Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Should We Critique Worship Music?

Here is a job description I recently found for a "director of worship and creative arts" position at a local church.
Purpose of Position: This position focuses upon creating a musical sound and style that is excellent in execution, attracts people, a style consistent with our demographic, and a spirit that enables people to encounter God, and enhance the Gathering. This position is also responsible for developing teams for all technical (sound, lighting, audio) functions in a Gathering as well as working towards creative elements within Gatherings which would include but not be limited to video pieces, music, stage décor, drama, etc.

Skill and Experience
1. BA Degree Required
2. Has been a worship leader and involved with creative elements on a church team where the average Sunday attendance has been 700 or more
3. Licensed Minister or in process towards licensure from an approved organization
4. Competent in basic MS office, Finale or equivalent music program, can work with and meet budget, can set budget
Unfortunately nowhere does the description say that the worship leader needs any biblical or theological training, any wisdom or discernment. Nowhere does it suggest that the work of a worship pastor is fundamentally discerning which sounds, which tunes, which arrangements, which texts, which artistic tools will best serve to form followers of Christ. #3 vaguely alludes to a requirement for at least being in the "process towards licensure from an approved organization," but I'm not sure what that means.
If I had the courage and time I would like to write a book that might be called something like More Than The Hipster: Worship Music and 'The Cool.' I have pondered other possibilities: More Than Charismatic or  More Than Winsome. The former evokes the pentecostal/charismatic section of Christianity and isn't my point while the latter just sounds stuffy. My concern is that in our attempts to help the church keep up with the times, to be relevant and voice its worship in a contemporary sound, we have lost a careful, informed discernment of what we are doing. We naively practice various production techniques and values; we appropriate 'the Cool' and have little understanding of how it is confusing our worship capacities. We recruit talented and likeable leaders who have good intentions but little formation. And this happens during a time when many Christian leaders are beginning to realize that the arts--especially worship music--is having as significant of a role, if not a more significant role than the sermon in the shaping of our understanding of what Christianity is essentially.

This lack of oversight is a relatively new phenomenon. The church historically has had a much more active role in holding worship composition accountable to singing true words with proper discretion. I am glad I don't live in the time of the Genevan community in the 16th century for example. Louis Bourgeois, one of three main contributors to the Genevan Psalter, was arrested for making musical changes to some songs he presumably had written himself. There was an outcry from many who did not want to learn any new tunes. John Calvin's primary concern was that congregational singing would be restricted to singing only the Psalms and that the music not pervert or sensualize the biblical text. No harmony or any "secular" tunes were used in worship. The purpose of restricting the Genevan Psalter to the 126 tunes was to clearly delineate proper, safe and worthy Christian music. Calvin would later personally intervene and have Bourgeois released from prison but due to the restrictions of Geneva Bourgeois eventually left for Paris and later had his daughter baptized a Catholic.

In contrast the worship music tradition that has arisen from Martin Luther is comparatively libertine. Luther embraced harmony (polyphony) as well as monastic chant, folk tunes and highly ornate orchestration. In short, the Lutheran tradition did not restrict singing to the Psalms but instead allowed for what my be considered Christian, or theological poetry. 

[I highly recommend both Jeremy Begbie's The Resounding Truth and Paul Westermeyer's Te Deum for substantial examinations of the history of music in the church.]

While this is a gross simplification, we might generally say that our worship today is influenced by both Lutheran and Reformed traditions. We want Biblically sound yet creatively rich worship music. We want music that focuses on God, yet we also want freedom to express this worship however we'd like. 

It is my experience that most of us take the former for granted. We assume that each of us wants good, strong Christo-centric worship. This explains why the job description above doesn't explicitly require any formal biblical or theological training. Yet we assume too much about our respective intentions and are terribly afraid of offending someone else's worship sensibilities. It seems rude doesn't it? To critique worship? Shouldn't each of us be able to sing what we want to God if we mean well? If our hearts are in the right place? If we are being authentic and sincere? 

We don't have to be as heavy handed as the Genevan experiment in order to properly steward and discern worship music. There is a long history of hymn composers who have edited, revised, re-written, added verses and eliminated verses from hymns. Charles Wesley's great hymn, "O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing My Great Redeemer's Praise," originally contained 18 stanzas. What we now sing as the first stanza was originally stanza seven. Wesley's text originally read " dear redeemer's praise." Now we sing it commonly as " great redeemer's praise." I'm sure there are many other edits.

"Come Thou Fount" originally read, "Praise the mount--I'm fixed upon it,/ Mount of God's unchanging love!" Most contemporary uses of the hymn read, "Praise his name, I'm fixed upon it,/ Name of God's redeeming love." There is also that difficult stanza:

Here I raise mine Ebenezer,
Hither by thy help I'm come;
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home;
Jesus sought me, when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed his precious blood.

What does Ebenezer mean? What does interposed mean? Most of us don't know and so we accept the newer contemporized re-write:

Hither to Thy love has blest me,
Thou hast bro’t me to this place.
And I know Thy hand will bring me
safely home by Thy good grace.

Jesus sought me when a stranger 
wandering from the fold of God
He to rescue me from danger, 
bought me with His precious blood.

This is just a very small glimpse into how the church has edited, revised, critiqued and discerned worship music for decades and centuries. The words we use to describe God are powerful and weighty. They need to be handled with care, and proper discernment or critique of worship music needs to also treat people with care, gently and lovingly. Unfortunately, sometimes the decisions a worship pastor might make can result in pain and confusion.

I have had a handful of students approach me about my previous post regarding Jon Foreman's "Your Love Is Strong." I knew the decision to eliminate the second verse and that my writing about it would be frustrating for some. I'm incredibly grateful to the students who took the time to come talk to me. Unfortunately in the context of a campus ministry I am not always as accessible that I'd like to be. I want to be available to learn with you. These blog entries are one of the venues I use to extend myself, my thoughts, the things I've learned, the questions I still bring myself closer to you.

So, please feel free to email or stop by. My door is open.

And I am going to get to writing out some thoughts on a the John Mark MacMilan, "How He Loves Us." So if you are interested in these things, stay tuned.