Music as Language

This is one I've been thinking about a lot and just wanted a place to post some ideas and get some feedback.One of the things I've come to realize during the course of my ministry is that music in the church is a key defining element that people use to put a church in a category or to describe what "kind" of church it is. Good or bad, people do this and I've come to accept it. In fact, I've even embraced it, because not only do people seem to describe churches on this basis, but they also seem to choose them this way as well.

As you may have heard, I spent a lot of time in institutions growing up and even spent 30 months in a state correctional institution. During my time in prison in my early 20s, I rededicated my life to Christ and became involved in the music ministry at the prison chapel. God used this time to help me grow and to teach me a lot of lessons, and one thing I learned was how important music style is to a church.

You see, at the prison where I was, there was only one chapel. And if an inmate wanted to go to church, there was only one church to pick from. So if you didn't like what the pastor said last week, or you didn't like the style of the music, then you had to decide if those things were important enough for you to stop going to church over. There weren't any other alternatives.

But the chapel had two full time chaplains, as well as a few part time chaplains, so there was a modicum of variety in that way. And a large part of the job of a chaplain was to work as a volunteer coordinator, to oversee and manage groups of volunteers from outside churches who would come into the prison to hold services. So on a weekly basis there was usually a Sunday morning service, a Sunday evening service, Tuesday and Wednesday evening services, and at times even a whole weekend would be devoted to a "seminar" put on by a particular volunteer group like Prison Fellowship or something similar.

So one Sunday morning a mennonite volunteer group might come in and have a service, then that night it might be an African American Missionary Baptist church, then Tuesday night might be the "Unchained Gang" (former motorcycle gang members now serving Christ). Wednesday night might be an Apostolic Pentecostal church group, then the following Sunday morning might be a Presbyterian Church, then a Vineyard Fellowship that evening, then a Lutheran Church on Tuesday... you get the picture. Many of the volunteer groups would get scheduled to come on a regular basis, so we would see many of the same people and pastors from the outside churches over and over again, while some would only come a few times a year. And when there wasn't a volunteer group scheduled for a particular service, our prison chaplains would bring the message and the band might play anything!

As I helped to lead the music bands in the chapel, one of the big responsibilities was making sure that we played music that was appropriate for all these different kinds of churches. We had several different bands and a lot of rotating band members during my time there, and we played all kinds of music; traditional hymns, Gaither style gospel songs, mass choir, barbershop quartet, praise choruses, a capella, vineyard style, you name it. We had to be versatile because the diversity of church groups that came to the prison required it.

And through all of this I began to notice something very interesting. The makeup of our congregation would change each week depending on what volunteer group was scheduled to hold service. If an African American church was there on Sunday morning, then our band would play music with them that was appropriate, and we would see the congregation be predominantly African American. If we had Mennonite volunteers coming in, then the music would be much more traditional, and the congregation would reflect that as well. In fact, there were some inmates who would not come to chapel unless it was a volunteer group that they "liked". Some came no matter what volunteer group was there. But it was easy to see that the "kind" of church that was holding the service had a significant impact on the "kind" of people that would come to church.

The lesson that God taught me through all of this is that His Kingdom has a lot of variety in it, and this is because people come in all different varieties with all kinds of tastes and preferences. And every person is important. So every variety of church is important and serves an important role in reaching these many varied important people! Before prison, I had grown up in a quasi-rural United Methodist church that sang only hymns and had only white people. I had no idea what charismatic worship was. I had no idea what black gospel music was. I had never been to a Mennonite church or an African American church or a Pentecostal church before. I was clueless. In prison, God really opened my eyes to how diverse His Kingdom is, and WHY it is that way. And I learned to value all these different ways of worshiping God, seeing how important each one is, because of how each one reaches a different group of people in a different way, in the unique way that they need to be reached. And music is often an integral, defining component of this variety.

