July 17, 2012
Bieber Fever and the Worship Wars
How brain science might help us major on the majors.
I thought the worship wars were over. The church I grew up in put our traditional Southern gospel-style music out to pasture in favor of a more generic contemporary style in the mid 90s. We weren’t exactly in the most progressive region of the country. Surely we were among the last band of skirmishers in a war winding down.
But it seems the war is raging still. I interact with a lot of pastors, and I hear from them time and again that their number one problem is helping the old-timers turn loose of the hymnals and welcome such innovations as overhead projection, electric guitars, and a backbeat. At stake for these pastors is the future of their church. How can they reach younger generations with outdated forms of worship?
I’ve often marveled at how visceral these discussions can get. Older Christians can imply that if you add one praise song to the bulletin, you might as well just harvest their remaining healthy organs and send them out in the woods to die alone. Younger Christians can give you the impression that when Jesus ascended, he ordained the drum set as the primary vehicle of the Holy Spirit.
A recent article in the The Wall Street Journal shed some interesting light on this subject for me. Reporting on the mass hysteria set afire by celebrities like Elvis and the Beatles and, more recently, Justin Bieber, Melinda Beck suggests victims of “Bieber Fever” suffer from a legitimate malady.
Citing neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music (Dutton Adult 2006), Beck explains, “Hearing familiar, favorite music stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and addiction, providing the same rush as eating chocolate or that winning does for a compulsive gambler.”
The power of “familiar, favorite music” may help explain why musical style is so important to younger worshippers. They may interpret the dopamine release they experience while singing a contemporary worship song—or even a secular song—as a profoundly spiritual experience. Maybe this explains why my classmates and I went berserk when my friend’s band played their apocalyptic favorite “When Jesus Comes Around,” a Christianized version of Green Day’s “When I Come Around.” Silly as it sounds, we found it worshipful. I guess we couldn’t help it.
But the research suggests that older Christians are also held in music’s dread sway. Beck goes on to say, “Dr. Levitin’s research also showed that musical tastes formed in the teen years become part of the brain’s internal wiring, as that is the time when some neural pathways are solidifying and others are being pruned away. That’s why the music adults tend to be nostalgic for is the music from their teenage years.”
Maybe that’s why even if you convince a Christian of a certain age that the theology of “In the Garden” isn’t much better than the theology of “When Jesus Comes Around,” it won’t matter. They’ll still prefer it, not because of what it says but because of how it makes them feel.
For the sake of space, I offer three observations of application for churches:
First, pastors would do well to help their congregations give up debate about which style of music is “best.” There are no winners in that battle. For the sake of dialogue, church members must acknowledge that their musical preferences are just that: preferences. God is not on the side of the organ, nor of the Stratocaster. Drop the pretense of righteous indignation and simply admit, “We like this music better.”
That said, the second point is that while we are talking about preferences here, we are not talking about mere preferences. If I understand the claims above, people have profound biological responses to the music they like. They want to hear certain melodies and instruments in worship instead of others, not because they are selfish or hardheaded but because certain melodies and instruments move them, they produce biological feelings we identify as “worshipful.” And most people won’t be able to explain why.
Finally, if we’re to make any progress in the worship debate, we have to shift the focus from music to relationships. Truth be told, I’d be happiest in a service with an Allman Brothers vibe. But I love and respect fellow congregants who are moved by Bach cantatas (which are lost on me). If a pastor could help foster an environment in which congregants lobbied for the type of music that moved their friends and loved ones—because each wanted the other to be moved in worship—questions about which is “best” would become inconsequential.
There are issues left unaddressed here, such as whether or not feeling worshipful should be a priority. I suspect that debate is a bit academic, as most churchgoers are looking for an experience. In any case, wouldn’t it be something if it were the swarms of screaming, swooning “Beliebers” who inspired a ceasefire in the battles over church music?