“Blended” Worship?

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.


About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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4 Responses to “Blended” Worship?

  1. Brad B says:

    It goes back to the styles not originating in the Church, but the “world,” so that the Church is imitating the “world” to execute some absurd marketing campaign to woo “seekers.” So it all seems forced and contrived, and offends one generation as the expense of getting another to darken church thresholds. Its goal is not “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” but to have something “culturally relevant” to appeal to a certain market segment. Blechh…

    That being said, I have to honestly say that the RUF music and other Christian pop-ish music still ministers to my soul, as it represents touchstones I can return to that were once good helps (and Spirit-given) from God in my life. I actually LOVE that tune you linked to as an example, but it sounded so “sad puppy dog-ish” with Matthew Smith singing it instead of Sandra McCracken, who sings it on the actual Indelible Grace album. She is amazing (though sounds pretty dolorous and unnecessarily somber at times as well). She writes her own NEW hymns and tunes (on her hymnody album entitled The Builder and the Architect), as well as just “Christian music.” She and her husband, Derek Webb (formerly of Caedmon’s Call), both are phenomenal musicians and lyricists, and though I’d never recommend their music for use in our type of worship service, I think certain songs they produce indeed should have a place sung corporately before Yahweh in some kind of setting.

    I can’t say I wouldn’t find it refreshing, either (and I’m being really honest, here…and loving, and I hope Body-conscious, gracious, joyful, and all those good things…no worries, just expressing myself) to have worship with an acoustic guitar from time to time, and sing more folk-y type music…even “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” so my son could sing along too, without knowing how to read when each Sunday I whisper to him to “Sing to Jesus!” Not every Sunday, but I think if we’re trying to have a mutual respect while still reaching different generations of believers, we ought not think of it as “throwing a bone to old folks” by singing traditional hymns in a contemporary service, but as thoughtfully working things out to reach different people in worship music- if that is indeed what is happening. I’m probably becoming incoherent, but these are thoughts all strung together. I don’t *like* “contemporary worship,” per se as it is manifested in typically any church you’d likely walk into to find it, but I do like stirring, moving worship music that adores the King of kings, whether my heart is crying out in song:”…and hail Him as thy matchless King, through all eternity!” to DIADEMATA on a gorgeous organ, or “…for I am a whore, I do confess, I put you on just like a wedding dress and I run down the aisle…I’m a prodigal with no way home, I put you on just like a ring of gold and I run down the aisle…to You.” to Derek Webb’s music strummed on an acoustic guitar. I know I don’t have the credentials that entitle me to discuss music with as much worthy opinion as you do (and I mean that sincerely, though writing it out might make it sound saucy…it annoys me when non-accountants do their own books without knowing what they’re doing and screw them up so bad I don’t know where to start, so I know I’m edging in on your professional territory, is all I’m saying, JATB…in other words, I should qualify with “IMHO,” whereas your degrees should at least confer upon you the right and privilege to drop the “H” and substitute “P” for “professional.”), but I do have a heart that seeks to glorify God, and a heart that enjoys the diversity and variety built into His glorious creation, and the aspect of that diverse creation that stirs this heart in its chief end to glorify God, and makes it easier and ever more my pleasure to do so.

    And I hope you mentioned belly-buttons when combatting such annoying ign’ince! Come on, people…”LINT”??????

  2. RevJATB says:

    Wow! I love it when a CPA posts a comment: so meticulous and thorough. Or as a government and economics teacher at my high school used to say, “thiral”.

    I’m not averse to any of the above things you mentioned, for the exact reasons you mentioned. I do think that a steady diet of guitar-led singing will lead to throaty, anemic singing. Actually, the piano, being a percussion instrument, is itself not the best complement to congregational singing either. Wind instruments (including the organ, brass instruments, and woodwinds) all encourage us to sing “on the breath” (as a voice teacher would tell you). The next best thing, IMHO (and I will keep the H in there, because I think it’s nice), is unaccompanied singing, although I realize that makes a lot of people VERY self-conscious, unless one is in an environment in which the majority of the congregation is very comfortable with unaccompanied singing (such as in a Church of Christ setting).