As a worship leader at the prison chapel, I began rewriting some of the secular songs that I had written on the outside, and I began writing new songs as well. These songs were "edgy" if you want to call them that, with electric guitar solos and heavy drum parts... pretty out of the ordinary compared to most of the music we were doing at the chapel. One of the Chaplains there used to call it "Kenny's grunge music". I guess anything with a distorted guitar riff was "grunge" music to him! He would often preach at the Sunday evening services when there wasn't a volunteer group, and he got into the habit of requesting my songs during the worship time. He would say, "Hold on guys. Kenny, play some of that grunge music". Most of the chaplains didn't want me to play my music because it was too hard or loud for them, but he always encouraged it. And some of my songs became standard fare for our Sunday evening services when he was preaching.

And again, I noticed that those services began to be attended by a unique set of people. A lot of them were guys who really liked the heavier style of music. I guess it "spoke their language". Guys would come up to me before service and ask, "Kenny, are you going to play that one song?" It was tempting to become prideful about that, to think that it was me that was drawing new people to the services, that it was my great songwriting or my killer guitar playing. But God was teaching me something. He had already shown me that He loves variety, and that He uses variety to reach out to people in the way that they can understand and relate to. Now he was showing me that I could play a small part in that variety, that He had given me the musical talents that I had, and I played guitar a certain way and sang a certain way and wrote songs a certain way because He designed me that way. And now I was learning that He did it that way because He knew there would be a certain amount of people who would like how I sang and played and would be drawn to it. Not that there aren't a thousand other people who can sing and play like me, because there are at least that! But we can't all be everywhere reaching everyone. God has places for us all to be. At that time, prison was the place where His music as expressed through me would reach out to a certain group of people in a special way that He had planned. There was no one else singing and playing in that prison in the wierd heavy "grunge" way that I was at that time. And it reached out to unique people in a unique way.

I believe that every worship leader has a unique "voice" or "style" that God has gifted them with, and that He has intended them to reach a unique group of people. That is why I see music as language. Take a hispanic congregation for instance. Most likely the pastor preaches in spanish. No one thinks twice about this. Take any language group and apply it to church and you get the same effect. Generally speaking, a white english speaking preacher in their forties will naturally draw a congregation of white english speaking forty-somethings. This is nothing to be upset about. White english speaking forty-somethings need a church to go to!

And music has a very similar effect. Remember when you were in junior high school and all you needed to know about someone when you were determining what quality of friendship you would have with them was what kind of music they listened to? Even today music styles dramatically categorize teens as hip-hoppers, punks, metal heads... you pick the music, there is a clique that is defined by it. Of course, music is not the only variable. There are many others. But music certainly is a variable that defines people.

And it defines churches too. Labels like "traditional" and "contemporary" may seem old-school to me now, but they are still frequently used to define churches. And primarily we think of music style when we hear those words. People often use the music style of a church to decide if they want to regularly attend there or not. Why is this? Why is music style so important to people? Is it that important to God?

Well, yes and no. I think music style is important to God in so much as it is important to people. God wants people to know Him, to trust Him, to put their faith in Him, to love Him, to worship Him. If a particular music style at a particular church helps a particular set of people to do those things, then I think that's important to Him. Just like the Korean pastor who preaches in Korean at the Korean United Methodist Church. If the worship pastor there plays hip-hop, then the church will be filled with Koreans who like hip-hop music. The music is a lanaguage that speaks to them as clearly as the pastor does. The music is a defining characteristic of the church. There is no question that a church that has hip-hop worship will draw a unique set of people, people that speak that language, who understand it, who are spoken to by it, regardless of what language is spoken from the pulpit.

So I take all this very seriously. I try very hard to stay true to my "voice", my "style", my "language", because they are not really "mine" at all. They are God's, and He wants to use them. I know that my language is not the only one. It's not the best one. There are a million others all over this world. But mine is the one that is meant to edify the people that it's edifying, to reach the people that it's reaching, to minister to those who it ministers to, because it is not me that is doing it. God is doing it. I can't take one bit of credit for the way I sing, or the kind of music I like and write, or the way my guitar style has developed. It would be like saying I chose to speak english, or that I had anything to do with that. Believe me, if I could change the way my voice sounds I would!

