A counselor once explained to me that memories, those powerful images from our past, are stored as images in the hippocampus section of our brain. The hippocampus is part of the Limbic System:
In an off handed comment during his explanation the counselor mentioned that this is also one of the areas responsible for processing and remembering music. My wheels started to turn (note, in the picture above there are no wheels – it is a metaphor – brains don’t have wheels). What got me interested was the idea that there might be a connection between those powerful memories of old and music.
Memories are an integral part of the human experience. Our past, and how we interpret it, determines a great deal of how we live in the present. I, for instance, haven’t done a back flip off of a diving board since third grade when I knocked out a couple of teeth at my grandparent’s pool. The memory of fear is too strong.
When I was in college I was asked to lead our class chapel in a time of praise. I had been playing guitar since I was 14 so I had the skills, yet I had never stood up to lead people in songs – particularly songs intended to affect hearts and minds in such a significant way. That was the first of many experiences I have had with music in church. I’ve lead at congregations at three different churches on two continents and have accepted multiple invitations to lead as a guest at other churches and events. Through all of my experiences I have found one common theme: Music is important to people.
I have gotten everything from strong criticism to abundant praise for my efforts, and all in the course of one Sunday! I’ve had people from every living generation pour their heart out in regards to music preference. When people who are over the age of 55 (please note that this is a generalization and is in no way true of everybody over that age) speak to me about their desire for “more hymns” they often appeal to childhood memories. They miss sitting in the pew holding a big red hymnal and hearing their father’s, undoubtedly, beautiful voice singing the songs of old. Much to their disappointment we no longer have pews, let alone lead out of hymnal. But the songs are the linchpin that holds these memories together. Take away the pews but don’t take away the songs.
As I took on the position of Interim Worship Leader with my current congregation I wanted to be diligent in serving the formational needs of the people. I dug out an old survey the church had taken three years before to get a feel for what people desired. 79% of the congregation agreed that a “blended” style of music was the most desirable. A blended service is one that tries to incorporate both traditional styles of music and contemporary styles of music. I heard a pastor once say that if you want to upset half of the church have a contemporary service, if you want to upset the other half have a traditional service, and if you want to upset everybody have a blended service. I quickly learned that he was right. The survey was not professionally written and therefore had some large shortcomings. The most striking shortcoming was that “blended service” was not defined for the congregation. I found that two interpretations of “blended service” had emerged from the congregation: 1, a service that had both contemporary songs played in a tasteful, yet contemporary, way and traditional songs played in the traditional way; 2, a service that incorporated both traditional and contemporary styles of music to create a third style – blended. The latter definition is the closest to a true definition of “blended service” but the congregation cannot be faulted for not knowing that.
Not having grown up in a church I knew only a few hymns and did the best I could at incorporating them. Sometimes we would do contemporary versions of classic hymns. These often kept the melody the same but changed the pace and the instrumentation. Those were easier for me to pull off and I assumed they would be a bridge between the two styles of music. The bridge, however, was on fire before construction was finished. After one Sunday, in which 6 out of the 8 songs we sang were hymns or contemporary versions of hymns, I had an elderly man come up to me and ask when we were going to sing more hymns. I explained that we played 6 the Sunday before to which he remarked, “I didn’t hear any.” Over time I discovered that he, and the demographic he represents, didn’t want hymns but desired the style of music that they remembered from their childhood. This “style” is not a classic Christian style of music but a style that emerged in the early parts of the 20th century. Drums and guitars were not to be found in churches and organs and pianos were sacred. The words of boisterous celebration from the Psalter were of no matter. It is not an appeal to rich Christian tradition but an appeal to memories.
Here is where the two worlds collide – when memories meet music the Church has a difficult task that requires patience, humility, mutual submission, instruction, and forgiveness. Congregations have to learn, for the sake of Christian love and charity, to deal with the issue of church music with diligence and integrity. We have to recognize that music is important to everybody and not just for the sake of preference but for the sake of development and formation. I am not one that advocates that a church determines its music based on what they feel will draw not-yet-Christians into the building. Music is much too important to the spiritual formation of the faithful to sacrifice for the sake of being seeker-sensitive. There are other ways to be sensitive to new-comers that don’t also sacrifice the deep spiritual and psychological effect music has on spiritual formation. Music exists in gatherings for a few reasons (and I’m sure I’m missing one or two):
- Instruction – we can learn both orthodoxy and orthopraxy through church music
- Praise/Adoration – our hearts and minds and bodies are brought to a place of submission and praise to our Father in Heaven
- Identity – our songs are songs that remind us who we are, Children of the Great Lover
- Mutual Edification – our songs can be used to build each other up in the faith
I’ve found that being faithful to these four callings that music has in the life of our gatherings means that I become picky in my song choices. I have found many a traditional hymn that communicates theology that is just plain unhelpful or unbiblical (I’ll Fly Away) and I’ve found contemporary songs that don’t communicate anything of substance. Conversely I’ve found great depth of insight in many songs, both traditional and contemporary. This makes the call to those planning our gatherings a call to greater responsibility and often times will draw us into conflict. What path the music in your congregation takes is of little consequence when compared to the spirit with which that path is taken. For many churches leaving hymns of old behind for more contemporary expressions of long standing Christian ideas is of utmost importance to the growth (spiritual and numeric) of the congregation. For others leaving behind hymns would be detrimental to the life of a congregation. And our decisions to move forward have to be decisions of leadership – not of appeasement.
We must take into consideration who we have in our midst – what their backgrounds are, what their needs are, and what sacrifices will have to be made by some for the betterment of the whole. If we don’t recognize the vast importance that memories have for people in every walk of life we will do our congregations a disservice. This means that not only do we take into consideration the memories of those who have been faithful for decades upon decades but we also remember that we are shaping the memories of the young people among us. And memories are not a good enough reason on their own to remain stuck in a tradition. When we meet difficult memories that inadvertently desire to hinder the growth of others we are called, in patience and humility, to instruct. Likewise, when we are met with attitudes that refuse to recognize the richness of different styles of music to the detriment of the body we must also meet these with patience and humility through instruction.
Memories are powerful. They can be both compelling reasons to build bridges between generations and opportunities for instruction. There are attitudes that will inevitably need to be challenged and there are people who will respond by severing relationships. These are sad and difficult moments but when viewed in a larger context can be seen for what they are: growing pains, spiritual immaturity, and the reality of human relationships manifest in the most human of institutions, the Church.