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Pursuing God: Thoughts on Music & Spirituality

Pursuing God: Thoughts on Music & Spirituality

By Austin Smith, Watershed Worship and Creativity Pastor

Hi! My name is Austin Smith and I’m the Worship and Creativity Pastor at Watershed. One of my roles is to oversee our Sunday morning experiences and the different elements that go into them. I’ve been leading worship and doing music in churches since I was in high school (so, like, two years ago) and I’ve been asked a plethora of questions regarding what I do. I thought exploring some of the questions I get most often would be a great way to converse about this topic.

Why music in a church?

We don’t really have much of a choice.

This entire conversation is about God. This big Other that man has been grappling to understand since the dawn of time. And at every generational, sociological turn, just when we think we’ve finally figured God out, we realize again that we are falling woefully short. So what does it mean for us to continue a pursuit that has frustrated many a spiritual and intellectual giant?

Music enters this picture with, arguably, better hands and tools for processing the conversation.

In the 1997 movie Contact, Jodie Foster plays an astronomer character who has found what she believes to be extra-terrestrial life. This finding leads her on an explorative space journey to the edge of some celestial other-world. She describes it as a celestial event and then, at a loss for words, exclaims, “They should’ve sent a poet!"

In many ways, this is the same reason we still sing in church. It’s not so that we can better explain God or our interactions with him, but so that we can marvel in the mystery that shrouds this entire conversation. Music gives us a way to experience God when words fall short. We use combinations of emotive melodies and instrumentation to evoke deeper parts of our response systems. We employ the use of mystical metaphors to give space where space is due while still attempting to wrap ourselves around God. This dance often leads us not into a place of knowing, but of unknowing.

What do you think about the music in our church?

Much of what I just described holds true for us at Watershed. We use music as a tool to more fully understand our experience with God. We realize that there are many avenues to experience God, so we do not presume that music somehow holds the key to unlocking any great mystery about what an encounter with God looks like. We do, however, think that there is something extremely powerful about a group of people coming together and singing together and listening to music together. For better or worse, there are things we do as a group that we simply cannot do as individuals, and one of those things is experiencing music in a corporate way. At Watershed we value this idea that everything is more complete when we experience it both as an individual and as a group.

Where do you think we’re headed?

We could probably have a big conversation about genre, style and particulars when it comes to the music at Watershed, but for the sake of time sincerity, those are secondary in my mind. When I think about where we are headed, I think about two avenues: honesty and quality.

So much of what we all experience in our everyday lives isn’t honest, often to the point that we’ve become largely skeptical of almost everything. I hope that as a church we can embody some sense of honesty with the music that we sing. We won’t get it right every time, but it has been my experience that when honest music is engaged, it changes the musician and the listener.

If the music isn’t good it doesn’t matter what it says or what it’s supposed to do, it won’t accomplish anything. That being said, good music is an unbelievably subjective statement. Everyone has a different opinion about what type of music is good and what type of music is bad. In this sense we try, as best we can, to move towards what moves people. We try to make informed decisions about what it is that stirs people’s souls and moves them into deeper parts of themselves and into deeper relationship with God.

What can I do to engage music in a meaningful, spiritual way?

The first thing that science will tell you about music is that for it to have any sort of positive effect, you must like it. I know it sounds simple, but go find the music that you really like. Not something that you think you’re supposed to like because your friend group, society, or family tells you to. If it’s Justin Bieber and Beyonce, then so be it. You have to find something or someone you really enjoy.

Secondly, if you want music to be something that changes you, you have to make time for it. You can’t just listen to it on occasion while you’re doing other things and expect some sort of transformational experience. Take a few minutes each day and just sit and listen. Close your eyes and take in the intricacies of the music and lyrics. Allow yourself to notice the experience as well as what the experience is doing to you and for you.

Lastly, I would encourage you to move towards music as a group practice, whether that be at church, or at a venue in town. Like I said before, there is something about a shared experience that is quite unlike anything we can experience as individuals. That shared experience has personally been one of the driving forces in my own life and in the lives of many others.

It is a joy to spend time with many of you on a Sunday morning for an hour or so and share this communal musical experience, and I hope that you will continue to join in as we allow music to pull us further up and further in.

Check out what we've been singing together recently at Watershed and take a peek at what's coming up next on our Playlist page!

Introducing Austin

As you may have heard, Watershed is blessed to have a new worship leader. We are so excited to see our staff grow with the addition of Austin and to introduce him to our Watershed community. Austin Smith and his family, wife Emily and son Parker, will be joining our family this January.

Austin and Emily both grew up in Charlotte and are excited to be back in the area. They're also excited to delve into Watershed and can't wait to be part of our community. As you see them in the new year, welcome them! 

Here is what Austin has to say about their transition:

Let me begin by saying how humbled my wife and I are to be given the opportunity to be a part of the Watershed community. We are extremely grateful to the staff and leadership for welcoming our family to be a part of yours. We can’t wait to meet all of you personally and begin to get to know you on a relational level.

When I was two years old, my family moved to the Plaza Midwood area. We lived a few blocks from where Watershed gathers on Sundays. I learned to ride a bike not too far from Watershed’s offices. I quite literally grew up there. It is becoming increasingly hard to convey how excited we are to serve and love this community, and we are beyond thrilled to be serving and loving alongside Watershed.

See you soon!

- The Smiths (Austin, Emily and Parker)