About those Facebook posts making the rounds lamenting that congregations aren’t singing anymore

Recently, I came across an unfortunate article—and despite my disappointment at its message—I kept quiet.  In all honesty, the truth is, I get a bounty of emails from church members and friends like this one that carry the same message:  “John have you seen this?  Is this happening in our churches?  What are you going to do about it?!  Aren’t you interested in quality church music?  How can you stand by while Starbucks mount kiosks in our vestibules and the barbaric sounds of contemporary music take over our sanctuaries?”

The obvious answer is:  Compared to what?

However, such a question is often not readily answered.  So, further discussion is often necessary.

The article I reference is no different from the others–all unified by a singular characteristic:  They are poor arguments, and usually even more poorly written.  When it comes to the debate over music in the Church, I respect well written, thoughtful criticisms; like this one from the great Chuck Colson.  If you want to see an erudite argument against what passes today as “worship music,” see what Colson has to say:   http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/april/15.116.html

Whatever you do, I beg you: Do not form your view based on personal feelings, how things “used to be,” or articles on patheos.com.

If you want to read a real critique, look at Colson.  What you will notice is that the Colson article and the ones making the rounds on Facebook are superficially similar but fundamentally different.  While it seems at first glance that Colson’s main gripe is the new music itself, his real point of tension is that Christianity is being dumbed down today; or in other words, young people and Millenials are expected by many in church leadership roles to only be capable of responding to popular level entertainment–and in a larger sense–popular level Biblical study.

As a result, serious preaching and teaching are being removed from radio and replaced with the Christian equivalent to U2.  In some churches, dynamic expositional preaching has been replaced with self help narratives.  In others, a focus on doctrine and theology have been replaced with a focus on “feelings.”  As a worship pastor, I emphatically agree with Colson.  I even agree with this comment:

When church music directors lead congregations in singing contemporary Christian music, I often listen stoically with teeth clenched. But one Sunday morning, I cracked. We’d been led through endless repetitions of a meaningless ditty called “Draw Me Close to You,” which has zero theological content and could just as easily be sung in any nightclub. When I thought it was finally and mercifully over, the music leader beamed. “Let’s sing that again, shall we?” he asked. “No!” I shouted, loudly enough to send heads all around me spinning while my wife, Patty, cringed.

I agree with him one hundred percent here.  I must admit, I have programmed this song before (as mere mortals, we all make mistakes), and while singing it, even my teeth were clinched.  It is a half way decent musical tune—but that’s about it.  If we based what was appropriate to be sung in worship on tune alone, I’d assume we used more Gershwin or Verdi–and less of Tomlin and McKinney.

Now, that being said, let me admit my assumptions and presuppositions before I make any further comment.  I am 36, and I grew up in the church–the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church and the traditional Southern Baptist Church, for that matter.  My mother played the piano and my dad was a part time “song leader” for much of my formative years.  I was exposed to traditional Baptist hymnody, praise choruses (in my later teen years), southern gospel music, and choral literature from a young age.  I have a bachelor degree in church music from a Baptist institution and a master’s degree in vocal performance from a major university.  I am currently finishing my doctorate in vocal performance and pedagogy.

When it comes to singing, I am comfortable with and have a passion for classical music (opera, oratorio, and art song), traditional Evangelical hymnody, newly written “praise music,” and even, drum roll—my personal favorite:  southern gospel music.

Until about 10 years ago, I would have probably written an article like the one in question: criticizing the church writ large for its “slouching toward Gomorrah” via praise teams, drums, and electric guitars.  I regularly joined in the after church conversations at Sunday lunch saying things like “that music minister has lost his mind—I can’t stand signing those stupid praise songs,” or “how dare he put a praise team in front of the choir.  We are the real singers.  I am more faithful than them,” or “Why does that girl always have her hands up in the worship service?  I can’t stand it. Does she want to ask a question or something?”

