When we think about the style of a piece of music, we are thinking about an identifiable pattern according to which the piece of music has been constructed. Many of these patterns have names. We talk about jazz, classical, swing, hip-hop, rock, blues, country and so on. All these terms have to do with the pattern according to which a certain piece of music has been constructed.
When we apply the word style to “Christian Music” we often talk about traditional versus contemporary styles. One traditional style of Christian music is the hymn. Hymns are pieces of music that are constructed according to a certain pattern or format. Contemporary Christian musical pieces resemble a different pattern. A contemporary style resembles a musical pattern that is more current.
Everyone will have a style preference. Generally the preferred style is the one that we are most familiar with. It may be the style that we grew up with, or the style that is currently popular in the media, or that is being used by an artist whom we favour. We prefer the musical style (pattern/format) that we are most comfortable with or that we can most easily relate to. Sometimes our preferences change with the times; what was once a favourite style is set aside in favour of one that we now like more, or perhaps one that our friends like more.
Another thing to consider with respect to style is the instruments that are usually associated with a given style. Organs and pianos may be associated more with traditional kinds of music, whereas stringed instruments, amplified and electrical instruments and percussion instruments may be associated more with contemporary styles. There is no hard and fast rule here. Any instrument can be associated with any style.
In order to answer the question “How important is style in worship music and singing”, we need to ask ourselves what the relationship of style is to worship. In no particular order, here are some questions to ask:
1. How important is style to God? Does it matter to God, the one whom we are seeking to worship with our music and songs, which style we use? Does HE have a preference? I think the answer is pretty obvious – God is more interested in the heart of the worshiper than in the style of the music with which we worship God. The style with which we chose to worship will not make up for the things that are lacking in our heart.
2. Is one style of music more spiritual that another style of music? As a general rule I believe that style is neutral. Style does not make the music more spiritual or less spiritual. The spirituality of worship music resides in the content, that is, in the words of the music and in what the worshiper does with this content and with these words. The content of a song is what makes the song spiritual or not so spiritual. Spiritual has to do with the Holy Spirit. If the words are in agreement with the Holy Spirit, and the Scriptures which he authored, then the music/words are spiritual. If the words are not true in what they say about God, or the Christian life, then they are not spiritual. No amount of style can make a song spiritual if the words are not spiritual.
3. Does the style of music have an impact on the worship experience of the worshiper? I would say yes. Our lack of comfort or familiarity with a certain style of music may serve to lessen the ability that we have to focus on the words of the music and so to focus our heart on God. This will be especially so when we feel that a certain style is being forced on us. We may have to battle a sense of resentment and this battle will be a distraction to our worship. Just as we are most comfortable to worship God in the language of our mother tongue, so we will also be most comfortable and it will seem most natural to us to worship God in the style with which we are most familiar. So, as a basic rule, style does matter in that it increases or decreases our level of comfort or distraction.
4. If we allow for the theory that style does impact our worship, does it follow that we should separate into different groups during worship time in order to accommodate sections of the congregation according to their favourite style of music? My answer is that this does not follow for the following reasons:
1) The style of a piece of music can never be the most important thing about a piece of music. Style is much more like the wrapping of a gift than the content of a gift. It is the content of a song and the content of the heart that sings it that is by far more important than the style in which this gift of worship is offered to God.
2) The unity of the fellowship of the worshipers is more important than the style of a piece of music. To give up something important (unity of the body) for the sake of something less important (the nature of the style of worship) is to give up the blessing of fellowship for the sake of a personal preference. Being together as the body of Christ ought be more important to us than preserving the pleasure of singing and worshiping according to our preferred style.
3) The variety of style-preferences in a congregation provides a beautiful opportunity to practice love and acceptance and tolerance and patience – in short, the fruit of the Spirit. The Bible calls us to think of others more highly than of ourselves – to regard not only our own interests but also the interests of others. To separate a congregation over what are our own interests would appear to be in conflict with this desire of the Spirit in our lives. Differences in style preference give occasion to the leadership of the church and the Praise Team to ask: How can we show love to one another by accommodating the different style preferences that are in the body, while maintaining the unity of the body. Differences like this provide the members of a congregation with an opportunity to grow in their walk with God by considering not only their own preferences but also the preferences of others.
5. Is it possible to learn to like or to adapt to a new style or an old style of music? I believe that this is within the realm of possibility. Often style has to do with familiarity. Increasing familiarity may lead to increasing tolerance for, and acceptance of a different style of music. We can learn to develop new tastes in clothing or food. Why not in music?