We continue this short series on the place of music in Adventist worship. In part 1, I proposed what I call the reductionist approach to church music. This view removes music from an inappropriate pedestal of importance in worship and brings it down to the level of a language used for communication. In part 2, I delved into how music impacts the human being and thus aids in the communication of a particular message. In this article, Part 3 of the series, I will discuss which type of music may communicate best in the context of corporate worship.
COMMUNICATING WITH MUSIC IN WORSHIP: THE PROBLEM OF EXTRA-MUSICAL ASSOCIATIONS
As we look to refresh worship through new approaches to church music, it is important to pay attention to the problem of extra-musical associations. This is perhaps the most serious obstacle to the introduction of new music in church. Misunderstanding the implications of extra-musical associations has caused most of the controversies around music’s use in Adventist worship today.
What is an extra-musical association? An extra-musical association may be defined as non-musical imagery prompted by a piece of music; for example, the music of a national anthem evokes images of home, country, classrooms, and patriotic parades. These images are not musical per se, but their continued association with a certain style of music (in this case, a patriotic tune) prompts them.
Extra-musical associations should not be confused with intra-musical associations, which are ideas conveyed by the music itself; for example, a minor key is generally associated with sadness, darkness, or introspection, while major keys are associated with light, happiness, and hope. Likewise, a slow tempo is relaxing while a faster tempo is energizing. Intra-musical associations are not dependent on any context; they spring from the musical grammar, so to speak, much like the intonations of the human voice which are universally understood.
Extra-musical associations, on the other hand, occur because music has the power to attach symbolic meaning to a specific context, event, time period, etc. As Harold Best explained it, “the more a piece of music is repeated in the same context, the more it will begin to ‘mean’ that context.” (The example of the national anthem speaks clearly to this tenet.) So the issue of associating musical styles with specific secular or even non-secular contexts can pose a challenge to Adventist worship music.
Others have dealt with the issue of extra-musical associations extensively.2 In this article, however, I’d like to propose a more nuanced approach to the matter of extra-musical associations in music by creating a distinction between soft and hard extra-musical associations.
“Worship music requires that whatever the style, the music should support the high ideals of worship and protect its purity from foreign ideas, feelings, and emotions.”
Soft extra-musical associations should be self-explanatory: these associations are “soft,” i.e., not strong enough to cause conflict between their original, secular context and a new context—in our case, a worship setting. The style of music that we now officially call Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is, in most cases, an example of soft extra-musical association. It uses modern instruments, the melodic lines are similar to acceptable popular musical forms, and the overall feel is more “folky” than “classical” or erudite. In most cases, although it is close to pop music, it avoids the most extreme elements of certain pop styles such as heavy metal or punk rock. CCM is accessible to the majority of worshipers because of its familiar musical language. It can be considered a natural evolution of church music and therefore, is an acceptable form of current Christian art.
On this point, it is important to point out that, because of the vast amount of borrowing and interchange that has occurred between sacred and secular music throughout the centuries, I believe soft extra-musical associations in church music are inevitable. Whether we are dealing with traditional church music from the nineteenth century (which mimicked secular classical styles) or folk styles borrowed from American folk music (which we hear in contemporary Christian music), we are dealing with a human phenomenon of musical desensitization that is quite ingrained in the human experience. Rather than fighting and resisting this musical evolution, the church would be better off accepting it as a fresh renewal of artistic expression that is so vital to organic, relevant worship.
Conversely, hard extra-musical associations occur with musical styles whose secular “feel” is severe to worshipers in their respective cultural milieu. Such hard associations are difficult to overcome as the music will most likely overwhelm the message of the words or the meaning of worship and cause cognitive dissonance between its primary, secular context and corporate divine worship. In America, for example, these would be hip-hop and heavy metal; in the Caribbean islands, this may be salsa or reggaeton. However, it is important to note that the problem of musical cognitive dissonance varies in different parts of the world and to different people in corporate worship.