Notice something if you will: Each of those criticisms contain an appeal to authority.  Who is that authority?  Quite simply: the word “I.”  The entire argument, frame of reference, and objective system for adjudicating what is good or bad, stems from “I.”

This is a problem.

Now—in the article which prompted this blog, the basic premise didn’t deal with whether or not the use of “new” music or “new” methodology in the church is right or wrong.  The article specifically addressed how comfortable the author felt as a congregational singer in this “new” atmosphere in “his” church.  He effectively perpetuates the “I” motif here–and it quickly becomes tiresome.

My wife and I actually talked about this the other day:  My daughter, Ava, is six.  She has a beautiful singing voice.  I want her to sing—and sing well.  I look forward to singing duets with her when she gets older.  I admitted to my wife that it was sad to me that she, at age 6, does not have the same repertoire of hymnody that I had at her age.  By 6, I could hum the melody of every hymn in the Baptist Hymnal by heart, read music reasonably well (at least whether the melodic line goes up or down), and because I sat by my mother in church, I could distinguish between the melody, alto, and tenor parts equally well.  My daughter?  Not even close.

She sings Disney songs (and—I must admit—so do I).  She knows the things they sing in Children’s Choir, and she knows the Christian music we play in the car (Gaithers, etc) but she doesn’t have the vast repertory of hymnody at 6 that I did at 4.  This bummed me out.  As I sat there and thought about it, something dawned on me:

So what?  Perhaps there are things she knows at 6 that I didn’t at 4.  What significance does that have?

If I ask my daughter today, “Does God have a body?”  She will say, “Uhh, Daddy…no.”  So, I will press her and say “Why not?  Isn’t he a person?  How can he not have a body?” To this, she will reply, “God is spirit.  He is everywhere.”  If I ask her who Jesus Christ is, she will reply, “The Son of God.”  If I ask her detailed questions about the stories of Moses, Joseph, or Ruth—she can chat with me intelligently about them.

In fact, we celebrated Reformation Day this year, and she has a working understanding of what the Protestant Reformation is all about.

Spoiler alert:  For a 6-year old, I would take Biblical literacy and a cogent understanding of Church History over musical proficiency or hymn repertory–any day of the week.

How has that happened?  Quite simply, I have spent countless hours teaching her the Bible, The Westminster Catechism, and basic theological, and philosophical concepts.  Worldview is important.  Doctrine matters–and it matters more than knowing the melody to a fluid collection of songs.

I know adults who know a lot of hymns, but couldn’t answer the questions I posed to my daughter above.  I value the fact that the “contemporary praise chorus,” How Great is Our God, proclaims that God “wraps himself in light.”  Unless you know that God does not have a body to clothe with physical garments, this line doesn’t even make sense.  I cannot think of a hymn that says as much about this particular characteristic of God in so few words.

For that, I commend Chris Tomlin.

But what about Biblical literacy?  It says something when you hear someone criticize the music used in worship as being “wrong,” but at the same time, they cannot give you a two or three sentence summary of…Ezekiel or Daniel.

If the extent of a serious Christians’ understanding of the book of Daniel is that he went in a lions den, they are woefully illiterate, Biblically speaking.

Music in itself has no salvific power.  It does not save anyone.  It does not leave Heaven and come to earth and die for the sins of all men.  All it does is carry a message.  It is a medium.  What term would you use to describe the praising of something with no salvific power above that which alone can save?

Idolatry.

Now—the point of all the preceding is merely to say:  My personal preference is for my daughter to be a terrific music reader, and to know all the hymns in the hymnal by heart.  Unfortunately she isn’t and she doesn’t. Heck, I would love for her to want to sing duets with me.  She doesn’t–except in the car.  My gripe about this reality could be, “That music minister at the church—he isn’t doing hymns exclusively anymore—they project the words on a screen and we arent singing out of hymnals—No one reads music anymore—choral music isn’t appreciated—that is why she can’t sing!”

Absurd.  I was exposed to all that in the church, and I had AT BEST, a loose understanding of music.

