I have a friend, he’s a medical doctor and has probably seen some pretty moving things during his years of practice. But he once told me that the only time he has cried in the past ten years was while listening to Bach’s Mass in B minor. That confirms for me what I already knew, that music can move the soul like nothing else in this world can. So the natural question is how can that reality be leveraged for spiritual purposes within sacred community? And this is not a new concept. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians written nearly two thousand years ago, he urged his friends to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”
On a personal level I’ve seen what music can do within spiritual communities. I have experienced it deeply as a congregant, but I’ve also played in church bands, and in “Christian concerts,” and have looked out into the crowd to see people experiencing something utterly deep and profound through the melodies and lyrics. Music, like ritual, conditions our soul to “experience” something deeper, and it can be a powerhouse for suggestive conditioning of the heart and mind. Theologians Paul and John (not the ones from the Bible, the one’s from The Beatles) put the words “Love, Love, Love…Love is All You Need!” to music, which became extremely powerful!
I once led a men’s church group, and we would all show up stressed and flustered from the day, and it would often take us a good 20 minutes to start settling in. So one day at a friends suggestion I brought my acoustic guitar along to our men’s meeting and played a hymn at the beginning just to help get everyone in a calm frame of mind. That turned into a regular thing, and that one song turned into two, and sometimes three. That experience showed me how beneficial a little sacred music could be in creating a open mindset, even for a men’s group!
I’ve also however been on stage to see people looking at us and “worshiping and praising” us, which is very different. When the music is used to “usher in” a mood, or a depth that mere words and intellect alone cannot, it can be very effective. But when we, within our sacred community, turn to music as entertainment it’s fairly worthless (unless the goal is to simply be entertained or draw a crowd). Strong worship leaders know that the music is not about them, and that their gift is to create a moment – a moment that helps us as congregants to “sing to the Lord with our hearts.” A good worship choir / band knows how to blend into the background and almost become invisible in order to assist the spirit to move in the people. A not-so-good worship leader can greatly distract and detract from the full efficacy of music in sacred community by putting their own ego, or motives, before that of the group (even when the group may not realize it because their witnessing an amazing musical experience).
When it comes to music it will always be different strokes for different folks – some prefer mellow, others choral, some classical, others contemporary. Some simply prefer Om, and some like “screamo,” and that will continue to be a defining factor within the personality of our communities. When I was in college I once decided to continue going to a church because they played Eric Clapton on stage, although I doubt that would appeal much to me now. I also now find that many hymns and standards contain theology that I no longer subscribe to, so I tend to seek out other types of music that are inclusive and open to interpretation, which is of key importance within progressive Christian communities.
So can we leverage music to enhance our sacred communities and spiritual experiences? Absolutely! Should we be mindful that it is being used to enhance the experience instead of just entertain or attract growth? Absolutely!