Monotone Worship

The worship wars are over. In church after church that I visit, we all seem to be singing the same handful of songs. To me they seem more like chants and shouted slogans than anything else. Melodically uninteresting and lyrically unimaginative, the music we are singing in the church these days isn’t composed, it is compiled. It feels more like the work of a committee than it does the creation of an artist. That’s because the songs we sing are often the result of a production process that might best be described as creation by committee. If you doubt this, count the number of names listed at the end when the song’s credit appears.

Instead of reflecting the personal faith experience and artistic skill of an individual, today’s church music has the feel of mass-produced goods of a marketing machine. There is plenty of enthusiasm. What is often missing is imagination and beauty. Today’s measure of what makes for good worship music rises no higher than the aesthetics of what used to be called top forty radio. As the teenagers observed on American Bandstand in the ’50s and ’60s, “It’s got a good beat, and it’s easy to dance to.” But the result of such an approach inevitably tends toward banality and cliché. This is true both for the music and the words that the music frames.

In an essay entitled “Thoughts about Music,” theologian Josef Pieper makes three observations about the music of the post-modern era, which also apply to much of the church’s music today. First, Pieper notes that the most common and pervasive feature of today’s music is its triviality. Pieper describes this sort of music as the kind whose primary function is entertainment and mood management. According to Pieper, its chief characteristics are “a happy sound” and a “numbing beat.” Second, Pieper observes that the music of the post-modern age is, “frequently selected and consumed as a means of personal enchantment, of escapism, of a certain pseudo-deliverance, and as a means to achieve delight that remains merely ‘skin-deep.’” Third, and most important, Pieper explains that post-modern music “lays bare man’s inner existential condition.” Or to put it in other words, the music of a culture exposes the soul of that culture.

We have been conditioned to believe that all cultural artifacts are morally neutral. We not only see music as amoral but as something whose value is so subjective that it cannot be criticized. In the practice of the church, this post-modern perspective has resulted in a kind of cultural tyranny which demands that worshipers embrace the latest musical style uncritically, no matter what its effect might be on their experience of worship. Some may dismiss Pieper’s observations because his mention of the beat is reminiscent of a kind of musical criticism that was once characteristic of certain branches of Fundamentalism and which condemned modern worship music for its “jungle beat” or employed a pseudo-scientific argument to warn of the psychological and spiritual effects of rhythm on the listener.

But this is not what Pieper is criticizing. His point is not about what music does to us but about what our music says about us. If the music we use to express ourselves in worship is trivial and sentimentalized, it is because our thoughts about God and the Christian life have become trivial and sentimentalized. The danger with this kind of worship is not merely that it exposes our shallowness to the world but that it reinforces that shallowness. George Orwell makes a point in his essay entitled “Politics and the English Language,” which seems pertinent here.  “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Orwell notes.  

The aim of worship is not merely to express our feelings. It is also intended to shape our thinking. According to Ephesians 5:19, when the church sings together, it is talking to itself as well as to God. Colossians 3:16 speaks of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as modes of instruction and admonition. We serve God when we worship, but the music we use to worship with also serves us. My complaint about the church’s culture of contemporary worship is that it often does neither.

Instead of serving God, the worship of many churches inadvertently pushes God to the margins by employing music as a marketing tool. Rather than serving the congregation, our worship is aimed at those we want to visit the church. Our songs usually speak of God but often in a sentimentalized and even a narcissistic way, so that the message is more about us than it is about God. There is a place in worship for speaking of our own experience. The Old Testament book of Psalms often speaks in the first person. The Psalms also show that worship should have an emotional dimension. Nor is it wrong to hope that outsiders and seekers might sense God’s presence when the church worships. The problem here is one of perspective. The church’s marketplace culture objectifies God by treating the reality of His presence liking a commodity and using it to increase its share of the religious market.

At the same time, the church sends a mixed message about the importance of worship. Even as it spends considerable resources to put on a display that will attract people, so much so that in some churches the worship pastor can be paid more than the preaching pastor, church leaders are dismissive of congregational worship. Pastors often chide those who “only come to church to worship.” Such language gives the impression that congregational worship is the least important thing a church does and that those who make congregational worship the center of their week are self-centered spiritual deadbeats.

Ironically, the Greek terms that are the basis for the term “liturgy” originally referred to a work undertaken for the sake of the community. Apparently, worship is for the sake of people as much as it is for God. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, these same terms were associated with the kind of service rendered by the priests and Levites. In Acts 13:2, this language is used to speak of the worship of the church at Antioch. The apostle Paul uses a different term in Romans 12:1 when he expands the New Testament idea of worship to speak of the offering of the whole self to God as a living sacrifice.

It is not just the tyranny of contemporary style that has flattened our corporate worship to a monotone; it is our view of worship itself. Congregational worship is not the least important thing the church does. Worship is the church’s primary vocation. Indeed, if the first article of the Westminster shorter catechism is correct, worship is humanity’s primary vocation, since “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.”

The worship wars are indeed over, at least where the battle over musical style is concerned. But I am afraid that in the end, none of us is the victor.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Ugly Duckling Theology

I was looking at the results of a major survey of pastors the other day and noticed a trend. Pastors of small churches are more likely to be less energized by their ministry than those who serve large churches. They are also more inclined to question their calling. The message seems to be twofold. First, large churches are more fun than small churches. Second, those who serve small congregations feel like they have missed the mark.

Neither of these assumptions is accurate. The epic failure of some notable megachurch pastors in the past few years might suggest not only that large churches are not more fun; in some cases, they may not even be safe. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. But this probably isn’t accurate either. Pastors of large churches don’t fall harder than pastors of small churches. They just fall more prominently. We might ask why we even call some churches small since 80% of congregations fall into this category. If 80% of the population were four feet tall, we wouldn’t describe those people as short. We would call them normal.

