Worship, Consumerism, and Music

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)

What is the church for?

I worry that many church people feel that the church is there mainly to meet their needs and to satisfy their preferences. They are consumers expecting a product of value. They want that product packaged and delivered to them in ways that make it easy for them to consume the product. The product has to meet their expectations and standards, in this case, with church, typically revolving around values of comfort and familiarity. And when the product does not meet those expectations and standards, the consumer will complain or quietly go elsewhere. Perhaps, just as quietly, they’ll leave but never arrive anywhere else.

Music can be understood in a similar way. Because “music” is itself often understood as a product to consume or an experience to receive. Music, as a receptive experience, might fit so well with the consumerist mentality of modern churchgoers and churchgoing. Indeed, the many varieties of music one can readily find and enjoy, live or on CDs or streamed over the Net, might be understood as a worthy parallel to the many varieties of worship one can “consume” in many places. You don’t like this one? You’ve grown tired of that one? Well, just switch to another. Or turn off the player for a while.

Clearly, I don’t think this is an ideal perspective on the church. And I’m not entirely satisfied with it as an understanding of music, either. Because it overlooks the reality that truly experiencing great music is, to some extent, to be captured by it. Great music (of any genre) sets its own terms. Yes, it is experienced, and received, and to that extent somehow “consumed.” But part of the delight we get from great music is how it rubs against our expectations and even our comfort. The hope for any musician is that people will sit up and notice the music, which has in that moment become more than background sound meshing comfortably with the activity of ordinary life.

Another thing about music is that, as an activity, it does not have only listeners but also composers and performers. All three aspects make up the experience of music: composition, performance, and audition. For all forms of music, performers must also be listeners if the music is to “work.” Learning how to play music often makes one a better listener. And for some forms the line between composer and performer can become quite blurred, to beautiful effect.

The church does not exist as a producer of religious services to be consumed. The church is gathered by Christ to bring glory to God through its work together. Within it there are not producers and consumers, performers and listeners, with strict pew-shaped lines dividing them. Rather, all those in the church are to be contributing to the music. They are all performers and listeners. Perhaps they’re all composers, too, although if so then they are composing with an ear toward a fundamental, eternal melody that has taken shape in time. Or maybe it’s in concert with a divine cantus firmus sung through the ages, which all these lesser composers take up and embellish upon as they are given to do by their generous Lord.

What song is God giving you to sing?

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Author: Dan Griswold

A good life is motivated by love. My loves: the Triune God, family, music, friends, parishioners, theology.

1 thought on “Worship, Consumerism, and Music”

  1. Well said, Dan. One question I continually ask myself as a worship leader is whether my preparation for and leadership during worship is actually helping to focus the gathered people’s attention on God rather than simply provide a group of people with a “worship experience” that they feel free as consumers to like or dislike. In the symphony that is reformed worship, the movement of the people’s response is crucial, but perhaps under served in many churches.

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