“You are part of the faculty at the new seminary? What do you teach there?”
“Oh, really? What instrument do you play?”
As I began to meet Wesley students, IWU faculty and friends of the seminary I was repeatedly surprised by the assumption that classes about worship would be performance oriented. Before joining the staff of Wesley Seminary, it had escaped me that many people think of worship as only the musical part of their Sunday gatherings. For a decade prior to coming here, I had been working in a worship center that ordered its world around parts of the weekly gathering: music, worship liturgy, preaching – and even those three artificial divisions proved anemic over time as liturgical dancing, drama, and worship arts began to take more prominent places in weekly worship.
Yet music is, so often the single element that tends to define a congregation’s worship. The age or viability of a congregation is often measured by the style of its music. Music is frequently used to signal the beginning or ending point of a worship service (or its various parts), to suggest how to respond to the sermon, or to muster people out of their seats to approach God in quiet adoration or raucous praise.
Perhaps this is why music is often synonymous with worship in some of our conversations. As we look at the numerous songs sung in Revelation and other parts of the Bible, we see that congregational song has been long been an established way to worship God.
What may not be as apparent is that song has also been used as a teaching tool for centuries. In times and places when Christianity has been peopled by more non-readers than readers, church leaders have long relied upon music as a way to help the faithful remember Christian doctrine. You will find that the four (plus) stanzas of the hymn are often arranged to tell a story, teach virtue or communicate a truth about God. Let us look together at one traditional hymn.
Fanny J. Crosby, 1873 (Public Domain)
1. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
2. Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight:
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
3. Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Savior am happy and blest;
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.
As we take a closer look at the hymn text, we find in verse 1 a strong allusion to one of the doctrines of the Atonement in the words “heir of salvation, purchase of God….” In the “angels descending…” of verse 2, we are invited to remember the story of Jacob’s ladder in the Old Testament, and the claims that Jesus made about himself in the story of the call of Philip and Nathanael in John 1:43-51. The Day of the Lord, with its doctrine of eschatology is hinted at in the “watching and waiting, looking above…” of verse three. Every time a person sings Blessed Assurance, there are opportunities for theological reflection, nurture and growth.
It was important that traditional hymns were singable and memorable. This is why the tunes were often reflective of the era in which the hymn was written. This is also why the text of the hymn might have the rhythm and cadence of poetry that was popular during the time that the hymn was written. Though many of us serve in countries where literacy is not a problem, it continues to be important that music used in worship be singable, memorable and theologically rich. The relatively new study of brain science reinforces the fact that the brain processes musical inputs in different ways from the blah blah blah of human speech. Just Google the Internet for links to many medical studies that prove that Alzheimer’s sufferers no longer able to speak are often able to sing a verse of their favorite hymn!
In the context of worship, music functions in several significant ways: as vehicle of our veneration and adoration of God, as a tool for teaching doctrine, and as a tool for remembering faith. Memorable, singable, faith-forming music is more likely to leave the building, spill into the streets, and be remembered when we are in times of need.