Category Archives: Orientation
Task and Context
A few posts ago (Thai Duck and the Impending Doom) I made a commitment to disseminate many of my research findings through my blog; highlighting the various unique facets of the Contemporary Worship Singer. I am still committed to that promise but alas I have not yet received my examiners results. It is therefore prudent that I exercise restraint and only present a brief introduction to my work at this time. I maintain my commitment to release the body of the work once the examiners have had their say and I have responded to their requested changes.
What’s so special about the Contemporary Worship Singer? Good question. At first glance it appears that the modern church singer is like many other vocalists who sing repertoire that is categorised as ‘contemporary’. Prior to the study I had contented myself with the misnomer that today’s church singers predominantly sing choruses. The modern church chorus stylistically vacillates between pop/rock to pop ballad and rarely strays to other genres. My research has revealed that the minority of churches (18%, n15/83) use only choruses. The majority of my research participants indicated that their church use a balanced amount of choruses and hymns. This is perhaps the most fundamental (but certainly not the only) challenge facing the Contemporary Worship Singer: the vocal task must address repertoire that is technically different. Hymns are best sung with a classical discipline, while the modern chorus is best served with a pedagogy that is contemporary. This poses the question: Can a singer learn to do both? Moreover, can the singer learn to switch between the different styles (classical and contemporary) all within the confines of one worship service? As many of my vocal students would tell you, it’s difficult enough to learn proficiency in one discipline without the heightened task of freely activating either/or. For the volunteer church singer who has little to no vocal training the modern church environment creates a difficult vocal task. I can hear many of you sighing, “Sure, that’s an interesting feature of the modern church singer…but it’s not enough to declare them unique!” I agree. I made the same observation at the conclusion of my Master’s Degree. The vocal task in and of itself does not separate the Contemporary Worship Singer from their vocal peers in the wider community of singers. So what does?
Reviewing the singing task of the Contemporary Worship Singer reveals what the singer does, but it stops short of identifying who they are. Herein lies the challenge facing my research. The context of the Contemporary Worship Singer has a multiplicity that other singers do not need to grapple with. At a superficial level it is helpful to separate the contexts into traditional and contemporary. The traditional church environments are typically conservative in their theological orientation. This conservatism is observed in the architecture of the worship space, the manner in which modern equipment (PA and Video projection) is used and the presentational modes of those presenting the worship service. The alternate mode of church presentation is as its namesake suggests: contemporary. The Contemporary Worship Singer who practices their craft in the contemporary environments are more exposed in their presentation with both PA and video projection used to enhance their audial and visual leadership. This heightened exposure can lead to a cultural dilemma: if the general purpose of worship is to corporately direct adoration to God, how then does the Contemporary Worship Singer ensure that they are striking the balance of necessary encouragement to the worship participants without drawing undue attention to themselves or their performance? This is a unique feature. No other singer in the wider community has to draw attention to their task without drawing attention to themselves. This has broader ramifications for such considerations as excellence and how the individual singer might develop their craft. Again, I need to stop short of unpacking this until I have been given the ‘all-clear’ by my examiners…but I think you can gain the general picture. What makes the Contemporary Worship Singer unique is both the task and the context combined.
I’m looking forward to delivering a more in-depth account of my work and its findings in the coming months. I can assure you no one wants the examiners comments more than I do, but wait we shall. Once I have a definitive indication of the work and it’s approved finality I will step us through the outcomes/findings of the research and disclose the conclusions including the ‘Contemporary Worship Singer Assessment Tool’ accompanied by the nineteen distinctive features which collectively form a detailed role description of the Contemporary Worship Singer. I can’t wait to reveal all.
If you’re reading this then chances are you are engaged in some form of Christian worship. Some of you are pastors, some are worship directors and many of you are Contemporary Worship Singers. Regardless of our role within the theatre of worship we are all united by a desire to bring praise and glory to our God. My recent research into the Contemporary Worship Singer and the subsequent survey of Christian Worship leaves me with no doubt that, despite the raging worship wars, there is a definite intent within the wider body of Christ to honour God regardless of the worship style.
This being said I note Bob Rognlien (2005) who writes, “we all have our quiet bias and subtle pride that not only devalues other traditions but also keeps us from experiencing the full power of holistic biblical worship” (p. 22). I think the key words in Rognlien’s above statement are quiet and subtle. Sure, we have open discussions about worship with our brothers and sisters who are engaged in worship styles that are different to our own. We do so with rehearsed understanding on our faces and appropriate conversational allowances such as “it’s wonderful that you can encounter God that way brother.” The tragedy of these interactions is there is no honesty or integrity – we are lying through our teeth (I generalise in order to make a point). If we are honest with ourselves we would find that we are convinced that our way to God, by virtue of our own understanding, is far superior to the other options available.
It would seem that our new found secular aligned postmodern niceties have caused us to become weak. We find ourselves shying away from any depth of relationship. Why? Because it’s too hard! Lest we be labelled arrogant or worst still – modernistic – we take a position that disengages from the conversation citing a desire for unity and peace. If iron sharpens iron, as the writer of Proverbs suggests (Proverbs 27:17) then how will we achieve a polished edge if there is no buffeting?
At this point you might be excused for accusing me of a contradiction. I started the article with the recognition of what joins us and now I am calling for active and heated discussion around that which divides us. Yes. It is not a matter of either or – we can have both. It is not that which we agree upon that unifies us. It is Christ Jesus that unifies us; through no intellectual power of our own – whether by agreement or none. To illustrate allow me to use a personal example. The Robinson household is an incredibly unified home – but it has distinct divisions. One example is our political persuasions. Jodie (my wonderful wife) and I disagree on which political party is best for running the country. Without revealing who supports who it is suffice to say that this disagreement is not something that I am embarrassed by. Moreover I celebrate our unified diversity. In our loving relationship we are able to have heated intelligent discussion which ultimately makes our love stronger; building understanding, respect and relational depth.
How much more do we need to engage in our discussions of worship with a humility that desires for God to be glorified albeit with a sense of allowable disagreement with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Every worship tradition can argue their case of superiority. It is only our sense of insecurity that causes us to respond to others strengths with a defensive stance. Perhaps a better way is to openly celebrate the strengths of another all-the-while sharing the strengths of our own practice.
To finish I would like to suggest a worship activity – yes, I am giving you homeworkJ. How long is it since you visited a worship style/tradition manifestly different to your own? I can sense some of you already squirming…come on – it’s time to place some practical meat on the theoretical bones. May I suggest during 2011 that you visit a church in your local area that is different to your own with the positive intent to join your brothers and sisters in Christ in worship. This is not a futile activity of spectator worship. You need to attend with the very intentional purpose of joining in. Yes – this will be a wonderfully uncomfortable experience, but I assure you the experience will be spiritually rewarding. You will experience the rich tapestry of the body of Christ and in doing so God will be glorified by your humility. I am certainly not expecting that you will suddenly be convinced that their way is better than your way – but herein lies the point of the exercise. You are purposefully celebrating the strengths of another in order to celebrate the fullness of our majestic God. In doing so you will offer a selfless offering of praise and I dare say it will be a pleasing fragrance of worship.
Rognlien, B. (2005). Experiential worship: Encountering God with heart, soul, mind & strength. Canada: NavPress.