Music Is Just As Important As Lyrics
Because [music] helps to memorize the lyrics and make them your own, says Roberto Colón
This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish.
Roberto Colón is the pastor of Church of the Community of Highland Park, a congregation of 120 people that is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Although he has been a pastor since 1995, it has been only eight years since he took leadership of this group.
Colón, a leader who is interested in teaching people the love of Christ, is especially focused on his neighborhood, which has a large Latino population.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Roberto has lived in Southern California for over 20 years. He obtained his Bachelors of Arts and his Masters in Communication from the University of Puerto Rico. He also completed his Masters of Divinity and Theology in the Doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
We met together at the building that houses the Church of the Community, which brought forth some interesting questions:
- For Colón, both the lyrics and the music of a song are important. The lyrics carry the content of the message. But, regarding the music, Colón argues, “There are melodies that are catchy and help people memorize the lyrics and make them their own.” What do you think about this?
- Roberto Colón states that by worshiping we are able to substitute our worrisome thoughts with thoughts about God. How can those thoughts about God always remain in our minds?
- Colón stated that working with musicians is a problem, especially because they are artists and very emotional. Should churches rely on talented individuals with that attitude, or should they find people who are more willing but don’t have the appropriate talents?
Here is the interview:
Is worship important to you?
Definitely; we are always looking for ways to worship that are more relevant so that people can identify with what we do.
What are important elements in worship?
The most important thing for us is spirituality; in other words, we do not want to choose a song simply because it is a song. We want to see the level of spirituality of the people leading the ministry of worship. We want to know if their music is centered on God.
Are you more interested in the lyrics or the music?
Both, since I think there are melodies that are catchy and help you memorize the lyrics and make them your own.
What kinds of lyrics draw your attention?
Mainly I focus on lyrics that worship the person of our Lord Jesus, recognizing that he is the head of the church and the one whom we should worship. It is important for us to worship him.
How do you think Latinos picture God during worship?
We try to make everything a spiritual experience; therefore, God comes and visits, with embraces that envelop your being. I don’t know how others may describe it.
Do you teach that God comes down when one worships or that we simply realize that he was there all along?
It is both. We understand that God is always present and that he dwells in Christians, but it is also God who presents himself in a special way when he is worshiped. It is an experience. He comes and is manifested when he is worshiped, when one is looking for him in Spirit and truth, and is longing for his presence.
Do Latinos picture a God that is ‘up there’ feeling satisfied as he is worshiped?
He is not necessarily in that position. We talk about a God who is personal, who penetrates our situations and circumstances, and who is a part of our daily lives. It is a God who is worthy of all praise and reverence. We say it and emphasize it. We teach this in different ways during worship, our sermons, and in our teaching to provide a complete idea.
I have heard from other congregations that when people come to worship, is it to receive. Is that what you teach here?
No, we come to worship God and we receive something as a result of giving. The basic idea is to come with a heart that is willing to give to God.
Others say that they come to worship in order to feel. Is that correct?
I think that you can tell when the presence of God is real. I believe that when the divine touches that which is human, it is felt in one way or another. In my personal experience, I disconnect from everything around me and enter a direct worship with God.
Can worship become an addictive experience?
I wish it was (laughs). I truly think that we should be worshiping God and feeling his presence at all times, because that is when we can honestly forget our worries and anguishes.
How do you teach that the time of worship can be extended to other moments?
Just this Friday we will hold a vigil; its focus is to teach worship. We have several interventions with our director of worship, our youth, and the associate pastor. We are basically trying to re-teach the worship of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the contemporary. That is what this vigil is about. We take advantage of these moments to educate our congregation.
Is worship seen as training for the formation of leaders?
In part, it is. We understand that a leader must be someone that feeds his or her spirituality. We do not want leaders who are like bosses in a corporation. We want them to be sensitive; being in the presence of God and experiencing his gentleness, compassion, grace, and mercy can develop this. Our model for leadership is one that accompanies, educates, and gives advice in friendship. It is not a leadership that imposes itself on people, but rather one that surrounds you and motivates you.
Why do you think that Latinos are more inclined to physical expressions of worship in comparison to whites?
I think it has to do with cultural nature. We are made of another material. We respond to a series of things that Anglos do not respond to. We are more emotional and less intellectual; we understand that there is a place for both, and we try to maintain a balance. We think that the Anglos are very intellectual and prefer a lyric and rhythm that is slower than ours. We are a happier people, more passionate, and more emotional.
Does it have to do with the distancing from home that we experience when we live here?
That is very probable. One finds a true home in the house of God. I believe that our nature, even in our native countries, is happier, more emotional, and more expressive than that of the Anglo culture.
You mentioned emotions. Do they play an important role in worship?
