The Aesthetics of Worship

In my last post, I set out a series of questions--including the following--regarding the content of music in worship:

Is there (or should there be) a palpable difference between the aesthetics of worship and other opportunities for singing together? Does the context of a coffee house, campfire, concert hall, stadium, living room, or sanctuary change our expectations and practice of making music?

At the heart of these questions lies the issue of purpose. Why do we sing in church, in our living room, at a concert, etc.? How is this singing led?

For example, if you are a popular music artist on tour in front of 15,000 people in a stadium you will necessarily lead/perform/sing differently than in the intimate setting of a coffeehouse or house concert. The environment of the venue and the purpose of the music serve different functions in different settings. Imagine a country or pop artist jumping up and down around your living room in front of a dozen people—it’s a little incongruent.

I once went to a Christmas concert starring several well-known artists. This was the first year that the concert had moved from a smaller setting to a large arena. However, the artists had not made the mental shift in their own heads as to what that meant for the show. The intimacy of interacting with the audience was lost when you have thousands of people in a large space on multiple levels. Also a bit unusual were the vendors walking up and down the stairs in the nosebleed sections selling beer during a Christmas concert. The arena treated the event as a concert; the artists were in the frame of mind of a hometown Christmas concert/sing-a-long. The venue won and the audience was perplexed.

The same idea about the difference of purpose holds true in the type of music that one uses. Matching bands do not play lullabies at pep rallies; mothers do not put babies to sleep with heavy metal; grocery stores do not encourage shopping by playing show tunes. Particular settings are more suited to certain types of music.

I believe that in the Christian life and in the Christian community there are appropriate times for campfires, concert halls, coffee houses, living rooms, and sanctuaries. One area in which we are deficient in the Church is not providing these occasions as a regular part of our life together. Because we do not have these communal opportunities, we tend to blur the lines and bring music appropriate for some of these other settings into the sanctuary instead of the venues and purposes that best suit that particular music.

Remember, the question is about the palpable difference between the aesthetics of worship and the aesthetics of other times of singing. The primary focus of worship is God, the Three-in-One, Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos. The primary focus of a musical artist in a concert setting (coffeehouse, arena or symphonic concert hall) is too often themselves (or their art, their fans having a good time, the music, etc. = themselves). Before we borrow too many of the forms and feel of an antithetical aesthetic and bring them into worship, we should first make sure that it fits the purpose of worship in the context of a worship space and the reflected beauty of our transcendent God.

Gregory Wilbur is Chief Musician at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Franklin, TN where he also serves as a Ruling Elder. In addition to his work at the church, Greg serves as Dean and Senior Fellow of New College Franklin—a Christian liberal arts college that he helped to start. You can find many of his compositions at www.wilburmusic.com.

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