Music Too Intimate for Church?

searchI came across a post on a news site several years ago about Wal-Mart refusing to shelf the latest CD by the Vineyard because the titles and lyrics were too racy. To be honest, for a couple hours I thought the story was legitimate, because the song titles they mentioned were just close enough to reality to make it believable. (Two of my favorites include “Touch Me All Over” and “Naked Before You.”) After some searching, I discovered that the news site was a Christian equivalent to The Onion and was known for satirical commentary on contemporary Christianity. (The site is now defunct.) Ironically, I actually found the post funnier when I participated in that kind of music than I do now. It is, however, an apt commentary on one of the uses to which music is put in some segments of contemporary Christianity.

The Vineyard Church is a neo-evangelical/charismatic movement that sprang up in the latter half of the 20th century out of Southern California (like many other “Jesus” movements of the time). It splintered off from the Calvary Chapel, itself a relatively new Christian denomination, over the issue of the role of the Holy Spirit in the contemporary church, believing that the Spirit could and should manifest in the same manner as it did in the New Testament (with speaking in tongues and other physical manifestations among the assembled believers). The Vineyard became especially well-known for popularizing a guitar-driven intimate style of worship music in churches, one that reflected musical changes in broader (counter-)culture as well. To the best of my knowledge, since the early 1980s it has been a primary source for worship music for many of the churches birthed in the twentieth century, and has had some limited crossover into traditional denominations as well.

Fast-forwarding to the time I began to be involved in playing and leading worship in the late 1990s, Vineyard worship music was the music to play in church because it seemed heartfelt and personal in comparison to the triumphant but slightly more formal music I had grown up singing. It was also typically guitar-driven rather than piano or organ-driven, which allowed the leader to interact in a different way with the audience. I certainly recognized the intimacy that the songs portrayed in the Christian’s relationship to Jesus. I even emulated the style as I attempted to write music of my own. The subtle sexuality of some—though not all—of the lyrics was lost on me, however.

It seems significant now for several reasons. The first is that it mimics contemporary music in broader culture. Relationships, sex, and love are probably the most common themes of popular music. This indicates not only the amount of space it takes up in the collective thinking of musicians and songwriters (just like the rest of us), but the fact that these themes make money. Songs about my day at work just don’t pack the same punch as a song about my night at the club with “the ladies” or the feelings I have for my one true love. Churches who play music that sounds fresh and similar to popular music get a better cultural reception. I heard many Christians talk about leaving a church or attending a church based on the music they did or did not like. At the time, I thought that was ridiculous, but it’s just being a good consumer.

The second and more obvious thing that “intimate” worship music says about Christianity is that many Christians are taught to conceive of their relationship with the divine, particularly Jesus, as a loving and intimate one. Jesus is conceived of as a friend who you can tell anything to, who loves you no matter what, who wants to talk with you and spend time with you, who you share special and intimate moments with, etc. Music that plays on these themes heightens the experience with the divine as a personal and emotional one. To provide just one example among many, Martin Smith of the worship band Delirious penned a song, which many churches used in worship, that includes the following:

Lead me to the cross

Where we first met

Draw me to my knees

So we can talk

Let me feel Your breath

Let me know You’re here with me

If you had to describe the kind of relationship that would entail the type of actions in the song, what would it be? Am I trying to say that the average Christian wants to have sex with Jesus? No. Throughout the centuries, mystical experiences of intimacy with Christ have often been described in thinly veiled sexual terms. My point here is rather that the contemporary church has used music as a reinforcement of commitment expressed in relational terms that a broad swath of culture can relate to. As in musical culture generally, although expressed against an object (of love), we are reaffirming ourselves. The emotional experience that music provides performs a number of different tasks. It can relieve stress, and it can make us feel happy or deeply saddened. Most importantly, though, in a corporate setting it reaffirms the commitment of the participants to one another and to the ostensible object of worship.

None of this is particularly problematic if understood in its fullness. Music can and should be used to evoke an emotional response. Anyone who has watched a movie knows what a difference the music makes in receiving the action on the screen. I wouldn’t conclude that the emotion is not “real” because it was intentionally evoked. However, it can become a problem in the church if participants are not aware of the calculated function of music to provoke an emotional response, because it is often made to work as experiential “proof” of the divine.

As I noted last week, assuming the existence of God, God either wants/needs our glory and is consequently limited by that desire, or he has absolutely no need for it, in which case we worship him for other reasons, namely to reinforce our own beliefs. In either case, it is an act of creation. We use the medium of music to help create the object of our desire.

Music, both inside and outside religious circles, is a fascinating topic and I’ll continue to touch on it this week. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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