Importance of Music in Worship
The issue of Liturgy dealing with “Pentecostal Worship,” guest-edited by Tanya Riches and L. Edward Phillips, looks at many aspects of the topic, including the use of music to create what Pentecostals value as “worship music.” For Nathan Myrick, that term refers to what happens to a group of people involved in rhythmic synchronism. What follows is an excerpt from his essay. –– Melinda Quivik
While I was in seminary, one of my professors remarked that he no longer participated in “worship music” because he experienced the same sensations and feelings at a Radiohead concert as he did while singing on Sunday morning. His comments gave me pause; why do we sing in church? What does music contribute to our experiences of worship, and how can we account for the similarity of sensations between congregational song and concert performance?
Clearly music connects us to others in profound and complex ways. Recent scholarship in several fields has attributed at least some of this connective ability to the natural effect of entrainment, which is the observed rhythmic synchronism that can occur between two autonomous rhythmic processes, both organic and mechanical, so that each process adjusts its rate of oscillation to match the other’s rhythm. I have argued elsewhere that musical entrainment in worship coincides with moments of intense feelings of unity and emotional importance for worshipers. This reality raises new questions for scholars and practitioners of liturgical music, as many worshipers often attribute these feelings and sensations to the power of the Holy Spirit. Does the fact that those feelings may also be experienced outside of musical worship mean that the importance and efficacy of musical worship is independent of the content and meaning of the lyrics and context? Would it follow, then, that the lyrics of the songs used for worship are irrelevant, and we could sing whatever we wanted? Can we conceive of a theology of worship that accounts for music as an embodied, formational activity that does not divorce the Spirit from the body or necessarily collapse the two into each other?
This article outlines how musical entrainment might affect human bodies, memories, and imaginations during worship, and points out how these effects suggest a need for theological reflection and practical application. I argue that these effects reveal something profound about the relationships between the Spirit and our bodies that requires theologizing which accounts for musical embodiment and entrainment as a crucial aspect of healthy congregational worship.
Although I understand the following descriptions of embodied theology in musical worship to apply broadly, I focus my reflections on Pentecostal-style musical worship, what Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth refer to as “Contemporary Worship Music,“ seeking to unpack how it engages the effects of entrainment and how certain aspects ofProtestant theology afford fruitful engagement with the affective power of entrainment in worship. To this end, I begin by (very) briefly examining how theology is displayed by practices of contemporary worship music as embodied transcendence. In doing so, I hope to illuminate new avenues of reflection and praxis for worship leaders, liturgists, and church musicians. Later, I offer a perspective of musical entrainment that illuminates the need for better theologizing about music’s function in worshiping communities.
Nathan Myrick’s full essay in Liturgy 33, no. 3 is available by personal subscription and through many libraries.
Nathan Myrick is a PhD candidate in church music at Baylor University focusing on the ethical and theological significance of Protestant worship music. His work has appeared in The Yale Journal of Music and Religion, Liturgy, The Hymn, and HM Magazine.
Nathan Myrick, “Embodying the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Entrainment,” Liturgy 33, no. 3 (2018): 29-36.