How does music in worship offer revelation about God? Michael Joncas sorts out the relationship between kinds of music and their effect on worshippers, beginning with the scriptural references to music in the assembly. He refers here to two kinds of revelation: general (especially through reasoning) and special (given through the Holy Spirit).
There is biblical evidence for the use of music to induce states of altered consciousness (namely, the prophetic frenzy reported in 1 Samuel 10:5b–6, 10–11). Perhaps the experience of glossolalia both in biblical times and among charismatic Christians can be seen as an example of special revelation (though the latter does not have the authoritative status of the former). . . .
[I]n many cases sung biblical texts are more memorable than those silently read or simply pronounced. “This is likely due to activating and linking different areas of the brain when visual codes are interpreted as verbal information, when that verbal information is yoked to the breath control and muscular activity involved in speaking, and when spoken verbal information is yoked in turn to recognition and interpretation of pitches, volumes, rhythms and timbres.” (Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia [NY: Vintage, 2008)]. They seem to carry a deeper emotional impact. . .
Joncas shows that music sung in worship echoes the proclamation, teaching, communion, service, and witness that finds expression in Christian worship as a whole.
. . . “Evangelical” music is the counterpart of the church’s kerygma (proclamation). Just as Jesus proclaimed the proximate coming of the reign of God and called for a response of metanoia (transformation of values) to this good news, the church proclaims that the good news of the reign of God is embodied in Jesus, with acceptance of his way of life and joining his community as the appropriate response (e.g., “He is Lord, He is Lord, He is risen from the dead and he is Lord”). Thus the proper venue. . . is any situation in which non-Christians may be open to the Christian message (radio, television, films, videos, coffeehouses, concerts, etc.). . .
Catechetical music is the counterpart of the church’s didache (teaching). Having heard and converted to the kerygma, Christians still have to think through what their beliefs and appropriate behavior might be in the light of faith and in the context of the culture and history in which they find themselves (e.g., “Jesus loves me, this I know. . . ”). Thus, the proper venue. . . might be explicitly educational occasions
Fellowship music is the counterpart of the church’s koinonia (communion). Belief in the kerygma and conversion to the gospel way of life lived out in a particular time and place draws Christians together under the impetus of the Holy Spirit (e.g., “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”). The proper venue. . . might be any situation in which Christians revel in each other’s presence (common meals, hymn sings, skits, etc.).
Healing music is the counterpart of the church’s diakonia (service). Thinking through the implications of the good news leads Christians to acts of charity toward their own members and the wider community (e.g., “Be Not Afraid”). The proper venue. . . would be situations engaging the brokenness of the world (hospital, hospice, nursing home, retreat centers, etc.).
Confrontation music is the counterpart of the church’s martyria (witness). Thinking through the implications of the good news leads Christians to work for justice and singing witness songs. . . (e.g., “We Shall Overcome”).
This way of thinking about the power and work of music may cause worship planners, leaders, and musicians to look kindly on including a host of “styles” of music in a congregation’s repertoire of songs.
Jan Michael Joncas, perhaps best known for his composition “On Eagles’ Wings,” is an associate professor in theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Jan Michael Joncas, “’Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres?’: Thoughts on Music Revelation, and Liturgy,” Liturgy 31, no. 1 (2016), 34-41.