"I am a DJ. I am what I play"
- from the David Bowie song "D.J." (1979)
I found myself musing recently about the role of music in worship. It's a nearly moot internal discussion at this point for me, as my body has been essentially hijacked to show up at a church on Sunday morning and play music. Conduct. Something. This benign captivity began at the young age of 10 years old and is clearly not going to end until I do. Being a church musician and music director is in my blood, as they say, and it's terminal. I have no qualms about this self-diagnosis, by the way. But the initial question is still one worth exploring: what is the role of music in worship?
Music seems like a very natural choice in a gathering where the sublime aspects of our humanity — our connection with the Divine — are enticed to rise to the surface. The diverse unspoken language of music can offer us a glimpse into this mystical space. At the very least, it can be a visceral prayer without words. Different vibrations can unlock a whole world of experience in listeners, not as aural entertainment but embodied joy, love, peace, prayerfulness, sorrow, and a myriad other affects that are part of the Jesus story and God's wonder of creation. Sometimes we are not prepared to hear those frequencies, for whatever reason, but what binds all those sonorities emitted in our Beloved Community will always be intent.
The questions I ask myself when programming music for worship include: Does the music accentuate and complement the minister's message and scripture reading in an empowering and nuanced way? Does the affect of the music serve the Spirit in the same fashion? For example, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, does not the Passion of Christ necessitate an affect of solemnity and introspection as we retrace Jesus' steps through those agonizing last days of his ministry? On Easter Sunday, the joy and triumph of resurrection can be expressed in outwardly jubilant declarations of brass and organ of course. But how about also the assured bliss of life eternal within — a quiet joy? Music plays an influential role in providing nonverbal commentary to liturgical proceedings. With the diversity of available compositions from many eras and cultures (and also in the moment improvisations!), Christian worship can be a place where we are privy to spiritual expressions from composers across time and space. It is a wonder.
On the surface it may appear a church music director is some manner of ecclesiastical disc jockey of sorts. Playing the hits. Spinning our own personal faves. Get that floor thumping. Keep everyone happy and dancing! For me, a more accurate analogy is the field of film scoring. Live film scoring, that is. The story of a film dictates the music's purpose, ebbing and flowing with the drama and events on the screen. We can be moved to joy, encouraged to hope, experience truth, and even driven to tears. At any given worship service, we are comforted and also challenged by God's voice in word, song, and music within a diverse range of expressions. It is how we grow and mature as followers of Christ. The spiritual life is like that, isn't it? May the blessings of worship in sound and vision help shape us for years to come.