In my 20 years of work in music ministry, from the choir loft to the recording studio, I have yet to find an individual who is not a cultural bigot when it comes to music-—including myself. In my earlier years, a clinical condition one would call “sound deficiency syndrome” stirred passionate debate. In the mid-’70s, an influential Bible expositor wrote a scathing letter decrying the use of guitar and drums in “sacred” music. To this person and many other church leaders, rock music stood for everything that was evil in society, and was the core motivation for youthful wrongdoing. Others made the point that if rock music is the source for youthful sin, perhaps the high incidence of white-collar crime should be attributed to elevator music and Barry Manilow.
Such arguments continued to rage on passionately in the ’70s and ’80s. In the early ’80s, several evangelists started warning parents about evil messages on records that could only be understood if a record were played backward. This sinister-sounding plot—”backward masking”—was soon debunked when it was pointed out that the messages were evil enough when the records were played forward. You don’t have to listen to, watch, or read filth backward to know it’s dirty.
The ’90s have brought respect to the music pioneers of the ’60s and ’70s. The talk is not about rock… it’s contemporary music. And churches that are using contemporary music in worship are growing in number.
Music research tells us that our personal nostalgic music taste is formed in early adulthood, sometime between the ages of 28 and 23. Most of the “great hymns” of the church were published around the spiritual movements of more than a century ago. And the melodies of these hymns often were from even earlier sources. It’s no wonder, then, that a tennis shoe company trying to reach the boomer market today would wrap its message in a Beatles tune—”Revolution”—and not “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
There is a sizable number of evangelicals who never listened to the music of their own culture, or at least the culture outside the church, then or now. The only sound they have heard or participated in was in the sanctuary or perhaps the Haven of Rest quartet via Christian radio. For them, nostalgia is generated by hearing “Just As I Am,” not “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Nevertheless, for evangelicals, singing is sacramental. It is a practice that invokes the presence of God and unifies the body as a multitude of voices becomes one.
The bottom line is that a great amount of understanding and patience is required by all of us. We are all partially sighted and suffer from “Sound Deficiency Syndrome,” both blessed and victimized by our “cultural conditioning.” But as Christians, we can all agree that one of the greatest cohesive forces and traditions—past and present—is Christians singing together, reciting their faith pilgrimage, giving praise, and affirming values no matter what the form of accompaniment.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable unto you, Oh Lord.
CEO/Publisher of Worship Leader magazine, Song Discovery, and National Worship Leader Conferences