I think that humans should pay attention to all of their senses when they worship God. Your entire being must worship: spirit, soul, and body. I believe that your entire body should engage in worship. It is not a mental thing, not something emotional, nor is it solely a physical thing; it is a combination of all of these.
So, emotions do in fact play a major role, right?
Yes, I worship God with my intellect because I know who he is, but at the same time, doing this for the God that I love invokes emotions in me.
When we worship, should we empty our minds of problems, anguishes, and necessities?
We should substitute those thoughts with thoughts regarding God. One thing takes the place of the other. It is like a glass full of water; if one begins to throw stones in it, the water begins to overflow. All of that water represents our worries, and the rocks are God. As you add rocks, the glass will let go of what is not solid.
In the majority of our churches, we refer to God as masculine, and a father that scolds you and punishes you, somehow depicting a macho man. Do you do this?
No, we present a loving God, and a God who doesn’t mind being referred to as a mother or a father. We are careful with our language when we refer to humans and God. We do not believe in a judicial God, but actually preach against that image of God.
Do you think that Latin American sexist culture contributes to men not being expressive during times of worship?
Yes, I think so. We cannot deny the fact that our sexism has an impact, but we teach our male pastors and leaders that they can maintain manhood while getting emotional, lifting their hands and dancing. We try to avoid that stereotype of God.
What are your thoughts on people that are touched during worship but show no changes in their lives?
Our worship is directed toward character building and forming a Christian into a worshiper, whether male or female. We teach, encourage, and motivate people to wrap themselves in worship.
What is wrong if you are not generating change in people?
I think it does generate change. We see it when our brothers pray. The sensibility with which they do it makes it clear that change is occurring.
What do you think are the fruits of a genuine worshiper?
The genuine worshiper enters communication with God and it is the worshiper who is transformed. As that person worships and opens up, God transforms their heart. They are never the same again, because when one worships there must be a change, and there is.
Do you include arts in your worship?
Not so often, but we sometimes do include dance and drama.
Do you have limitations on the rhythms that are used during your time of worship?
No, none. We play anything from hymns to bachatas.
Music has evolved in the last 30 years. Do you think that Latino people have readily accepted these changes?
The Latino that comes from the south, having converted in a church that is a part of a historical denomination where only hymns are sung has a harder time entering into genuine worship than a new believer. That is because they have not had any experiences and everything is new. But, as an example, those who came already as Presbyterians from Cuba or Guatemala are much more rigid.
The lyrics of songs have also evolved. We used to sing of a distant God that lives in the heavens, but now we say, “I see you and see myself.” Why do you think this change has occurred?
I think it has changed out of necessity, because one cannot identify oneself with a distant God. It makes it difficult for people to enter worship, but if there are lyrics that talk about daily life and what God does for me, that is simpler language with which I can easily identify.
Then, this change has allowed for greater access to the Lord…
Absolutely; I am a firm believer of this.
Have you had bad experiences with worshipers?
We have had bad experiences with the emotions of some worshipers that have come to visit our church. We understand that a worshiper is an artist and can be sensitive to some things; however, it has been hard for us to see brothers that arrive with much enthusiasm, get angry about some nonsense, and leave. That has been our bad experience. One of our last experiences involved a young man who came from one of our countries and led worship. Then a young girl who grew up in our church and had recently developed a very modern style, which involved interesting clothing and make-up, wanted to join the musical group that was being led by this man. He gave her a list of appearance requisites in order to join. The girl was so upset that she left the church. We confronted this young man, and told him it was wrong of him to impose that on her. He ended up leaving because he believed that he was in the right. The girl left because she was not accepted, and the man left because we didn’t accept his rules.
Why do worshipers have so many problems with their egos?
I think it is because they are artists and artists are very emotional. That is the conclusion that I have come to after dealing with so many people over so many years. Musicians are always the number one problem.
Is it that they somehow feel famous even within the church?
I think so. Right now we are having problems with a young woman that sings. She sings some songs, and we give another woman the opportunity to sing the rest of the songs. On Sunday, she got mad that the other woman got to sing more songs than she did.
Did she throw a tantrum?
She did and we have to call her and try to calm her down. But notice how easy it is to get a big head because people would tell her that she sang lovely; now she thinks that worship cannot happen without her.
Could it be that we were not designed to live in fame?
The top sins are pride and arrogance.
Do you think worship is a powerful evangelistic tool?
Yes, I think when a person exposes himself or herself to a real, genuine, and authentic worship, they are motivated to continue worshiping. I think that the lyrics of songs can give a message that touches the hearts of people.
Do you teach your congregation techniques for experiencing God’s presence outside of the church?
We put a lot of emphasis on spiritual practices. We always print daily scriptures in our bulletins. We have also taught quite a bit on how to spend alone time with the Lord. We teach different spiritual practices. We do not limit ourselves, but rather try to go beyond and teach something else.