Monday, October 26, 2009

My Problem with Worship Music

I guess that even this title is a harsh way to start a blog post.  But recently I have been told by a mentor and an assessor that I need to work on my boldness and take a stand for what I feel and believe, so I need to learn to be less apologetic about the things that I am feeling strongly.  So here goes…

I really have not appreciated worship music for a long time.  If I am being bold, I should say that I just can’t stand a lot of worship music lately.  Personally, I think that I have an even stronger reaction on this topic because of how many people make it sound like a sin to dislike a worship song or a worship experience.

How many times have I heard someone make some sort of statement like:  “on Saturday, you went to your favorite sports team’s home game and screamed your voice hoarse cheering when your team scored or kept the other team from scoring… then why is it on Sunday, you sit in church like a bump on a log, quiet and relaxed?  if we cheer for our team, why can’t we cheer for God?  Do you love your team more than God?”  or I hear this: “why is it that you scream and dance and sing along for your favorite rock band, but stand like a frozen statue in a worship service singing quietly and barely participating?”

Statements like these truly upset me.  I feel like I am right back in High School at the pep rally.  “We’ve got spirit. Yes we do!”  I didn’t hate my high school, but I desperately hated the pep rallies.  The pep rally was the school’s way of parading the best looking, and most talented athletes and cheerleaders in front of the student body and saying: “don’t you want to be like us. don’t you want to worship us?”  My answer was always “NO!  Not even a little.”  I liked my high school team.  I wanted them to win.  I actually wanted to cheer for them.  But pep rallies made me want to walk away in disgust.  I felt bad for not jumping up and down and screaming like lots of students did.  I felt bad for being attracted to every cheerleader physically, but literally hating everything they said or did at these rallies.  I felt bad for thinking less of myself and my talents because I would never be asked to stand in front of this rally in a letterman’s jacket to receive the praise of my peers and the phone numbers from the girls. 

The school was saying:  “Cheer for what we tell you to cheer for.  Cheer for the strong, good looking, athletically talented.  Cheer for the ONE flavor of life that we can all appreciate.  If you want to get on this stage and be praised you’d better bench press more, run faster, hit harder, win more, (or for the girls) you’d better have a clear complexion, great legs, great hair and all of the other features that enhance how you look in your cheer leaders outfit.” 

“Like what we tell you to like, or there is something wrong with you.” 

About six months ago, I met with a Pastor who confirmed these parallels in the church without even flinching.  He was the pastor of the largest church in the East Valley in Phoenix.  He was telling me that he wanted to offer me some money to plant a church in the Phoenix area.  But in order to get that money, I would have to do things “his way.”  He said that “his way” included:  “you will play the worship music we tell you to because it is loved by early 30-something women with children.  Normally men don’t like it as much, but if you get the wife excited about church, she will drag her husband there.”  When he talked more about the music, he talked about the sound and style, he never addressed the content or the tradition. 

This is how it is in Christian Worship Music.  Very little variety, very little talent, very little that is interesting, but a solid tune that is catchy and memorable.  And we are told that if we don’t sing our hearts out to it, raise our hands with it, and are emotionally impacted by it; there is something wrong with us. 

“Like what we tell you to like or there is something wrong with you.”

It gets worse than this in church though.  If you are being “contemporary”, your worship team is all young, dressed like emo-rock stars, and pop stars, and this music and look is what makes you relevant to our culture.  Just like high school, the church’s pretty people are trying to get you emotionally stirred up.  Not cheerleaders and jocks, it’s the attractive and musically talented that are leading the pep rally.  That dude in the second row who started his own business that is succeeding, and thriving has no relevant gifts for the stage, the guy in the back row who works nights and cleans floors at businesses and is a great father to his children and a great husband, has no relevant gifts.  But the guy on the guitar kind of looks like one of the goo goo dolls if you squint a little. 

Not only can the look and feel be superficial, but some of these songs:

Shout to the Lord – undeniably has a very memorable and singable melody, but “I sing for joy at the work or your hands, forever I’ll love you forever I’ll stand. Nothing compares to the promise I have in you.”

I Am A Friend of God – This song is probably my least favorite.  I always imagine that the writers of Barney rejected the lyrics because they were condescending to children. “I am a friend of God, I am a Friend of God, I am a friend of God, HE calls me friend.” 

Here I am to Worship – “Here I am to worship. Here I am to bow down.  Here I am to say that you’re MY God.”  In case God didn’t know, I am singing about how awesome of a worshipper I am. 

Open the Eyes of My Heart – Never mind that the Bible tells us that we couldn’t handle seeing God because we are inadequate.  “Open the eyes of my heart, I want to see you. Pour out your power and love as we sing holy holy holy.” 

Beautiful One - “Beautiful one I love. Beautiful one, I adore. Beautiful one, my soul does sing.”  Singing in Yoda, is by far the best part of this song. 

Trading My Sorrows - “ I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my shame. I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord.” 

What kills me in these songs are that these are some of the most popular worship songs.  They all are catchy and singable, they have all been sung countless times in churches.  And for the most part the songs are songs about how great of worshippers and christians WE are.   When I sing these songs, I feel like I am singing praise to myself and praising the church and the musicians. I literally and truly feel that I am doing nothing more important than participating in the pep rally. 

And it’s true.  These songs are popular for a reason.  They are popular because people who have been in churches that are unemotional and boring through most of their lives will find them catchy and singable and probably easier to understand than some of the liturgy that they may have grown used to with no explanation of why it was created.  They are also popular because they are easy for a bad band to play well.  They make the good looking musicians look like they are good at what they are doing. 

