Yesterday I had one of those ‘chance’ conversations that causes you to think. The dialogue covered a number of topics, but I thought I’d quickly share one small point that my friend made in the flow of our exchange.
My friend, her husband and children, have recently started attending a new church. Having been in a large-ish church environment previously, they now find themselves attending a small suburban community church. While reflecting on the decisions and the subsequent journey that bought about their change of locale my friend made the passing remark, “It is so refreshing to be in a worship space that is not driven by performance values!”
She was quick to follow her statement with a qualification that recognised her appreciation for ‘things done well,’ but insisted that her and her husband were being refreshed by the simplicity of their new-found church community and the manner in which the Sunday gathering was conducted.
What a wonderful reminder. Dan Kimball (2009) writes, “We want to honor God in all we do, but some worship gatherings do feel so much like a performance that it comes across as being inauthentic, even if the hearts of those leading it are authentic” (p. 312). I have the awesome privilege of working with churches of all sizes, I have personally worshipped in both small and large congregations, and I am quick to acknowledge that there is no ‘right way’ when constructing modern Christian worship. There are however worship forms that seem to present with higher levels of authenticity than others.
We all get to have an opinion on what seems ‘authentic.’ It’s relative…relative to you and where God has you along the journey of your spiritual walk. The helpful reminder that I gained from yesterday’s conversation was that performance values should always play second fiddle to the authenticity of the worshipper; both for those on stage and for those in the pews.
Kimball, D. (2009). Emerging worship. In J. M. Pinson (Ed.), Perspectives on christian worship: 5 views (pp. 288–333). Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers.
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.
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/
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…
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.