A Dovetailed Life

The things that interest us weave us together to create who we are.

Tag: passion

Contemporary Worship Music: Unintentional Ecumenism

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

“Not that”: An Observation of ‘Contemporary Worship’

The more and more people that I speak with that are at least remotely involved with church life, the more questions come up about my opinion and experience with ‘contemporary worship.’   They like to pick my brain, ask my preference, and get a sense for how I feel like worship in the church ought to be.  Yes, they often have their own preconceived responses and notions regarding the style of music used within the Church.

The questions range. “What do you think young people are into?” “Don’t you think ‘traditional’ worship is a turn off for young people?” “Don’t you think contemporary worship is too hoaky these days?” “Is it possible to plant a church that only uses traditional worship?” “Does Chris Tomlin every write any good songs?” “Don’t you think hymns are just boring?” “What’s the purpose of the flashy lights? To try to be something we aren’t?” “Aren’t choirs outdated?”

Contemporary worship, though, is the newcomer in this game.  In many ways, it has to prove itself.  Somewhere around 50 years ago or so, the Beatles invaded America, forever changing pop music and rock and roll. This, along with the decline of mainline church membership in the United States sparked new ideas.  People left the mainline denominations to be ‘non-denominational’ in an effort to do church differently.  That was the goal: do church differently.  Maybe then, perhaps, people might think about coming back.  If we just aren’t ‘that,’ maybe they’ll be more likely to come back.

In a sense, then, Contemporary Worship (with a common low-key liturgy and more culturally-relevant music) became “Not That” worship.  See that stuff the Methodists are doing?  We aren’t that.  We’re cool.  We’re hip.  We’re reaching out to young people.  We are meeting you where you are.  You can wear jeans to our church.  That’s the way we are.

This type of church is the church that I was born into.  We still were a part of the big Baptist church downtown, but we were open to those who had never been to church before.  We didn’t have cryptic creeds.  We didn’t have strange liturgy.  We watched movie clips and played slide shows.  We had drama. Our pastor preached from behind a music stand rather than a pulpit.  I was born into a church that was trying to make church relevant to a society that it wasn’t relevant to.  What we did, in the early 90’s, was to be “not that.”  For peope too intimidated or scared to attend traditional worship, we were “not that.”  We called ourselves the “Seeker Service” so that those who were ‘seeking’ could find a place to feel at home.  Too intimidated by the choir robes and organ?  We aren’t that.

So, if this is true, and it was truly meeting a need, why aren’t all churches like that now?  Why are there young adults begging to go back to the traditional services? Why are large portions of people leaving NOT ONLY the mainline denominations, but also the nondenominational churches?  If being ‘not that’ was supposed to save the church, why are we drowning more than ever before?

I’ll tell you why.  We stopped.

It isn’t 1995 anymore. What was hip and cool then is not hip and cool now. What drew people in because it wasn’t ‘that’ then, pushes people away now.  ‘Contemporary’ has become a way of saying ‘not that’ and it has done so in a permanent sense.  This is why so many ‘contemporary’ services feel hoaky.  This is why many young people want to return to traditional worship.  This is why when you hear about contemporary worship, you ask yourself if it is emergent or ‘contemporary.’   Oddly, those leading the traditional services never went out of their way to reach the young people and different generations; it’s very much a “take it or leave it” situation.  Some choose, for many reasons, to take it. Many, sadly, are choosing to leave it.

‘Contemporary’ was great when it needed to be. But it is stuck now.  Sure, churches like Hillsong and movements like Passion are successful, but by and large ‘contemporary’ music in many (especially mainline) churches is simply stuck.

‘Contemporary’ has to move forward. ‘Contemporary’ has to continue to be what it’s high and lofty goal was (an environment that allows those on the outside access to the inside) instead of what its not-so-just goal was (‘not that’).  It has to be as innovative as it once saw itself being.  It has to live into its title.

