I’ve been in churches of various kinds my whole life: my dad was Roman Catholic, my mom an evangelical Presbyterian, and I had an expensive Episcopalian education. I’ve assisted with Baptist, charismatic, and even Mennonite youth groups and played music at more ecumenical retreats and conferences than I can count.
So I wonder a lot about music in churches: why do we have it at all? What’s the payoff? To put it in terms of stewardship, what precisely is the point of the investment?
It’s obvious that almost every community on earth uses some form of music that binds its members together in a shared imagination: from the marches of Nuremberg to the prophetic poems of Bob Dylan, music explores, exploits, manipulates, coaxes, develops and reinforces the imagination about what a community is and why it exists. Music talks directly to the emotions: propaganda and dogmas can be resisted and argued with, but art cannot. It catches us unaware and reminds us of what it means to be ourselves, both individually and as a community.
When the Pope and his followers seceded from the Church of England, of course, the great early Anglican composers (Tallis, Byrd, and later Purcell) were engaged in a serious project of what today we would call “branding”: showing that the Church of England could do music as well as the Catholics of the late Middle Ages. They were gifted at establishing their brand: English polyphony had a peculiar flavor that was a statement about both English language and liturgy. But they were also aware that they were providing in great measure the concrete that would hold the church together over time: an emotional shared language that would draw together those who would call themselves “Anglican.” It was a surprising music, as good art must always be, both familiar and strange at the same time.
A church that invests in music must always have its eye on that dynamic: there is no “worship” without wonder, and no wonder without imagination, and imagination without art grows misshapen and twisted. Dogma without art becomes fascistic, inflexible, unloving, and ultimately betrays whatever it sets out to protect. But music is fluid, clean, and cleansing to the imagination. It can’t make us faithful; but it can make us want to be faithful, and it can make us long to be what we are not yet, and to be more truly what we already are.
Seems a good investment.