This article by Paul Ryan was first published in Reformed Worship 95.
Today we have immense control over our music. With the advent of MP3 players we can skip, shuffle, delete, and mix genres. We can listen alone or with others, listen on or off the phone, listen in the car or on a walk outside. While we listen we can view photographs, videos, play computer games, or check the location of the nearest Starbucks. Music is available to us where we want it, when we want it, and how we want it.
Gone are the days when most people’s only access to music was in a concert hall, at a community gathering, or at the living room piano. We no longer have to stop what we’re doing and have music played for us. Neither do we have to listen patiently through an album or concert to hear the one or two songs we really like.
But then we come to worship, where we can’t skip, shuffle, or delete. We can’t design a playlist of our favorite songs. Rather, we come to worship and participate in someone else’s playlist. That can often be unnerving. There are songs we don’t know—Why is this on the list? A song might be too slow—Why didn’t they select a different version? We might hear the same songs and hymns again and again—Why can’t they mix up the playlist? Or there is little variety in the genres or styles of music—My playlist incorporates fifteen different genres!
Music in worship, then, is very countercultural. We don’t get to choose. We don’t have the control. We can certainly make requests (or complain), but by and large we don’t have much of a say. No wonder we often find ourselves dissatisfied with the music in our churches!
But perhaps there is something valuable here. Maybe we need the reminder that worship isn’t about our individual preferences and our need for control. In worship God calls us to give our lives into his hands—the hands that are truly in control. Maybe it can remind us to look to God and ask, “What playlist do you have for me this week? What do you want me to hear?”
This is challenging, especially for teens who are fighting for control and who rejoice in the individual expression of their music choices. But how important it is to know that we ultimately are not in control, and life is not first of all about our own needs and preferences. Worship teaches us this. Worship forms us into people who learn to place their lives into the hands of God.