The Gap in Contemporary Christian Music

I have been wanting to post on this topic for a long time. Interestingly, Joy addressed this in a recent post http://joyinthisjourney.com/2011/05/how-happy-songs-hurt/ . While I am traveling I cannot post my full thoughts, but her post gives us pause to consider what the real gap is in contemporary Christian music. Stay tuned.

Just for clarification, what Joy writes about is her experience of the choices of contemporary Christian worship, not whether there are appropriate songs (like laments) within the realm of contemporary Christian music. That will be part of my next post. To look at the gap in terms of music (is there a gap?) and in terms of experience (why the gap?)

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Musical Choice, Worship, and Excellence

Contemporary Christian worship in a Western co...
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One thing I stress with those who are leading worship or who will lead worship: strive for excellence. This includes the choice of music. For pastors especially this is critical in knowing your people and what is part of their ethos.

At one of my congregations, I would select hymns several months ahead (six month advance planning), picking hymns that I had known for decades. My assumption was that the people would likewise appreciate these “well-known” hymns. Our organist at the time was excellent in knowing what I wanted and what people could sing. He would practice on Saturdays, and usually about once every three months he would call me and say, “Pastor, the hymn text is great, but the people do not know that melody. Can I suggest this alternate melody?” Seems like a minor point, but what a difference it made for those worshiping that day.

I also took that as an opportunity to learn, namely if I wanted to introduce a new hymn/song, it was at least one month of “practicing”: 1) prelude, 2) choir number, 3) practice with congregation before service with choir, 4) sing it as part of worship. It worked very well.

When I first introduced contemporary worship, I went with the choices (after screening for theology). But I soon learned that the worshipers did not always appreciate the “usual” presentation of the songs. One example includes singing and repeating the same verses and choruses many times. Note that this is not the same as singing five verses to a song, where the melody is repeated; this is repeating the exact same words.

Lest we think this is a problem with just contemporary songs, consider some of the hymns that are great and have 15 verses. Is it wise to sing all 15 verses in the service? I learned the hard way that it is not wise to do that.

While there can be value to repeating words, there is also a saturation point, when the worshiper says, “Enough already.” Pastors and worship leaders need to know their people and know how this works out in practice. “What is the purpose of the repetition?” For some the repetition may be logical and even enjoyable; for others it may become irritating after the second repetition.

How can we strike a balance that enhances the worship life for everyone? This is where the issue of excellence comes into play. It requires the pastor(s), musicians, choirs, praise teams, everyone to be together, to meet regularly and review what is important and why.

Worship, Music, and Me?

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Actually the title should be: God, worship, and music. And I particpate and benefit from his work in Word and Sacrament. As a starting point you should know where I am coming from as I post this. Note that while I am a pastor, I am writing this more from the perspective of a worshiper.

Personal:

  • I am broken
  • unfixable on my own
  • forgiven and restored entirely because of what Jesus did, does, and will do

Music:

  • I cannot sing well, but I like to chant
  • I enjoy a variety of musical styles
  • I have played guitar for 49 years (for worship, community gatherings, and even weddings)
  • My favorite styles include bluegrass, old country, and liturgical

Faith:

  • What is most important? Justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ
  • What is the source of what is most important? The Bible
  • I confess the Christian faith as a Lutheran (referring to the three ecumenical creeds plus theLutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord).
  • Doctrine expressed in music is important and has to be consistent with the above.

Pastor:

  • I grew up within the Lutheran liturgical tradition of the LCMS. That was when the1941 hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnal, was at its growing peak in the 1950’s. I heard all the great hymns of faith, experienced the changing liturgical seasons with the colors, readings, knew page 5 (non-communion service of the Word), page 15 (communion service with the Word), and page 32 (Matins). I loved it, and still do! I memorized many hymns and could tell you the name of the hymn with only a few notes played (“Name that Tune” was popular in those days!).
  • I have led worship, using TLH, Lutheran Worship (LW), Lutheran Service Book (LSB), Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW), Creative Worship (from CPH), contemporary worship, and have produced my own orders of service.

Worship, music, and me?

God is the initiator and I am a responder to God’s grace in worship. That means I don’t start it, nor do I sustain it, God does. I marvel at the gracious God who gifted people throughout the ages to express the Christian faith and the response to it through music in such varied and beautiful ways. That means I see a place for the Gregorian chants, majestic hymns, and contemporary pieces. But I am selective (eclectic) based on how well the piece holds together theologically consistent with the Faith statements above. Not everything written during and after the Reformation is appropriate. Likewise not everything written today should be used in worship.

I have experienced times when a majestic hymn sung in a minor key was so emotionally moving that I couldn’t even sing with my voice, but my heart was right there, rejoicing. I have experienced worship with a contemporary song that moved me the same way. The spiritual, emotional, and mental harmony was beyond words. But those times are rare.

Other times I have been in services where the majestic hymn must have been in the mind of someone I didn’t understand. When I hear a Chorale that is well done, it is beautiful and powerful. But don’t ask me to sing it. Please don’t shoot me, either. I’m telling it like it is. Other times I have been in contemporary worship where the music is “hot” and the worship team is raising a storm, and my soul cringes. I can’t sing that. Please don’t shoot me, either. I’m telling it like it is.

The Psalms show such a divergence of emotions but always within the context of the covenant that God made with them. I think a liturgical service provides the most consistent environment for experiencing the wide variety of effects that God does when he works in us. When I say this I am not dismissing contemporary music out of hand. Rather, this means that the framework for expressing the Christian faith is important. The liturgical development over the centuries has produced a rich blend of God’s Word-our response interweaving. Contemporary music can fit within that heritage.

Surprising to most people, the liturgy is not a straight-jacket, hemming in a person in faith expression. About a decade ago I helped establish a Bible College at a cutting edge charismatic church. When I taught the worship class, I asked them to evaluate a liturgical service and their own contemporary service over a four week period. They were shocked to learn that the contemporary service was much more rigid than any liturgical service they had experienced.

I have much more to say on this topic, let me conclude that the starting point for worship is always God and his Word; the ending point is always God and his Word. But we cannot forget who God is working on—us, poor, miserable sinners. That means worship includes spiritual, doctrinal, and emotional elements, and we cannot forget that. God doesn’t.

The Total Witness of the Church

A hallmark of society in the last 40 years is the sense of fragmentation. Especially in the church is the sense of fragmentation more noticeable. The unfortunate result is that we think we can piece meal together aspects of the church and its worship life as if it does not matter. But fragmentation of who God is and who we are is never healthy. Paul Althaus wrote consider the totality of the church’s witness, especially insightful for us who struggle with the fragmented view of church.

The Word and its embodiment belong together, not only in the individual preacher, but also in the church as a whole. The preaching church is at the same time the serving church, which takes upon itself the need of people and in every way seeks to set up signs of the love of Christ in the world. It is intended to be understood as witness.

It is in this comprehensive context that the preaching of the church’s ministry stands. And there is still more to be said. Preaching also belongs in the totality of the church’s “worship of God,” all its forms and structures. This totality bears witness along with the preaching and thus sustains it. So it is with the liturgy, above all the word of the Bible in it, the songs of the church, its prayers, and hymns, the order of every service of worship and the church year, the whole of the church’s order and custom. But also the building, pictures and sculpture, liturgical music, the whole of Christian art, insofar as all this has had its impulse from the encounter with the gospel and is born of the Spirit of God, can become a witness that builds the the church.

Paul Althaus in The Minister’s Prayer Book: An Order of Prayers and Readings, edited with an introduction by John W. Doberstein, London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1986 (Fortress Press, 1986), p. 263.