While traveling through the south one Sunday, we found a church and stopped in for services before continuing our trip. At that time, our two oldest kids were very young, and we had no idea that we were in for quite a unique experience, but there were a few harbingers of things to come that we began to notice as we entered the building.
Walking through the auditorium, we heard the organist playing an arrangement of "Amazing Grace." It was unique, to say the least. The stop selections evoked a Calliope sound that was more reminiscent of a carnival than anything, but at least the organist was playing in a style that was consistent with her stop selections. Unfortunately the effect, musically, was comedic.
It wasn't long before we were greeted by a smiling couple, who proudly informed us that there was no nursery for our kids because, "Kids don't disrupt our services." As I said, our kids were very young, and even though they were fairly well behaved, I had a hard time understanding how that could be. Either way, we took our seats near the back and waited for the service to start, curious about how this would work out.
As we sat, listening to the organist's caricatures of various traditional hymns, I noticed that the drum set on the platform had microphones set up to amplify them. That was odd, since the auditorium was definitely not large enough to warrant amplifying the drums, and in the moments before the service started, my mind started to connect the dots while trepidation replaced curiosity.
The music was painfully loud, even where we were seated in the back of the auditorium, and the sounds were a confused cacophony at best. Calliope music from the organ was being hammered into submission by the drum as a piano and other instruments struggled to get some attention as well. The lyrics were completely overwhelmed by a sonic experience that was so out of control it made thinking impossible.
At least the loudness served one useful purpose. The people around us probably thought my oldest son (who now plays keyboard with us) was singing as the music drowned out his insistent observation, "Bad music, daddy! Bad music!" He was right. It was awful, and although it might seem impossible, the whole service went downhill from there.
This experience is still the worst ever example of a worship service I have ever heard, but how do we evaluate it? Can we really say it was bad? Is there some way to determine what is good worship music? If it is left to the audience, then those around me seemed to have a very different reaction than mine, and we would have to say that it was good...for them. So can we really judge a piece of music as being bad?
I would like to suggest that there are a few items that we should consider when choosing, playing, or leading worship music: the communication of the music, the content of the lyric, the quality of the art, and the question of the heart.
Briefly, we should be concerned with what our music is communicating, and we should evaluate this according to a broader cultural context than the local church. Either way, it is a mistake to think that your music isn't saying something about your church and its message, and if what the music communicates is important, then the content of our lyrics should be very important. So if you really want to be effective, the emotional communication of your music should match the lyrical content, which should be thoroughly grounded in the word of Christ and blossoming with spiritual fruit.
Music that is artistically superior, will stand the test of time. It will have a melody and core harmonic structure that are timeless. One of the ways you can recognize a good song is if it can communicate effectively outside of its original context. Bach is a tremendous example, as his music is so enduring that it is still recognizable and communicates effectively, even when played in a variety of contexts and styles.
We should strive to keep the art of our worship music as high as we can, with the resources that we have at our disposal. This doesn't mean that we need professional musicians in order to have good worship. Quite the contrary, the desire for technical and artistic quality needs to be balanced with the communal nature of worship music that is concerned with the heart of each individual and the unity of the church.
An inferior musical expression can have greater impact and clearer communication when the participants are authentic. In other words, just as the emotion of the music should match the content of the lyrics, the heart of the song should be matched by the heart of the musician. Just as it makes little sense to pair loving lyrics with angry music, it makes little sense to have a wicked heart singing songs of holiness.
When music reflects an emotion that is consonant with the lyrics, when the lyrics express truth that reflects Christ fully, when the worshipers are in a right relationship with Christ and are bent on loving Him and one another, when all of these elements are in harmony with one another, we will have truly amazing worship. When this chain is disjointed, out of alignment, or broken, the worship will be qualitatively (or possibly even morally) inferior.