Recently, John Bell of the Iona Community of Scotland visited Union Theological Seminary. In an uplifting and provocative workshop on issues of worship, song and liturgy he raised a very, very powerful notion. The general premise he presented was how our personal theologies, based in the worship music imprinted upon us early in our worship life, influence our experience of God, worship, theology and sense of self in relationship to God. He then spoke of his own memories of the songs and types of songs that ‘stuck with him’ from childhood and how, upon truly assessing their influence, they shaped who he is today.
It got me thinking about my personal relationship with church, my relationship with God and my religious ideas in relation to myself. I grew up singing the same songs as most children. Songs meant to assure us that God and Jesus loves us—“Yes, Jesus Loves Me”, that we belong to God and are wanted—“I’ll Be Sunbeam”, and because of this I can sing, “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy”. But as a full worship participant in an African American Baptist Church from at least the time I was four, the songs that are primarily imprinted in my theological psyche are quite different. I was shaped by the plaintive cries of songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, gospel songs like “Oh, Happy Day” (when Jesus washed my sins away), and hymns like “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”.
Standard fare for many African American worship communities of the time, often they were to assure us that God was with us in our hardest of times, that happiness was there for us when and if Jesus washed our sins away and that by accepting the brutal and grisly images of “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood” we were to be ‘plunged beneath the flood that flowed from Immanuel’s veins’. As graphic as those images were, it struck me completely differently as a young man becoming aware of his same gender loving sensuality. Songs like “Oh, Happy Day” and “Fountain” would only give you the joy of Christ after your sins were forgiven. For me, I grew up with preaching points directed toward me that my “sins” would never be forgiven. And yet that tied into the motif of the suffering Black Christian, waiting for a reward on the other side. How confusing, right? There was forgiveness for sin with an joy sublime to come…but apparently I was the embodiment of sin that could never be forgiven.
Strangely enough, though Tommy Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” spoke about a personal relationship with God that wasn’t contingent on me fitting a mold of righteousness as defined by very real humans in their imperfections. James Cleveland’s gospel rendition of the Gladys Knight hit, “Jesus Is The Best Thing” shifted my view of how I could be in relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It showed me that I wanted an intimate relationship with God. One so intimate that I could sing a love ballad to God and the Spirit would make my heart glad.
So how does all of this speak of my theology? I was speaking to a group a few years ago, speaking my narrative. And I realized the reason why, after all the church tried to do to me to convince me that gay was bad, that blacks must suffer, that the other side is the realm of God to strive for, that I didn’t buy it. I came away from my early church experiences with a personal theology of being in intimate relationship with God. It wasn’t that I ever felt unloved by God, I was being judged by the church. And that didn’t matter because I see God’s and my love as the primary goal for which I strive.
I believe that John Bell has hit upon something very powerful. Classical music and hymns are losing favor in the newer generation of worship (as opposed to the “younger generation”). This question of how our musical imprint influences our theologies and worship practices can help all of us evaluate the worship needs of those to whom we are responsible. I am not judging new generation worship patterns or music as bad. But as providers of a worship experience for others, I would be interested in exploring new ways of understanding the needs of worshipers and how to vary worship options by considering others personal theological needs for worship. To often worship does not reflect the diverse, cultural or spiritual needs of others outside of those ideas of what is best for people as put forth by worship planners. I think John Bell’s question can break open the relational connected experience of worship leader and worship for an optimal existential way of being in worship.