Church of England rector Sam Norton writes:
it is possible to appreciate religious music (or art or whatever) in such a way as to gain some benefit from it, even spiritual benefit – but this is not the same as worship. I think I would want to describe the difference as being between a consumer of religiously flavoured produce and being engaged in a conversation with something other than our own desires and perspectives. It is the latter that counts as worship, not the former.
Indeed. Perhaps this is the real story behind the controversy last year when Sam “sacked” his choirmaster, which reached the Daily Mail.
It is easy for someone like me to say Amen! to sentiments like this when directed at traditional church music, which is probably what was called “a substitute” for religion by the non-Christian professor Sam quoted. This is surely the kind of music which Sam’s old choir loved to sing, so different from Sam’s preferred Leonard Cohen.
But the same point also needs to be made about modern Christian music. It is easy to attract young people with no church background to Christian concerts and even “worship” services if the style of music and the atmosphere are right – and if enough money has been spent on high-tech audio-visual equipment to give an apparently authentic rock concert or disco experience. But listening to or singing along with such music is in itself no more worship than is listening to or singing along with classical oratorios.
So what should the church do?
First, I would say, it needs to provide an appropriate style of music for its congregation, or for the one it wants to attract. That, I suspect, was the problem Sam had: the music that his 100-strong congregation liked was not appreciated by the rest of his parish’s population of 7000. I’m not sure if they preferred Leonard Cohen! My own current church, Oasis Warrington, is seeking to reach unchurched young people, and so it offers a service with a rock concert atmosphere, and music from Hillsong and Abundant Life. That works in getting a good number of the 200,000 people of Warrington through its doors, but would probably not go down well in Sam’s village.
However, the important part starts once the people are inside the building, and have stayed through the opening musical selection. This is when the message needs to be put across that religion or being a Christian is not just about enjoying the music. That can be done in many ways – even by firing a director of music who has lost the right perspective. But it is probably communicated most clearly in the preaching of the gospel message, without compromise on its content although its form needs to be adapted to the congregation.
Anyone who visits Oasis Warrington to enjoy the music, and perhaps hoping to be moved in a vaguely religious way, will before the end of the meeting be challenged to something quite different, to giving their whole life to Jesus Christ in true sacrificial worship. The same should be true, whatever the style of music, at every church.