catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 5 :: 2007.03.09 — 2007.03.23


Late night thoughts on music in worship and ecumenism

A liberal theologically and politically, I am also a conservative economically and liturgically.  Which is to say, as regards music in worship, that I understand music to be the means of praising God and carrying forth a tradition in a way that speaks to both mind and heart.

I come to the topic at hand as one who serves regularly as a guest preacher in a variety of Christian churches. Quite a few of the churches to which I travel have two services, one contemporary; the other, traditional.  The latter continues to draw upon the liturgical tradition of the specific denomination, but as I go from church to church, I find the contemporary services are virtually indistinguishable, no matter what the denomination.  I also find the congregants at the traditional services are most often older; those at the contemporary services, younger and with more families.  Furthermore, attendance at the traditional services is about half—sometimes much less than half—that of the contemporary.

I must confess (I am, after all, a Presbyterian) my concerns, even dislikes, regarding contemporary worship.  They are: the prelude, full as it is of equipment moving, guitar tuning and mic checks of the performers (I use the word purposely), does not afford time for meditative transition to the sacred hour of worship; lay leadership is often unprepared or ill-prepared, and seems to think any prayer sprinkled with an abundance of the word “just” is sufficiently orthodox; the language and imagery used in speaking of the Divine is extremely limited and almost exclusively masculine as if the matter of inclusive language had no theological import; the songs (not hymns) rarely have the fine poetry or music found in much hymnody, and furthermore, often do not cohere with the inherited theological tradition; the song words are projected on a screen which means I do not have the tactile pleasure of holding a hymnal passed through many faithful hands nor of praying for whomever donated it nor of singing in parts; the sacraments are severely truncated, often being treated almost as an afterthought; there is an aversion to silence as part of encountering God; and there is little sense of being grounded in a great historic tradition.

Aside from the fact that two differing worship styles divides a congregation, something else is afoot here.  When the elderly worshippers at the traditional service have all entered the Church Triumphant, with them will likely go the traditional service.  There will be simply no one left to attend anymore.  The consequence of this is that little will remain—historically, theologically, or liturgically—of, for example, the great Lutheran and Reformed worship traditions, in churches that have started down the contemporary worship path.  What will come to pass is a kind of liturgical-lite ecumenism where the worship of the various denominations will be interchangeable.  And perhaps such will indeed become the basis of new understanding and forms of church unity.  That may be good or bad, but it should not come to pass without some reflection on what will be lost in the process.  It is striking that Roman Catholic churches using the pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy are filled to overflowing, often with young adults.

In our often desperate fascination with what’s new and what works, we are easily tempted to forget the lessons of the past.  One of these is Marshall McLuhan’s insight “The medium is the message.”  He originally said, “The medium is the massage,” but many found it hard to sense his meaning.  Contemporary worship does massage (indeed, sometimes assaults) the senses, and with its reliance on strategies and techniques imported from the world of entertainment, implicitly conveys the message that the gospel coheres with the form and content pouring into the lives of congregants in many waking hours outside worship.

Comprehending McLuhan, Dr. Ernest Campbell, formerly of Riverside Church in New York City, once observed that we cannot speak of the Via Dolorosa using the techniques of Madison Avenue without comprising the former path.  And yet much contemporary worship seems unaware of this problem which in turn means the ecumenism to which it may be giving birth will be founded mostly on form and not on content.  Indeed, the hard work of theological dialogue that must undergird any true understanding of church unity will be ignored.  Everyone may feel good that lots of old, and indeed sometimes inconsequential, differences have somehow been transcended, but will the new ecumenical church have clarity about its place in the unfolding story of God’s work in history or where its most essential theological commitments lie?  Will it articulate theological content at odds with its historic affirmations simply because it likes the way the music sounds?  The oft-heard truism, “after all, we all worship the same God,” does not quite exhaust the task of theology.

Another part of what will be lost in this new ecumenism is the rich diversity of worship traditions.  This is more than a bit ironic in a time when many have come to cherish diversity for its compelling ability to open us to greater breadth of understanding of the human experience of the Divine.  Participating in diverse and distinct worship styles opens us to more of the fullness of the One who is beyond our comprehension.  To pare the diversity of worship traditions down to what seems a least common denominator, both theologically and liturgically, is costly to our experience of God.  Not a few may find that “one size fits all” worship does not fit them. 

Two antidotes may be: better education, particularly with new members, as to why a tradition worships as it does so that rituals do not seem arcane and empty; and evolving blended, rather than alternative, worship that seeks to honor a specific liturgical tradition while integrating new forms (that’s the “reformed, always reforming” in me).
I am thankful to have led blended worship that fulfills this purpose.  In inquiring of the resident pastors how such has come to pass, I find a willingness to lead a responsible committee in the examination of new music and drama to see if it coheres with the denomination’s tradition and belief.  Not a little of the available generically Protestant worship material does not.  One pastor quipped to me, “We also have two aesthetic rules of thumb: we try to minimize the impact of technology on the appearance of the sanctuary and to keep camp songs at camp rather than in worship.”

In the rush to broaden the church’s appeal, my concern is that we not forget to “count the cost before” as One admonished long ago lest we lose much of value while coming up with an ecumenism of little worth. Arguments for more contemporary music in worship often center on ‘bringing in (or back) the youth’ rather than on praising God.  Music may serve the cause of evangelism, but I doubt that is its main purpose historically.  And while it is true that the church has often taken music from the culture and set its own words to it, my plea is that this be done with a keen eye to the theology thus imported. 

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