Continuing from Part 1 of Ten Earnest Pleas …
- Consider carefully your liturgical model. Consider the sequential form of your gatherings. What do you do, in what order do you do it, and why? The order of events within a worship service is simply not arbitrary. They are arranged that way for a reason. Are you aware of what those reasons are? There are two dominant liturgical models within Christendom, with infinite variation within the major structures. There is the historic model, used by the overwhelming majority of Christendom, both presently and especially historically. This is centered around Word and Sacrament as the crux of Christian spirituality. It worships God as if he were actually, physically, corporeally present in the room with the assembly, with all the reverence that ought to accompany this. The second liturgy, popularized by the revivalists and infinitely fluid in structure and elements, is based on the proposition that if we can make our worship services appealing enough, then the unbeliever will be compelled to drink our cool-aide. This is a version of Christianity that thrives under Constantine. It does not exist under Nero. Under this model, personal preferences are sought out in order to win the popularity contest of the ecclesiological buffet, under the guise of “evangelism” (see soteriological utilitarianism). This is directly responsible for the climate in which moralistic, therapeutic deism has thrived, it is completely antithetical to the cause of the Christ who seeks the lonely and the outcast, and it stands in direct opposition to our confession that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him… Form your assembly rituals around Word and Sacrament, and let God work through those to draw whom He will.
- Consider carefully your volume. One of the thrills of modern music is attending a concert with towering speakers that dwarf the average residence. When the drummer hits the kick drum, you can actually feel it like a punch in the chest. It creates quite a thrill in the concert arena, but this does NOT belong in worship. Churches who do so are often targeting a younger demographic, at the expense of the older. When we get too loud, we show that the elderly are not important to us, and that young and old do not need to worship together. There is no reason why the young and the old cannot worship together, whether you use a praise band or an organ. We should be turning the hearts of fathers and children towards each other, not driving another wedge between them, as does the rest of society at every turn. Many of the elderly are actually caused physical pain by the kind of volume that kids like at their concerts. Do we want to send them the message that they’re not wanted in our assembly? That doesn’t model Christlike maturity for the youth we want to “reach.” The Church IS multi-generational, so our worship should reflect this. It is possible to achieve a compelling, dynamic sound at reasonable decibel levels. Also, when people are unable to hear themselves participating in the corporate song of the church, it encourages passive spectating. There is a time and place for this in worship (the anthem), but it isn’t the entire service. Let’s aim to fine tune our sound systems to facilitate participation in the pews. They are there to worship, not to observe a production. You are there to facilitate the song of the church, not to replace it.
- Consider carefully the role of music in the church. Your challenge is not to attract people to your congregation in order to bait-and-switch them a good time for a religious cause. Your job is not to connect with outsiders in order that they might begin to identify with a message they do not believe. Your responsibility is to put the Gospel on the lips of the people of God through song, in order that the Word might dwell in their hearts through faith. This is also the most evangelistic thing you could possibly do with your Sunday morning. That is a tall order for a diet of disposable pop. We need more than “God is wonderful, Jesus is really nice, I love Him so much and I’m gonna sing sing sing…” Let’s first sing songs that strike at the core of our identity as Christians. Let us sing songs the confess the Gospel, and emphasize lyrics that actually give us a reason to sing.
- Consider carefully your selection of melodies. If we make it our goal to cultivate the song of God’s gathered people, overly syncopated melodies can only impede this. Please do not rely on the “Bono effect,” it is short sighted and foolish. Just because fans can sing along with the songs they know, it doesn’t follow that the melodies are suitable for worship. Don’t we want our gatherings to be inclusive to people from a wide diversity of cultural backgrounds? If the average Joe off the street can’t pick it up with minimal effort, consider that he is being subtly told that his vocal contribution is not wanted. I’m not saying that challenging music has no place in the church: would that we actually challenge our musicians with genuine art over commercial jingles. But if accessibility isn’t a high priority, we impede the singing of the saints in the pews, which the reformers fought to restore as an expression of the priesthood of all believers.
- Consider carefully your physical expression. In traditional worship services, movements such as standing, sitting, turning, and kneeling are all loaded with significance which doesn’t take a brain surgeon to decode. Typical praise band service postures include closed eyes, raised hands, and ecstatic facial expressions, but what is the purpose and meaning of these? Best case scenario: The eyes are closed as in prayer, and the facial expressions stem from an earnestness of pleading. But the lyrics of such songs generally express otherwise. I grew up in charismatic churches, and based off my experience in multiple congregations, examination of song lyrics, and absorbing a significant quantity of their teaching, I can say with confidence that much of the time, the reasons are: We close our eyes to tune out the world and focus on God, we raise our hands to receive God’s love or connect with Him in some intangible way to express our devotion, and the strained look is either the result of an intense spiritual experience of God’s presence or earnest longing for it. These enthusiastic ideas of God meeting us apart from Word and Sacrament ought not be encouraged in our churches. We must point our people to where Christ has promised to be found. I’m not proposing a rule against closing our eyes while singing. I’m suggesting we not be naive to what doing so has the potential to communicate about the nature of our worship practices. Let us make more intentional use of gesture and posture to immerse our people in a spirituality that confesses the Gospel in purity, rather than defaulting to norms and patterns driven by revivalist subculture. There are many techniques in our tradition that leverage movement and posture to focus attention on Christ and His cross, rather than push us deeper into our personal subjective experiences of spiritual ecstasy. If we fail to make use of these, we miss a crucial discipleship opportunity and, in the context of praise band services, we open the door for a less than subtle endorsement of the Jesus who comes to us apart from Word and Sacrament.
Genuine, compelling artistry is prophetic, and speaks to the culture by challenging it, rather than acquiescing to its inherent propensity towards decay. If your congregation is heading down the “contemporary” trail, led by their wet finger to the wind, I caution you to consider that the end of that trail is a cultural ghetto full of cliche and celebrity mimicry, which is just as foreign a language to unbelievers as traditional liturgy. I humbly implore you to consider these ten requests and contemplate how even slight application of them could enhance the worship life of your congregation. But above all, know what you believe and why you believe it in order that you can test your worship practices by one criteria: “What does this confess?”
In the congregation I serve as a musician, we use “praise band” type ensembles three out of four weekends a month. We’ve labored hard to follow these ideals, and the result has been a more lively, vibrant, and organic worship culture than we could ever have achieved by simply splitting into separate “traditional” and “contemporary” services. Our approach might best be described as “traditional worship integrating contemporary instrumentation and select modern hymnody.” If your church uses a praise band, use it to support Word and Sacrament, not as a quasi-sacramental alternative spirituality.