Cue the Music

Swans @ Black Cat. Image by erin m via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

When I was a young boy, I accidentally memorized the books of the New Testament. I say “accidentally” because I had not intended to, and I did not put much effort into it. We were at a family camp, where a music teacher taught us kids a song. The lyrics were the names of the New Testament books. The song, which we learned so quickly, stuck in my head and I have never forgotten it.

Now I teach that song to my confirmation classes so they can learn the books of the New Testament. They pick it up easily. Years later, if I ask them to sing it, they can.

What this taught me is that music is an incredible vehicle for learning. I want to lay this challenge to you: do you ever take advantage of this vehicle in your preaching?

I do not consider myself to be particularly musical. But, thanks to my New Testament song experience, I have often made an effort to incorporate music into my sermons. The result is almost always favorable. Music makes any message easier to hear, to understand, and to remember. Beyond that, there is an emotional component to music that penetrates the soul and provides another, often deeper dimension to the experience.

One does not need a professional trained voice to do this. It does help that I dabble in guitar. I have been able to preach on the Gospel story of John 4 by mixing in verses of an old folk spiritual, “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well.” A Pentecost Confirmation Day sermon was helped considerably by sprinkling in verses of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” culminating in congregation participation.

A sermon on the angel visiting Mary took on a new perspective when I created a riff that I called “Mary Singin’ the Blues.” A Good Friday sermon built around “Were You There” had a penetrating, personal impact that would not otherwise have been possible.

But a pastor does not need a guitar, or any musical skill at all to pull this off. Some skilled musicians willing to exercise a bit of flexibility would help. There is nothing quite like telling the story of Joseph Scriven, and then having the congregation sing along with the organ to his composition, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Any number of recognizable hymns can add depth and impact to a sermon. We don’t necessarily have to wait until the sermon is over to sing a “Sermon Hymn” or “Hymn of the Day.”

But I have found that the music can be even more effective when it is not in the form of a hymn. This past Christmas Eve, the sermon was a joyous one with an emphasis on the angel’s message to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” The message was highlighted by having the congregation sing a verse of “Hakuna Matata.”

Then at the Christmas Day Service, the immense depth of Christ’s love for us was related in a true, personal story of a woman floundering in the deepest abyss of tragedy and despair. The story invited the congregation to close their eyes and imagine a world without Christ, as a poem was read, backlit by the haunting piano melody of “Imagine.”

I have discovered, too, that recruiting musicians to help with the sermon gives them a sense of ownership and personal involvement in the proclamation. I recruited a young man who plays guitar much better than I do to work with me on an Easter Sermon. He played a recurring theme of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” to assist with the sermon of the same name. As he has a young child, I told him he did not need to appear at all three of our Easter services, but he did not want to miss any of them.

If you have not tried, or even thought about, using music is a sermon, I urge you to give it a go. Music has been a blessing to this preacher’s proclamation.

In Nathan Aaseng’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Preaching Life,” a writer and preacher reflects on the rhythms of preaching in a parish in central Wisconsin.