Thursday, September 13, 2007

How We Screwed Up Worship Singing

Michael Van Horn, an associate professor of Worship & Theology at our denominational seminary, North Park in Chicago, relates a story of discussing the worshipping community of her church. Were they organized around a common theology or common mission? The Creeds? The Bible? She didn’t think that sort of unity was possible with her church – too much variety of belief for that. What brought them together, then, Van Horn asked? After some thought, she offered that her church was held together because they all liked the same kind of music. The professor accurately identified that these services were a concert, and the attendees concert-goers, not a worshipping community.

My mind goes immediately to the large highschool youthgroups that my sons went to for a time, and the churches that sponsored them. That is not entirely fair on my part, but the extremes of this problem tend to come from those who seek churches because of their praise-song or Christian-rock music as the main attraction.

Yet there are certainly churches of many musical styles at which the quality of the musicianship is a big draw. That is not just a seeker church phenomenon, and also comes perilously close to being a concert rather than a worship service, for some percentage of the congregation, at least. At a minimum, most Christians have churches they would not attend because of the musical style or quality.

I imagine one of the early church fathers, perhaps the Apostle John, writing “My children, this should not be so.” But it is, and I see parts of it as getting worse instead of better.

Because of electronic reproduction and the internet, music is increasingly a scalable phenomenon. We do not have to rely on local musicians for our entertainment, but have the world’s best brought into our homes – and churches. As Taleb notes in The Black Swan, we can live within a mile of a Russian √©migr√© who is only marginally less talented than the great pianists, but he will remain an impoverished instructor who gives few paid performances because we can listen to the best with little effort. The very few who are at the top of the heap will make a fortune, while everyone else gets little. This holds true in other arts and design as well. There is some extra juice in being at a live performance, but this only partially compensates.

We are quite spoiled, all of us in America, in what we expect when we come into church. A small congregation like mine will not sing powerfully and well – by the world’s standards – even if we were devote hours a week to musical training and rehearsal. Yet our ears expect that power and that quality. Few churches, even large ones with well-trained choirs, eschew all amplification. We are concert-trained, and headphone-trained. It gives us the impression, whether we like it or no, that our singing is a poor and weak thing unless we have a great many of us together or electronic amplification. To unconsciously conclude that we are spiritually weak and ineffective hardly seems a stretch.

Singing in worship is now different from nearly all other singing. A hundred years ago, the singing one did at home, church, and school, or at festivals, pubs, and parties was not that different a musical experience, though the choice of music would be different in each. Worship singing did not stand out as qualitatively different. It was just singing. Piano volume and familiarity of the songs covered a lot of ills in all those situations, and there was an important result: people participated much less self-consciously than now. The energetic and pentecostal-style churches hold up a higher level of participation and flat-out gusto, but even with those, cut the power to the amplification sometime and see how suddenly reserved and uncomfortable everyone is.

We have become dependent on quality, amplification, and niche style. We didn’t have to – we have the same genes and the same scriptures as our ancestors – but it is easy to see what a natural result this is. We stood on ladders and now even tall people look like midgets.

We have unwittingly dug ourselves a hole that will take some effort to get ourselves out of. One must do one’s own worship, and listening to others perform is a permissible, but weakening part of this. Communal singing carries its own earthly pleasure, but a different pleasure than the appreciation of musical power and excellence. Though we have let some spiritual muscles atrophy, we must nonetheless soldier on. Paradoxically, the church-camp music which drove so much of our move to praise songs in worship is now one of the last footholds that communal singing without a lot of assistance has in the rising generation.

Related: you know whether you really like something if you like even poorer versions of it. If you like a style of music only when it is done exceptionally well, then you don’t really like that type of music. You can’t say that you like reading mysteries, or science fiction, when there are only a very few examples you can stand to read.


Der Hahn said...

I can't remember any communal singing when I was growing up besides church and music class in school. Which might explain why some people have difficulty participating. I've found myself less driven to sing during worship lately though I don't know why.

Singing in worship is now different from nearly all other singing.

I think the use of Christian pop praise songs, especially when lead by a singing group, drives alot of the 'worship-tainment' you're talking about. The songs are so much like secular pop/country/rock and usually presented in a format that mimics a concert, not a worship experience.

In someways it might be better that the music in church was different from what you heard on the radio. It would certain change our frame of reference from trying to imitate the professionals to discovering how we could relate to the songs.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Hmm. Great thought...

Anonymous said...

A great stumbling block to my participation in church is, besides the inane foolishness that often spews from the pulpit, that the purpose of going to a worship service has become entertainment of one sort or another. The Rite I services of the Episcopal Church are sparse and allow for meditation and community and it is that rare combination I usually am drawn to--good luck finding one other than eaaaaarly Sunday. But the more popular services in the area are cultist, or some version of Six Flags, no matter which "charch-uh" you attend.

Music in it's pop-Christian format is to be regarded with a jaundiced ear: Somebody is trying to get something from you whether it's membership in the "group", your money, or your participation in one cause or another. Music is one means of membership and display, and that is not all bad, but it is also a potentially shallow harbor.

If the point of community singing is to praise and provide a means of expression not found in prayer, then why on earth is there amplification, or complicated arrangements, perpetually smiling "directors", and why is everyone so uncomfortable with the process? My experience is that music is an phoney intrusion to the service and I can't wait for it to finish.

But then I am a grouch.

Dan Patterson
Arrogant Infide.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yeah, we noticed that Dan. Fortunately for you, that's considered a plus around here.

Anonymous said...

Huh. It's never been so around my church (Catholic)...always amateur hour, no amplification, maybe some nice organs but that's it. A really great singer once but he dropped dead (heart exploded they said--terrible thing, graduated with his son, wondeful family, almost 15 years on and we still miss him).

Some time ago brought my fiancee in for her first Catholic service--so her family rooked me in for a service at the Baptist--now Bible?? church down the street. Oh yeah, guitars and drums and whatnot. Rock on for Jesus! I mean, the pastor was quite nice, recognized me as an outsider (note how I phrase that) afterwards, but really--after a lifetime of traditional hyms and community singing...this "Jesus rock" just kinda freaked me out. And, watching her worship rock on TV has always bugged me.

People waving their hands. Swaying around in stadiums. Really--the last time I saw anything close to that was in '93, when the Pope was in Denver for World Youth Day and we had Mass in the Rockie's Stadium. And we didn't have no hand waving! 140,000 people in Cherry Creek Park and no gee-tars, man. Didn't need all that.

Sorry. Maybe I'm too traditional, even though I may be considered "young" still. But...this rock-em-sock-em crap always leaves me wanting.

terri said...

I get what you're saying and have some of the same thoughts, but shouldn't music reflect the sensibilities of the people producing it?

Meaning....The music I like and relate to is very different from the music that was produced 100 years ago. Is it wrong to translate a worship experience into modern-day language and musical styles?

not sure where the balance is can go so many ways, but I don't think I could relate to organs. I hated them way before we had modern praise music, and I still do! :-)

Count Grecula said...

The problem with bringing modern pop music into church is that it is not well suited to corporate worship.The rythyms and syncopations, the bluesy nuances and stretches of notes- all work against a large number of unskilled people singing together. It's a medium best suited to the personal expression of one person.

Simple yet beautiful melodies that can be sung a capella- and during a power failure - are what will survive our narcissistic age. I love rock music, but at church I'd rather sing "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" any day.

What better way to have communion with believers that have gone before us than to sing the same melodies as they did? It's the closest thing we have to time travel.