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Musical Expressions for Oral Learners

While visiting a church recently, I noticed that the Music wallchoir had their noses stuck in a folder, reading the words. I glanced in the back of the auditorium long enough to realize their songs weren’t being projected. When asked to critique the worship service, I surprised a church leader by saying, “The choir shouldn’t sing anything they don’t know.” They lost eye contact with the worshippers who were reading the words off of the screen before them. The choir appeared lost reading paragraphs of text put to a nice melody.     

Meanwhile, the worshippers were left to read/sing along page after page of text.

Worship music in our churches is highly literate and alienates oral learners. We project words to worship songs because the lyrics are so hard to memorize. Worship leaders have moved past the repetitious singing of the past few decades and have begun infusing doctrine.

Space prevents including contributions of ethnomusicology. Forcing people to sing or express themselves musically in a form that is not indigenous to their culture is not the point of this blog. The idea is within a highly literate Western culture, music / lyrics used particularly in evangelical churches continues on the whole to ignore orality within their own culture.

The same guidelines we have learned about oral learners applies to Christian music, including their cultural context. Oral learners are concrete thinkers. Abstract concepts need to be conveyed in a story. Yet, where are the stories in our music?

Look at kids’ songs for hints – “The Wise Man Built His House Upon a Rock,” “Zacchaeus was a Wee Little Man,” and even some Scripture songs. Where are the teen and adult equivalents in our churches, digital downloads, videos, and radio?

Charles Wesley wrote lyrics for hymns in the mid-1700s. He and his brother, John, were deeply concerned that hymns become a tool to help Methodists become literate. Charles is credited with “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Love Divine, Loves All Excelling,” and “O For a Thousand Tongues.” And hymns have become something from the literate world ever since, but we’ve forgotten that aspect of hymnody. 

The good news is that oral learners love poetic lyrics, setting stories and Scripture to music, making chants, and other creative expressions. But does that mean that they instantly jump into literate mode when they express creativity to God’s Word? Would an oral learner ever develop the Newsboy’s “We Believe.” The song is almost impossible to sing in a church without projected lyrics.

The Country and Western world does a better job, possibly because they tend to attract many more oral learners. “Three Wooden Crosses” sung by Randy Travis is still my favorite (non-Christian) country song. This is a great ballad with a nice plot twist at the end. And don’t forget that Jazz and folk music have told stories for years.

However, a nice story is not the same as conveying the Bible in musical formats. It is the rare song that stories the Bible. Some give mentions, like Brandon Heath’s “Leaving Eden.” Abel Kim has compiled 17 songs on YouTube with Christian musicians singing songs that were inspired by the Bible. A good example is Mandisa’s “Born for This” based on Esther’s story. The video with clips from the movie “The Story” illustrate Esther.
   Keep pushing into the oral world–and understanding orality’s role in worship songs. Their world is not ours, yet we literates have a responsibility to enter their world with care and as a humble learner.

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About Mark Snowden

TruthSticks originated from the book I co-authored with the late Avery Willis. Truth That Sticks: How to Communicate Velcro Truths in a Teflon World was the book and this blog and Bible studies have resulted. It's great to be partnering with churches who are committed to making disciple-makers. Request a catalog of Bible studies using orality at SnowdenMinistries@gmail.com.

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