Generally speaking, I don’t consider myself to be a cynical person. But few things push me toward cynicism than the weird advice I hear and read offered to church leaders. For example, back in the late 2000s or early 2010s, I was at a leadership conference where a young-ish megachurch pastor on stage. He was strutting around with the bravado of a stand-up comic as he described the ways he tried to help create the atmosphere of the worship gathering: The way lighting created a feeling in the room. Modulating his voice to emphasize certain points. Adding in little music as he prayed to help people feel more reflective.
I was still a relatively new Christian at the time (in my first five years), but hearing this pastor’s advice—especially that last bit with music—triggered something within me. I was irritated. Angry, even. Whatever this guy was selling, it didn’t seem to be something helpful. Perhaps cynicism was getting the best of me, but it seemed to be best practices on how to emotionally manipulate people.
Which is easier to do than you might think.
The power (and danger) of music
Music is a powerful tool. It has the power to shape our emotions like no other creative endeavor. Major chords and fast tempos get us excited. Minor chords make us pensive, reflective, or nervous. We might listen to fast-paced music to fuel us when we exercise, or drift off to sleep as we listen to something soothing. When you watch a movie or tv show, you know when a dramatic reveal is going to happen, or when a big heartwarming moment is going to happen by the music cues.
Because music is powerful, it is also dangerous if used incorrectly.
Perhaps the most obvious way is when the “spirit chords” come into play. I don’t know exactly when this started being a practice, but I’ve seen it in every church I’ve ever been to for nearly 20 years. The basic idea is when we’re bringing the service to a close—perhaps when the sermon is nearing the very end, the closing prayer is about to begin, or we receive a call to reflect on matters between us and the Lord—a worship leader will accompany with a few chords on a guitar or piano. It’s nothing fancy, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s there to fill the space. To create the atmosphere.
Exploring the heart behind what we do
Now, I am not cynical enough to assume that the majority of people who play a few chords are doing anything more than trying to create some atmosphere. They’re filling the space because it’s what they’ve seen done. But I am enough of a realist to see that there can be a danger in them—that they can be used to manipulate.
So what should we do about it? Is the answer to stop adding filler music? Maybe some will see that as the right approach. But I don’t know that many will. And truth be told, I’m not sure that’s even the right answer.
I don’t think a list of prescriptive answers will be helpful here. So instead, maybe the best thing we can do is encourage one another to consider what we do and why. Here are two key questions can that can help.
Why do we use music in certain points of our worship gathering?
Music must always be a part of our worship gatherings. After all, while worship is more than singing, it is not less. So we sing songs of praise and we sing songs in response to the gospel. But when it comes to those other times when music plays a part—especially in those more reflective times—we need to consider why we include it. In what ways does it genuinely aid in worshiping Jesus? How might it distract?
How can silence help us engage with the Lord?
We live in a world of noise. And it’s not just music, either. Lights, news, podcasts, social media, cat videos that my friend Dave keeps sending me… it’s everywhere, all the time. And as much as I love a good soundtrack for my evening walk, I wonder if we use have so much noise in our lives because we’re afraid of silence. When we have nothing to drown out our thoughts, we have nothing to distract us from what’s going on in our hearts. And we also can’t ignore what the Holy Spirit might be bringing to our minds:
- Conviction over past (or present) sin
- A moment where we need to ask for forgiveness
- Impressing upon us the need to make a difficult decision—because it’s the right one
The antidote for cynicism
Something I wish I had the language to tell my younger self during that leadership conference is that yes, it’s good to be skeptical of bad or potentially manipulative advice. But don’t let that skepticism turn into cynicism. And truthfully, that’s the same advice I have for myself now about just about everything. It’s so tempting to be cynical about just about everything. It’s so easy. And often it’s well-deserved.
Maybe you feel the same way.
But Christians aren’t called to be cynics. We are to be radically hopeful realists—people who are profoundly realistic about the dangers and opportunities before us in everything.
And if we want to be hopeful realists, then we need to be wise. We need to be discerning, asking good questions, thinking about why we do what we do. And in all of that, we must trust that the Lord will help us to see how we can most faithfully honor him.