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Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Rant about Worship Music and Choosing a Church

Here are some thoughts on worship music and being part of a church. I’m going to start by giving you my worship music résumé—not so I can boast, but because I think you need to know some of my background to understand where I’m going with this.

I began playing the piano to accompany worship in youth settings in 9th grade. By the end of high school I was frequently leading worship from the piano. The music I was leading was almost exclusively contemporary worship songs, which I genuinely enjoyed. Meanwhile, however, my favorite worship music was classic hymns, particularly Reformation and post-Reformation German chorales and 18th-century English hymnody (such as settings of the lyrics of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley).

Although I was going to major in college in music composition, I quickly changed my major to biblical literature, but I still minored in church music. I continued to have occasional worship-leading opportunities in traditional, contemporary, and blended situations. As a freshman I was tapped by the director of the college’s Chorale to write the program notes for our traditional worship-oriented concert tour. As a junior I planned, oversaw, and led a Maundy Thursday service of songs (of various styles), prayers, and Scriptural readings. As a senior I led the student body in hymn singing in chapel not quite once a week and sang and played in the contemporary worship band in chapel about as often.

I also played in the jazz band, which was valuable preparation for joining the choir and worship team (on keys) of the multiracial church that I joined in seminary. All worship songs in that church, including hymns and white contemporary music, were recast in the urban gospel idiom that I had to pick up in addition to learning a new corpus of songs. I succeeded, but I never played like a native; you could always hear typically white motifs in my hybrid style of playing, sort of like speaking another language with an accent.

In both the churches I have served as pastor I have introduced contemporary songs and style into a traditional worship setting. In some cases, particularly in my first church, I did it by playing and teaching the music myself.

This variegated experience has given me a range of skills. I can play the piano by reading sheet music, by improvising off the harmonization of a hymn in a hymnal, by reading a lead sheet or chord chart of a contemporary song, or by listening to a song and generating an accompaniment off the top of my head. I can sing a song I’ve never heard before—written-out soprano, alto, tenor, or bass—by sight, and I can also improvise a harmony by hearing the melody. I can write out a chord chart, sometimes with different options for the chord progression, by hearing a song, and I could even arrange one by writing it all out (for keys at least), though it’s tedious and I don’t care for doing it. I’ve even written a few worship songs myself. I can play or sing in a band and lead a congregation in singing while doing so. In sum, there are many church musicians in the world that are more talented and more skilled in their craft than I am, but there are fewer who have as broad a skill set as I have.

I go on so long about my worship music qualifications to demonstrate that I have more reason to be a worship music snob and critic than almost anyone I have ever met and almost anyone you have ever met.

And I make that assertion to set up another: when I hear about a person who chooses to attend (or cease to attend) a church because of the worship music, I get one step closer to going ballistic, and I don’t think I have many more steps left.

There are a few reasons for this.

One is, to my knowledge—and please show it to me if I’m not seeing it—there is not a shred of biblical support for selecting who you are going to gather to worship God with based on whether you like the music they sing. I can’t think of a single verse that even hints that that might be a godly idea. Again, if you know of one, please let me know. (I admit, this sounds harsh—I promise to nuance it slightly by the end of this post. But I basically mean what I say here.) Actually, closely related to this is my belief that it’s hard to find much biblical support for making an individual choice about what Christians you’re going to gather with for any reason. But that’s probably getting off onto a different topic.

Another reason I might go crazy is that if anybody has a beef with the level of excellence of worship music in a church that I’m a part of, it probably bothers me more. And if God put me there, I’m not leaving because of it, so you shouldn’t either.

While I’m on the subject, the week-to-week quality of music in the multiracial church from my seminary years was, at least for the first couple years, the highest quality of music in any church I’ve spent a significant amount of time in. Some of the musicians in that church were good. I was just trying to keep up a lot of the time, but the minister of music was good, as in recording-on-keyboard-for-major-gospel-artists’-albums good. But I’ve got to tell you, there were a lot of times that I got really frustrated with music in that church.

Even though I loved the new songs and idiom I was picking up, I missed the music I knew from previous places in my life. I really missed it. I remember a few days before Easter one year I was making small-talk with the minister of music (my best friend in the church). I said, “So, getting ready for Easter, huh? Your basic ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today’?” His eyes got wide and he took a step back, and we both knew that I had just uncovered an awkward racial misunderstanding/faux pas for us both, as it had never crossed his mind to do that hymn, much less that whites in the congregation might be taking it for granted that we would sing it, and as I was making a cultural assumption that could suggest an entitlement attitude to blacks in the congregation. So on Easter the music minister perfunctorily led us from the Hammond B3 organ in “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” as I played along on keyboard, sort of embarrassed and still unsatisfied by the whole thing.