What I hate is that somehow I am less of a Christian if I don’t get emotional and sing these songs and raise my hands.  I am told that even if I disagree with the song, or don’t like it as much as my favorite band that I need to sing it louder because I don’t want God to think I like my favorite band more than Him.  This reasoning is not uncommon in churches.  I have heard it literally expressed over a dozen times.  I just want to raise my hand and say:  “are you serious?  because I don’t like the Newsboys’ rewritten psalm and don’t want to sing to it and it doesn’t make me closer to God, because of that, I don’t love God enough?  So what you are saying is that “good Christians” fake their feelings about God by singing louder?  You are saying that I can hide my true feelings about God and my favorite band by how I behave in church?  Doesn’t God already know if I like my favorite band more than Him?”

But this would be refuted by saying:  “this is what we do in church. we sing praises to God?”  And I would say: “these seem more like praises to me and the band than to God.”  But of course, I would hear: “most of these songs are written with the psalms of David in them, they are scripture, are you saying that singing scripture is lame?”  And I would reply: “Is that what you think the Psalms were written for?  To be sung in corporate worship for 20 minutes per week? Am I supposed to believe that my poor relationship with a coworker is similar to David being chased by King Saul and hiding in the caves?  Were the psalms written because without them we could not find other ways of singing praise?  I often wonder if perhaps rather than reciting the words of David maybe we should be finding our own way to praise God for what He has done and is doing for us today.  Are you also saying that before Jesus preached the sermon on the mount, He broke out the old guitar and Peter got on drums so that the crowd could get misty eyed and sway as they sang “Draw me close”?  Is it not church if we don’t sing these simple poppy songs? 

It’s hilarious to me that “modern” churches have gone so far to prove to us that the old liturgy and hymns were irrelevant to us, and what they have replaced them with is “The Newsboys greatest hits.” 


OK.  There’s my deconstruction.  Here’s how I would love to reconstruct…

The blue haired 90 year old Edith at the organ pulling out all of the stops on the final verse of hymn #491 is another scenario wrought with problems.  I’d probably go to the mega church and endure the “hillsongs wanna-be band” if I had to make a choice between the two.  But the beauty of it is that I don’t have to make a choice between those two.  For the first time, it’s up to me.  I get to decide why we do what we do, and what we actually do, do.  I am excited and scared about this at the same time.  What scares me is that I think that I could have our worship leader play 4 songs from the worship top 40 each week and we could do it better than the churches in our area, or at least AS good.  I think that we could do this in a way that would bring in many people from those local churches, and also some people who aren’t churched as well.  I think that it would be the easiest thing to do.  Kind of a color by numbers kind of thing. 

But what I want to do… Is … AW crap.  In order to tell you what I want to do.  I have to tell you why, first.  I am not seeing many people do this right now.  Most people that are deciding what to do seem to be going with the: “I’ll do church better than it is being done by having a better band play those same songs, and a better website saying those same things, and sermons saying what they already expect to hear. I will just do it better than the church down the street and we will be bigger.”

Here is what I want to have.  A church where people feel that they are a part of something meaningful, something fun, something real, something original, something where their gifts are as important as the church jocks and church cheerleaders.  I feel that too often church services seem like a pep rally before the game.  I want to recognize that this is not a game, and church is not a rally.  Church should be preparing us for real meaningful interaction in the real world, and celebrating what is being accomplished, by us and by others in the real world.  In church we should be challenged and encouraged.  (I could write more about this, and will, but this is off of the top of my head.)

I want to use testimonies from real people, stories, art, films, humor, examples from the lives of others, food, celebrations of the accomplishments of people and especially children, and I want them to be used in worship as artistically as any piece of music. 

For instance:  The Topic of the Week is “Love Your Enemies.” (not in any particular order)  The business owner tells a story about what happened when he applied this bit of scripture to a shoplifter, or a competitor.  (live or on video) A comedian tells a couple of jokes about being bullied as a kid.  An artist’s painting about Peace in the middle of Chaos is used and featured and described, either on stage or in the bulletin, the child of the janitor tells the story of how his dad gave him advice on how to deal with a bully at school.  A family passes out the same kind of cookies that they baked and gave the angry neighbor down the street.  There is a shortage on worship songs about loving someone who is an enemy, because this is one of those scriptures that does not lend itself to trite 3 chord songs; and churches didn’t need to talk too much about it because it means loving Saddam and Osama and Nancy Pelosi; and those are a little too radical for most churches.  So maybe the band plays a fun version of “In the Name of Love.”  And because the congregation already preached a beautiful message, the sermon is split up during the service.  Maybe this is a two week topic, not because I have 3 more points to make, but maybe because the congregation has more amazing stories, humor, art, or food.  Maybe in week two, we sing the hymn “It is Well” which addresses injustice and our reaction to it. 

With those ways of worship, we don’t need to fill 25 minutes with music choruses.  I’m certainly not saying that we don’t need worship music.  Some weeks, might lend themselves to singing 2 songs, and some weeks we might want to have 5.  Some weeks might have a popular song, 2 worship songs, and a hymn done well (that is also explained.)  But some weeks, you will say:  because the church is learning to worship using their lives and talents in non-traditional ways, there isn’t room for more than a song or two. 

The real challenge of doing this will be creating a culture at church that recognizes what is being done and wants to participate with their lives.  It will take some serious vision casting and explanation, but it is a goal I will shoot for.  Not because I don’t like worship music.  But because of the unbelievably huge variety of ways that God gives us to worship.

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