Traditional church: On a normal Sunday, you walk into church and have a seat, you might greet your neighbors, and then right on time, the pastor stands up and runs through some announcements, and then sits back down as the organist or the pianist starts playing. Everyone sits silently for the next several minutes, until it’s finally over and you can all stand up and start the service.
“Relaxed” traditional church: You come into church a few minutes before the start of service, chatting with your friends, and you barely notice the background music of the organist/pianist. You laugh and joke around as you find seats, and conversation fills the sanctuary; you could barely hear the music even if you wanted to pay attention. When the music is finished, the pastor stands up and starts the service.
Contemporary church: Dressed in ripped jeans and a t-shirt that you wore when you painted your living room last summer, you gather in the sanctuary or chapel, laughing and joking with your friends. No one really settles down when the music leader comes out and redirects the rowdiness toward some amped up music with guitar and a drum set. You sing a few songs (or a “set”), then the pastor comes out and starts the service.
Let me ask you: What do all of these worship styles have in common?
if you answered “music”, congratulations– you’ve been paying attention to what I’m all about 🙂 but that’s not quite all of it. The complete answer is: all three styles use music specifically to start their worship services, though in different ways. This brings up a couple of other questions:
Why music? Why don’t we just start worship by talking, or with a mime or interpretive dance?
Does the music start the service, or does the music take place before the service starts?
Should this change our attitude toward this music?
You may know that in a traditional service, the music at the beginning is called a prelude. In a contemporary service, the equivalent is typically the initial music set at the start of service, and for argument’s sake I’d call that a prelude, too, even though the congregation is generally joining in. The word “prelude” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an introductory performance, action, or event preceding and preparing for the principal or a more important matter.” The prelude is preparing the congregation for the “principal” matter of the day: the experience of the Word and the Bread and Cup, and of being in communion with God and fellow Christians for that time.
Why music? Simply put, music is the easiest and most effective way to get us outside of ourselves. Egotism is the default human condition: we are naturally the centers of our own universe. But when you’re actively listening to music, you’re granting someone else, their talents and their gifts, to be the center of your world for a few minutes. The music is not about anything you’re doing or saying, and has nothing to do with who you are. If you’re actively listening, you cannot help but implicitly acknowledge that. Music opens up the soul to connect with the openness within other people and ideas, in a selfless way that isn’t found in a conversation that demands reply.
More than that, because the gift of music doesn’t require reciprocation, it asks for nothing more than gratefulness. True gratefulness leads to humility, which opens the heart and mind to experience the grace of God. This gratefulness and openness of spirit is sought not to turn your focus onto the musician, but onto the Giver to whom the gift of music is directed, thus preparing Christians to receive the sacraments with a humble spirit.
Does the music start the service, or take place before the service? You might think the answer to this depends on your congregation’s tradition, but it doesn’t. The music may not start the service, but it definitely starts the worship. The service starts when everyone else decides to join in the worship.
Should this change our attitude toward this music? Probably, yes. The prelude is not just something that you have to sit through, or music that you can talk over before the service starts. It shouldn’t be respected just because of the time and efforts of the musician, though that’s a valid peripheral consideration. It’s a critical part of church simply because of the position the church occupies in our busy lives.
Think of all of the trivial things you’re thinking about as you’re heading to church. I need to remember to call the cable company. Did Lucy turn in that note to her teacher? What should we make for lunch? Joe has a birthday party on Wednesday, we need to get him a present. Did we get the sitter for date night this week? Then there’s the more important concerns: Is Betty’s chemo going to work? How is Sam going to keep working after he broke his foot? What is his family going to do in the meantime? What can we do for the kids down the street who are about to lose their house because their parents can’t find work? And that’s not even including the church-related concerns: When are the kids going on their youth retreat? How did the charity fundraiser go? When’s the next church softball game? Who’s our next pastor going to be, and when?
When we get to church, we have to make a conscious effort to leave all of these concerns at the door if we want to have a worship experience focused on Him. The prelude, the introductory event that prepares us for the “principal matter” of the day, gives us time to prepare our hearts and minds to fully experience God’s presence in our congregation of fellow Christians. If the worship just started with talking, there would be no time to center our thoughts on Him. There would be no experience of humility and gratefulness, no chance to open our spirits to receive the Word and the Bread and Cup with selfless intentions. And when we don’t treat the prelude as a preparation for the rest of the service, we can’t worship with our entire, unfettered hearts, minds, and spirits.
I challenge you next week, and the week after, and the weeks after that, to take advantage of the prelude. Allow it to work for you, to center your thoughts and your spirit, and to give you a spirit of humble gratefulness. It will help you become free from yourself as Christ calls us to be, and open you to a deeper worship experience.