Contemporary Worship Music: Unintentional Ecumenism

by dovetailedlife

ec·u·men·i·cal

adjective

1. general; universal.
2. pertaining to the whole Christian church.
3. promoting or fostering Christian unity throughout the world.
4. of or pertaining to a movement (ecumenical movement), especially among Protestant groups since the 1800s, aimedat achieving universal Christian unity and church unionthrough international interdenominational organizations thatcooperate on matters of mutual concern.
5. interreligious or interdenominational: an ecumenicalmarriage.

In the United Methodist Church, we have a hymnal.  Every 20 years or so another one pops up, with great new hymns,  great old hymns, and…unfortunately…some of the same old, really bad hymns.  The church is trying to be ‘progressive’ (whatever that means), so we have seen little books like ‘The Faith We Sing’ and ‘Worship and Song’ pop up as well.  These are the technologically limited offerings aimed at keeping up with the rapid rate of song creation in the Church these days.  ‘Worship and Song,’ printed last year, has only now included “How Great is Our God” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart” (Open the Eyes of My Heart was written in 1997, How Great is Our God in 2004).

When I purchased my copy of ‘Worship and Song’ at Cokesbury, the sales associate told me that this was the “first expandable hymnal!”  I asked her how the binding to the book played a role in its expandability and she gave me the scrunched-nose face. Technologically, these books have been limited.

Interestingly enough, in some Christian circles, this technological barrier has played a huge role in keeping the churches singing the same songs they’ve been singing for ages. In others, they have ignored the technological implications completely.  Many Christians are growing up in church environments (that alone is something to celebrate) and do not realize that Christians used to sing songs out of books that they held in their hands instead of on screens (I’ll let you decide whether or not that is something to celebrate).

Long story short: music in the Church is rapidly changing.  Some people are changing it, some are avoiding it.  Others, like the United Methodist Church in large part, avoided it for 20 years or so and are just now trying to catch up. The last category of churches feel a little like RIM and Nokia do now when it comes to smart phones:  late to the game inevitably will hurt, no matter your customer loyalty.

Not long ago I presented a hymnal to a student of mine on which her name was imprinted.  I said to her, “These are the songs of our tradition.” Ever since that moment, I’ve been thinking about what I meant by that statement.  Did I mean that these are the ONLY songs of our tradition?  Did I mean that these are the songs our of tradition and OUR TRADITION alone?  What is it that I meant?  Does that make the songs outside of our hymnal NOT part of our tradition?

In seminary we talk a lot about the music we sing being formative for the Christian journey.  We sing songs pertinent to the liturgical context we are in, usually having something to do with the morning’s message.  We pride ourselves: the hymns we sing aren’t, and shouldn’t be, fluff.

In fact, the United Methodist Church has something going for it here.  Charles Wesley, brother to John Wesley and co-founder of the Methodist movement in England, wrote hundreds of poems.  As the search for a ‘Wesleyan’ identity is set before us in the UMC, a return to Charles’s lyrics are usually appreciated.  Whenever I bring the topic up in UMC circles, eyes light up.  “Yes! That’s the way it should be!” they seem to say.  Methodism was blessed from its beginnings with theologically based hymns and Methodists far and wide don’t want to lose that.

This isn’t the whole story though.  We sing songs every Sunday in Methodist Churches that were written by non-Methodist writers. Heck, we sing songs in church on Sundays that were written by the Gaithers.  We sing songs written by Calvinist predestinarians.  We sing all kinds of music in the UMC, no matter how much we pride ourselves in being ‘Wesleyan.’

I was thinking about all of this, trying to put these pieces together in my head, so that I could sort out the proper course of action. Then I had this thought: We’re not seeing this hangup with many who are writing music for the masses today.

No, in fact, these hangups of being strictly ‘Wesleyan’ don’t matter to many.  The people who are constantly writing new, exciting, progressive, worship music are largely from non-denominational churches. These churches usually have some sort of vague mission statement and clearly defining themselves is not something they do!  The popular people writing music these days for the ‘contemporary worship’ setting are largely tied to movements.  Is Hillsong a movement or a church?  Yes.  Is Passion a movement or a church?  Yes.  What do these movements do? A little bit of everything.  Many of these groups don’t even use the word “church.” Being sticklers for quality, theologically sound music is simply not a priority.  They want music that is exciting and engaging, and the lyrical composition can be what it is.

The question then becomes: is the work coming out of these ‘movements’ unifying the church at all?  In other words, if those producing material are not hung up on staying true to their founders, are they free to write music that spans across denominational barriers? Are these songs acting, whether intended for it or not, as a form of ecumenism?

These songs, those written within the past 20 years for ‘contemporary’ worship environments are criticized all the time for being too “simplistic” or “shallow” in their theology. But it occurs to me that this  very criticism might actually be what makes these songs work across the barriers.  Charles Wesley wrote songs that were deeply explicit in their lyrics, calling out church heretics, heretical leanings, and teachings that were against his views of Christianity.  He even, from time to time, called out people by name.

We simply aren’t seeing this in today’s music.  We’re singing statements about loving Jesus, about Jesus rising from the dead, and Jesus saving us.  While they might still be criticized for aligning themselves with Jesus and little else of the Trinity, these are overarching statements that don’t necessarily apply to any specific denomination or tradition.

It seems to me that it is BECAUSE of the more universal nature of the lyrics within recent songwriting that these songs are becoming forms of ecumenism.  These songs are popular, easy to sing (choruses and refrains repeat constantly) and when played well, tug at the emotions of those singing them.  In a sense, these songs are unifying the church.  These songs are played in Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches, Catholic churches, Lutheran churches, and most prominently in non-denominational churches far and wide.

So, are they unifying? Yeah, I guess, in a way they are.  These songs are being sung all over, much like hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy” “It Is Well” and “Come Thou Fount” were before.  Generalized lyrics and easy to sing melodies.  They surpass and tear down walls of division that have been placed there by theological and political arguments for 2000 years. To me, it’s an interesting phenomenon.

See, the technological barriers of printing books has kept many denominations and generations infused with the idea that if it’s not in our hymnal, it’s no good.  This has allowed for boards and agencies to curate the contents of our singing, too.  But, these groups that work past those technological barriers (we don’t print books anymore), are able to stretch beyond that. And, because of that freedom, they’ve explored new realms of communal singing.

The interesting question is, what if true, studied theologians had done this rather than the guy down the street who played guitar?  Would that have changed the outcome?  Could we have had a more universal set of songs that were ALSO theologically grounded?  I don’t think so.  I think the “shallowness” of much of what we see set to worship music today should get credit for helping me attend a non-denominational service and know the music.

Contemporary worship style gets a lot of crap for the way in which it exists. All I’m saying is that its music (one of the biggest reasons it has been successful) deserves a look. A critique, too, perhaps.  But, definitely, a look.

Just some random thoughts.

-B

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