Category Archives: Worship Constructs

Dispensing with the cork…and the Champagne!


Truth be told… “I love a good red!” For that matter, I enjoy a quality white, but I’ve never really been into bubbles. That is, I’ve never really enjoyed Champagne. Until recently, my experience of sparkling whites always left me thinking I had been drinking sweet lolly water – yuck! That was until a good friend, Tyson Stelzer, introduced me to quality champagne. It seems that I had been drinking cheap (in price and taste) imitations; imitations that bore no resemblance to the ‘real deal’. I should reveal that Tyson is an internationally awarded wine critic who specialises in reviewing Champagne and regularly travels to Champagne (the French village) to source and review the best sparkling wines available. Simply, I needed an expert to change my view. I needed someone who knew exactly how to compliment the wine with the meal. Tyson’s expertise flushed my ignorance away with the first quality glass. Admittedly, I have not become a regular Champagne drinker (quality Champagne can hurt the back pocket somewhat), but I am no longer unfamiliar with excellent bubbles.

My developing palate for quality wine seems to also resonate with my interaction with modern worship repertoire. Now there’s a segue! Stay with me…it gets better…

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me to review an article by T. David Gordon, “The Problem with Praise Teams: We should hear congregational praise when it is sung”. Dr Gordon is an exceptionally learned man and is professor of religion at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. I note Dr Gordon’s credentials because in this short précises of his work I do not wish to be disrespectful to his stance; all the while being critical of his conclusions. Interestingly, when I received the email from my friend requesting my thoughts on the afore mentioned article I had only just (within a week) finished reading Dr Gordon’s (2010) book, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal”. Gordon makes many excellent points throughout his writings. For example, I wholeheartedly agree with his notion of Contemporaneity as a Value (Gordon, 2010, pp. 103–128). I agree with Gordon when he writes, “The effect of contemporaneity is this: anything not contemporary seems odd, quaint, antiquated, outdated, or foreign. Its effect is to regard the past with a kind of benign contempt–benign because we don’t seriously think that we could bring the values, traditions, or practices of the past into our moment” (p. 119). The level to which I resonate with Gordon’s stance does however have a limit. The limit is observed in how far I am willing to enforce these observations on my (our) current experience.

Gordon, it would seem from my reading, is prepared to expel any notion of contemporary presentation of congregational song in order to preserve what he calls, “the thing that is commanded” (Gordon, 2013, p. 1); that is, audibly discernible congregational praise. I agree that we should be able to hear our congregations sing. But I stop short of suggesting that the only way to achieve this end is to silence (remove) any accompaniment; whether modern praise band, organ or choir). To recommend such a position seems to be untenable. One should not dispense with the Champagne when ejecting the cork! Furthermore, I am left wondering whether Dr Gordon has ever tasted quality Champagne. Some of my most memorable worship moments were experienced with a full throttle rhythm section (drums, bass, guitar & keys) leading tumultuous congregational voice. The band didn’t dominate the moment; moreover they gave rise to a congregation that was eager to lift their voices in one accord to the glory of God.

Perhaps it is a generational thing. Many of my readers know that I am keen to allow for many grades of grey between the extremes of black and white. Perhaps this permits me (some would say, ‘in a postmodern way’) to accept that it doesn’t have to be a right/wrong positioning. Dr Gordon, and I say this with all due respect to my acknowledged senior, is approaching this as a ‘take no prisoners’ battle. I am unable to join him in this quest. I must allow for the myriad of expressions that God’s people engage in. Expressions that I believe God receives as a pleasing aroma. Is all our worship acceptable? Of course not. But any worship offered through Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest is presentable. God’s word does not place a stipulation on that which should or should not accompany the voice when it is lifted in praise.

In conclusion, I believe that Dr Gordon’s writings continue to fuel the fires of debate that rage around ‘contemporary worship versus traditional worship’. Debate is good. Debate is healthy, and I admire Gordon for the robust defence of his argument. Jeremy Begbie (2008) notes however, “One group will use music to assert itself over against another – there is ‘our’ music and ‘theirs’, choir music and worship-band music, and, of course, each group claims God’s approval of its preferences” (p. 45). The point to be made here is, while Gordon can support his stance from scripture, so can many others with opposing views; with equal scholarship. One of the reasons these debates exist is because of the distinct lack of unequivocal instruction on the rites of Christian worship. If one is ready to acknowledge this fact, one must then be prepared to allow for a multitude of worship expressions. Again, I believe Dr Gordon has many excellent points and I unreservedly draw the interested reader’s attention to his book, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns”, but I do so with the caveat that it should be read with an open mind (and heart) that is keen to dispense with the cork, but still drink the Champagne.

