How can music help us witness?

In the lectionary readings for this Sunday, we are called to continue to witness to the resurrected Christ. In Luke 24:47, Jesus commands the disciples: “a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Paul affirms this in Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” We witness so that the world can come to faith through knowledge of the risen Christ, and as church musicians, we can encourage congregational witness through the use of music in worship.

Through the centuries, many have recognized music as a means of spreading the Word of God. Justin Martyr (c.100-165) is credited with saying: “Verbum Dei est, sive mente cogitetur, sive canatur, sive pulsu edatur” (“God’s Word is God’s Word, whether one thinks it in the mind, or sings it, or produces it by striking”). Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote, “Thus God has even preached through music, as is seen in Josquin.” The German composer Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) placed the musician on the level of a preacher, arguing that “[s]aving faith comes not from the sermon alone but equally from listening to a beautiful piece of sacred music.”

In the early Methodist movement, the Wesleys defined congregational hymns as “singing what was preached, and preaching what was sung.” This is similar to, and may have been derived from, the ethos of the Moravian Brethren: “Our fathers have taught us not only to preach the doctrines of religion from the pulpit, but also to frame them in hymns. In this way our songs become homilies” (from the 1569 Polish edition of the Brethren’s hymnal). Isaac Watts (1674-1748) expounded on his hymn-writing philosophy in his Hymns and Spiritual Songs: “While we sing the praises of God in His church, we are employed in that part of worship which of all others is the nearest akin to heaven.”

The challenge for ministry in today’s church is that, while music is now given a large role in our liturgy, many do not consider it to have a role beyond responsorial praise. But, if we ensure that the music in our liturgy is biblically and theologically sound, it can indeed serve to open the hearts and spirits of worshippers and help them experience the Word in a more profound way.

In this Scripture from Luke, Jesus calls us to preach to the world repentance, forgiveness, and salvation through faith. As church musicians, we can follow this call through the use of music in worship that preaches and proclaims the Word.

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