And yet, I learned just to accept things like that. I was convinced that God wanted me in that church, that therefore I would worship him no matter what the music was. I also decided that the worship music that I loved that would never be done in my church I would sing to him when I was alone. That was simply all there was to it.

Related to worshiping no matter what the music is, I have another story from a completely different setting. I was at an ecumenical worship service at the cathedral near where I minister now, and it naturally was liturgically “high”—a blend of Roman Catholic and Mainline/Magisterial Protestant liturgy, which to the untrained, low-church Evangelical all seems the same, though I’m quite sure that the Catholics and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians there were all keenly aware of what in the service differed from their own traditional worship. Anyway, the speaker was the main ecumenical guy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who used to be a parish priest in Alaska in an overwhelmingly Protestant (especially Evangelical) community. As he was recounting what he learned about ecumenism in that setting he made a comment I’ll never forget: “I learned that to Evangelicals, ‘worship’ means ‘music.’ ”

I don’t think he meant it as an insult, but I find his assessment not only completely true but completely damning. Of course “worship” means “music” to us! How many times have I heard (well, in one sense, probably not enough), “The worship was really great today,” and of course the person is referring to the time we spent singing. But where in the Bible do we see worship reduced to singing? Of course music is regularly portrayed as a component of worship in the Bible, but never in isolation. In the Old Testament the biggest component of worship is sacrifice (which to the Catholic mind is still the case, preserved in the Eucharist), but we also see prayers and the reading and teaching of Scripture, and in the New Testament we also see prophecy and healings as components of worship (and the Lord’s Supper too), and over it all we have that great commandment to offer our very bodies as living sacrifices that by living our lives we might worship God (Rom. 12:1). But to a huge proportion of Evangelical Christians, if they don’t connect emotionally with the music that day, they conclude that “worship” was no good. How pathetic.

What are you bringing to worship? In the Old Testament no one came to worship God empty-handed. It was a contradiction in terms. In the small-group worship settings of New Testament churches “each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26). So what are you bringing to your worship event? Are you bringing yourself? Your mind? Your emotions? Your money? Your children? Your service in the nursery or handing out bulletins? What do you contribute to worship when you gather with the saints? Are you giving it your best effort? Are you prepared? Or are you expecting someone not merely to conduct you but to drag you mindlessly into something blissful like a TV show did the night before? If the worship leader invites you to pray the words of a biblical psalm, are you going to grunt it thoughtlessly (if at all) or are you going to pray it with your whole voice and your whole heart like David did when he was trying to avoid getting his head chopped off?

Before I conclude let me swing back to the comment about biblical support for choosing a church based on how much you like its music (i.e., that there isn’t any). One essential quality of a church is that the “whole counsel of God” is taught there. Of course, no church pulls this off completely, but you should at least expect an effort. One thing that really bothers me about worship music that’s stuck in one particular idiom as it is in the great majority of churches of all types is that it tends to get stuck in a narrow doctrinal and/or devotional rut too.

Each era/culture/idiom of music expresses particular things to God and about God well. From the Reformation German chorales I learned the nature of God and his world. From the 18th-century British hymns I learned the immensity of both sin and redemption. 19th-century American hymns by Lowell Mason, Fanny Crosby, and others taught me to love and devote myself to Jesus. Turn-of-the-century “gospel songs” by Ira Sankey and the like taught me that Jesus makes life better and it’s okay to be happy about it. I really disliked the Gaithers’ songs when I was a kid, but now that I’m older they speak to me, saying that through all the ups and downs of life Jesus is supremely to be desired. The white worship songs of the past thirty years taught me to express all my emotions to God directly and one-on-one. The black songs taught me that I don’t need a reason to praise God other than that he’s God, even when I have nothing else.

If I didn’t have any one of these styles in me, my worship of God would be poorer and thinner as a result. And that’s why I just don’t understand and will never understand the vast majority of Christians who hold their narrow worship-music preference more tightly than an article of faith, and I don’t understand churches that do it either. I don’t know how a church can truly teach the whole counsel of God and meanwhile worship him with a set of songs that all say basically the same thing.

Meanwhile, if you come to my church and then leave because you didn’t like the music, I will try hard and probably successfully to smile and be pleasant about it and wait to pop my cork at home when you’re not around. And if my church becomes the kind of church that people flock to because the music is so good . . . man, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I won’t be happy about it. Because if I was starting a church from scratch in this day and age, and if somehow all the verses about making music to the Lord disappeared from the Bible, we might not sing a darned thing.

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