Let’s imagine that we are sitting in church on a Sunday morning and while we are anticipating the beginning of the worship service, the organist is laying the prelude. The music which is being played is one of Bach’s masterpieces. The organist is very skilled. She plays with feeling and sensitivity to the dynamics of the music. Her technique is flawless. If we would evaluate her musical presentation we could say that she prepared well and played beautifully.
Now this basic question arises: “How do we respond to the playing of that prelude?” One response might go as follows: “Praise God for the skills of the organist.” She used her gifts to glorify God and honor the Lord Jesus Christ. That would be an appropriate response, for the goal of the worship service is the glory of God.
But many times the response is different than the above. Frequently people will say: “Wasn’t that a tremendous prelude (or offertory, or postlude)?” “Our organist is the best. She certainly is talented and gifted.” When our response to music follows that line of thinking, the focus is on the musician rather than on God. The temptation is to glorify the organist rather than the God who gifted the organist.
Let me explain in greater detail. When music without words is played, our attention is riveted on the musician rather than on the Lord.
Let me be specific. Some time ago we had a communion service in our church. While the bread and wine were distributed, the guest organist played several tunes without words. The music had no theological content. As a result, the music did not bring us to the foot of the cross. It did not remind us of the Savior’s sacrificial work at Calvary or His redeeming love at Golgotha. Instead, the music drew our attention to the organist.
How different things would have been if the organist had played a variation on a hymn such as Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross or When I Survey The Wondrous Cross or In the Cross of Christ I Glory. Such songs would have nurtured us in the things of the Lord. Such music would have nudged us in the direction of Calvary so that we could, in our mind’s eye, see Christ rather than the organist.
Whenever music is offered in the church we should always ask, “Does the music draw attention to the musician or to the Master of the universe?” Music without words (which is music without theological content) runs the risk of drawing attention to the one who sits at the keyboard. Music with words or theological content encourages us to reflect on God—on who He is and what He has done for us as creator and Savior of our lives.
If an organist plays a variation on the theme of This Is My Father’s World or My God How Wonderful Thou Art, or Holy, Holy, Holy, the focus of the music is on God, not on man. Such music allows the worshiper to silently think about the words of the song and therefore think God’s thoughts after him.
In short, church music containing words with which we can identify, nurtures us in the faith, helps us to reflect on the mercies and majesty of God, and brings us into the very presence of God.
May all of our worship, music included, be designed to glorify God and not to draw attention to ourselves.
Rev. Calvin Vander Meyden is pastor of the Cutlerville East Christian Reformed Church.