vouching for the strings: a call to inclusive musical worship

I keep asking myself… why can’t you let this go, Mary Madeline? Why can’t you just embrace the traditionalist Sunday morning style that you grew up on? Why can’t you just get over the fact that some churches are just probably never going to engage in less expand their musical worship styles on Sunday morning?

As the famous Flannery O’Conner quote goes, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say,” I suppose this post is less of me trying to persuade anyone to see things the way I do, but more of me trying to understand why an exclusive view point on worship style frustrates me and leaves me feeling disconnected in worship.

So, here it goes. My aim of this post is not to offend anyone’s particular musical worship style— it’s exactly the opposite. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a traditional preference, but I’m trying to shine light on the fact that there is a rich sincerity found in all types of worship music.

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I’ve never understood why I couldn’t just love the organ. Like, what was it? Why didn’t the words just really resonate with me in the same way that they did on other days? It wasn’t that I disliked the organ– I just felt a deeper connection when the music was sang in a more folkish style.

So here are my thoughts on why some churches might want to consider expanding their music style. I hope you can find some insight into what I’m referring to as a movement of “inclusive music.”

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For some people, one type of music is more personal than another.  

It’s almost as if music in general is a language, and the different generes are the dialect. Let’s take take a random guy named Matt for example. Matt might understand the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” when they are sung to the original tune with a piano, but when put to a new beat and add a banjo, the song resonates with him even more. When translated to Matt’s “dialect,” it takes on a deeper meaning, and he begins to notice phrases he’s never really noticed in the old familiar song before. It’s not that he didn’t understand “and grace my fears relieved” before, but with this new tune, it really sinks deep into his soul. With much effort and concentration, Matt probably could have come to the same resonating epiphany of lyrical depth. But it’s amazing to hear it in the music style he loves, not only because it feels so natural, but also because he begins to realize that God can be praised through his preferred style of music as well.

You see, for the average young person, we just don’t listen to organs, bagpipes, or handbells in our everyday life. It’s not how we relate to artists/lyrics. You would much more likely find our music taste more primed to drums, acoustic and electric guitar, bass, piano, etc. This is the music we hear in our work places, campuses, coffee shops, homes. This is the stuff we grew up on and these instrumental styles are the way we relate to the poetry that’s represented in song. The other instruments, though we might not mind them, just aren’t very personal the same way that they might be for the older generation.

And for the average immigrant, they probably really love listening to music in their own language. Latin or German or Japanese music might be the type they listen to at work, at play, at parties, in their homes. It’s not that they don’t understand English words, but knowing that they can worship God in their native tongue with other believers can create a new sense of awe and wonder, knowing that God speaks their language and knows their culture just as much as He knows the English language and the American culture. Hearing His praises in their language makes the personal attribute of God even more real. And I’m sure the the international community appreciates and feels supported by fellow believers when they sacrifice a few English songs here and there to worship with them in this way.

The same for an African American and gospel music or a hipster and their guitar/alternative music.

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Music can build a metaphorical bridge from Sunday mornings to the rest of mundane life. For me, an organ is so far off and a “Sunday morning thing.” That’s the only time I (and I’m sure many other people) ever hear the organ, making it seem almost disconnected from the rest of my life. But guitars and drums are more personal, connecting Sunday mornings to the rest of my life, showing that Christ extends throughout every second of my week.

And for other people, this might not be guitars and drums. It might be gospel music or a more pop-ish version. It might be songs literally in their native or only language, which might not be English. And sure, maybe these people with much effort and diligence could begin to understand the same songs with pipe organs and harps with Old English lyrics, the way that you might relate to music. But wouldn’t you also like to give those people a chance to relate in their own way, in their own musical/literal language?

Wouldn’t that make them feel so welcomed? Wouldn’t that be challenging and a little sacrificial but also beautiful and life-giving to people who might feel a little like outsiders in the congregation?

Isn’t that, on a smaller scale, kind of what was represented at Pentecost? Everyone was united because they heard the same message in different ways. The gospel was in lots of languages. And it was absolutely beautiful. (Maybe that’s a stretch. If you think so, I can respect that.)

Isn’t that why we translate the Word into different languages, so that all people can know the gospel?

And isn’t that why we even translate into different word-play/usage with in those languages? (Think: NIV, EVS, NLT, etc.) Because it’s so neat to hear the same message in different ways? Because some phrases ring deeper when said differently?

I just think it’s at least something to consider.

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I’m not saying that your church or my church should start singing at least one song in Spanish, one with a guitar, and one gospel-style every Sunday. I’m not trying to convince anyone that one music style is more holy or more inclusive than another. It all depends on your geographical location, the people you serve, the people you are trying to include in your church that might not feel they have a place. Your music should be “inclusive” to your congregation and those you are trying to reach.

Our God can be worshipped in extensive ways. He doesn’t need to be confined to type A of music. He can be praised and adored through an expansive array of musical expressions. That’s the kind of God we serve. He speaks all languages, all dialects.

He made those dialects, languages, and preferences, and we can worship Him with all of them.

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And I think He would be extremely pleased if we gave up our musical predispositions to make others feel included and honored. I don’t think it would hurt anyone if we surrendered our musical bias to make others feel a little more at home at Sunday services. I think that would be counting others as more important than ourselves. I think we might even find ourselves a little in awe of the richness of that type of sacrificial worship.

So here’s a plea for all types: from the traditional organ-lovers, to the folksy (shout out to my preference group!), to the gospel fanatics, to the choir members, to the die-hard K-Love fans. When the lyrics are theologically sound and the focus is shifted on Christ and not performance, all of these styles of music are beautiful and pleasing to Christ, and can create a sense of community and understanding that Christ expands through all instruments, all cultures, all communities, all peoples, all music.

In Him who unites us all,

Mary Madeline


Current worship favorites:

Behold our God (Sovereign Grace Music)

Sovereign Over Us (Aaron Keyes)

Thy Mercy, My God (Sandra McCracken)

“Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.” – Psalm 150: 3-5 (emphasis added)




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