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How important is the style of music a church sings?

hymnal23I read a post yesterday from a blog of a popular ministry that attempted to answer a question from a reader: “How important is the style of music a church sings?”

The answer? “The style of music a church sings is relatively unimportant.” After making several simplistic points, the post concluded, “In short, what we sing is far more important than how we sing it.”

Yet this blog’s ministry makes a big deal about how we preach, how we plant churches, how we organize churches, and how a pastor leads his church. Does style not matter in these matters?

Furthermore, I wonder if the individual who wrote the blog posts would say the same about how his children speak to him. Would he agree with a disrespectful child that what he says is far more important than how he says it? Would he say the same thing about how a husband addresses his wife? Would he say the same thing about how we speak to God?

The simplistic answer of the blog post also makes a common but rather modernist assumption that form and content are easily separated. Aesthetic form, in this way of thinking, is merely the neutral packaging for what’s really important–truth.

Yet, James K. A. Smith is exactly right when he insists in his book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, “The point isn’t that both form and content matter. The point is more radical than that: in some significant sense we need to eschew the form/content distinction.” He warns what will happen if we adopt the simplistic thinking that style doesn’t matter:

Worship innovations that are inattentive to this may end up adopting forms that forfeit precisely those aspects of worship that sanctify perception by forming the imagination. Hence wise worship planning and leadership is not only discerning about content–the lyrics of songs, the content of a pastoral prayer, the message of a sermon–but also discerning about the kin/aesthetic meaning of the form of our worship. We will be concerned not only with the what but also with the how, because Christian faith is not only a knowing-that but also a kind of know-how, a “practical sense” or praktognosia that is absorbed in the “between” of our incarnate significance. Because meter and tune each means in its own irreducible way, for example, the form of our songs is as important as the content.

The ironic thing is that one of the points this blog author makes in his answer is that one of the purposes of music in worship is “to assist the heart to emotionally engage with the truths being sung, so that one’s emotions properly conform to those truths.” He even acknowledges that “different styles may do a better or worse job of helping people properly conform their hearts to the truths being sung.” And so style doesn’t matter?

Yes, style does matter. It matters in Christian song just as much as it does in preaching, church organization, leadership, or how a child speaks to his father. Style matters exactly because truth matters, and truth is never separated from form.

I conclude once more with Smith’s insightful words:

Worship wisdom requires that we be attentive to the practical sense of aesthetic forms, lest we end up singing lyrics that confess Jesus is Lord accompanied by a tune that means something very different. Similarly, because our words mean more than their propositional content–and because worship is intended not only to inform the intellect but also to recruit the imagination–we will want to be attentive to the poetic and metaphorical power of words to evoke the world to come, thus resisting temptations to flatten our worship words to the utilitarian pragmatism of the marketplace. In these and countless other ways . . . Christian worship is more than its content and means more than it says. Worship that intends to be formative . . . must be attentive to, and intentional about, the aesthetics of human understanding.

For more on this, read the following:

“Practice Makes Perfect: Culture and the Liturgies of Life”

“Preserving Truth in Our Worship”

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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.