Monday, February 27, 2012


One of the great things the church has to offer the world, in my opinion, is a place to participate in making music. There are no longer very many places in our culture where the average person can make music with other average people. Music has become such a commodity that we expect either to consume it by ourselves via iPods or to consume it in a concert hall--it's not something we *do* ourselves unless we are professionals.

Except in church.

At church, everyone can (and should!) sing. Everyone can clap or hum or sing at the top of their lungs. Together we make a joyful noise--sometimes more noise, sometimes more tuneful, but always beautiful in its way. A large part of that beauty comes from the fact that we are making it together, not simply consuming it. (Please note I'm not talking here about "special" music--music not meant for the whole congregation to create together--which is obviously different, though still not intended for consumption, exactly, it's also not a communal creation with every person participating--it's a communal creation of the choir or band or ensemble. I get that. I also get that it has other issues, which are for another post sometime.)

I love both old and new hymnody--I'm not one to shy away from a new hymn or a new tune or a new instrumentation (ask around and RCLPC and you'll probably find plenty of people who wish I would shy away a little more often!). But the reality is that the purpose of music in the church is for us to participate in it...which means that when we do learn something new, it has to be something we can all participate in, whether or not we can read music, whether or not we can remember a tune after hearing part of it once. It needs to be accessible. If it isn't, it's nothing more than an opportunity for the "professionals" to perform and the congregation to consume.

And this is exactly where we run into trouble when we start to have "contemporary" worship (whatever that means) or "new" music. I love a lot of the stuff being done by people in the church all around the world. But if you stand up front and ask people to sing along, it better be something we can all pick up on and join in relatively quickly (like within one verse...if it has verses...). Otherwise you aren't enabling people to worship through creating music together, you're enabling people to stand there while you play and sing for them, and that's not the same thing.

So today I was watching the live feed of the Next2012 conference opening worship (yes, I'm kind of a dork, but a friend was preaching and I'm a sucker for worship) and the musician, who was a seminary classmate of mine, was leading people in singing. I don't know for certain but I would bet that he is the author and composer of two of the songs they sang this morning.
Now, when I say this next thing, remember that I wasn't there so I'm going off what I felt and what I could hear through the internet streaming feed. It may have been different to be there--and I hope people who were there will chime in.

The two new songs I heard, and to a certain extent the two hymns he led, were not singable. They had random-feeling tunes with lots of skips and jumps and a range most of us couldn't sing, especially first thing in the morning. With only guitar and one voice (a voice often singing a descant or solo rather than the tune) to follow, it was almost impossible to sing along. At home, I definitely could not, and I couldn't hear many voices singing in the space either. (for comparison, when they were able to sing a verse of a familiar hymn, or say unison prayers, I could hear clearly the crowd's voice(s).)
It's not that I don't think the songs were great--I do. They were appropriate to the text, theologically sound, and musically interesting and beautiful to listen to. Troy is a great musician. But they didn't seem like songs for a congregation to sing together. They were songs for people who knew what was going on to sing, and people who didn't know what was going on to listen.
And at it's heart, that's the problem I have with "contemporary" worship--it seems like it's for people who are already in the know, and if you aren't then you can't be included until you know this secret musical language. It's not something you can simply join in and get carried along by the experience of making music together.

It is possible to find and to write music that is not a tune from 1743, not accompanied on the organ and still have it be singable. It's possible to find and write music that's led by a band and have it be simultaneously musically interesting, singable, and theologically sound. I know because we do it every week. (It's also possible to have an organist lead those tunes from 1743 and have them be spirit filled.) Now if only the NEXT thing in the church could be to strengthen our community building through music making, rather than simply making it another opportunity to perform.

*note: I use "contemporary" in quotation marks because, while it's often used to describe a particular style of worship, it's actually a misnomer. Since worship is happening now, it is contemporary, no matter what style it is. There are not good words to describe worship styles, at least not what we do at RCLPC--some of it has a band, some has the organ. Both include old hymns and brand new songs. Both involve congregational singing, prayer, silence, preaching, etc. The primary difference is in instrumentation. It's possible, people, I promise. It just takes work. But does the presence of a band at 830am mean that the worship at 930 or 11 is not contemporary? No. Hence the quotation marks.


  1. I just love you; for one thing you're the same kind of dork as I am. :)

    I had an interesting experience of worship in a Southern Baptist church yesterday...they are in a brand-new building due to an arson :P and they have big shiny screens up front that all the words were projected onto.

    But, no hymnals (maybe they haven't replaced them yet?) so no way to read the music for this non-Baptist visitor.

    Surprisingly (for what I expected @ Baptist church) they were not very singable. And I really like to sing in church, and I am uncomfortable "sight reading by ear." I do it, because darn it! I want to sing in worship! But I'm not sure the folks around me appreciate it much.

    One of them reminded me of nothing so much as calliope music.

  2. MB, paradoxically I like screens. Not as the sole option if there are hymnals there, but for less regular music (a lot of "contemporary" music, even when singable, is hard to write out in a way that will make sense to most people). I think looking at the screen helps us get our faces out of the hymnal and looking around. They also offer opportunity for other visual arts in worship we might not be otherwise able to have.

    Having said that, if the song is hard, then we just can't rely on the screen. We need music, AND we need the choir to know the song and lead from within the congregation, needs to just be singable. I mean, really.

    This past Sunday we had all hymns on inserts--none we wanted to sing were in our hymnal. The words were also on the screen...but even on the insert, we didn't have the music, just the words. Of course, they were all sung to really really familiar old tunes...

    I'm glad you keep singing even when it's hard! I hope you'll tell people it was hard and uncomfortable and unwelcoming in that aspect. We like to find those things out!!

  3. I think your comments about the music here at NEXT this morning are on target.

  4. Amen and amen. Unsingable music is my biggest complaint about so-called contemporary worship. There just aren't opportunities to sing outside of church for most of us, and to take it away there takes away the identity of worship for me.

  5. UCC people leading a conference I attended last summer (Center for Progressive Renewal) gave this advice: It doesn't matter what style of worship and music you have; it just need to be done extremely well. To me, choosing singable music is one of the ways you do it extremely well.
    My experience with screens is that I find it harder to look around than when I can glance up and down at the hymnal. I always feel like I'm cricking my neck toward the screen. And like MB, I want to see the notes. Of course if it's a simple or well-known tune, it's fine to have just the words. But in my church that would limit us to about ten tunes. ;-)

  6. I love the church that I attend in Seattle, but I often happily come in after the music (which is usually my favorite part). They usually sing three songs at the beginning, one of which is an old hymn - usually leaving the tune in tact, but updating it, and two contemporary songs. I grew up in a contemporary worship setting, so I like both. However, the worship teams tend to be on the young side, and favor the slow ballads led by one person swaying in the front with their eyes closed, that Alan calls "Jesus is my boyfriend" music.

    I love singing worship music, but after endless refrains that seem more about the personal worship experience of the music leader than about any corporate worship (it's hard for the congregation to sing along with a descant) I find I'm frustrated almost every week. I don't mind the screens for the contemporary songs, though it leaves a lot of guess work on a song I'm not familiar with.

  7. I agree, Teri! Even at our own church (and you and Sherri do an excellent job of picking "good" CCM), I was extremely uncomfortable at first in that service. I'm a sheet music gal, and for me, not being familiar with those songs at all made me feel kind of left out and un-worshipy, since I couldn't participate. Now that I've attended more of them, due to your fabulous drummer/bassist, I know more of them, so I feel more like a participant, versus an outsider. I could see how that experience could be much worse in a "contemporary" service in a church that did not have such fabulous pickers-of-songs. :)