Hey, people, I know you’re out there: I can hear you breathing.
However, for the past two weeks, the spammers have the real comments beaten by about 10 to 1. Apparently a lot of people out there want you all to play Texas Hold’em online.
Several days ago, I talked about the variety of services we have at JKPC, and how each service is different from the others, by design. I believe our spiritual health depends on addressing these different aspects of who we are, just as our physical health depends on a varied diet.
What about variety in our music? As I said last time, our Sunday morning is liturgical and quite formal. I can’t back this up, but we may be the most liturgical church in the PCA. I don’t know of any other church in our denomination that incorporates the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei into its worship every Lord’s Day. We also have a very uniform musical style in our worship: it is very hymn-based and most of those hymns and tunes are from the 18th century or earlier. What I’d like to explore, and what we’ve been trying to explore on Sunday nights, is branching out into different types of musical expression, both by going backward in time from the 18th-century (we’ve been learning about different types of chant and will be exploring more of the Genevan Psalm tunes, just to name two examples) and going forward in time as well.
Now, churches in our denomination mean different things when they talk about “contemporary” music. For a lot of the Baby Boomers, “contemporary” Christian music is music from the 1980s. That was twenty years ago, but some in the PCA consider themselves “contemporary” because they sing “You Are My Hiding Place” and “As the Deer”. That may be fine as far as it goes, but Boomers need to be aware that this sort of “contemporary” worship seems as quaint and corny to younger worshipers today as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” does to the Boomers.
For others, “contemporary” means “commercial”: music that is written for Christian radio, music that is made to sell CDs in Christian bookstores and to sell tickets to Christian concerts. Again, OK as far as it goes, but music that is destined for commercial success does not always translate into music that is truly useful for congregational praise. First, from a singability standpoint, much of it is too florid for congregational singing, or no one knows exactly what the melody is, so everyone does his/her own thing. Not exactly a corporate worship experience: more like a personal quiet time that happens to be taking place with other people in the room. Secondly, a lot of commercial music is intentionally vague: Steve Camp talked about this years ago, but the criticism is still valid (I listen to Christian radio every day, so I know whereof I speak). Is the artist talking about Jesus, or his girlfriend? Sometimes, it’s impossible to say for sure.
For still others in PCA circles, “contemporary” worship music falls more into the acoustic, coffee-house style of the songs sung in RUF meetings. While it is commendable that those involved with RUF have turned to hymn texts instead of some of the more vapid fare they could have used for these songs, a steady diet of nothing but “RUF Songs” can be pretty bland. Musically speaking, a lot of these tunes leave a lot to be desired. Many of them are pretty static (they don’t go anywhere) and quite repetetive. This is a good example. If you listen to the mp3 on the site, you’ll notice that the tune itself ends on a half cadence. This has become somewhat of a signature feature of these tunes, and it’s incredibly frustrating from a singer’s standpoint: there’s no resolution for the congregation. It’s up to the musicians to come to a cadence (eventually, maybe) long after everyone has stopped singing. This gives every song that ends this way an anticlimatic feeling.
Furthermore, the mellow “coffee house” feel doesn’t lend itself to lifting up one’s voice with strength. Most of the tunes call for no more vocal power than, say, Michael Franks or James Taylor. A lot of people I know who are into more mainstream Christian pop music, be it “Praise and Worship” music or more cutting-edge stuff, find the RUF songs to be depressing. I wouldn’t necessarily call them depressing, but they are somewhat on the brooding side. Textually, they rely quite heavily on Evangelical hymnody: that is, the likes of Watts, Cowper, and Newton. Good stuff, to be sure, but there are good ancient hymns too, not to mention good modern ones. A steady diet of “RUF Songs” becomes, ironically, every bit as much a steady diet of 17th and 18th century hymns that we currently have at JKPC.
But the word “contemporary”, of course, simply means “with the times.” Contemporary music is music of our time. And there is a lot of it. I just mentioned contemporary hymnody. How many “contemporary” worship enthusiasts are familiar with Brian Wren, or Jaroslav Vajda? These are two of our best contemporary hymn writers. To ignore them, and others like them, is a great injustice to them and a great disservice to worshipers everywhere, who would benefit greatly from coming into contact with their work.
In terms of types of music (I scrupulously avoid the overused term “style”), what about the music of Taiz?? What about the music of the Iona Community? What about music for the church from Brazil, or from the Caribbean? The Gospel is not confined to North America: why, when looking for contemporary music, do we not go beyond our own borders? Our worship could be so greatly enriched by learning from our brothers and sisters in other countries, but so often proponents of contemporary worship music behave as if the Holy Spirit has taken up exclusive residence in Nashville, Tennessee.
I agree with Marva Dawn that we, as the church, need to sing one another’s music. The older generation needs to learn from the younger, and vice versa, with mutual respect. We also need to learn from believers in other parts of the world and in other Christian traditions besides our own. That’s all a part of what it means to be the Body of Christ.
Having said that, I’m not at all comfortable with what passes for “blended worship” in those PCA churches that practice it. Why? Because it’s ham-fistedly executed. It’s awkward. It does justice neither to the “traditional” material nor the “contemporary” material. In some cases, the contemporary music gets short shrift, as when the Norma Zimmer crowd tries to play “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” on the Hammond B-3. In other cases, churches who do contemporary music well try to throw a bone to the traditionalists in their midst by singing a couple of hymns every now and then, or by having a choir that sings every once in a blue moon, such as the prominent contemporary PCA church that advertised on its web site that it had a choir “during the seasons of Advent and Lint” (sic). Even when someone E-mailed them to point out their egregious error (wonder who that could have been?), it remained that way on the web site for a full year afterward. Clearly, someone didn’t care very much about what that choir might have been doing during “Advent and Lint”, much less during Lent.
I think there’s a reason that blended worship seldom comes off well in PCA circles, and it goes beyond not having competent musicians: that’s a symptom, not the cause. So what’s the problem?
More on this another time. Meanwhile, give us your thoughts.