Customs and Rituals

Are music and dance important in Christian religious ritual?

In general, sermons tend to be longer and organized around a doctrinal or moral theme. Homilies may be lengthy, but they are generally situated in the context of a larger liturgical service, whereas sermons as often as not are the main focus of a worship gathering. Sermons frequently take as their subject a line or somewhat longer passage from scripture. The homily form seeks to comment on and elucidate a pair or set of scriptural texts precisely as scripture and not so much as a springboard for an ethical discourse. The preacher typically chooses the sermon’s signature passage because of its theme, rather than because the text has come up in due course as part of a prearranged cycle of readings. Homilies are more often a way of helping the congregation appreciate how the selected readings fit together and comment on each other, and how they fit in the larger scheme of the liturgical cycle for the season at hand (such as Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter, Ordinary time).

Almost all Christian churches make music an important element in worship, and a few engage in various forms of prayer-related movement. In some non-liturgical churches, singing and dancing form the majority of congregational worship, even to the point of having music accompany the preaching. Individual hymns, some lasting ten to fifteen minutes or more, are the largest feature in those cases, punctuated by prayer and testimony from the assembled worshippers. In other words, songs and preaching make up most of the “order of service.” Liturgical traditions use the hymn form, but also sing set pieces of the liturgical ritual itself. For example, the “Holy, Holy, Holy” announces the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, and the “Lamb of God” is sung just before communion in the Western liturgical tradition.

Since the liturgical traditions strive for an atmosphere of greater solemnity, they tend to incorporate dancing less often, and then only of a rather restrained kind. In many nonliturgical churches the expression of feeling is a major component, so that one can expect to find much more animated movement in such settings. More staid and stately liturgical traditions have historically preferred the majestic sonorities of the pipe organ, occasionally joined by brass, woodwinds, or classical strings. In other traditions, piano is the primary instrument, and even small congregations may feature bands with electric guitar and other keyboards, bass, and full drum kit. In most Eastern Christian traditions, however, liturgical services are chanted without any musical accompaniment. Christian communities all over the world naturally make use of distinctive ethnic and local musical styles and instruments.


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