References:

Begbie, J. (2008). Resounding truth: Christian wisdom in the world of music. London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Gordon, T. D. (2010). Why Johnny can’t sing hymns: How pop culture rewrote the hymnal. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

Gordon, T. D. (2013). The problem with praise teams: We shoulld hear congregational praise when it is sung. The Aquila Report. Retrieved 20th June 2013 from http://theaquilareport.com/the-problem-with-praise-teams/

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The Musical Cart before the Liturgical Horse


Recently I made a statement to some friends while discussing liturgical design and worship service structure. The statement was simply,

“Music is a hard task master. If you let it rule, it will rule with an iron fist!”

As you might expect, in response to my reductionist proclamation I received quizzical looks that ranged from ‘Did he just say what I think he said?’ to ‘That’s ludicrous; music is and has always been a key element of Christian worship.’ 

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I thought I’d take the opportunity to clarify my statement.

Firstly, music has always been a key element in Christian worship. Throughout Christian history the people of God (the Christian Church) have gathered to hear God’s word and sing His praises. Bob Kauflin (2011) writes, “Singing allows us to seamlessly combine doctrine with devotion, intellect with emotion, and objective truth with our subjective response to it” (p. 30). Music (specifically singing) enables us to join together as one. When we join our voices together we simultaneously, and harmoniously (for the most part J) give distinction to God’s attributes (faithfulness, goodness, greatness etc.). Music’s general standing and continued use in Christian worship is assured; and in my opinion a continuing gift to the Church. But that does not change the fact that music can, when left unchecked, become an unruly dictator. Allow me to explain…

For much of the first 2000 years of the Christian Church’s history, the debate around music has often centred on its emotive nature. For me, this argument is settled (though I understand for many it is not). Music is a part of the wider creative arts. The creative arts move us; they move us to reflection, and to action. In this, music is no different. Music does have a significant impact on our emotions; it causes us to contemplate the present and at times to respond in a manner appropriate to our contemplation. Warren Wiersbe (2000) notes, “If true worship is the response of the whole person to God, then we do not neglect the emotions” (p. 23). Music and emotions are, and should be, powerfully linked in Christian worship. Does this mean that we should abandon ourselves to wherever our emotions lead us in worship? Absolutely not! Marva Dawn (1995) warns us that,

…subjectivism focuses only on the individual’s feelings and needs and not on God’s attributes or character. Some subjectivity, of course, is necessary; worship cannot be vital without feelings. The problem arises when emotions predominate in mindless subjectivism and God is lost in the process. (p. 50)

As with most things, balance is the key. So how can music be a ‘hard task master’? How does it, if permitted, ‘rule with an iron fist’? It happens quite easily. Music starts to direct and fashion the liturgical design the moment it is given a place of prominence in the genesis of said design. Simply, when you build your service structure around the style of music that should or should not be used, music will start to direct and fashion the service structure. The moment it does so the musical cart has been placed before the liturgical horse (so to speak). For example, if a church was to commence using contemporary songs with the agenda (stated or otherwise) of attracting (or retaining) young people, then that church has given the important decision making required for liturgical design over to music. The music is now in control. From hence forth the music will need to be consulted in order to maintain the attractional modelling of the service design.

Does this mean we shouldn’t use contemporary music? Of course not. The cart still needs the horse! John Jefferson Davis (2010) warns us against the swinging pendulum reminding us that, “…the greatest strengths of the evangelical tradition – preaching and evangelism – …unwittingly contributed to its greatest weakness: lack of depth in the theology and practice of worship” (p. 10). Ultimately we need both: Word and song. We must continue to strive for a balance in our liturgical design where music is used as a tool to enrich the worship experience of the worshipper; but also in a manner where it is not permitted to direct or primarily influence how the service should or should not be fashioned.

When I started writing this post this morning, I initially titled it “The Elephant in the Room” because I think there are a plethora of examples where music has become the elephant in the room. I believe many in the western Christian church have fallen prey to the lures of music and in doing so have handed over the reins of their liturgical design to a dictator that will not relent from its constant need for reinvention. It is a metaphorical treadmill that exhausts the runner even though they have gone nowhere. I will finish the post with a statement made to me when I was a young worship pastor; a statement that I have only recently (some 15years later) started to appreciate for its depth of wisdom: “If you focus on having excellent music in church – all you’ll have at the end of it all is excellent music in church!” (Anonymous).

As always, I am keen for your views on this topic regardless of whether you agree or disagree; remember iron sharpens iron! Let’s talk…

References

Davis, J. J. (2010). Worship and the reality of God: An evangelical theology of real presence. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching out without dumbing down: A theology for worship for this urgent time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Kauflin, B. (2011, November/December). Why we sing. Worship Leader, 20, 28–31.

Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

An Open Letter to Christians: about Guy Sebastian


This morning I started my day by reading through my Facebook wall and I stumbled across another ‘open letter’ to Guy Sebastian (http://bit.ly/WtO0Xd). This letter is the second of its kind that I have read in the past week; letters that have openly ‘called Guy to account’ for a recent interview (http://bit.ly/Th2LMv) where he described his current faith position. Before continuing I would like to openly state that I do not personally know Guy, nor am I a fan of Guy Sebastian’s artistry (though I have often stated I believe he is a very talented dude); and I have frequently spoken in opposition to the music industry’s infatuation with TV singing talent quests (e.g. http://bit.ly/VaVLfC). But this issue goes beyond Guy’s vocal talent or musical skill – this issue speaks to the topic of spiritual formation and our need to commentate on how another person runs the race of faith.

Specifically, Guy’s musical ability has hardly rated a mention in the social media back ‘n forth of the past few days. It is this very point that is of interest to me…Guy Sebastian is a vocal artist (regardless of his journey’s genesis); he is not a Christian leader, pastor or theologian! I can already hear you correcting me. But Daniel, Guy is a role model to thousands of young people. Yes, he is…and by current secular (and Christian) standards a rather good one. But Daniel, Guy has made categorical statements in the past advocating for the Christian faith. Yes, he has…statements I believe were made with a sincerity of heart and intention when he first made them. But Daniel, Guy should be held accountable for his current faith statements because they do not line up with orthodox/classic Christian views. Should he? I might be able to agree with you (emphasis on ‘might’) if Guy were a Christian leader, pastor or theologian; but he isn’t. He’s a muso; a successful, famous, talented MUSO! Does this excuse Guy from the responsibilities of a life lived publically? No, but it does call into question our expectation around how Guy should or should not articulate his faith journey…his own personal spiritual formation.

I would like to call us, the Christian community, to account. I am keen to do this with as much humility as my imperfect humanness can muster. I would like to suggest that it is us who is in the wrong; and not Guy. Our error is found in our quick judgement and our arrogant responses; responses that (if we are completely honest with ourselves) are driven by a need for power and ‘one-upmanship’. I am the first to admit that when I first read the interview where Guy stated his current faith position I uttered my opinion: “no surprise there…he was always going to let us down!” But there’s the rub. Guy didn’t let us down. It was our own idolatry that lifted Guy to a position of unrealistic and ungodly expectation. We expected Guy to be ‘super human’ and champion the Christian cause. We had literally made Guy an ‘Australian IDOL’. I guess the argument could be mounted that Guy never refused our support. But let me ask us the question, “Would we have refused the same support under the same circumstances?” I’m not bold enough to suggest I would have refused it.

This whole saga reminds me of Jesus bending down to write in the sand. I must admit, despite the bible not telling us what he scratched out in the dirt, if I had stood in the circle with stone in hand (and to my shame I have gathered for a good metaphorical stoning far too often), that my name would’ve been top of Jesus’ doodle list. You are right to think to yourself, “Daniel, your mention of this biblical story is taken out of context. The lady who was about to be stoned was caught in adultery.” That’s right – a moral crime for her day; a crime, according to Jewish law, that required death by stoning. My question to us as a Christian community is, what moral wrong has Guy committed, and why are we all standing around with rocks in our hands? Guy, like me, and like each of us, is on a spiritual journey. Currently, as it would appear, Guy does not view the world according to orthodox Christian views. It seems to me that Guy is questioning the faith construct that he was handed by virtue of his upbringing. How can this be viewed as anything other than maturity? If only more Christians actively reflected on their beliefs and questioned their worldview we might find that much of what we hold dear is not necessarily scriptural but actually cultural.

Now before you turn your attention on me and start casting those rocks my way, allow me to state that I am neither a Pluralist nor a Universalist; an accusation that I believe has been wrongly (and poorly) levelled at Guy. I personally hold that ‘Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life’. But my belief should not be used as a weapon of mass social media destruction in order to make me feel better about my own personal views. Faith is called faith; Faith is not called fact. It does not take faith to believe in gravity…as Fearless Felix Baumgartner recently reminded us (http://wapo.st/Vb8Eqb); but it does take faith to work through the unknowable…those things that cannot be categorised as ‘fact’. This is what, in my view, Guy is doing. Guy is contemplating the unknowable. Guy is exercising faith. How God responds to this, is up to God! One thing I’m most certain of is that God will respond to Guy’s questions with more grace than we have. Why? Because God answers questions. God answers faith…and, thankfully, he even responds to doubt.

In closing my ‘open letter’ I eagerly invite your comments and views. This being said, I ask you to write your responses (even those that agree with my post) with a sense of civility; ‘owning and grounding’ your comments with grace and humility. If you don’t feel you can respond with maturity then I humbly request that you abstain from contributing your thoughts.

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