Music’s role in United Methodist Worship

In my job search process, one of the standard questions is to articulate my theology of worship and my view on the role of music in worship. It’s made me think more closely about my heritage in the United Methodist Church, and my affinity for the UMC’s music tradition, and how that’s shaped the musician I’ve become.

More books have been written on the question of “what is worship?” than it’s possible to count. But to me, it’s pretty simple. Worship is, fundamentally, a time to re-orient the Christian community to God through the regular gathering of the church. In worship, we are reconciled to the triune God, we receive and celebrate His love and grace. We acknowledge our shortcomings, our sins, our refusals to act as His light in the world, and we are re-directed to God, re-oriented to one another in love, and built up as a people of God. Through this re-orientation we hear anew God’s call to mission in the world He so loves, as an expression of our reciprocation of His prevenient grace.

Broadly speaking, music has four specific roles within worship:  praise, hearing God, responding, and sending forth. A choral anthem after the scripture reading can be a response to hearing the Word; an opening choral introit can be an invitation to hearing God in our midst; the opening hymn can be in praise of God and in thanks for His presence; music after the sermon and closing hymns can be sending forth. Viewing music this way: not “as worship” but as a part of worship, in service to the liturgy, orients us properly to the role of music, so that our worship is truly toward God and not toward the music itself.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes in Music in Christian Worship, “It cannot be said that Christian liturgy needs music. It does not. Nonetheless, the testimony of history is that the liturgy cries out for, calls out for, music. The church has always felt that, in ways too mysterious to describe, music profoundly enhances its liturgy.”

Music is not essential to worship, but it makes worship profoundly more meaningful. Unlike any other art form, music is able to engage the spiritual and emotional cores of our beings and connect them with the cognitive. Given this remarkable power, it is essential for music to be properly oriented. Church music is in the service of the liturgy, not in the service of itself. Church music at its best provides an avenue to understand theology, it ministers to the congregation, and it facilitates a more profound understanding of the presence of God in worship.

The role of music in worship is thus to help the congregation engage with the liturgy in a fundamentally deeper level than they would be able to otherwise, by infusing the cognitive with a spiritual and emotional awareness and opening the heart and mind to experience the presence and work of God in more meaningful way.

Within the United Methodist Church especially, music is a foundational part of the identity of the local and global church. The Wesleys were what today we’d call “early-adopters,” quickly seeing the value of congregational song, non-Scriptural hymns, and quality music in worship from their very first encounter with the Moravian Brethren. They saw potential in the Moravian Singestunde for their Methodist movement and adapted it to the growing church in the New World, spreading the hymn-singing tradition as their Methodist traditions spread. Their work during the Great Awakening, along with Isaac Watts and the other great 18th-century hymnwriters, scaled the Christian hymn genre for the global church, fundamentally transforming our concept of congregational song in the church. The United Methodist Church does well to hold fast to this historical identity of congregational song, and to have it continue to inform the music of the church today, whether that music comes from our historic hymnody or part of the “contemporary” music canon, or somewhere inbetween.

I don’t think I’d be the musician, or the Christian, I am today without growing up in a singing congregation. I wouldn’t be the pianist I am today if I hadn’t gotten bored over 4th grade Christmas break and cracked open the 1989 UMC hymnal: The First Noel is the first hymn I ever learned how to play. And I wouldn’t be the singer I am today if my mom hadn’t taught me how to read the alto in the hymnal on Sunday morning.

The hymnal also shaped me as a Christian; as a young kid, I learned the theologies of the church seasons by flipping through the different sections of the hymnal. I learned about Christian community and inclusion through congregational singing, and through the hymn texts I learned of the God’s love and grace, Jesus’ sacrifice, and the stories of the Bible that are found in our hymnal. Most of all, the music connected me emotionally and spiritually with those texts, contributing to growth and maturity in my Christian faith.

I know my life would have been so different had I not grown up in a faith tradition that so highly valued music. Let’s never let the church stop being a “singing congregation.”

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