Tuesday, June 22, 2021

But Is It Better?

I ended my last post on traditional worship with the question of whether it is better. My younger brother had as a frequent humorous reminder "What do you mean better?" The bit worked because he would bring it out when it was obvious what better was in some circumstance as well as times when it was a perceptive question. I will use that here.

I will reiterate my overall intent here. I am not trying to ruin worship for anyone.  I am fortunate in that a lot of things "work" for me in terms of style. We tend to take the type of music and worship we had when we first knew or best knew Jesus to our heart. But my experience has been all over the place: Congregationalist, Lutheran, Covenant, Catholic, camp, teaching Sunday School worship, place-holding worship leader, choir, solo, prayer meeting, spirituals, and singing along to a half dozen styles while driving (back when I listened to music).  So my heart music is all of them, or none. I take what I am given, very grateful that others have done the work, because I am barely adequate at it myself, and try to enter into it as best I can. But where I think the danger is now is with traditional music - the group that believes it is in the least danger from worship style. I have criticised other styles, especially the "Jesus is my boyfriend" lyrics of some praise songs.  I may do some of that at the end here.  But driticism of them is not a defensive of the traditional.

Music and styles have their place. Camp music has to be simple enough to teach to children in a week, so that they can sing lustily by the end and bring it back for next year. Music for a prayer meeting tends to "space-clearing," plus straightforward praise. The prayers tend to the spontaneous and heartfelt. Old camp meeting songs, still used by some groups such as Baptists, would take one subject, usually salvation, and hit it hard, to the exclusion of other aspects of the faith. Choirs sing what is musically complex, but is often lyrically very simple and repetitive. Sevenfold Amens, Jubilate Deo, "Hear Our Prayer, O Lord" and other responses - heck even the Hallelujah Chorus is lyrically repetitive. Also, you have to mispronounce everything so that it sounds prettier, impeding understanding. Faulting praise songs, which are also sung by the new believers and untrained, for being repetitive has always struck me as snobbery.

Snobbery.  Yes this is my people, the Arts & Humanities Tribe, causing a lot of the trouble here. The four-verse hymn is showy and rather full of itself as a genre.  It came in among the first Christians with widespread literacy and cheap printing, among groups that were together week in, week out, with elaborate organs, or at minimum a piano, neither of which is portable. You have to speak Christianese and understand archaic vocabulary to understand them, and too many of the lyricists were trying very hard to be poetic.  Some succeeded. "The Church's One Foundation" is good (except for "endued"), "A Mighty Fortress" seems both poetic and mostly understandable. But we had "Immortal, Invisible" this week : Unresting, unhasting,and silent as light; Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might. Not to mention Ancient of Days thrown into the verse before.  Or how about "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing?" Here I raise my Ebenezer...Hey, how did Scrooge get into this song?  What am I missing here? 

And speaking of "A Mighty Fortress," I heard a pastor of fifty years offhandedly preach "As the old hymn says 'On earth is not his equal,'" to refer to Jesus.  It's not the only time I've heard folks quote a familiar hymn with the meaning wrong.  So I'm not convinced that people are completely getting these lyrics.  They have known the tune since childhood and get the sense of a lot of it, treasuring some lines here and there, occasionally knowing one in depth after contemplation. But if you didn't grow up with the tunes, you aren't likely to fall in love with them as an adult. 

One of the great things about the traditional service is also a weakness.  It takes more people, more training, more resources to pull it off.  That means cooperation, folks working together, united in a goal at choir or practicing their instruments, or practicing reading scripture aloud, and other smaller things - getting candles and robes and bulletins. Ceremony takes work, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  It's part of the exaltation when everything is going right, when the people know the hymns and the order of worship, when the organ is full and the choir is rehearsed. Robes, candles, processions.  I call it "festival worship" and is a preference for me. It is what people remember fondly from their days in college choir, or from grand convocations with a thousand people, or the Christmas or Easter services. It is wonderful. Contemporary worship styles generally can't match it, though sometimes sheer numbers or occasion will do the trick.

But I spent years as one of the worship leaders in a small congregation that did not sing out.  Though some were trained and talented, there was a tendency to look down and sing quietly into the hymnal.  The pianist was a concert professional who did not have the knack for being an accompanist. One of my sons said the eventual archetypal service for Concord Covenant was going to be everyone reading the verses silently to themselves while Kathy played. We tried, week after week, year after year. It's just draining.  If you have traditional worship, people have to be carried by the organ, or the choir driving the hymns, or a long familiarity by the congregation. If you don't believe me, try it with an entirely appropriate but less-known selection from the hymnal, without the organ and with a pianist just filling and the choir on a week off in some week. Or tell me how it goes when you don't have enough people for a choir anymore and someone is scrambling for "special music" every week. And this was an older congregation who had all grown up on generic Protestant hymns, knew the Creeds and the Gloria Patri and much scripture without looking.

We went down in defeat, clinging to our hymns. Because...we had standards. I wish I had stood up to them more. We might have chased some away if we had gone to lighter, more culturally accessible music.  But we might have kept more of our visitors, because after the first few years, we didn't keep many. You need resources, you need critical mass. And given that this is form that not everyone likes, and a much smaller percentage has grown up on, I don't see how it's an advantage.

Yes, contemporary worship used to be camp songs, or songs borrowed from popular culture, especially 60s folk music (Commenter Michael reminded me that Catholics had Folk Mass, with lots of songs on guitar C-Am-F-G7). Then contemporary Christian music went heavily into performance pieces which were tough for congregations to sing. That has persisted, though there now seems to be more written specifically for congregational singing rather than listening. Rockers also get carried away with themselves and have high technical demands, also a drain on resources. So nothing really works - or everything works in some way. I take what I am given, very grateful not to be the worship leader pouring in energy every week, and like it as best I can.  This is not because I am spiritually advanced but because I think this is the polite minimum.


james said...

Perhaps part of it was snobbery, but I think the origins were enthusiasm.

Back when Calvin was preaching, sermons were an hour long--and there were several per week. I gather it was popular. Tastes change--I've heard 35-40, 20, and homilies of 5-10 minutes.
"Just 30 minutes? Once a week? How do you expect to ever learn, or appreciate God, with that poor kind of sermon?"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think pastors wildly overestimate how much they are teaching after the first 10-15 minutes. They do sincerely believe they need 30 or even 40 minutes to develop a theme or a teaching. I find that I forget what they taught in the fist ten minutes after we hit about the 30-minute mark, even when they are interesting - which isn't guaranteed.

That may be my problem, though, not theirs. Still, I find the end of sermons is just repetition a lot of the time with odd little new rabbit trails to go down that destroy the first points.

james said...

Ours design theirs with a powerpoint-like growing list of bullet points. However, by point 5 I generally have forgotten the details in point 1. They encourage us to take notes, of course--writing tends to fix the details in memory. I generally don't, unless there's something I think especially significant, or I see a squirrel. Some blog posts have grown from things that occurred to me when I was supposed to be paying attention to the sermon.