When I was in my early teens I wanted to learn the guitar. I’d previously drawn the short straw when it came to musical instruments. A group of us were learning to play in a brass ensemble and were initially presented with a selection from which we could choose our weapon. After others had snatched up the more impressive French horn, trombone, and the trumpet, I was left with the cornet: the stunted trumpet. I continued for a number of months, but the lessons clashed with the time that The Simpsons was shown on Channel 4; the strain was too much, and eventually I sided with my yellow friends over the musty brass.
Not long after that I began listening to a lot of classic rock, and so I thought I would give the electric guitar a go. A friend from school was already excelling in this area, and I got the details of his tutor in order to set up lessons of my own. He was a very relaxed teacher, and after an introductory lesson on muscle memory and neural pathways, I spent most of the weeks attempting Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple classics.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I came to a realization: it’s not easy. It turns out that learning an instrument requires a lot of practice, and this isn’t usually a great deal of fun. Nevertheless, this was something I wanted to achieve, and so I did the difficult and noble thing.
I gave up.
It had gotten to the point where each week that I turned up to my tutor’s door, I was dreading the moment where he would call me out for not practicing. To his credit, he never did, but he must have known. You can only listen to a student play the same sub-par version of Kashmir so many times before you know that something’s up.
I was a little dismayed at my failure, and for some time my guitar was sat in the corner of my room gathering dust, along with my Bible. Not long after this, however, I went along to a youth group gathering at my church where the youth band was playing. After the session I approached the band leader and attempted to play a few chords on his guitar, and with a generous display of grace he invited me along to the band rehearsals which met mid-week. I took him up on the offer, and for a while I felt out of my depth, surrounding by people who could actually play their instruments. But I was a more determined this time, and it turns out that chords are easier than riffs and solos, so I switched to the acoustic guitar.
In time I was able to play confidently along with the band, and even began leading the music at some youth sessions and church services. First, however, I had to overcome the obstacle of playing guitar and singing simultaneously; it turns out that alternating the two doesn’t cut it.
Fast forward a number of years, and I was regularly leading the band in church services, and since moving away to start a youth work internship I set up a youth band of my own. One of my greatest joys within this was running the sound desk for rehearsals. The drum kit was fully set up with microphones and the church sound system had a good sub speaker; as the band played, I could turn up the bass and relish the whoomph of the kick drum.
As fun as all of this was, I became aware of certain tensions that arose in the dialogue between my faith and the music which expressed it. First of all, I realized that I didn’t always believe what was coming out of my mouth. A.W. Tozer famously said that ‘Christians don't tell lies – they just go to church and sing them.’ Whether I was a part of the congregation or choosing the songs myself, I took issue with many of the lyrics.
Sometimes this was for theological reasons. My studies highlighted a number of times that contemporary songwriters were barely straddling orthodoxy, and may even have been labeled as heretics in the days of the early church. But these didn’t actually bother me too much. What I found more difficult were the lies about how I was feeling.
The lyrical content of many worship songs in the church today is more experiential than theological, so it’s no great wonder that this is what I took greater issue with. It really hits home when you’re stood up in the congregation, back aching, thirty minutes into a worship set, and murmuring the words, ‘There’s no place I’d rather be.’ I could think of a few options higher up on my list. On such occasions, I couldn’t help but look around and wonder how many people actually meant a word that they were singing. I have no doubt that some were belting along with sincerity, but I don’t think I was alone in daydreaming about when the service would end.
I became aware of certain tensions that arose in the dialogue between my faith and the music which expressed it.
This all gave me pause for thought: if some of us don’t have conviction behind what we’re singing, why do we sing it?
I think that a lot of this comes down to the nature of music; it’s incredibly emotive. I’m afraid I can’t list off the psychological reasons for why exactly this is the case, but it’s undeniable. Music stirs something deep within us that words can only look upon with envy. This isn’t to deny the power of literature, but it finds a new level when partnered with a melody. Words challenge and inspire; music penetrates your soul.
