Music, Worship, and Transcendence
This summer, I’ve attended several live music shows. Great outdoor weather mixed with an impulse to explore local events here in the Quad Cities has led me to discover the many great local musicians and music venues. The words that come to mind in light of these performances are nostalgia and entertainment. Nostalgia in the sense that many of the songs are covers; these are songs that we grew up listening to. Usually, the musician adds flair or flavor to the cover song, making it entertaining.
Music can be, in many contexts, designed for entertainment and, in this case, invoke some nostalgia, which makes it an enjoyable experience. However, it made me think about how music is designed to function in different contexts. Of course, being a pastor, one context I considered was church. Church music these days comes in a variety of forms. There are traditional hymns accompanied by an organist or piano player. Other types include a more contemporary style, with worship singers and a band leading worship. Here at St. Paul, we offer a variety of worship experiences, but whatever service one attends, the purpose is not necessarily to entertain or to invoke nostalgia. Indeed, our music can invoke these feelings, but it’s not the ultimate concern of our worship. The goal is to connect people with the living God. To invoke a sense of transcendence and worship. Whether it be the lyrics of the songs or the vibrations of the instruments, the goal is not to entertain but to help lead people to God in Christ Jesus, who, we understand, is more easily perceived in moments of transcendence and worship because God is transcendent. Transcendence means “[the] existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.” So whether that happens for you in a more traditional hymn-singing service or in a more contemporary worship setting, I hope we all get to experience the resonant connection of transcendence during worship.
Last year, I traveled to Wittenberg, Germany, with my seminary class. One morning, we all walked down to All Saints’ Church (Castle Church), where Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the front door. We couldn’t go inside at that time. However, beside that church was a small chapel, designed with rounded ceilings, providing excellent singing acoustics. As we entered that worship space, which only had room for 30 worshipers, we started to sing the doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” And as we did, the space transformed from a historic building to a house of worship. There was transcendence. Our voices resonated, and the reverberation hummed throughout that building and leaked outside the chapel doors. When finished, the reverb of our singing extended beyond our singing due to the humid weather conditions. There were no musical instruments, only our voices. There was no audience, just worshipers. There were no bulletins or hymn books, only our memories. That’s not to say that we can’t use these things for worship, but it was a reminder for all of us that worship is about resonance, connection, and transcendence. Our professor listened from outside the chapel and was awestruck. Each night we ate at a different restaurant, he would ask us to once again sing, as a class, in public, the doxology. The desire to rekindle and recreate that transcendent resonance remained the entire trip, so we continued to sing the doxology until our last time on the plane ride home.
As children of God, we long deeply for God’s presence. When we find it, we long for more and return to the ways we surmise might reinvigorate that same experience. So, whether you experience worship through modern Christian songs on the radio or by singing hymns, I hope that you’re finding moments of transcendence in your worship of God so that we might all be tuned by the resonance of the divine so that we might radiate holiness in our lives.