There exist today hundreds of people in Christian think tanks and agencies whose whole view of ministry is to promote and induce cultural change into the church. It is called contextualization or transformation. But transformation is basically inducing change into the Christian church. Pastors who are properly trained in transformation and contextualization principles are known as transformational pastors. Pastors are also called to be “change agents.” For further reading on this topic, please refer to my earlier newsletter, entitled “Transformation Thinking for Dummies.”
The overriding feature of seeker-sensitive and transformational activities is to change the church to resemble the culture as closely as possible and thereby insure survival and success in today’s changing society. There is more to it than outward appearances. Seeker-sensitive churches low key their doctrinal statements, lest they scare away the seekers. Although doctrinal stances do not officially change, the week-by-week teaching exhibits the church as fellow travelers in the culture. The process of transformation calls not only for change but perpetual, ongoing change; in order to entice an ever-changing seeker population. Forgotten entirely these days, is the fact that God’s people are meant to be a leaven within the culture, a pocket of resistance to the foibles and ethos of the flesh. However, I suspect there are still some seekers left who expect to find something unique and noticeably different at church than in the world at large.
One area of dramatic transformation has been in congregational worship. Churches that are not even officially seeker-sensitive have introduced the style and ethos of seeker-sensitive worship. Music companies and popular Christian musicians have made the change in churches almost complete. Only resistant liturgical hard liners have escaped this particular transformation. If you question this, just listen to any Christian radio station. When some people exit a church some of them whisper to one another “That felt like a rock concert.” But that’s the point! It is Christian Rock Lite. The loud and pulsating instrumentation of first rock and then Christian rock has been wedded with new limited tune ranges and limited lyrics. If it wasn’t for the beat, many of these songs would die a natural death; and most will die quickly as they are succeeded by newer and more novel songs.
The rays of new music can be seen on the horizon. A new transformation lurks from a growing movement called the emergent church. The emergents have had enough of “ra ra” mega-church music. They eschew what they call electronic worship – they have been there and done that. Their agenda calls for a change in the church and church services, using only acoustic guitars forgoing the usual loud electronic music. The movement is scary because, being wedded to postmodern thought, they reject the Bible as the only source of truth. But in their call for reform and change, many young people are being attracted to a worship style with more subdued expression. So even as many churches don’t identify themselves as seeker-sensitive and have adopted seeker-sensitive music; so also many churches will reject the teaching of the Emergent movement but adapt their music.
The emerging churches often characterize themselves as “ancient-future.” They hope to restore the treasures of the medieval and patristic periods. At a recent emergent conference, convention goers attempted to recreate the medieval labyrinth. They passed from the fluorescent daytime of the convention hallway into the darkness of sacred space and dimly lit candles. One by one, the participants filed in to walk the ancient path of prayer. But unlike the ancients, these postmodern pilgrims carried portable CD players that guided them and provided ancient medieval prayer music for the journey. The emergents are calling for a return to ancient worship forms like candles, incense, chanting, and labyrinths (gardens of prayer are already sighted). The emergents find their following among youth and young adults, and they appear to be the next cultural elite who will be copied to varying degrees. This is simply because they represent change and the new and the novel. The shelf life of the seeker-sensitive service and borrowing of Christian Rock Lite is about over.
So! Are you ready to pack up the drum sets, electronic bass guitars and the mixing boards and trot off to Wal-Mart for candles? The emergent’s call for reform and change will grow in the ensuing years. I wish it were not true because they reject huge areas of biblical doctrine. But when you wed yourself to perpetual, ongoing change, you need to always have your bags packed.
And the Beat Goes On and On and On
In the worship wars, there is little room for negotiation. I realize that to even write briefly about it I risk stepping on mines and spiritual IED’s. I know that Scripture does not contain much teaching regarding the style of congregational worship. I also realize that congregational worship music has always drawn from the surrounding culture. But there are some guiding principles that may shed some light for us. First of all, New Testament worship seems to have been primarily with the human voice. Hymns, songs and spiritual songs are the only kind of worship referenced in the NT. The non-instrumental wing of the Church of Christ has taken this verse as normative and has historically not even used pianos and has sung a capella. That would seem extreme to most of us. However, modern congregational worship music has also moved to the extreme.
In the evangelical church, the beat goes on and on to the point where one proponent of contemporary church congregational musician announced with apparent glee that the evangelical church has now been taken over by pop music. Let me describe a city-wide night of praise and worship I attended recently. There was an orchestra, and a lady playing the keyboard. The drummer was ensconced behind a Plexiglas cage, supposedly to temper the noise, and electrical guitars were all over the place. I think it was the bass electric guitar that produced those low thumping, pulsing, booming sounds similar to when a carload of young people drives up next to you at a stop sign and you wonder where that booming sound is coming from. It’s revealing that sound mixers and drummers are advised to wear earplugs in church. One sound mixer states: “As a sound engineer in a church I wouldn’t be caught in the building without good ear plugs.” This person then expressed his concern for moms bringing young children down front during the services.
The lady who led the worship was attired in a long, flowing black gown. She literally pranced the stage as she tried to get her audience to get on with the beat. The lyrics were projected on two double jumbotrons, giving not only the lyrics, but also fast-paced scenic sights. The lyrics were limited and were repeated over and over again. Mostly they were good as far as lyrics go. So, those who say that lyrics are everything could be satisfied. Some of the lyrics were odd, however. A popular praise song depicts God dancing over us as well as believers dancing with Jesus. I can’t find the source of this either from Scripture or church history. We were all asked to stand for the entire worship time, which encompassed 45 minutes. I noticed many people were not singing. The songs were new, recently downloaded from the Integrity website, and not known to the rank and file. But the congregation dutifully kept standing and kept their hands raised lest they be seen as unspiritual. But after song after song, first the older people sat down and then one by one others sat down until only a handful were still standing. Twice relatively muted songs started up and then after 30 seconds there was a slight pause and the worship leader said: “Are you ready church? Now here were go,” and suddenly the instrumentation boomed loud as the worship leader suddenly took on the role of cheerleader.