However, I have realized that I am multi-lingual when it comes to music. My experiences in prison are a prime example. And lots of worship leaders are multi-lingual. Many of them have to be in order to lead the music in their particular church. Perhaps their "first language" is traditional piano and organ music and classical choral arrangements. Maybe that's where they really excel. But due to the nature of the congregation or the pastor's desire to reach out to younger people, maybe he or she has had to lead a more "blended" service with contemporary praise choruses. I have actually seen that happen in a church where the contemporary worship leader stepped down and the traditional leader had to stand in and lead some contemporary music for a while. He did it. It was okay. Sometimes it was really beautiful. And God used it. But it wasn't his "first language", and we all knew it. In a sense, it was like he was a foreign missionary trying to speak the language, but sometimes stumbling over the words, and always with a heavy accent!

Some music pastors are called to foreign missionary work. Right now there is a guy leading worship somewhere on acoustic guitar quietly singing "I Love You Lord" who is heavy metal to the bone and would love to be crunching on electric guitar and screaming at the top of his lungs. But he's been called to that church. God wants him there. God is showing him something. And in the meantime he is speaking the language that he needs to speak to communicate with the people at that church, and God is pleased by that. And the guy is loving it. He loves music, and he loves worshiping God, and he loves the people that he's been called to reach, and he'll be happy if he stays there singing "I Love You Lord" for ever. No question in my mind about that.

But some music pastors are not happy where they are at, for better or for worse. Yes, we need to be content in all circumstances. But sometimes we're not, and that can be a problem. It can be tough when everything inside you is crying out for the freedom to express yourself naturally through music, to worship God in a way that allows you to offer your best sacrifice, to give it all you've got, to take the best lamb from your flock and lay it on His altar. If you've ever led worship music in a church where the music was not really your style, you know exactly what I mean. "Yes, I CAN play piano, but...".

So the point I'm getting at is that everyone has a unique personality and style. And I think God uses that to reach out to as many people as possible. Paul was all things to all people.

"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Paul was culturally multi-lingual. And Paul worked in a vacuum. Many times he was the ONLY Christian missionary in a particular city, or even in an entire region, or he was one of only a handful. Paul HAD to be culturally multi-lingual. Today there are thousands of churches in every city in America, yet they are very homogenous. Many of them are speaking the exact same cultural language, and this is a problem. There are literally millions of people in our country that don't speak the languages that our churches speak. Is this a generational thing? Is postmodernism the problem (or the solution)? Can I put a finger on it? No. But what I have become conviced of is the need for church planting, and the need for church planters and their teams to speak their native languages, to seek out that unique cultural/generational cohort that they belong to and whose language they speak, and win those people for Christ!

On the one hand, large existing "mega" churches are probably the most able to follow Paul's example of being all things to all men. They are the churches with the resources to hire additional staff, add extra services, and to learn to speak different languages to reach new and different people. On the other hand, existing churches are probably the ones that find change the hardest, that have the most difficult time with tradition and history. But church plants, and specifically church plants that are part of a church multiplication movement, don't need to change. They are what they are, and next year they'll partner in planting a church that is different. A church participating in multiplication planting will see daughter churches and granddaughter and great-granddaughter churches all being born of the unique personalities and cultures and languages of their planters, all reaching new and unique sets of people who relate to those personalities and belong to those cultures and speak those languages. For me, this is an incredible vision for the Church (capital C) being "all things to all men" by committing to the planting of a diversity of churches (small c) that each is uniquely one of those "things" Paul was speaking of to the Corinthians.

So I think I need to go on and distinguish the differences between carrying this approach out on a personal evangelism level, on a local church corporate level, and on a wider Church/Kingdom level, and how this is differentiated among those who find themselves in church leadership positions as opposed to the average church attender/consumer. But this is enough for now. More later.

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