In any movie or TV show, the soundtrack is tremendously important. The songs chose for the background of the story set the tone for the movie. In many ways, they are critical to the story. The best soundtracks tell the stories themselves.
Let’s think about the famous soundtrack of Star Wars composed by John Williams. This soundtrack is instantly recognizable and immediately takes the mind back to the story. We recognize the theme song, and we automatically think of those credits scrolling across the screen off into the distance in space. That song has a grandeur and excitement to it that sets the tone for the whole movie.
Darth Vader’s theme is called the “Imperial March.” It has a strong cadence and a seemingly relentless march forward. It clearly represent Vader’s strength and the Empire’s goal of getting everyone in cadence and marching in the same direction. It portrays the uniformity that the antagonists are seeking. Compare that song to the song of Luke Skywalker looking out on the desert. Luke’s song starts out quiet and slow, with long notes that are lilting and hoping for something to come. That is exactly what the rebellion is desiring in their fight against the empire, and that is exactly what Luke wants as he feels trapped where he is. The songs of Star Wars tell the story.
The church has always had a soundtrack. In some parts of the world this has involved chanting. There is something so holy about the chilling sound of voices echoing in a grand worship space. Still, throughout most of the church’s history, the Psalms acted as the soundtrack. Sometimes people would have the words in front of them. More often, a leader would say or sing a line and the church would repeat it back. People had to learn the tunes, since much of the singing was acapella. (Organs did not move into the church until the days of Martin Luther, when this bar instrument was repurposed for church music. Many people complained that such a worldly instrument would be used in church. Now, people argue for it as if it is the only holy musical instrument.) The Psalms have a great range of emotions and themes. Some Psalms are praising God for his works. Some are praising God for his attributes. Some are complaining to God in times of distress.
We now have hymns—songs specifically written for the church. Sometimes these were bar tunes or popular tunes with new words written. Sometimes these were masterful pieces of art that were composed for worship. Whatever the case, these songs have become the soundtrack of our story. Songs like “Blessed Assurance” or “Amazing Grace” somehow seem to capture our whole story in just a few stanzas. There are many times when I get up to preach, and then find that the hymn following the sermon says what I wanted to say so much better than I did. Some songs even claim to capture the story. Blessed Assurance says, “This is my story, this is my song…” We sing that “We’ve a story to tell to the nations” and “I love to tell the story.”
The songs also help unpack the story. Some of the church’s best theological works are found in the hymnal. “The Church’s One Foundation” is one of the most profound creedal statements for the church. “Holy Holy Holy” is one of the strongest proclamations of the Trinity that the church has ever made. The hymnal is the soundtrack of our theology.
There is also something very symbolic about the community standing and singing these words in harmony. We have lost our ability to sing harmony for the most part, but my teacher Len Sweet points out the power when it does happen. When we sing harmony, we sing different things. We don’t have to all sing the same thing, in fact, it sounds so much better if we all sing different parts that complement one another. This is how the world, and how the church, was meant to be—we all sing our unique and authentic parts and the Holy Spirit puts them all together.
I am not against praise songs, but I could never go to a church that did not do some hymns. Praise songs are spiritual songs. They can be repetitive, and sometimes their theology needs to be better thought out. But what they do is give voice to praise and adoration from the heart. In this way, they do parallel some of the Psalms. What I find lacking in the praise songs is space for regret or for questioning God. Praise leaders hang onto “Blessed be Your Name” for its acknowledgement of down times, but there is a need for more of this theme. It is not sexy and will not sell as many records, but it is a theme in the Psalms that needs more exploration in our music today.
In my opinion, the church needs to be much more intentional about its soundtrack. The songs we sing can shape our church and our culture in ways that we are overlooking. The songs tell the story, and when we sing them we participate in them as our story. When we write the next chapters of the story, it will be the soundtrack that anchors us to the previous chapters.
The question for us as pastors and churches is—what story is your soundtrack saying about your church?