I began to follow Jesus seriously in the 1970s. Back then, I thought of it as a decision. “I have decided to follow Jesus,” I sang. “No turning back, no turning back.” But over time, I came to realize that it was more a case of Jesus drawing me after Him. I worked the midnight shift at a fast-food restaurant and started reading the Gospels during my breaks. Their stories of Jesus calling the disciples to drop everything and follow Him caught my attention and eventually captured my heart.
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.
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In a new book about creating sermons based on hymns, music and poetry, Thomas Troeger observes that today’s church suffers from an imagination deficit. Troeger notes that “the starved imagination of the church and the resultant drought in the soul have driven many people from the community of faith.” He cites Fred Craddock’s observation that many parishioners “are not so much evil as they are bored, and their entire Christian experience has never provided them a chair in which to sit for an hour in the heavenly places with Christ.”
Troeger’s assessment agrees with my experience. In my thirty-seven years of serious attendance at worship, I have come to the sad conclusion that church is the location least suited to the contemplation of the heavenly places. The predominant temper of my experience in church has been one of boredom. Worship is for the most part dull. There have been exceptions, of course, rare moments when some hymn or song transports me into the heavenly realms. Or when the word of God causes the scales to fall from my eyes and I see God’s truth or myself in a way I have never seen before. But those moments seem few and far between.
It does not help that all the church has to offer worshipers these days is a boilerplate experience. Overly familiar songs and chatty sermons are served up with the monotonous homogeny of a fast-food franchise. The music of worship is Christian “top-forty.” The observations from scripture are trite and garnished with cute stories from the margins of Reader’s Digest. It is a corporate experience that at best promises to be mildly interesting but it hardly ever offers a taste of the transcendent.
Looking back on my experience, I suppose this boredom was one of the primary factors that propelled me into ministry. I am rarely bored when I am the one doing the preaching. Unfortunately, the same cannot be so said of my listeners. Time and again as I have been held fast by the grip of my own words, I have looked out over the congregation with an unsettling awareness that I do not have their undivided attention. They look bored. As bored as I must look when I am seated among them.
As long I am the one doing the preaching, I am tempted to blame the congregation for their boredom and for good reason. Listening, like reading, requires focused attention, and not everyone is willing to pay the price. But on those Sundays when I return to the other side of the pulpit as a listener and participant, the old ennui comves over me and I do not know who to blame. Indeed, blame is the farthest thing from my mind. On those Sundays when I am not the one doing the preaching, I take my place in the pew beside my fellow worshippers. I turn my gaze toward the front and wait. I am waiting for the music of worship to give me a glimpse of the heavenly realms. I am waiting for the word of God to arouse me from my slumber like a lover’s kiss. I am waiting for God to show up.
My colleague Heather Moffitt sent me a link to Jason Byassee’s post on “The Mourner as Leader.” Byassee comments on Steven Kepnes’ book Jewish Liturgical Reasoning. It is Kepnes’ observation about the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning for the dead, that captures Byassee’s attention.
Based on Daniel 2:20, the Kaddish is a prayer which declares that God’s name will be praised. “There is very little in it that sounds obviously like a mourner’s prayer.” Byassee notes. “It is more like a praiser’s prayer, except the praiser is barely present as well. It’s a prayer that is first and last about God.”
In his book Kepnes observes that this prayer is never offered alone. What is more, it is the mourner who leads the prayer. Byassee observes, “This is how to lead in the face of death. To stand and announce with a community of fellow praying people that God is King, that God will establish his reign over creation, that God’s name will be praised, and to ask that God would bring all this about soon.”