As long as I can remember I’ve loved music. My parents didn’t always agree with my definition of “music”, but that’s how parents are supposed to respond when they hear what their teenage child is listening to, right? The music I listened to as a child, as a teenager, as a passenger in my parent’s vehicles, and on into adulthood has become a part of me, and now I love pretty much all music. (I still struggle to love Opera, but who doesn’t except Operatic performers?)
I grew up sitting in the pew next to my mother and grandmother at First United Methodist Church of Plymouth, Michigan. I hated the songs there regardless of the talents of the organists, choir members, the big pipe organ, or pretty much anything else. I wanted the guitar and drums of our youth group, and loved it when something with a good bass line found it’s way into the regular order of worship. Then I went to seminary, and for the first time began to read and reflect upon the words of those “hated” hymns. I discovered the beauty and depth of the words, and began to realize the degree to which some of those songs had shaped my thoughts on God. I may have grown up singing those songs, listening to those songs, but it wasn’t until my mind had become awakened to them that I began to truly love those old songs (and many new ones too).
In 1761 John Wesley had a note at the beginning of the compilation Select Hymns that was titled Directions for Singing. You can find it at the beginning of our United Methodist Hymnal today following the Preface. These rules are simple and important, because Mr. Wesley understood that the music we hear and the words we profess in song shape us. These rules encourage people to learn the songs of the hymnal, sing the words that are printed in them exactly, join together in singing loud and with good courage, yet also together (modestly) so as not to make your voice heard above the rest. Above all though he points out that we must sing “spiritually” recognizing that what we are singing, we sing to God. That what we profess, pray, or claim in song is unto God. This is no casual or flippant thing that we do, when we sing to God.
I wouldn’t go so far as Wesley and say that one must only learn music from the hymnal. I see his point, because he wants to be careful about what people are saying about God, to God, and to one another in the context of praise and worship. However, there are many songs with and without lyrical accompaniment that can draw us close to God that are well beyond any collection of hymns or spiritual songs. Sometimes the music shapes us, and sometimes we shape the music. Today we are spoiled for choice in music. We can even customize our own radio stations with or without commercials using Pandora, Spotify, XM Radio, or other similar services. Not to mention the myriad of choices available for what might be labeled “Christian” music that goes from Johann Sebastian Bach to a band named Mortification. It’s important to recognize that what we listen to gets stuck in our heads, and plays on loop in our subconscious. Perhaps this is why Wesley might want us to get the Hymns down first.
It’s about growing as disciples of Jesus, not about saying one branch of music is better than another. If you love God and you love music, then perhaps it would be a good idea to see where the two connect in your life. Maybe even go so far as to think about what the lyrics and tunes, and their accompanying feelings, might be doing to shape that relationship. Music is a part of creation, and it’s a part of us. Let us learn to love God more through it’s beauty and diversity.