I am a musician, and lead music as a part of my role as a youth worker. I find that I spend a lot of time thinking about the role music plays in my youth ministry. What music should we sing on Sunday morning, or at retreats and camps? What should be playing in the background before worship? What music should we listen to in the church van? Does it all have to be Christian? What if the music isn’t very good? If you are a music fan, then maybe you can relate to this line of thought…if not then bear with me (or maybe read a different post, because this is only going to go deeper from here).
The musical quality and lyrical content of “contemporary” worship music has been made fun of plenty by the more high-church inclined (and usually older) members of our churches for a while, but I think there’s more to that debate than meets the eye. I actually love a lot of modern music for worship, and I find that if you are willing to invest the time and energy then there are tons of really good songs with diverse and rich lyrics with music that is both challenging to learn and interesting to listen to. My problem is with how we plan for music with young people.
I’ve experienced too many times of leading music at a camp or retreat where the idea is basically to operate in extremes of the worship experience. By this I mean I’ll start a service by playing songs that are super high energy and get the students riled up and jumping around, and then after a few of those songs I’ll work into more mellow songs that tend to be much more emotional. Within this process there is usually little consideration given to what is actually being said and done in the worship experience.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: the lyrics to the songs we sing don’t matter that much to MOST people in the short-term. Sure, over time and with LOTS of repetition and reflection people learn the meanings of songs. So over the course of the entire time that a student is in a youth ministry (between 7th-12th grades) they might finally be focusing on the content of the lyrics in the songs. But on average when people sing a song in church what is really happening is that the whole body engages in a sensory experience involving movement, emotions, and voice where the overall “feeling” matters much more than what is being sung. We get conditioned to a “normal” feeling in singing throughout our lives, and I’m betting that this is why we disagree so much about what kind of music is ok to have in church…it’s not so much that “traditional” or “contemporary” are better, it’s more a matter of what our bodies have been trained to experience as more normal.
Here’s another little secret: the lyrics we sing matter a great deal in the long run. What we do week in and week out in worship makes up our “normal” experiences, and a part of that are the words we use in songs, the metaphors we use for God, and how we explain our faith. Over time we end up learning a great deal about faith and God through music, so the music we are using better have a meaning be worth learning.
If all we ever sing are songs about blood and the cross, then it should be no surprise that our communities look at salvation through Jesus’ death. If we only sing songs that are upbeat, happy and simple then it shouldn’t surprise us when our communities struggle with hymns with dissonance and complex imagery for faith and how God is involved in the world. We must work at how we balance the tension between spiritual experiences in worship along with the words we sing. Being aware of these issues will help us shape offerings of worship that truly reflect what we believe as a community of faith.
So what does this have to do with youth ministry? The point is that we need to be really careful about how we are forming our youth in times of worship. I think youth will have a hard time worshiping in churches where they don’t have a diversity of worship experiences that all are seen as valid expressions of faith. Contemporary or traditional styles of music should not be held as better than the other. Our young people should be allowed to experience all kinds of music and imagery within their worship. Also, they should not just be given basic chords that manipulate their emotional state. I repent for all of the times I’ve played “Waves of Mercy” to excite hundreds of campers and for when I’ve sung “Heart of Worship” to shut them up before a sermon.
This is a balancing act between grace for people in growing as musicians and song leaders, and the need to uphold what we believe in our communities through our worship. You might be at a place where you don’t have many options for music, so you have to use what you have; or maybe you have a youth praise band that leads your group or church in weekly worship. I encourage you to at least add some time in practice and reflection over what you sing and why, especially as young people are being formed in worship. And I encourage you to spend a lot of time in prayer and reflection over why you sing the songs you choose for worship. Are they based on what you believe? Are they popular on Christian radio? Did you hear them at a concert? Are they easy to sing? Are they songs that have a long tradition in your church or at this retreat/camp?
Marcus Womack is a youth ministry intern and worship leader at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN. He is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity degree at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Alyssa, and dog Maximus. Follow him on twitter @MarcusGWomack