The truth is, the reason she doesn’t know the hymns is because I have spent more time at home with her—learning the Bible than I have spent teaching her the great hymns of McKinney and Crosby.  Had I spent this time teaching her hymns, she would know them—but the cost would have been too great.

As a church musician, I understand that the primary role of the church is not to be a music education conservatory.  This is a departure from the past.  However, it is a necessary one.  Music training can and should be found in the church, but it is not the mission.  There is nothing inherently more Godly about music than say, the art of sculpting, writing, or watercolor painting.  But interestingly enough, I have never heard anyone gripe about the lack of quality writing and painting instruction in the church.

“We aren’t using quills and parchment anymore!  The kids aren’t learning how to write in calligraphy!”  Gasp!

The article that I have referred to lamented ad-nauseum that in churches today, “the majority of congregations are not singing.”  He noted that those who do sing, barely moved their lips.  He further noted that the only voices he could hear were those with microphones.  I find this to be an interesting complaint.  He assumes that the statement, “I don’t sing because I REFUSE TO TRY” is not relevant here.  He would entertain a variety of reasons, from volume, to song selection, to the way the church is set up as a “spectator event;” but in none of those does he even consider the fact that can not sing and will not sing are not necessarily the same.

His conclusion is that what used to be congregational singing has now become “congregational staring.”  He notes that when “chipper ‘worship leaders’ in contemporary churches bound on stage and predictably beckon everyone to ‘stand and worship,’” that people obey out of politeness, but do not sing.  My question would be, is this a refusal to sing (or try to sing), or an inability to sing?  By the way, I know many people that are unable to do things because of circumstances:  I have never seen those who truly desire to do that thing—quit.  There is a difference between can not and will not.

I notice that the deaf congregation in my church sign the lyrics of every song, whether contemporary or traditional.  They don’t care.  All they know is that the words are true.

If you want to worship God, you will.  What is happening on a stage or around you will not inhibit you from worshiping God.  If it does, I would argue that this isn’t worship.

He asks a few questions:  First, he says, “What’s behind this phenomenon?”  He then adds, “What happened to the bygone sounds of sanctuaries overflowing with fervent, harmonizing voices from the pews, singing out with a passion that could be heard down the street?”  I have to ask here, what phenomenon?  The phenomenon of the fact that some people are bothered by new methodology?  That isn’t new.  It is called human nature and the conservation principle.

When it comes to “What happened to singing out with a passion that could be heard down the street,” I want to reply in three ways.  First is to say, do we always equate volume with passion?  I know singers who cannot produce the frequencies needed to perform in demanding Verismo operatic roles like Puccini and Mascagni.  The fact that I can makes me no more passionate than them.  How could it?

Secondly, he is asking the wrong question.  The right question to ask is:  What happened to living with such a passion for Christ that the entire world was affected by it?”  That is the question.  How dare we elevate music above first things.

Finally, and even more obvious is the fact that if you really could hear a choir singing a couple blocks away, do you have any idea how loud it would be in that church sanctuary?

I guess volume really isn’t an issue.  There goes that complaint.

He goes to lament that “churches today” are constructed so that “The worship service is a spectator event.”  He notes that, “Everyone expects the people on stage to perform while the pew-sitters fulfill the expectation of any good audience–file in, be still, be quiet, don’t question, don’t contribute (except to the offering plate), and watch the spotlighted musicians deliver their well-rehearsed concerts.”  This is interesting.  The first question I have is, where are these churches, and where is the data?  I would like to see an empirical study showing a legitimate analysis of what is actually happening in “churches today.”  It seems hard for me to allow myself to be persuaded by someone who makes a grandiose claim but presents no data.  Why would you trust this?  He says that “Everyone” expects the stage people to perform and the pew sitters to watch.  Really?  Does he have any quotes or philosophical statements written by any worship pastors that convey such a abhorrent root level philosophy of worship leadership?