Having briefly considered aspects of both soft and hard extra-musical associations, I believe it is much harder to argue in favor of hard extra-musical associations in a corporate worship setting. The introduction of a musical style that is drastically different from customary styles and expectations of a certain community can be very disruptive to most worshipers. If the music has heavy, negative, secular connotations, worship will be affected because of the noise in the communication of the gospel. It will be hard for most worshipers to concentrate on the words of a song if the music forcefully calls attention to an idea foreign to corporate worship! Again, this may be more severe in some cultural contexts and to some people than to others in corporate worship. What style of sacred music one listens to privately falls under other criteria which is beyond the scope of this series.
In light of this, it is reasonable to propose that soft extra-musical associations as we see in traditional hymns and much of contemporary Christian music and contemporary gospel music are usually acceptable, while hard extra-musical associations may need to be avoided in corporate worship or used with careful intentionality. Again, the decision of what music has hard associations will have to be made while taking into consideration local cultural sensibilities. A style that would be disruptive in a particular geographical region may not be a problem in another. Even a local church may have different sensibilities from the church next door.
Ultimately, worship music requires that whatever the style, the music should support the high ideals of worship and protect its purity from foreign ideas, feelings, and emotions. Worship music should take advantage of the most desirable musical elements available in any particular style: those that are most likely to be universally appreciated in order that music may faithfully carry the message of the words without unnecessary interference with its meaning.
With the above in mind, we can ask: How do we introduce new musical styles in worship? Below are a few principles to keep in mind when dealing with a transition from traditional to contemporary worship style.
First, we should agree that the mere use of modern instruments in church music does not immediately cause hard extra-musical associations. Musical instruments are amoral; their effectiveness in worship depends on how they are used to support worship or to detract, cause noise, and manipulate the hearers.
Second, we should accept that music with a beat and syncopated rhythms has a different meaning to younger worshipers. From Baby Boomers to Millennials, a beat and drums have no immediate negative associations; they are part of a musical language that these age groups have grown to understand and appreciate. They are part of their own personal musical grammar.
Third, change is necessary for renewal. Doukhan writes, “Change will happen anyway . . . we should become a part of it, and make it happen in a responsible manner.” Church planter Robert L. Bast found that churches that transitioned from traditional to contemporary music experienced growth.
Fourth, tolerance and patience will be essential in this process. New musical styles may cause conflict because most Adventists have associated worship music with nineteenth-century hymnody, accompanied by the organ and other “classical” instruments. This classical style has come to mean worship to them; new music may sound foreign to worship. Tolerance and patience are essential for members of the musical “establishment” as well as for the new generation of worshipers.
Fifth, we should avoid demonizing new music in worship just because it is different. This is a major problem for Adventists. We are too quick to read diabolical intentions into innovations. Tradition has become a sacrament in Adventism. Eric Fife writes, “It is so easy to have prejudices and call them principles.” Often what is simply a matter of taste can quickly escalate into a satanic conspiracy to destroy Adventist worship. Walls are erected between those who value “good music” and “true worship” and the “subversives” who are looking for a show. (I will elaborate more on this in the conclusion of this series.)
In the din of the many voices arguing for the Adventist style of music, I believe that musical eclecticism is the only way to keep Adventist worship alive. We need to allow for the “cross-pollination of music” in worship, i.e., allowing diverse styles of music to co-exist in our worship. Adventist music must live perpetually within the tension of continuity with tradition. Removing all traditional musical landmarks will represent a diminished worship experience for most Adventists; refusing to add the new will dry up the bones of a new generation of worshipers. In other words, let’s add instead of taking away. Let’s offer worship that is collage-like rather than dualistic, appealing to head and heart, tradition, and innovation.
The effectiveness of new music in Adventist worship should be judged by its fruits and by whether or not it engages the congregation in the act of worship. It is hard to argue against any style of music that elicits vibrant congregational singing. Worship planners need to look objectively at whether a certain hymn, praise song, or instrumental piece—regardless of its style—will be conducive to engaging and transformative worship. In our last article, I will offer some conclusions on this series.
This is a follow-up article to Music matters: Part 2 published in 2017 in the first quarter issue of the ‘Elders Digest’ an – Adventist Magazine
André Reis, the chief contributor to this article has degrees in theology and music and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Avondale University College. This article first appeared in Best Practice, January 31, 2016