Both within the church and without, many of my favourite songs would still secure their place on the list if they lost their vocals. I’m not even sure if I can recall what a lot of them are about. I’d find myself singing along to a string of language without even considering its meaning.
And there’s a danger to that.
But it goes further. I think that music not only transcends words, it has the power to make us believe them. If someone delivers a rousing speech, their message will pack a far greater punch with a Hans Zimmer orchestra behind it. A soldier hesitant to follow their leader into battle is nonetheless swelled on by the blast of a trumpet.
I may experience very little in my life to suggest that there is a god who cares for me, but when I stand in church and sing, ‘Your goodness is running after me’ along to a particular chord progression, I'll start to think that it’s true. And while I found my relationship with the divine far from fulfilling all my desires, I could nevertheless sing that, ‘You satisfy my soul’ and in doing so redefine - and weaken - what satisfaction actually meant.
The occasions in which I made the strongest declarations of faith were within the midst of sung worship, and it was only when I considered them in the cold, quiet light of day that they rung hollow.
Leading congregations in worship, I could predict with reasonable accuracy which songs would gain a response, or as I would say, ‘That’s a real hand-raiser!’ And the truth is, it’s not magic, it’s just a formula. There’s no single way to achieve it, but many combinations of instruments and arrangements could guarantee a strong hand count.
By itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s so important that we connect with our emotions, and music is a helpful tool to facilitate this. If something is true, it can become even more powerful if we not only state that truth in prose, but declare it through song.
However, is there not a chance that it could feel just as powerful and real even if it were not true?
I’m not sure that this is a great concern within the Church. In my experience, the criterion of judging a worship set is not the truth of the lyrics but the musical skill of the band. This is evidenced on a larger scale through the popularity of gatherings such as New Wine and – until recently – Soul Survivor conferences, where singing is central to the meetings and a great deal of money and effort is invested in the musical production. I once attended an Iron Maiden concert at the O2 Arena in London, and then went to Soul Survivor the next day, amazed that the clarity of sound was so much greater.
Increasingly there has been a pressure on local churches to upgrade their sound equipment in an effort to match what they’ve seen on the stage at larger gatherings. In the same way, worship leaders have tried to replicate the grand musical arrangements, only to find that what works for a crowd of ten thousand may not go down so well in a church of fifty. With such an emphasis on production and musicality, the content of the songs has taken a backseat, and worship leaders should probably not be heralded as the gatekeepers of truth.
I’d like to be clear at this point that I’m in no way criticizing church musicians. I’ve had the pleasure of playing alongside a great number over the past decade, and they’ve all been incredibly lovely and humble people of integrity - and far more skilled than I could hope to be. What I’m more concerned about is the culture which surrounds sung worship. In a society which values entertainment over integrity, the truth is in danger of becoming annexed. Someone lost in the music is unlikely to reflect on the reality of what they’re singing.
To their great credit, many within the Church have pointed out this danger, and most in the congregation would at least pay lip service to their concerns. But very little has changed in practice, and the trajectory remains the same.
In a society which values entertainment over integrity, the truth is in danger of becoming annexed.
Standing outside of the church, it feels as though this is no longer my battle to fight. I love a concert as much as the next person, so I don’t wish to deprive anyone of that experience on a Sunday morning. In fact, one of my greatest losses since leaving the faith is not having a musical outlet; it’s one thing to play the acoustic guitar at home, but I still long for the times where I could be in sync with a band and feel the sound fill the hall.
They say that people tend to get their theology more from songs than from sermons. I’ve also found that personal experience can play a greater part in developing beliefs than any religious text. This means that for a number of Christians who may rely on songs to tell them how they’re feeling, the worship band is at the heart of determining their worldview. Even the recent backlash in churches against the temporary restrictions on singing reveal how the journey of faith can be an arduous trek without musical accompaniment.
If people are to seriously reflect on their beliefs and address their doubts, poking holes in the Bible won’t get you very far. Even the hypocrisy and scandals surrounding prominent religious teachers doesn’t make a great dent.
Take away the singing? Now that’s uncomfortable.