Music is not simply a hobby or a diversion; it’s a marker of identity. We don’t just listen to music for pleasure or entertainment. We choose and enjoy music as a form of self-expression. Our preferred style is part of what defines us, what distinguishes us from others.
In my teenage years, I was a diehard fan of little-known rock bands whose music was rarely played on the radio. I believed my tastes were edgier and more exclusive than my peers’. I attended concerts, posted lyrics in my school locker, and wore obscure T-shirts to signal my personal uniqueness.
I still feel the temptation today, even if it’s not as strong or overt, to find my identity in my music library. But God has often rescued me from this kind of musical self-idolatry through congregational singing.
One Unified Voice
The New Testament teaches us that the unity of the local church is an integral part of its witness. God united Jew and Gentile into one body in order to display his wisdom and worth (Ephesians 3:10). Unlike a crowd at a concert venue, a church isn’t mainly a group of people who share musical tastes. It’s an assembly of blood-bought, Spirit-filled worshipers whose supreme delight is God himself.
Therefore, a church service isn’t mainly meant to be a time for me to enjoy my favorite style of music. It is first and foremost a gathering of the redeemed to praise God as his set apart, unified people. In other words, though I might loveit if my church only used mid-90s underground rock, you probably would notlove it. A church with monotone, mono-style music wouldn’t provide a compelling corporate witness. It wouldn’t say much about the saving, unifying greatness of our God. Harmony in the midst of diversity highlights far more of him.
Scripture exhorts us to sing both to our God in praise and for the sake of other believers in love:
Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18–20)
The joy we experience in congregational singing is always first and foremost a delight in God, but it is also a gladness in seeing other believers built up in their faith. Both joys are available to every believer regardless of whether the music is our favorite style or not — maybe especially if the music is not our favorite style.
Opportunity for Sacrifice
Now, if we walk into church and the music feels stylistically foreign, laying down our personal preferences is a real sacrifice. It’s difficult, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. Every church has a musical voice, a certain cultural home base that depends on any number of factors. It can’t be avoided.
Any church’s music will feel more comfortable for some people, and more awkward for others. We should acknowledge and even honor the weekly sacrifices some make when the church gathers — particularly those who belong to an ethnic, cultural, or generational minority. And if possible, church leaders should take proactive steps toward making our music more hospitable and less alienating for a wider variety of folks.
But the local church is never the place to demand that our personal preferences be met. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite. It’s where we can obey Paul’s countercultural exhortation: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4).
If I struggle to enjoy any of the songs at my church, I should consider how God might be using these songs to build others up. I need to learn how to rejoice when the church sings someone else’s favorite song or style — especially if they are of a different generation, ethnicity, or culture than I am.
Deeper Joy in Music
Recently, my pastor decided that we should sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” more often. It’s a wonderful text on the comfort of depending on God in prayer. Now, in my flesh, I don’t like the song. It feels dated, simplistic, too cheerful. But guess what? Literally hundreds of other folks in my church don’t hear the song through those same ears. They enjoy it, not just for the truth in the lyrics, but because of the music.
As I saw dozens among my church family respond in evident joy to a song that I would not have chosen, God convicted me. I realized that for every song that resonates with me musically, there are probably saints out there who are laying down their preferences for my sake. Surely my personal tastes are a small price to pay for the encouragement and growth of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I still enjoy obscure 90s rock and roll, but God has shown me a deeper joy in music — a joy I get to share with saints of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and musical styles:
What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms!
Matt Merker (@merkermatt) serves as a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He has composed several congregational hymns, including “He Will Hold Me Fast.” He lives on Capitol Hill with his wife and their daughter.