When in Our Music God Is Glorified
His nervous hesitance is evident. Unsure of himself and obviously fearful of answering the question incorrectly, the young man finally says, "I think I have an idea of what the answer is, but I don't quite know how to put it."
My reaction to his panic-stricken confusion disarms him:
"It is, I'm convinced, the most important question to be asked of a young church musician such as yourself, but you won't be in trouble with me for being unsure," I said with a broad smile.
He is a promising young gospel musician -- a teenager to be exact … an enormously talented teenager. He plays a myriad of instruments well, including drums, organ, bass guitar, flamenco guitar, and just about every keyboard Roland has ever made. But my question left him grasping for words. It is a question I often ask gospel musicians, especially those who, like this young man, are convinced that they want to seek out a career in the gospel music industry:
What is the difference between a musician and one who ministers through music?
Trick question? Absolutely not.
Essential question? Absolutely.
Let us wrestle with it.
Music is truly a gift from God. The significance of music of all genres can hardly be exhausted in the span of one written article. Perhaps more than any other mode of expression known to humanity, music is a powerful force, pregnant with the potential to alter the thoughts, the heart, yea even the very life of the listener. As Berthold Auerbachonce remarked, "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." Music is, as JeanPaul Richter suggested, "moonlight in the gloomy night of life."
But when one considers that music emanated from the very mind of God, then its richness and stunning beauty should come as no surprise.
In the opening lines of the book of Genesis, we watch as sheets of sound unfold before our eyes. The Creator, being the virtuoso that God is, taps the baton and begins to methodically wrench a beautiful symphony out of the original backdrop of cosmic chaos. We do indeed worship a God who is a consummate musician, a God who gave God's best in the creative process … and a God who, no doubt, appreciates excellence and proficiency in this art form that we call music.
And yet, among the varieties of music genres that permeate our world -- jazz, baroque, opera, R & B, hip hop, and adult contemporary, just to name a few -- there stands one giant among expressions & gospel or Christian music. Although music in general is, as we said, a powerful force, gospel music carries with it an added dimension. Gospel music exists to present the Creator to the creation, thus enabling a Divine encounter with the God who sings love songs into the souls of humanity.
Whereas other forms of music exist for the sheer purpose of entertainment, gospel music exists to glorify and magnify the God who breathed life into it and caused the music itself to become a living soul.
Therein we discover the great importance of the question that stumped our young music prodigy and, unfortunately, apparently stumps many who dedicate their life's work to this expression known as gospel music. Music that glorifies God does not seek to entertain the listener. The purpose of our music is to usher the listener and participants into a cosmic collision with the Creator. When flash, production, studio lights, pomp, and the sanctuary sponsored "dog and pony shows" seem to outweigh the purpose and message of the music, it behooves us to return to our first love.
When we gather for gospel workshops, music seminars, award shows and live recordings, the atmosphere can often become one of glitz, competition, vocal acrobatics, and self-congratulatory comments, such as "Y'all like that? Want us to say it again?" As that great theologian (ahem) Ricky Smiley said, "one often is confused as to whether one should respond by doing the electric slide or the two-step."
But after we bestow awards upon one another and after we celebrate the latest platinum release, is the portrait of God made clearer to a world that needs so desperately to sense and encounter the God of hope?
We even go so far as to call the gathered congregation the audience -- a reference that literally churns my stomach. Performances require an audience … worship requires participants. Worship is much more than an action. Worship is a lifestyle. Worship is an expression of our love for and dependence upon the God who gave us life and who sustains and legitimizes that life through God's own existence.
Here now I offer my words of counsel to that young musician who is struggling to discern the difference between church-ified musical entertainment and ministering through music. To ensure that God is indeed the Audience of our worship experiences, let us keep these points at the forefronts of our hearts and minds:
1. Make sure that all of our lyrics are scripturally based and theologically sound.
If we cannot plainly and specifically point the listener to the particular passage of Scripture upon which a lyrical idea is based, then though the lyrics may be well written, they cannot be guaranteed to penetrate the heart of the hearer. In fact, one should never even attempt to write a gospel song without a Bible in hand. Inherent in this first point is the necessity that the music not loudly overpower the lyrics. Instrumentation should complement, not compete with, our lyrics. Hardly anything can penetrate the soul quite like the written word of God (Hebrews 4: 12).
2. Bathe the entire process in prayer from start to finish.
Whether one is writing gospel music, recording gospel music, or leading the gathered of God into the experience of Divine encounter we call corporate worship, praying through the process is essential. Prayer is the lifeblood of any and all types of ministry. Without it, the presenter is powerless, the participants are robbed, and God is not even recognized. Our prayers should be centered on God using us as vessels, rather than on our own excellence of expression. "Lord, help me do well and help me neither to miss the coda nor crack that note in the bridge after the second verse" pales in comparison to, "God, I offer myself to you as a means of reaching and encouraging your people with the message of your unconditional love. Help me to worship you in spirit and in truth, as I offer my hands, my voice and my body to you. Be glorified" (Deuteronomy 4:7).
3. Remember that ultimately, God is the audience -- not the people.
Gospel music seeks to bring the participants into a collective experience of worshiping the God in whose name we gather. Whether one hears our music in a sanctuary, on gospel radio, or at the skating rink, the bottom line is to keep the bottom line the bottom line. Although our music may reach the farthest corners of the world, although our music may bring us fame and wealth, although our music sales may earn us respect among our peers, although we sell out the next award show in a huge arena, although we get pats on the back and accolades from the hearers, if God is not pleased with our effort, it is all futile. God has plainly told us that the condition of one's heart is much more important than one's capacity or standard of musical excellence. What does it profit us to gain a Grammy or a Stellar Award and not have touched the very heart of God, who alone deserves to be the object of all our efforts? Is pleasing God at the heart of what we do, or is putting on our best show and wowing the crowd with our prowess what we deem to be important? (I Samuel 16: 7)
When in our music God is glorified, we have the assurance of God's pleasure, thus we have the assurance of God's power. I pray that we never forget why we do what we do.
The hymn, "When in Our Music God Is Glorified," by British Methodist pastor and hymn writer Fred Pratt Green, may be found in The United Methodist Hymnal, no. 68.
Derrick Lewis Noble is pastor of a new church start, Impact United Methodist Church, 4700 Highway 365, Suite A, Port Arthur, Texas, in the Texas Annual Conference. The church's website is www.impactumc.org. He has been cited as one of the top twenty young preachers in America by The African American Pulpit Magazine. He has published a number of articles concerning worship in the Black church in a web-based magazine for the gospel music industry, GospelFlava. He may be contacted by e-mail at dr.derri[email protected].
Copyright 2008 by Derrick Noble Published by the Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church. Congregations may reprint this resource for local church use, provided the copyright of the author is acknowledged and this website is cited.