Many pastors who care for small congregations think they would be happier if they served a larger flock. I know I believed this when I was a pastor. It’s not that I didn’t like my church. I just felt that I was destined for bigger things. Of course, I tried not to let it discourage me. I cheered myself with stories that reminded me of how God used people in small places to make a big difference. The lowly shepherd who becomes a king. The fifteen-year-old boy who takes shelter from a snowstorm in a little church with a substitute preacher and grows up one day to become the “Prince of Preachers.” The pastor of that little church out in nowhere who goes on to become president of a major Christian organization. The story always ends the same way. The hero starts small but ends big. “God rewards faithfulness,” I told myself, and I believed it.

Thinking this way helped me a little. But I think it harmed me too. That’s because it made me susceptible to ugly duckling theology. Ugly duckling theology is a perspective whose expectations follow the trajectory of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Ugly Duckling. You know how the story goes. The ugly duckling is a homely little bird, ridiculed and shunned by others. But when he is older, the duckling turns out to be a beautiful swan. I loved this story when I was a child because I wanted it to be my own. I think many pastors of small churches feel the same.

Ugly duckling theology promises that if we are faithful and true our long winter of obscurity will eventually come to an end. We will discover that the day of small things has passed. The small church will become large. Others will recognize us for the swans that we are. This ministry mythology takes a variety of forms. For some, it means that if you build it, they will come. Construct the right kind of space and create the right atmosphere and people will flock to your church. For others, it is the promise that if they just preach the word, the church will grow. In some cases it means that they leave the small place behind and strike out for fame and glory.

For a handful of pastors, this really is their story. We know that it is because they tell us so at the conferences we attend. They take no credit for their success but give all the glory to God. Then after the main session, they lead a workshop which promises to tell us how we too can turn our churches around. Later they meet us in the vestibule to autograph their latest book. During the two minutes we spend with them, we feel a sense of kinship. We are convinced that we are cut from the same cloth. But somewhere in the back of our mind, there is a nagging doubt. Why hasn’t our story turned out like theirs? Why is our ugly duckling church still so ugly? We aren’t alone in this. Most pastors serve in ugly duckling churches. Half of all worshipers are concentrated in a mere ten percent of churches. Six out of ten churches have an attendance of 100 or less.

When you think about it, ugly duckling theology is only a pastoral shaped version of the prosperity gospel. It says that if you believe and work hard, you will eventually be a success. Those who hold to this theology measure ministry success along an axis which has two coordinated points. They are not X and Y, as is the case with other graphs, but B and B: bodies and bucks. These two are related. The more bodies you attract, the more bucks you will have at your disposal. None of us aspiring swans intends to enrich ourselves off this interrelation. However, we do feel that our compensation ought to reflect the difference in scale. We believe this expectation is rooted in equity rather than greed. No one would expect a CEO to be paid the same as the guy who works in the mail room. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with the ethical dilemma this kind of thinking might create right now because we are still pushing a mail cart, waiting for our big break.

“There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” Eugene Peterson observed. “The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” Which brings me back to the survey I read the other day. I don’t think the reason that pastors of small churches are less energized is that the pastors of large churches are having more fun. I don’t think it is because pastoring a small church is harder. I think it is a result of misplaced expectation.

When I told this to my pastoral students, one of them asked: “So are you saying that we are all ugly ducklings?” “Yes, I am,” I replied. But after giving it further thought, I think I should have answered him differently. Our mistake was in thinking that we were ugly to begin with. I should have said that we are all swans.

Added Value

The leaders of a church I know were discussing the membership roll. It is the sort of thing that congregations have to do every once in a while. People move away or they decide to attend somewhere else. If the constitution calls for a certain number to be in attendance in order to hold a business meeting, a bloated and inaccurate roll makes it difficult to achieve a quorum. I get it. I really do. From time to time a church needs to purge its list of members.

But more than once during the meeting, as various candidates for removal were discussed, the same observation was made: “Well, they don’t contribute anything anyway.” The comment didn’t have anything to do with money. They weren’t even talking about attendance. Not really. They were talking about involvement.

I have found this to be a common way of thinking in churches these days. It is a perspective which believes that the value of those who claim to be a part of the church is shaped by what they produce for the church. It is not enough to simply show up on Sunday or even to worship. You must somehow add value to be of value. Serve coffee or sit in the nursery. Teach Sunday school or go on the church’s latest ministry trip. Serve on a church committee. Do whatever you like but don’t just sit there. I thought the same way when I was a pastor.

I was wrong. Our value is derived not produced. We are of value to the church simply because we belong to Christ. Even those members who seem to contribute nothing are essential. As 1 Corinthians 12:21 says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” “But that’s just the point!” some of us will want to reply. “Everybody knows that eyes and hands are important. They make a contribution to the overall well-being of the body. The problem with these deadbeat members is that they are atrophied limbs. They just sit there. They don’t do anything. They are just dead weight!” Yet Paul warns that we cannot even say this. Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. The parts that seem to be deserving of less honor are to be treated with “special honor” (1 Cor. 12:22).

We, of course, tend to do just the opposite. We value the strong and award special treatment to those that we think contribute the most. But God’s assessment is radically different. He has “…put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:24). His standard of measure is not what people contribute but their need for someone to be concerned about them. We are not the best judges when it comes to determining whose presence adds the most value to the church, especially when we are in leadership. Our motives are too mixed. Our assessment is shaped too much by our own goals. Those who are worthy of the most attention are likely to be the ones we notice the least. Those who add the most value are liable to be those in whom we see little or no value at all.