Content more important than musical style in worship, musicians tell students

Communications Staff — March 16, 2004

There is no such thing as a musical style that is most appropriate for Christian worship, according to Matthew Smith and Cason Cooley, members of the band “Indelible Grace.”

Instead of committing themselves to one style, worship leaders should use different styles of music in different cultural contexts, Smith and Cooley said in a Feb. 19 lecture at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The address was part of a lecture series sponsored by Southern’s Christian Worship Institute.

“Indelible Grace” is a Nashville, Tenn-based Christian band that weds traditional hymn texts with contemporary music. The group has released three compact disks, including their latest “For All the Saints.”

“I think people have to be really sensitive to their particular congregation that they’ve been called to minister to …,” said Smith, the band’s leader. “Ministry is specific. Ministry is not general.

“You can take general concepts and apply them specifically. But ministry is about people so we need to be sensitive to people specifically that are around us and let the love for our neighbor guide what we do, in the context of Scripture of course.”

In selecting worship music, leaders must be sensitive to the fact that different generations feel more comfortable singing different types of music, they said. Senior adults, for example, often find traditional rhythms to be most conducive to worship while younger generations find syncopated rhythms to be most natural.

Regardless of what musical style a church uses, worship leaders must select songs whose words express biblical truth, Smith said.

“In worship I think, ‘How does this connect with the Scripture that’s going to be preached?’” he said. “‘How will this be used to prepare our hearts toward receiving God’s Word, and how will this even teach us God’s Word in sung form?’”

One effective way to communicate biblical truths in worship is to use the texts of traditional hymns, Cooley said.

“I know my understanding of theology has become richer since [I started] singing hymns,” he said. “I’ve heard hymns called ‘theology on fire.’ It’s taking theology and putting it into poetry with melodies that you can sing. And you find yourself singing melodies with these words, and you’re just repeating truths to yourself all day.”

When leading congregations in singing hymns, leaders must recognize that antiquated language has the potential to confuse worshippers, Smith said. But the possibility of confusion should not steer congregations away from hymns.

“On the ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ issue, I think you need to look at songs artfully and say, ‘Would changing this destroy the poetic beauty and the nuance of it or be helpful?’ … If there are some little things that really don’t affect the poetic flow, maybe it’s good to change them and change the thou’s to you,” he said.

Often singing songs with older lyrics and phrases reminds worshippers that they descend from a long line of faithful Christians, Smith said.

“It doesn’t bother me at all to sing the thee’s and thou’s,” he said. “I think it’s valuable in connecting us to knowing that we have the same struggles and the same needs that people did hundreds of years ago.”

Cooley added, “There’s something about tradition that is attractive to people. And when the significance of those traditions are explained, then they become rich and relevant to people.”

Ultimately, worship should use relevant musical styles to communicate truths that resonate in worshippers’ minds and hearts, Cooley said.

“Are we embodying joy and sorrow in the new songs that we are singing? Is our music awakening joy, and is our music awakening sorrow? How many people in your church have had something devastating happen to them in the last two years, and is our music speaking to that, or is it just syrup?”

For more information on Indelible grace, please see: http://igracemusic.com/igracemusic/.

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