Artworks are valued for what they do but not for any immediate function. Art is far from “useless,” even though its distinctive value is realized only when it serves no immediate function, when the viewer or listener gives up any immediate self-centered demands on the work and, instead, gives him- or herself up to the work. – Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music?
Our culture typically uses music as a means to achieve something else. As Johnson says elsewhere in his book, most everyday uses of music function as background to some other activity. However, music has the potential to be closest in nature to worship itself: an activity we do not as a means to some other end, but to enjoy the beauty of the object of our affection.
Churches have mimicked this cultural tendency. Purely instrumental music in corporate worship becomes nothing more than a means to an end: to cue the noisy talkers that church is about to begin, to smooth over the awkwardness of passing the collection plates, to get people to be ‘worshipful’ (whatever that is) before the sermon, or to signal to all that the service is over and chatting may resume.
These are not entirely evil uses of instrumental music in church, but if these are all it is used for, it is a goldsmith’s tool being used to hammer in a nail. Music has the power and nuance to shape our affections and desires, and awake men to transcendent beauty. If it is used as a mere time-cue, a good wolf-whistle might as well substitute. If it is nothing more than ‘prepping for the sermon’, a minute’s silence before or after might be just as effective. If music is simply ‘setting the mood’, then some fragrances and pretty pictures could do the trick. For as long as pastors see music as nothing more than a neutral means to some other end, they will perpetuate the problem of musical relativism. For people only begin to consider the meaning of music when they are called to do nothing else except listen to the music for its own sake.
Instrumental music in worship services is to be more than decorative. It is to be formative: a shaping encounter with beauty in the setting in which beholding God’s beauty is our aim. To consider the shape and form of a beautiful melody, an ingenious arrangement and a skilful performance are not unspiritual ends. They are not some effete aesthetic snobbery far removed from the meat-and-potatoes of preaching the Word – and I say that as a preacher. Instrumental music in corporate worship is taught by Colossians 3:16, and supported by Old Testament example. The Psalms seem to make it clear that beautiful music offered in worship, glorifies God. “Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.” (Ps 33:3)
Yes, there are risks. In a culture that uses music as entertainment, ‘wordless’ music tends to raise only two questions in the average listener: 1) How does this make me feel? 2) How well was it performed? And in keeping with this, all too many church offertories have become nauseating displays of flamboyant and inappropriate musical acrobatics. Too many instrumentals are just chord-changing games to help the swaying, closed-eyed worshippers with their quest for intense emotion. Hence, the pastor concerned with a vertical focus in worship all too often rushes to fill those times with projected words on a screen, or to dispense with them altogether. In so doing, we cut off a vital part of worship, and perpetuate a consumeristic approach to worship’s most exquisite tool.
Of course, overcoming a whole cultural tendency is not a task to be sniffed at. Moreover, clumsy attempts to encourage a thoughtful consideration of music may end up distracting worshippers and raising all kinds of objections about the place of art in the church. We had best approach this knowing that most worshippers are expecting nothing more than mood-music, and will resist calls to apply their thinking to music itself. And yet, as men concerned with doing more than making church seem familiar, we ought to be obedient to Scriptural example, and seize this opportunity to shape the affections of our people.
I suggest that preludes, postludes, offertories, or other forms of special instrumentals be announced, either by someone leading the service, or on a bulletin or projection. Stating the name of the piece and its composer at the very least draws attention to the music as an object: a work of art made by someone for someone. If possible, some remarks can be made about the form of the music: the shape of the melody, its harmonies, or a remark which draws attention to the music. This does not have to be done every time (I would say it should not, in fact), nor do the remarks have to be so technical as to invite criticism that they are pretentious. A simple gesture toward the music will suffice, helping people to not simply use the music for a personal mood-change, but to consider the music until its meaning and beauty come home to the worshipper, regardless of mood and feeling at the time. And then, we don’t need to be embarrassed about this exercise, and show slides of waterfalls and mountains with Psalms quoted at the bottom. Yes, we really can let people do nothing but listen to music for several minutes.
It may be that as a result of these instrumental offerings the worshippers will be better prepared to sing, or pray, or listen to the Word. If so, fine. However, this is not why we ought to include these. We want a Scripturally-prescribed encounter with beauty, skill, order, and glory in the presence of corporate worship.