After we had been standing well over a half an hour, a young lady appeared up front and center, attired in a dress that was made up of strips from the waist down, and began to dance. It appeared that her dance moves came from choreographed dance routines seen on TV. Her dress of strips showed her very supple and beautiful body as she went through her routine. Obviously, all eyes (especially the men) couldn’t really keep their minds on the song, but it mostly consisted of the excessively loud electronic music anyway. In the end however, thankfully they closed with “Amazing Grace.” For me, it saved the evening. The melody line of this old favorite is catching, appealing and easy to sing. The drummer and the electric guitar players sensed that they should cease, and the words poetically and clearly announced the full-orbed message of salvation. For this classic everyone stood up and sang the words with great gusto. There are hundreds of gospel songs that are in same class as “Amazing Grace”, but they have been mostly discarded. Too often I come out of services feeling a bit jarred, like I have just been to a rock concert. I come away feeling bombarded and I wonder if anyone else feels the same. But to even suggest displeasure would not be seen as good evangelical etiquette.
Recently, I was in the car and a fine Christian youth was listening to a Christian radio station. He was apologetic to us older folk, saying he knew we weren’t into it. No one could possibly hear the lyrics because of the blaring electric guitars. Apparently the initiated have learned the words so they don’t have to hear them any longer. There was basically no tune line. It sounded to me like someone endlessly laying on a car horn. But then out of the din came a very different number. It had some instrumental accompaniment, but only in the background. It was a clear and crisp voice singing the gospel song “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim.” It was more beautiful than normal because of the context. But alas! That was enough of that kind of clear praise music and it was back to the “car horn” music once again. In between these offerings there were announcements of special services at the local Baptist church, etc. etc.
Some churches still successfully present a good mix of hymns, gospel songs, choruses, and the new genre. They employ some of the familiar Scripture choruses, which are very sing-able and have great melodies. In each case, the base guitar and drums are relatively muted. Those congregations are to be commended. But all too often, in too many places, congregational music is similar to that described above.
It is the melody and the tune line that seems to be missing–the essence of a melodic song presents itself in pleasurable configurations of sounds. One musicologist asserts that there are three elements of song writing: melody, melody and melody. Scripture actually employs the word “melody” in many places. Isaiah 51:3 references “the voice of melody”, and the only text in the NT regarding congregational worship, Ephesians 5:18-19, refers to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”, which are intended to be “melody” in our hearts.
Psychologist Matthew Schulkind asserts that music is made up of a group of about 6 notes that encapsulates a single music idea (a melodic tune). These notes are short enough to stay in the short-term memory, and they are also complete and self-contained, just like phrases in language. Do any of you remember the radio/TV program “Name that Tune”? First, just two notes of a song were played on the piano. More notes were added until someone could “name that tune.” Since the new genre of music is very weak in melody, it would be nearly impossible to name that tune.
So how did this happen? Did some pastors and theologians get together and decide on these songs? Did the people in the pews call out for contemporary congregational music with ear-splitting drums and blaring electronic guitars? No, the driving force is money. Large financial forces market this music, and large musical corporations spend huge sums of money to promote their songs. As good marketers, they then receive a huge profit in return. In the highly competitive nature of evangelical church growth, when one successful church uses the latest music, other worship leaders clamor to not be left behind. The local music ministry, lest they appear to be behind the times, wants to keep up with the times and introduce the latest on the praise and worship hit parade.
Let’s also remember that congregational music probably was never meant to be a $4-5 billion-dollar retail bonanza. Let us never forget that drummers and electric guitar players were never meant to supplant the clear voice of believers singing in harmony. There is a place for instrumentation, but it should focus on the melody and allow people to hear the lyrics.
Finally, for whatever reason, most of the lyrics in these new songs are overly repetitive. A farmer from the country went to a big city and attended a church with a contemporary worship service. When he returned home, his wife asked him to describe the congregational singing. He thought for a moment and then said, “It’s like this: Martha, Oh! Martha, Martha Oh! Martha, the cows are in the corn, the cows are in the corn, and the cows are in the corn. Oh! Martha, Martha, Oh! Martha, Martha the cows are in the corn.” This was his impression of praise and worship in the big city.
Church music is not a theological question. But it is an important matter nevertheless. Gospel music should be a melodic expression, of more than a few repeated phrases, that includes a number of verses. Someone recently called praise and worship 7-11 music: 7 words repeated 11 times. Congregational music should also be designed for the young and old to sing together. Instrumentation should stay in the background and loudness should not be the point of the music.
Obviously, I have pretty definite opinions on the matter. Many churches have attempted to blend the old with the new and have done a great job. Not every church has imported loud instrumentation, but some have rather tried to use the best of the past and the best of the present. I am not calling for turning the clock back to the fifties. But I do think Christians old and young deserve melodic music that they can all sing together. I don’t think that loud instrumentation is the point, but the human voice should be the focus. Congregational worship music should fit within the boundaries of a psalm, a hymn or a spiritual song, with accompaniment. It should EASILY allow us to make MELODY in our hearts to the Lord.