I will provide mine.  Ask yourself if you see anything here that sounds like his criticism:

Philosophy of Worship and Music Ministry

 

I believe that William Temple was right when he noted,

 “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.  All this is gathered up in that emotion which most cleanses us from selfishness because it is the most selfless of all emotions – adoration.”

 Worship, evangelism, and the leading of worship and evangelism are at the heart and core of what I believe Worship and Music Ministry should be. It IS what we are about.

We are a ministry that will lead all of His people in worship—young or old—men or women—boys or girls.  I believe that music ministry should be designed to meet the needs of a broad, culturally diverse, congregation.  I seek to train men and women, and boys and girls to be worshipers.

You can find that on our church website.

Another complaint is that he feels that church music is now intended to be more professional than participatory. He goes on to say that, “The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the loud voices at the microphones. Quality is worshipped.”  This is a non sequitor.  Just because musical proficiency (which I know he values) is part of what the worship team strives to attain, it doesn’t logically follow that quality is worshiped.  Does he similarly assert that because pastors use highly technical methodology for exegeting scripture, that this scholarly process is what is worshiped?  No!  How can a thinking person come to such a conclusion?

It is because of this “elitism” on the stage that he feels a victim now.  Because he doesn’t have the skills that they have, he claims to be disenfranchised from participating.  His prescription?  It is “better to just fake it with a little lip syncing.”

He then addresses what he terms “Blare,” or the fact that the musicians’ volume “is cranked up so high that congregants can’t hear their own voices, or the voices of those around them, even if they would sing. So they don’t sing.”  I don’t need to remind you that he has been lip syncing for some time, so it is hard for me to understand how he would know how difficult it is to sing along.  He notes that the reason they don’t sing is because their unamplified voices wouldn’t add anything.  Just a moment ago he lamented that church worship services  couldn’t be heard a block away.  Now he despises it.  Go figure.

A moment ago, his argument had to do with musical proficiency.  Now it has to do with his inability to “add something.”  Is what we “give” in worship measurable by decibel level?  If so, wouldn’t that mean that those who were the loudest were the better worshipers? This is absurd. “The overwhelming, amplified sound blares from big speakers, obliterating any chance for the sound of robust congregational singing.”  I love robust congregational singing.  I just don’t see any good argument here for why—in most situations—this cannot take place.

He then criticizes music choice. He diagnoses this issue by saying, “Sometimes people refrain from singing because the songs are unfamiliar, hard to sing, or just cheesy.”  Sheesh.  If it isn’t the proficiency level, or the volume, it is the choice of literature.  Do people likewise refrain from listening to the preaching when the pastor exegetes sections of scripture that are “new” to them?  This is an egregious argument and one that I don’t really know how to counter, other than to say:  Unfamiliar?  Compared to what?  Hard to sing?  Compared to what?  Cheesy?  Compared to what?  It would be nice to have some tangible things to compare.  He cleverly left this out—and I don’t blame him!

So, he ends his article with this:  “I admit. I’ve joined the majority. I’ve stopped singing. I’m not happy about it. I know I should overcome these barriers and just praise the Lord with my very unprofessional vocalizations. But I long for an environment that evokes my real heartfelt vocal participation.”

He asserts here that his opinion is the “majority.”  He has provided no evidence of this.  He notes, “I have stopped singing.  I’m not happy about it.”

Less controversial analogy: I have trouble hitting a draw.  I have stopped playing golf.  I’m not happy about it.  Solution:  Go play more golf.

He notes that he should overcome these issues and just “Praise the Lord with my very unprofessional vocalizations.”  I will not argue with that.  Yes, he should.  Do it.  Now.

His most poignant quote, as often does in blogs, comes at the end:  “I long for an environment that evokes my real heartfelt vocal participation.”  Does it really take an environment to do that?  Solzhenitsyn worshipped in the gulag, after all.

Volume, songs, or praise teams aside; I would think all it takes for finding an environment in which one could worship is knowing the reality that Christ died for you.

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