- We contextualize the word of God by translating it into other languages to reach every culture. When it comes to music, however, we ask our congregants to conform to the genre of modern worship. What would happen if we played worship music in specific musical "heart languages"?
On the recommendation of a pastor at the church I was attending, I audited a class on counseling teens. One night a guest speaker said something that connected so deeply I haven’t 1) Stopped thinking about it and 2) Stopped attempting to implement it into the church since.
The guest was Dave Hart. He had started hanging around goth clubs in San Diego, connecting with the youth there and leading many of them to Christ. The problem was that once they had a relationship with Christ, it was difficult to plug them into the modern church. This is what he said that I can’t get out of my mind,
“I can’t just sit these kids down and say, ‘Ok. You’re a Christian! Now we sit around a campfire, play acoustic guitar and sing Kumbaya.’ It’s not their culture. That’s not what they want to listen to.”
Worship Music Isn’t For Everybody
What Dave said resonated so deeply within me because I knew exactly what those kids were feeling. I was having meaningful worship experiences at my church. I was receiving sound teaching. But if I was honest, the music I heard on Sunday morning was sonically disparate from what I wanted to hear.
This reminded me of Wycliffe Bible Translator’s mission to translate the Bible into every “heart language.” If someone grew up speaking a language (knowing the idioms, grammatical structure, etc.) Wycliffe desires to have a translation of the Bible in that language. That way God’s word can speak to that person in the language closest to their heart.
Pastor Dave was running up against the musical equivalent: People can read the Bible in their heart language, but where can they go to worship in their heart’s musical style?
Punk Music Is My “Heart Language”
I vividly remember walking into my local record store* and saying to one of the employees, “I heard this song where it’s something like ‘Aye Oh let’s go?’ I think that’s the lyrics. Do you know…” He stopped me and smiled** “Dude. That’s the Ramones. Here, follow me.” That’s when he led me to the punk section and revolutionized my life. I had already heard the older high schoolers at church playing “Ball and Chain” by Social Distortion on their acoustic guitars and now I was standing in this glorious section of record after record that played the music of… Well… I’m just going to say it: Punk is the musical equivalent of my “heart language.”
This is where I believe the church is missing a giant opportunity. What would happen if churches started playing worship in specific musical “heart languages”? What if your Sunday morning service played in a specific genre of music that isn’t the genre of “modern worship?” Or what if you held a monthly worship service that catered to a specific musical “heart language” that resonates with your local culture?
To be clear, I am not calling churches to figure out some clever way to change the lyrics of “Cruel Summer” to “Cruel Sinner” and worship-Weird-Al a Taylor Swift song. I’m asking us to connect with the people who attend our churches in a deeper way by embracing a deeper diversity of music.
I understand for many churches it isn’t realistic. The genre of “modern worship” has developed as a way to attempt to be as musically inclusive as possible. I am not criticizing the lyrics nor am I saying I don’t appreciate the music. I love many modern worship songs.
I just believe that occasionally when you try to play for everybody you end up playing for nobody.
Contextualization of Worship
This is a call to the contextualization of worship. We know we have already done this to some degree from Psalm 33:2 where it reads, “Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.” Bless that one worship leader who is reading this and thinking, “Beth actually does a very tasteful job on the ten-stringed lyre.” For the rest of us, we have already contextualized worship by keeping the heart of it and placing it into a context more palatable to what modern people expect with music. Which, sorry Beth, doesn’t usually involve a harp.
What is holding us back from really diving head first into the culture around us and fully embracing the musical heart language of our congregants? We often connect with others outside of the walls of our church buildings through very specific genres of music. How many times have you asked someone what music they listen to?
What if we went all the way and worshiped together in that genre?
I hear the scoffing already. And I accept. I don’t expect every worship leader to read this and think, “Next Sunday is Polka Sunday!” I know it’s not realistic. But I would love it if just one worship leader read this and thought, “I love bluegrass. Let’s try a bluegrass set this Sunday.”
If you love bluegrass and usher people into God’s presence through a full bluegrass set I truly believe at least one person will leave that worship experience thinking, “That was the most impactful worshipful experience of my life.” And they will tell their bluegrass loving friends. “You won’t believe what the worship is like at my church!”***
Bless the worship pastor at our church, Victor, for being a fellow metal head and introducing me to HolyName. It’s one of the first times I have ever heard modern metal music played with a heart of worship at the core lyrically. We need more of this. More that we can listen to on our own and, also, more “musical heart language” worship that we can experience corporately. For those of you already doing this, please share what God is doing!
As a church, let’s stop trying to pull people into our musical culture. Let’s give them a worship experience in theirs and watch what God does.
*Yes. I am old. This was a time where Shazam did not exist and every town had a record store
**For those who have never had the privilege of going to a local record store…A record store employee smiling is honestly beyond rare. It’s a true unicorn moment.
***Also…invite me. I would absolutely LOVE to see that set.
Quick Editorial note: Saddleback Church used to offer multiple musical styles across their campus. “Saddleback Church features nine different “worship venues.” There is a worship style to suit every worldly taste. The Overdrive venue is “for those who like guitar-driven rock band worship in a concert-like setting that you can FEEL.” The Ohana venue comes “complete with hula and island-style music,” and on the first Saturday of every month you can take hula lessons during the potluck following the service. The Country venue features line dancing. I didn’t make this up, folks. It is right from Saddleback’s web site.” [source]
If anyone attended any of those services, we would love to hear your feedback or anecdotes. Please comment below!
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Joshua Foote has been involved in worship ministry for over two decades as both a musician and an educator. He is now serving as the Family Director at a church plant in Southern California and also works as a virtual educator. He lives with his wife and three children. His favorite job of all time was working at a record store and there are few things he loves more than live music.