A recent response to a post around the topic of relevance in the church setting has combined with some more specific thoughts I’ve had about church music. I recently read a blog by a well-known church leader who suggested new churches simply hire a band. At my own church home, we were treated last week to an amazing worship experience by Jake Holman last week. Today, a group of musicians who are new to us backed up Al, our worship leader.
I’m not involved in music (we should all thank God for that) and I’m not writing here specifically about Fellowship Church. It’s more that these events have got me kicking around in my head some thoughts about worship music, cultural relevance, and the church.
The issues that seem to come up in these discussions include the following:
#1) To what extent should music in a worship service sound like it’s secular counterpart?
#2) To what extent should the people who play worship music be considered leaders? Is there an implied agreement to words that a singer sings? Is there an implied agreement to the lyrics if you are simply playing an instrument? Beyond the issue of agreement with doctrine, is the issue of character. Is the fact that playing in the worship band is such a visible positon to the congregation an important fact? Should issues of character be more important in the case of a guitar player than it would be for somebody in a less visible role (say the person mixing the sound of folding the bulletins.)
#3) Of course the Bible ought to be the authority in our answers to these questions. But is there any way that cultural realities at that time ought to make us careful about the ways we apply the precedents set in the Bible?
Of course these questions won’t be settled here. But I’d like to make a few observations. Most of them are rooted in The Psalms.
Did you ever notice how many of The Psalms say “sung to the tune of such-and-such”? I’ve never heard anybody say much about this. Presumably they were songs most people would have known. They aren’t songs that are in the bible themselves. I’m curious if the songs referenced in the psalms have much to do with God. Of course the Psalms do. But do the songs that the pslamist referenced at the beginning of many of the Psalms have much to do with God?
At any rate there is something happening here which flies in the face of something we progressive/emergent types often fixate on. We complain that Christian culture is derivitive, that we are busy aping popular culture rather than creating our own. We often complain that instead of doing our own thing we create Christian versions of things that are already popular; rather than coming up with our games somebody makes the Christian version of Trivial Pursuit; rather than pursue our own forms of literature somebody makes a Christian version of horror, suspense, or fantasy, rather than exploring original Christian uses of the internet we just make Christian versions of Youtube. Rather than exploring our own genre of music, when heavy metal we form Christian heavy metal bands.
Perhaps there is a little something to these compliants. Particularly since the imitations are usually far inferior to the originals.
But the idea of speaking pop culture’s language seems to be in the bible itself. The idea of taking a secular song and putting God-focused lyrics in it seems to go back to David.
It occurs to me that we’re faced with a catch-22 in this regard. When we mimic culture we seem shallow and unoriginal and lacking in artistic vision. But here’s the problem: if we found an authentically and uniquely Christian artistic “language” would it speak to anyone who isn’t a Christian? Such an art form would lose the potential of sharing God with people who haven’t found him yet.
(This is of course vastly over-simplified. It overlooks how important Christianity once was in Western Art. Without Christianity Western “Classical” and “folk” music would have developed quite differently. If this had been the case, the great grand-kids of classical and folk, today’s pop music, would sound different, too.)
At the begining of this post I asked the question “To what extent should worship music sound like it’s secular counterpart.” I think the answer is “It should sound quite a bit like it.”
People who disagree with this position would have a lot more credibility with me if they were actually arguing for the sort of music that Jesus was likely to have listened to. Obviously, no church organs were around in Jesus time. They had no microphones. Even the oldest of the hymns currently sung in church are much closer to our time than Jesus’. It seems like the idea is almost an Amish one: to arbitrarily freeze the clock at a certain point and declare this is what Jesus wanted.
This is not to say that people shouldn’t express their preferences. It’s just to say they should recognize the preference for what it is.
As for the issue of character, leadership, and visibility of the worship team… this issue seems a little stickier.
I think implied in the act of performance is role-taking. I think it’s niave to assume that a singer is always singing from their own perspective. It seems to me a bit like treating the actor who plays a villian cruely because we dislike the character. I realize this metaphor isn’t perfect and that others might disagree.
The fact of their visibility is interesting. And actually, kind-of hard to explain. Why do we put the band on the stage in the first place? The person who does the sound board is off to the side. Why is the band up on the stage at all during the worship service? I get that it’s good to have something to look at. In honesty, there’s a couple guys I love to watch play. There are times I just watch them getting into what they do, and I know that they are close to God. So I suppose that could be part of the reason. But it’s not the whole thing. Maybe it’s just a logistical issue: where would we “hide” a band so that we could hear them but not watch them.
In the Epistles somebody (maybe Paul) says something to this effect “Those who can teach should teach, those who can evangelize should evangelize, those who can preach, should.” There are also other places where people are called to use their specific gifts for maximum benefit.
In this light, it would seem wierd to me, to treat somebody gifted with musical ability differently. They are using their gifts for the kingdom, just like somebody who teaches a Sunday School Class.
This issue is also tricker because in some sense of the word, we are spoiled.
What I mean by this is that everyone reading this has heard The Beatles. It’s my opinion that The Beatles were one of the best rock bands ever. (And even if you don’t like them, you could probably pick somebody that most everybody has heard who you do think is one of the best bands ever.) The wonders of technology has set the bar very high.
Yes, we’ve all heard lots of crap. But we’ve all been exposed to the most talented musicians out there. Part of our cultural expectations are for a certain level of excellence in terms of ability.
If we lived two thousand years ago, we probably never would have heard music played by anyone born more than fifty miles away. Further, my best guess is that they had far fewer people of engaging in lots of practice. But even if they did have equal playing time, they still had fewer people they could ever hope to here.
The bar was just lower. I’m sure that they had God-blessed musicians whose brilliance was equal, even greater, than John Lennon’s. But chances were slim that you’d actually hear somebody of this calibre.
For the ancient church to speak the language of the wider culture, it wouldn’t need much technical excellence. Today, though, things are a different matter. In some sense, we’re spoiled. We have been exposed to excellence, we expect it, it’s part of the language.