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Punting to "Association Problems" may be a cop out.

In my post on associations, I made it very clear that I do think we must at least wrestle through association issues, so I do think associations can be significant enough to render even a good song unusable for a time.

But as I’ve considered common discussions of association problems in some circles, I have to wonder if at times making “association” the primary issue of concern is actually just taking the easy way out.

It’s easy to say, “That song has bad associations, so we shouldn’t use it.” It’s much more difficult to say, “That song is communicating messages that are inappropriate.”

But, in my opinion, the most significant issue we should be asking about music, especially that used in worship, is “What does it communicate?”

It’s not as if we haven’t talked about musical communication at all, and it’s not as if associations are unimportant. But by making associations the most important issue, I think we have created two problems:

First, since we have been so dogmatic about not using some music because of associations, and since associations do fade over time, some have found difficulty accepting music that was once taboo but now no longer carries the same negative associations. This is especially difficult for the uninformed layman. If he was told all his life, “We cannot use that song,” largely because of associations without any discussion of what the music actually communicates, he has a difficult time distinguishing between rejecting a song temporarily for association reasons and rejecting a song completely because of what it communicates.

Two Roads Diverged

Even more serious, though, is the opposite problem: I’m afraid that since it is much easier to cite association problems, we used that argument primarily even against music that itself was never appropriate because of what it communicated. Music that communicates sinful messages will also no doubt have association problems. And so often, in the past, when well-intentioned leaders wanted to warn about a particular song, performer, or musical style, they cited lifestyle issues, commercialism of the CCM industry, and other association problems instead of really dealing with why the music communicated sinful messages.

Let me say this another way: When trying to warn against using CCM, it was pretty easy to say the following:

  • “That CCM artist committed adultery!”
  • “The CCM industry is a multi-billion dollar, commercialistic enterprise!”
  • “Those CCM performers look so worldly!”
  • “That style of music is played in some very sinful environments!”
  • “You can’t even hear the words, that music is so loud!”

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have considered these issues, but by implying that they were the most significant issues, rather than carefully explaining why the music itself was wrong, we took the easy way out.

And so now, as times have changed, and there are now lots of Christian artists who perform the same kind of music but don’t have all of the same association problems, many who grew up hearing only the association argument wonder what is wrong with the music at all!

And instead of carefully explaining why the music of these new groups has communication problems, we are coming up with new association arguments having to do with movements and theological positions, which, as I have argued, are the most insignificant kinds of associations.

What You Can Learn from Calvin and Hobbes about the Message and the Medium

We should consider associations, but let’s center the debate mostly on what the music means and whether it is appropriate for certain settings. We need to teach people the difference between limiting the use of music because of associations and limiting the use of music because of what it communicates.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

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