The Word is Near You

 The Problem of Musical Illiteracy in the Church

Ephesians 5:15-20

Previous Sermon in this series: Romans 10:5-13 The Word is Near You - The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy in the Chruch

(c) Copyright 2008 Rev. Bill Versteeg


Ephesians 5:15-20

15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise,  16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.  17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.  18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.  19 Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,  20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters in Christ
    This is one of those “I wonder” sermons...
    This passage calls us to wisdom knowing that the times that we live in are not friendly to the Christian faith.  Kind of like years ago, when we freely worked with asbestos, putting in sound insulation or thermal insulation, we even played with asbestos minerals as kids, now we find that there is a certain type of cancer that kills and it is all related to asbestos.  In the same way, our culture, even though it seems innocent right now, may have in it the poisons that are potentially destructive to the church as we have inherited it.
    Last Sunday, we noted how the production of the printing press in combination with the alphabet put the power of knowledge into the hands of the masses shaping Western culture, creating science, creating democracy, even shaping the theology and practice of the Protestant church, as we noted one philosopher historian saying “Protestantism is the first religion created by technological innovation.”  And we ask the question, if we stop reading the word that is so freely available to us, are we choosing to return to the middle ages kind of church where the church was run by the elite who read and knew theology, who dispensed grace and the church was filled with the ignorant masses who simply received grace dolled out by the church?
    This evening, I want to go a step further.  With the development of technology and off the wall songs, as they are sometimes called, we are becoming musically illiterate.  Let me flesh that out a little.
    It used to be that we had a Psalter Hymnal, once again a product of the Gutenberg Press, and inheritance we have received from 1453.  In that Psalter Hymnal, there were confessions, there were liturgical forms, there was the form of subscription, and there were a good selection of psalms and hymns complete with notes.  It strikes me that that psalter hymnal had a profound impact on us as a church.  First of all, it put our confessions in our hands every Sunday.  If the sermon was boring, we could at least read the Cannons of Dordt for some intellectual stimulation.  It was our hymn book, particular to our denomination.  It was part of our identity.  And the songs that were in it were the songs that we marched by.  They were our songs. Not only were they our songs, we often knew many of the words, because we sang them so often, and many of us knew the different musical parts of some of our favorite songs.  I still remember well, when the Psalter Hymnal was used, how as I listened to those around me, I heard people singing the different musical parts - the bases with their deep voice, the tenors complimenting the melody and the alto doing their counter point.  Singing in church felt like singing in the choir, each of us as we sang, including our parts had a sense of contributing to the musical whole.  Having the notes in front of us empowered us to sing and contribute.
    In short, the hymnal was part of our identity, it empowered us, it said - this is who we are.  In a certain sense, that hymnal gave our spirit a certain denominational identity, which made the church for many, feel like home.  By the power of printed text, the identity of the denomination was our identity.  And when we changed from the red one to the blue psalter, and then we changed to the grey psalter, I remember how people complained, even some times fought about it.  Their identity was at stake.

    Notice what has happened.
    No longer are the hymn books in our hands and what we have replaced it with, well I wonder if it compares.  Seldom are the confessions written on the screen behind me, and when they are, it is for a few liturgical seconds.  We don’t have the confessions in our hands.  And the less we have them in our hands, it seems the less we identify with them.  I wonder how many here can list off the top of their head the confessions that we claim are ours.
    But I also notice a loss in the songs we sing.  Yes we sing new songs and many of them are wonderful, but they can no longer be called our songs, or the songs of our denomination as we march together.  Instead of the songs of the denomination creating the identity of its people, now the songs of a North American music market driven by market and profit considerations are shaping the songs of the people regardless of their spiritual heritage or identity.  And the really good songs, we might sing for a few years, but they having been sung maybe a few times too often, and being somewhat shallow in theological richness, they lose their place in our worship.  The net effect is that songs that have the potential to really shape our identity over decades are songs that never root in our identity because they are always being replaced by the latest songs.    We can no longer sense that we are in a Reformed church by the songs we sing.  We might as well be in any other denomination or church.
    And let me go even one step further.  We no longer have the notes in front of us.  We no longer are empowered to sing a special part to contribute to the congregational choir unless that special part is memorized or if we have the unique musical skill of harmonizing meaningfully on the fly.  Our music teams notice at times that people choose not to sing.  Not only is it very discouraging for music leaders.  I wonder if it is because the congregation feels like its singing is less meaningful?  Less part of the choir?  Less part of who we are as Christians with a certain denominational identity?
    Instead of having an identity shaped by a few to the many as with published books, now it seems that our identity is from the many to the many.  No longer can we simply trust what has been given to us, we have to become careful judges of the music that comes our way.
    I wonder sometimes where this is going?  Like asbestos, are we taking something in that has the power to shape our future in a very negative way?  Or is it good?  Is it good that in our singing we are hardly different from the church down the road and our confessional ignorance allows us to think that there is very little difference between us and them?  Are we continuing in the footsteps of our fathers who were willing to die for what they believed?  Or for lack of identity because we no longer even have a set of common hymns, we no longer have notes, and we hardly read our confessions, are we becoming luke-warm, unwilling to stand for what our ancestors died for?
    Andrew Wilson-Dickson in his book “The story of Christian Music - from Gregorian chant to Black Gospel” notes that it was the published hymnal that created congregational singing.  Are we, by not using a hymnal, choosing, unintentionally to return to a time when music was performed or chanted by the professionals, while the congregation simply watched, received grace dolled out to them in small controlled amounts?  Are we losing our heritage because we are losing our hymnal?  If as some studies have demonstrated, our young adults are now looking for something secure to hang their spiritual futures on, is one of the most needed things, a psalter hymnal?
    Now I haven’t pointed out all of the positives of the use of audio visual in services, and I suspect some of you want to rise up and point that out.  I feel have always been in favor of innovation, of bringing the gospel in a new a fresh way.  But as I watch history, as I watch what is happening...
    In wonder...               
    Comments and questons.










           



 


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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