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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Gordon when he writes, “The effect of contemporaneity is this: anything not contemporary seems odd, quaint, antiquated, outdated, or foreign.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.

Make us a King!


Tabloid MediaTabloid media have succeeded again.

Their success is observed in the ability to stir up controversy; making commentary about niche groups in a manner that is designed to be inflammatory.

This week an Australian current affairs TV show aired a story targeted at one of Australia’s mega churches; Hillsong. This is not the first time Hillsong has received scrutiny from Australia’s tabloid media…and mark my words, it won’t be the last. It seems Hillsong is grouped in with the revolving stories of fuel prices, the duopoly of the Australian grocery market and the latest miracle skin creams (to name but a few!). Why does Hillsong register such interest? Simple. Any good story needs two sides to the debate; two sides that are eager to passionately defend their view of the stated argument. The ‘Hillsong Story’ ticks all the boxes.

Often in the wake of this kind of story we, the Christian collective, respond to the seemingly unfair representation of our brothers and sisters in Christ with aggressive remark. Understandably, we cry foul; objecting to the incorrect and loaded information that these stories contain. For example the recent ‘A Current Affair’ (ACA, Channel Nine) story in review noted that approximately 30 Billion dollars are consumed by ‘Not for Profit’ organisations each year. The claim is made that these dollars are not taxed, thus rendering the Australian public at large ‘robbed’ of revenue (an argument not dissimilar to the ‘mining tax’). What is not considered in these tabloid reports is what these same organisations ‘save’ the Australian tax payer each year. There are few in government (either side of the political divide) that would argue a case for raising the tax status of groups such as Salvation Army, Wesley Mission and World Vision. Why? The reality is that these organisations SAVE the Australian tax payer billions each year. It’s an easy sum game. The government simply wouldn’t reap the tax benefit equivalent to the social benefit provided by these groups. Yes, groups such as Hillsong are clustered under the same tax system rules; but it must be recognised that these church groups are conducting themselves legally. I don’t know many individuals that don’t take advantage of government handouts when they are on offer – even if they are not in dire need of financial assistance.

I hope at this point you have gathered that I am not eager to continue the rants of ‘hate the Hillsongers’. This being said, I cannot finish my reflection without asking us, the Christian collective, to actively and critically reflect on our position. Why is it that Hillsong seems to constantly receive denigration from mass media? Now before you answer that question with the all-too-easy, “the world hates Christians”, ask yourself why don’t the Salvation Army, Wesley Mission and World Vision meet with the same level of disapproval? Could it be that the public perception of each organisation’s ‘core business’ is what invites social trial. In today’s ‘trial by social media’ environment perception is often mistaken for ‘fact’ and ‘truth’. ACA did note Hillsong’s charitable arms; but commentary seemed to suggest that they (the journalist and production team) were not convinced by the ratio of revenue when compared with charitable spend. And here is where I would like to offer our opportunity for active reflection…

There came a point in the Israelite’s history when the people were no longer content with God’s representative being a judge; namely Samuel. The people wanted to be like other nations. They wanted a king. Samuel warned them,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:11–18)

But the Israelites did not listen. They insisted that God given them a king. So, “the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Obey their voice and make them a king.’” (1 Samuel 8:22). History goes on to record that the Israelites suffered greatly under the tyranny of their much desired kings (not all, but most); all in the name of ‘being like the other nations’.

I recall during the 1980’s and 90’s that a persuasive argument for relevance seeped into the church’s teaching. Like frogs in slowly heated water (first content and comfortable, but ultimately boiled to death) we gratified ourselves with increased numbers. People were responding to our change in music and overall presentation of the gospel story (we even thought that air-conditioned buildings were cool; excuse the pun). Good things in and of themselves; but had we unwittingly made ourselves a new king. Not one individual who could be held accountable for our slow social demise. No, this was far more insidious. Our king, our man-made king, was a machine. The machine might go by many different names. Whether you label it ‘relevance’, ‘seeker friendly’, or some other non-offensive descript, we had allowed the organism (known as the body of Christ) to become an organisation (a mechanism). Senior pastors became CEO’s and our target became numbers; and in some extreme examples, dollars. Our much desired king, now rules it over us like a tyrant.

I hear Samuel’s words as a clear warning to us. This modern king takes our young men and women; soliciting their youthful exuberance for the machine’s causes. It has been my observation that many (not all) young people are swept into the vortex of the machine’s sub-cultural acceptance; dedicating countless volunteer hours (not paid) to the machine’s forward movement. Secondly, this king calls for more than the tithe. Samuel’s prophetic warning to God’s people that the “best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards” (1 Samuel 8:14) would be required notes that the king would call for more than what was necessary (at that current time). This man-made machine is time-consuming and money-hungry.

Is our greatest war found on the battle-front of mass media? Do the constant snipes from tabloid media require a response? Perhaps. I would argue, however, that we should invest more time into considering how it is that we got into this predicament in the first place. Is this level of social scrutiny actually a result of our own doing? Is it actually our own misdirected need to be like the non-Christian community; relevant and non-offensive in every conceivable way? Is it because we have made ourselves a king; a king who rules over us like a disconnected dictator concerned only for his/her own well-being?

I’m certainly not suggesting we do away with modern church as we know it. I note that one of God’s greatest stories, a man declared to be ‘after God’s own heart’, was a king of Israel. King David, though far from perfect, served the people of Israel with a concern that went far beyond his own welfare. God can take an apparent mistake (in this case, demanding a king) and turn it into a strength. Currently, our chosen king (the machine) is far from perfect, but I do believe that with some keen prayer, self-reflection, and repentance, we can recognise the gross error of our ways; once again acknowledging the King of Kings as our sovereign ruler (not some machine). Collectively, we might also be able to redirect the machines purposes (not all bad) to align themselves more succinctly with the gospel directives to feed the poor, clothe the naked and house the homeless.

What are your thoughts on this matter…I’m keen to hear your views and reflections…

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