Sunday, April 2, 2017

Conditioning or Tradition?

For those of of who have grown up attending church, especially attending the same church for an extended period of time, it can often be weird or even difficult to attend another church with a different worship style. I 100% believe that different worship styles work for different people, and I love that there are so many choices out there for American modern Christians. Many individuals will visit various churches with various styles of worship throughout their lifetime, and, in a perfect world, they would be able to worship with abandon and personal freedom in each and every setting. However, that is not usually the case. We who have spent years in the church have a pre-disposition to a certain style of worship and a certain type of church music. Is this pre-disposition simply a natural and unavoidable response to tradition, or is it a sign of unhealthy conditioning?

I do not want this to be a theological discussion, nor do I have the knowledge to make it one. I want to merely examine the effects of associating worship with a certain type of music. For the sake of illustration, let's imagine that there is an individual who has been attending a church that features traditional gospel music sung by a choir paired with piano, organ, and orchestra for many years. This individual is happy and fulfilled in that church, and they find it easy to worship. If this individual were to attend a church that worships with trap set drums, bass guitar, and a praise team, would he or she feel led to worship with the same fulfillment and freedom that they typically do? In most instances, the answer would be no. The individual may even feel awkward or out of place. Where does this feeling come from? Shouldn't worship be worship, no matter what style of music is used?

I believe that there are a number of sources from which this barrier to worship may arise. They have been generalized as the following:
1. Familiarity and comfort
2. Corporate versus individualized singing
3. Actual sonority of instruments used
4. Prejudice and conditioning

Familiarity and comfort:
The individual's predisposition to a certain type of music and a certain style of worship may simply lie within the fact that what we know is comfortable. The individual does not by any means disdain other styles of music or worship, they merely feel more comfortable within the style that they are accustomed to. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as one takes care to recognize the merit of other styles. I believe that it is okay to have a custom when it comes to worship. It is merely having an individualized way of encountering the Lord. Again, this is not to say that one should be indignant and refuse to listen to the Lord's call when in situations that involve differing worship styles, it is just recognizing that the Lord's call may be more easily recognized when one feels comfortable and fulfilled in their environment.

Corporate versus individualized singing:
There are various studies published regarding the unifying and fulfilling effects of singing in a choir. Could an individual's ability to worship more freely in a church that uses a choir stem from this camaraderie and fellowship? Does the choir foster community that causes an individual to feel welcomed and free to express oneself in worship? In churches that use a praise team, the music is often louder and more contemporary. Does the loud music (that essentially covers up the congregation's singing), make individuals feel more free to worship because they are not insecure about being heard? Is there more merit to feeling valued and involved versus feeling ignored (in a good, humbling way) during worship? I believe that, again, the answer essentially lies in personal preference and individual heart condition.

Actual sonority of instruments used:
This is more of a theoretical point. I would be interested in studying the physical effects of different instruments on the human brain during worship. Does the low buzz of a bass guitar or the room-filling ring of an organ somehow cause one to feel more worshipful? Is our ability to worship drastically affected by the physics of sound? Do certain sounds have psychological effects that subconsciously stir one's heart toward worship? I am in no way suggesting that the presence of the Lord dwells within any certain instrument or sound- I am merely offering up the proposition that certain sound waves may have physical effects on the body that produce a sobering or awe-struck state of mind. Many people actually agree that certain instruments definitely play a role in moving individuals toward worship. This is why certain instruments are often used in "emotional evangelism" type settings. I would be interested in exploring whether or not that indiscernible "effect" derives from the actual physical sounds of those instruments or from our association of them with the idea of worship.

Prejudice and conditioning:
Although it is certainly not a positive thing, the fact of the matter is that sometimes individuals are raised to think that their individual music and worship preferences are somehow superior to all others. This often affects people subconsciously, and they do not always know that they have fallen victim to this type of conditioning. An individual's inability to worship with freedom in a church that is contradictory to the style that they are accustomed to could be a result of the fact that they subconsciously believe their way is the only way. I believe that this kind of thinking is absolutely toxic to the Kingdom of the Lord, and we must make every effort to recognize it when it occurs. It cannot be combatted if we do not even know that it is happening.

I would be very interested in studying each of these propositions in depth and over time, perhaps even utilizing controlled experiments of some sort. I do not know if these questions will ever be answered, but I feel that they are all important to consider. I fear the day when we stop asking questions, and become complacent in our learning, in our worship, and even in our walks with the Lord.


  1. You bring up some great points!
    I can't wait to see if you investigate further in the future!

  2. Really interesting and thorough discussion. Almost like a mini-philosophy of worship music. I think there's a lot going on with what you're saying, and there are certainly other dimensions that could be added. The first one that comes to my mind: cultural connotations attached to particular instruments. The electric guitar has some connotations in some cultures that influence how people interpret music that comes from it. I'm sure there are others, but this is a fun thought exercise. I'm sure you'll be a great and thoughtful music minister some day.