In discussions about worship, many times the issue of musical style is brought up. One group in the church is lobbying for a contemporary worship service to be set up, where the only difference would be the style of the music played in the service, exchanging Bach for Chris Tomlin. I used to say without equivocation that the issue is never style, it’s always something deeper. I still believe that ultimately, musical style is an aesthetic issue, not a theological one. No musical style can be denigrated as "evil" or lauded as "pure", because it’s just a difference of style.
But here’s the caveat: we learned from Marshall McLuhan that the media is the message. So in some ways, musical style is never purely an aesthetic issue, because a musical style will carry cultural baggage with it, even though the baggage isn’t inherent in the music, it’s simply been imputed to the music by the culture that predominantly surrounds that style of music. This is why so many had a hard time when rock music started being played as worship music. There were just too many associations in people’s minds that equated rock music with immorality. How can that kind of music be worshipful? they thought. Those days are pretty much over, as most of what is called "worship music" today is essentially rock music.
But I wonder if other cultural elements of the rock concert have sneaked into our worship services. For example, at a rock concert, your attention is directed toward the stage, where the rock stars are performing for you. All eyes are turned toward the stage, where the "action" is, and audiences at rock concerts are typically fairly passive (although some will dance), watching the concert in much the same way they watch TV. This is typically how contemporary worship services go, isn’t it? The lights are trained on the stage, and all the seats are organized around the stage. People look toward the stage for direction in worship. The worship leaders (like the rock stars) are elevated and visible. I wonder if part of the message of the rock concert medium is "The stage is where the action is, and the most important people in this room are these people on the stage. Look to them for what’s coming next."
Contrast that with the medium of a dance club. The DJ is very often not even visible. Even if she is, hardly anyone’s attention is directed toward them. People are dancing with each other, engulfed in the music. The lights are aimed everywhere, instead of only on the stage. People are actively involved in exploring the entire space, instead of passively watching a few people perform on a stage. The music itself is more immersive than bombastic. It doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself. Instead it creates an atmosphere that people can interact with by dancing. Dance clubs "demand" participation in a way that rock concerts don’t. Actually, many emerging churches are ditching rock music and creating worship events with club music instead.
So what would happen if our worship services looked more like dance clubs than rock concerts? What if worship was less linear and more layered? Might we see more participation, more active exploration of worship, and less idolization of worship leaders? Maybe we would. We can all name dozens of rock and pop stars, after all, but how many of us can name a DJ?
So does musical style matter in worship? No and yes. No, there is no musical style that is inherently more holy than any other. Neither is there a style that is inherently flawed or evil (not even country). But it does matter, too, in the sense that certain musical styles lend themselves to certain cultural phenomena that you may or may not want to cultivate. It’s worth thinking deeply about.