If there is one subject that evokes strong feelings in any congregation it is music in the worship service.
People who come to Hilton Head and join a congregation after previously belonging to other congregations have their own expectations about traditional music. So it may come as a surprise when they hear music they do not recognize from their previous experience. I have heard newcomers say: “Rabbi, I don’t know these tunes. This is not what I sang in my previous synagogue. What happened to the music I know?”
Today’s congregations can present music that covers the gamut from traditional pieces from 19th century classical music traditions and venerable hymns based upon the Psalms to contemporary compositions which resemble folk rock. The types of musical instruments such as the organ, piano and rock and roll bands represent new musical trends today.
Why is the music so important and what should a congregation made up of many transplants such as those found on Hilton Head Island do about keeping the peace?
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Music brings the liturgy and the worship experience to life. Music gives us a way to experience the soulfulness of the religion. It inspires us and reaffirms our faith in a way that simply reading the prayers does not. Music in public worship also reflects each generation’s voice of expressing its identity on how it relates to the teaching of the faith tradition.
Growing up in my home temple, I only remember the organ as the instrument of public worship. Today, the piano and the guitar seem to be the instruments of choice. Music directors, cantors, and ministers of music try to provide a selection of liturgical music that covers a broad spectrum of musical traditions. Not only do service leaders have to be careful on what they choose but when introducing new melodies, it is often critical to teach the music before the congregation sings during a worship service.
This aspect of the worship experience challenges us to make choices. We can adapt the secular music world whether it is folk, rock, and even rap for some congregations to find that balance which helps multiple generations sitting together feel connected. It is a process of continuing experimentation where everyone in the congregation is adapting to new music.
From a Scriptural perspective, we know that singing was important to the ancient Israelites. In particular, the Book of Psalms is a powerful example of how important singing was in the Temple in Jerusalem. We think of the young and future King David, who played the lyre (kinnor in Hebrew) and who, according to Jewish tradition, composed the Psalms. The Bible gives us examples of different kind of musical instruments that were used in communal worship in ancient times.
The art of the music today in our houses of worship must balance diverse styles of music which speak to the hearts and souls of multiple generations each with its own history and memory of what spiritual music should be. Just think about congregations on Hilton Head where one could have three generations of worshippers between the ages of 50 through 90. And that does not include younger generations and their preferences for contemporary music.
At my religious movement’s school for sacred music, which trains cantors to be clergy for music, every student cantor is expected to master the guitar. Why is this the case? Cantors are expected to lead the music, and today’s liturgical music has been greatly influenced by America’s folk music traditions which use the guitar as its primary instrument.
The truth is that American houses of worship need more than one style of music in their services. Young families can learn to adapt to traditional hymns and seniors can learn to sing new melodies which represent young people’s music. It is at best a blending of multiple traditions that enriches our tapestry of worship.
Read the Psalms and see how many times the Psalmist says, “Sing unto the Lord a new song,” music that includes lyres, harps and cymbals. In the book of I Chronicles: “David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their fellow Levites as musicians to make a joyful sound with musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals.”
Let’s remember that while worship services need to preserve a dignified, solemn and respectful atmosphere for sacred worship it does not preclude joyousness in the worship service.
Let’s promote flexibility in liturgical music and recognize that the goal is to raise the spirits of worshippers toward God. Music is supposed to bring us closer to our own emotions and, in the end, to God.