One of the things I noticed during my years in non-Catholic churches was the frequent tension over worship music. While there are certainly tensions over music in Catholic churches, it seems to be a much more persistent battle ground for Protestants (at least in the denominations I attended). Why was the debate and tension over worship music so consistently intense at these churches?
There were older people that wanted more traditional music. There were younger people that wanted more contemporary music. There were people that liked all types of music. There were people that didn’t really care much about music at all (they tended to focus more on the quality of the preaching). The ever-present issue was how to keep everyone happy, which, of course, is impossible. I sensed that there was something much deeper than mere differences in musical preference, but I could not put my finger on it.
There were always possible solutions offered. Perhaps there could be a mix of traditional and contemporary music. Or, there could be two services, one traditional and one contemporary. The church could simply decide to use only contemporary music or only traditional music. Those who might be displeased would have to find a church to suit their preferences, or stay and not complain. All of these solutions had problems, especially since these were typically small churches with limited options.
For example, in order to have two services, these small churches needed to grow in number. In order to grow in number, they needed to attract younger people. In order to attract younger people, they needed more contemporary music. Traditional folks felt left out. But, if the church stuck with traditional music, the young folks would leave and find other churches with rocking worship teams, light shows, fog machines and T-shirt-wearing preachers.
It was hard to find a good balance of traditional hymns and contemporary music. It was also hard to find a music leader or worship team that was comfortable and adept in both genres. And don’t forget to add some Southern Gospel into the mix as well.
Recently, while browsing my Facebook newsfeed, I saw a video that had been posted. It was a video of a woman singing a Christian song and the caption read, “She really took them to church!” Then it hit me. I realized the reason that worship music is such a ticklish issue at these non-Catholic churches. They tend to gauge the quality of worship with the degree to which the music (and/or the sermon) inspires them. Unless they feel a certain level of inspiration, they haven’t really “been to church.” If the music or the sermon was particularly inspirational, they might remark, “Wow, we really had church today!” Good music and good preaching equals good worship.
The emphasis of these non-Catholic worship services is music and preaching. At least one of these has to be inspirational in order to feel as though worship has “happened.” If the music is dull, the preacher has additional pressure to be inspirational. If the preacher is dull, the music had better be good enough to compensate. If neither the music nor the preaching inspires, people will look for a different church where they feel they can “really worship.” Music is their highest level of worship. This “sacrifice of praise” is largely how they worship. Take away the music and the sermon and there is not much of a “worship service” to speak of.
Catholics also desire and appreciate inspirational music. This is obvious throughout the history of music and its use in the Mass and monastic life. I personally have my favorite cantors, hymns and musical genres. However, the music and the preaching are secondary or supplementary to the primary act of worship, the Eucharist. A Catholic Mass can be held without any music at all and the primary act of worship still “happens” in its fullness.
The way Catholics primarily worship is by offering the perfect sacrifice of Jesus to the Father. There is no song or sermon that can match such perfection. So, if the music is boring or the sermon is dull, there is still the ultimate sacrifice of praise and worship in the lifting up of and the receiving of Jesus Christ. The music is not the highest form of worship. Preaching is not the highest form of worship. The sacrifice of Christ is the highest form of worship, and that’s what the Mass is. At Mass, the worship “happens” regardless of how inspired the people may or may not “feel” that day. After each Mass, the Catholic has always “been to church.”
In non-Catholic churches, people that feel inspired primarily by Southern Gospel music will likely have a harder time worshiping in a rock style worship service and vice versa. They may even be repelled by such a service. In Catholic churches, the same act of worship takes place regardless of the style of music or the quality of the sermon. Some might whine or complain about the music, but the quality of worship is not dependent on how the people “feel.” It is perfect every time because it is Christ Himself being lifted up, not just spiritually, but in the flesh. The worship of the Mass is the same everywhere in the world, even if there are differences in styles of music, emotional reactions or other cultural expressions. Ultimately, the Catholic goes to Mass to adore and receive Jesus Christ in the flesh, music or no music.
Unfortunately, many Catholics (especially younger ones) don’t realize or appreciate this reality and they have left Catholicism to attend non-Catholic churches where they “feel” more inspired by the music or the preacher. Or, they will only go to Mass if there is “good music” or a priest they like to hear preach. They have missed the whole point of true worship and have abandoned the highest form of worship possible in order to appeal to their individual tastes and emotions. God wants more than hearts full of emotion. God also wants hearts of obedience. For example, God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s offering because they were of substantially different forms.
The sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God, is superior to all other forms of worship we can possibly offer. Of course, we can praise and worship God anytime, anywhere and everywhere through song and prayer. So, why are Catholics obligated to attend Mass every Sunday? Why are we encouraged to attend Mass every day if possible? Jesus is there in the flesh to personally meet you!
I once heard a non-Catholic friend bemoan the fact that the worship music of his heritage is being supplanted by more contemporary music. He felt as if there was no longer a place for him. My heart hurt for him because I sensed that he felt his highest form of worship being taken away.
As wonderful as praise music is, there is an even higher and more intimate form of worship to offer God. You can find this worship at every Catholic Church in the world, music or no music. Jesus awaits to embrace you, in the flesh.