In order for us to justify our worship style, no matter how it exists, we need to be able to articulate it in a way that explands the Kingdom.  Otherwise, it has little reason for being. This is true for traditional worship.  This is true for ‘contemporary’ worship.  Our worship should be creative.  Our worship should be innovative.  Our worship should remind of of who we are.  Our worship should define who we are.  Our worship should convey to those within it that the Church is thriving, moving, changing, and growing disciples. Our worship should be, of course, worship…reflecting the God who breathes life to the people.

We cant have ‘not that’ from either side.  We need quality, strong, theologically sound worship in both environments (and perhaps more to come).  That’s when it finally becomes quality worship and we can **finally** get out of the way.

-B

“Passion”ate Music in The Church

I’ve been enjoying my time off thus far. I’ve watched television, listened to music, and made Allie breakfast this morning. Good start to the break,

This morning I started watching some of the videos from my Digital All Access Pass that I bought from Passion 2011. In the middle of the second one, I started having some thoughts about what was actually occurring. I was watching a worship session, watching others worship to new music that they had just learned. It seemed strange, possibly for one of the first times, that I was watching others worship God. A little weird right? Many readers might take this opportunity to move to the next logical step. The step might be that this is entertainment instead of worship and it’s just wrong by principle(and hence why I am watching it and feeling strange) but hear me clearly: they are wrong, uninformed, and overly critical.

I immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was in a place where their feelings made sense. But something felt odd to me still, so I went to YouTube. You know what I found? A whole bunch of videos, posted online, of people worshipping in traditional settings. To traditional hymns. To an organ, sometimes a choir, and whole bunch of awful sounding tones. I mean, really, a lot of it was bad. Very bad.

So I thought, if the contemporary music model is so “wrong” because it allows itself very easily to be recorded and placed in a position where someone might watch it later for, perhaps, entertainment value, why in the world are these churches recording these hymns? There is almost nothing about it that is pleasing to the ear. The camera angles are such that you can rarely see anything of consequence. Why put this on YouTube?

As I struggled with this question, I considered different things: maybe they’re trying to advertise their church. Maybe they’re trying to pay homage to the old hymns. Maybe they just discovered that you can put things on YouTube and so they decided to try it. Any of these could be right.

But one significant difference stuck out: energy. The Passion videos had energy. I could feel it sitting here on the couch. The traditional videos didn’t.

When I lead others in worship, and I tend to do a lot of that, I can tell by the middle of the first song whether or not the energy of the room is anything that can be worked with. I very much believe that though the Spirit is always present, sometimes it manifests itself in ways that are easier seen than other times.

As I sit in Goodson Chapel for worship during the day at Duke, sometimes I feel it, and sometimes I don’t.

Over the past four years or so I have tried to experiment in ways that will make my methods of leading more effective. The ways I interact with the musicians, the way transitions are planned, the way the text of songs interacts with other parts of the service, all of this matters.

And I think that is where the contemporary music movement has hit a nail on the head. They discovered a way to be effective. Many of the songs are still used in appropriate times in worship. Many of the songs resemble good musicianship in the layout, form, and overall direction. And because they used a style of music that allows people to really move to and feel within themselves, they reached an inner part of the body and spirit that truly sings. Good music, no matter what the style, does this…but simplistic forms tend to resonate with our inner souls more.

There is a reason that slave songs sounded the way they did.

There is a reason that today’s African American Gospel music borrows many themes and styles from old slave songs.

My argument is that I see the contemporary music movement doing and borrowing the same things. That’s why, in the mostly-Caucasian world, it tends to invoke more energy in the room. When you hear a worship leader say, “I felt like they were really getting into it.” I think this is the principle they are referring to.

Like it or not, in 2011, the traditional services and traditional worship styles of old do not carry the energy. Some may say this can’t be true, and I might agree that this is a sad reality, but it is nonetheless a reality. At least I see it like this.

Keeping this in mind, my ultimate question is this: if the Spirit is always present and presumably the Spirit doesn’t care what style of music is played, why does it manifest itself inside of this type of music more? How much of that depends on the musicianship of those leading? Do others experience the Spirit in different ways? If yes(most likely), does that manifest itself in ways that speak loudly (and tangibly)?

How do we know?

-B

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