morning the clocks had been put forward! After the lighting of the Paschal candle from a bonfire outside the church in the dark, and we had gone back into the church and passed on the Easter Light by means of individual candles, the Exultet was sung. This concluded with an organ fanfare which led into, 'Jesus Christ is risen today'. I tingled from head to foot! Was this a 'coming of the Spirit'? Or was it the effect of the symbolism, powerful words, and stirring music played well, together with the ridiculous hour of the morning when my senses were more alert than my intellect? If it was the latter, did God have anything to do with it? Similarly, when we sing 'Be still for the presence of the Lord', with soft electronic keyboard sound, having come to a more relaxed place in the worship experience, is God's presence really more tangible, or is it just the music? If it is just the music, where is God in relation to it?

This has to do with the bigger issue of religious experience and more particularly how human beings encounter the divine. Can God be experienced through direct encounter or is he encountered only by means of mediation through preaching, through prayer, through the sacraments, and through music, among other means? If music is a means by which God's presence is experienced, is it difficult to discern what is just tingle factor and what is God?

It seems to me that much contemporary church music triggers a response. And again, I readily accept that much of what we do in church is intended to create a response. Worship itself is by nature a response. But while I am wanting to be open to the tangible presence of God, I am cautious about making claims which might be attributed to the power of music. It seems that certain worship music pushes certain emotional buttons which will almost guarantee certain results. When music is used consciously, or unconsciously, to create a 'spiritual' or 'God-present' atmosphere I am concerned. In my present situation the hymn which is guaranteed to push buttons is 'All I once held dear'. Music may well be a catalyst in helping worshippers to become aware of God's presence. But there must be genuine freedom to respond and no sense of compulsion. There must be respect for worshippers, as well as integrity and responsibility on the part of those leading. At its basic level, tingle-factor does not automatically equate with an experience of the Spirit. For me, this raises a concern about the theology which lays stress upon God 'coming in power', often during, or as the climax of a music-dominated expression of worship. What is God doing when he is not 'coming in power'? Is he absent? Or is he present but impotent? Maybe that is another article!

Secondly, there is the issue raised by the title I was given for a seminar, 'Is Music Worship?' I am cautious about making extravagant claims, yet surely music can bring praise to God in its own right. I have found it helpful to use recorded music on its own within the worship context - helpful in preparing for silence, providing a background for reflection, stopping the flow of words and giving space, and pointing to the creative God who gives gifts of creativity to his people. And all this with an element of unease, conscious that I myself could stand accused, and be found guilty of pushing buttons! But is music worship?

While recognising the great importance of music in worship, I would say that music is not worship. As a correspondent to the Baptist Times put it, 'Outward form is for us, not for God; to help us worship, not to help God listen'. Music for all of its tremendous worth, has its limitations. Musicians especially are to be reminded on a regular basis that music is the servant of worship and never the master, that it is never an end in itself. As Warren Wiersbe writes, 'If art is our master, then it becomes idolatry, but if art is our servant, it becomes ministry'. Musicians, maybe more than others as I see it, are always one step away from idolatry.

Furthermore, worship can be expressed without music. I have launched a new initiative in my present situation whereby on every Thursday evening at 7.15 until just after 7.30 a set Evening Prayer is said, using Celebrating Common Prayer - The Daily Office SSF. This appeals greatly to a small group of people who meet in a circle around a table with a candle as a focus and worship using set words and silence. No music. For this musician, it is very refreshing!

Music in worship inevitably raises the issue of taste. The fact is that some people don't like music. To me this verges on the incredible, but there again I might be biased - it is a fact. Then some people don't like the particular choice of music. Some people like Radio 1, others Radio 2, still others Radio 3 or Classic FM. 'I know what I like', is a sentiment which we ignore at our peril. Music is very personal. It is felt to be owned by each individual. This is why music in worship so often proves to be a battle-ground rather than a meeting-place. And when this happens it ceases to be simply a matter of taste and becomes a matter of fellowship. Because I worship God I will accept my brother in Christ, even if he likes Country and Western. Personally, I draw the line at bagpipes.

Finally, music for me needs to be presented well. We live in a world in which we are surrounded by music of different kinds, performed superbly. Yet so often music in church is poor. Perhaps nothing can be done about this if there is little in the way of musical resources. For me, there was a time when I told myself that the quality of the music did not matter. But I have come to the position where I have recognised that for me, it does. Because of my particular history, music played badly gets in the way. That is my problem but also it will be other (especially unchurched) people's problem, if they are used to a high standard of music outside the church.

This leads me to say that we should take very seriously the training of church musicians. The church needs musicians who will play well, who will also create new and relevant expressions of worship in music. In my view, much of the new music in worship (there are some notable exceptions) is predictable and boring. I long for more imaginative melodies and harmonies. In many charismatic evangelical churches which have employed a seventies/eighties soft-rock style, we think that the church is contemporary. For whom? And the price for this exclusive approach is that we have thrown out resources and styles which remain meaningful to many in our churches, and continue to have something to offer. We need discernment, using the best of the old and the best of the new, in all its variety.

This is one musician's view of worship. As a Minister, my professional life as a musician often feels very distant. However, I take heart from Martin Luther's comment, 'I have always loved music; who so has skill in this art is of a good temperament, fitted for all things. We must teach music in schools; a schoolmaster ought to have skill in music or I would not regard him; neither should we ordain young men as preachers unless they have been well exercised in music'.

Revd Geoff Colmer is Minister of Melton Mowbray Baptist Church and a former professional musician.

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You are reading Worship - a Musician's View by Geoff Colmer, part of Issue 11 of Ministry Today, published in October 1997.

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