    And I wouldn’t dismiss all “RUF Songs” outright. But I do think it’s too bad that so many churches in the PCA think these songs are the be-all end-all, not because they are horrible songs (they are not), but because there is so much other REALLY GREAT stuff that they are dismissing out of hand, kind of like those dwarfs at the end of The Last Battle who stay huddled at the doorway of Aslan’s new country, not venturing out into the vast world that lies ahead of them. People go on and on about how great it is that RUF people are “writing new tunes to old hymns” as if they were the only ones doing it, and as if they came up with the idea. People have been doing this throughout the history of the church. Vaughan-Williams was doing this in the 1930s. (The “standard” tune now for “For All the Saints”, SINE NOMINE, was a “new” tune that Vaughan-Williams did for The English Hymnal.) People all over the church are doing this. Again, this is not to cast aspersions on “RUF Music.” It’s just that the PCA is tiny. We are one tiny, tiny corner of Aslan’s new country. We need to stop acting as if we are the whole ball game.

    In some cases, these “new” RUF tunes (I put “new” in quotation marks because some of them, such as the ones by Darwin Jordan, are approaching middle age) are improvements over the tunes matched with some of these texts in the Trinity Hymnal, but in some cases that’s not saying a whole lot. Jordan’s tune, for example, for Cowper’s (and it is pronounced “Cooper”) “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood” is certainly more appropriate to the text than the tune CLEANSING FOUNTAIN, which we find in TH, but then again there could hardly be a more inappropriate tune for those words than CLEANSING FOUNTAIN. A refrain? Especially when the words are “lose all their guilty stains”? CLEANSING FOUNTAIN is a flippant, even raucous, tune, and is entirely unsuited to, and unsuitable for, Cowper’s sombre text. But there are already several fine tunes that work quite well with this text of Cowper’s and that have been paired with this text for a long, long time. Since these pairings come to us from other traditions, in the PCA we remain blissfully ignorant of them. Some of these tunes are WALSALL by Henry Purcell, CROWLE, ARLINGTON, and BELMONT.

    However, the tune LENOX, which we find in TH with Wesley’s “Arise, My Soul, Arise”, is a fine, serviceable tune. Kevin Twit’s tune for this text is hardly an improvement. It detracts from Wesley’s text every bit as much as CLEANSING FOUNTAIN detracts from Cowper’s in the above example. These tunes don’t need to be adopted in a wholesale fashion: they need to be evaluated individually.

    Let me just say this too: the RUF crowd needs to give their tunes NAMES! It is terribly inconvenient to talk about singing a hymn to “__________’s tune for it” or some such. Hymn tunes have NAMES. At least they’re supposed to.

    And now, you know we sing “Jesus Loves Me” a LOT, especially during communion! But that brings up another bone of contention with a lot of the “RUF tunes”: some of them are SO syncopated (such as Twit’s tune for “And Can it Be” in which every syllable is syncopated) that they are extremely difficult to sing corporately, especially for children and the elderly. Besides, syncopation is like paprika: it’s nice in small amounts, but that’s about all you can say for it.

    And yes, Brad, LINT. And yes, it remained LINT for at least an entire year after that. I won’t say the name of the church, but I would imagine that McCracken and Webb, if they are in the PCA and involved in the CCM scene, attend it.

  3. Mark says:

    You know, even thought I’m not a huge fan of blended worship (maybe I should be) there are times I would have done it for various reasons but simply was scared off by how difficult it seems to avoid doing it badly.

    It is easier just to pick the hymns unless you have music staff.

    (BTW, I meant to comment earlier but got side-tracked by another post.)

  4. RevJATB says:

    Mark, I’m not a fan of it either, at least of what passes for it in most (if not all) PCA churches that do it. For that reason, I’m not really a big fan of the term “blended worship” (hence my use of quotation marks in the subject line). Jeff Meyers once said that we need to be seeking out new musical expressions because the point of liturgical worship is not that we want to be old-fashioned (I’m very loosely paraphrasing him here).

    As I said, I have my suspicions as to why “blended” worship doesn’t work in the PCA. I’m still working on that post. More to come!

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