"Contemporary" Worship

I like to do a lot of thinking about music in The Church and how it is used and utilized in the context of worship. My prayer throughout seminary is that as I learn and grow, my interpretation of music in worship might grow and create new shape as well.

I have a lot of thoughts. Not all of them are well organized (including this one). I won't share all of them now either.

As I was sitting in rehearsal this evening for worship on Sunday, I did some more thinking about the songs we choose, how we learn them, how we sing them, the role that instruments play, and the general approach.

The church that I am leading at currently refers to all songs used in celebration (new or old) as hymns. Coming from a culture and background that runs (no, really...sometime that is literal) from the use of the word "hymn", I found that pretty interesting.  Because we have a smaller crowd during the summer, we have been meeting in a smaller room than normal.  That means a few things, but mostly it means that the lyrics to the songs are printed on a sheet that everyone reads off of.

The former worship leader (his last Sunday is this Sunday) made a comment to one of our team members (the one who puts together the bulletin each Sunday) tonight that it might be good to figure out a way to put the sheet music (at least melody and lyrics) in a smaller form on the page.  You know, like a version of a hymnal.  His point, and it's probably a good one, is that with a new song, it might be nice for people to see the melody along with the text.

One of the things that I try to do in almost every instance is to figure out a way to present a new song that can teach the congregation the melody.  Once they grasp hold of the melody of the Chorus, then they have a home.  They'll be a little lost throughout the verses, but when we return to the Chorus, they'll be home again.  After all, it's a nice feeling to feel comfortable in the midst of the unknown.

Something occurred to me though.  Most of America's Christians grew up singing from books (called hymnals).  At some point, when it became cool and necessary to do so, we moved away from this.  The youth did it first, at least in my experience.  Instead of everyone having a hymnal, they had a transparency (real creative name) that had a copy of the hymn on it.  Then they read it off the wall from an overhead projector.  But the grown ups had more money.  They invested in a projector.  Like, seriously, a nice projector.  And they started using a program called Microsoft PowerPoint (remember when Microsoft was innovative?).  Yes, it required some coordination, a little setup, and someone in the back to press the space bar at the end of each slide, but it just seemed cooler than holding a book and it looked better than a black and white transparency.

So, as music changed, people weren't reading melodies anymore. The songs got a little easier to pick up on, the melodies simpler, and sometimes...the lyrics less involved (oh snap, I said it).

How did this all work? Well, sound systems made it easier to follow a leader and a rock band made it seem cooler.

Here's the thing though...music lost it's sense of...organization.  Don't get me wrong, today's worship music is organized VERY well, but it is all behind the scenes.  Without a sheet of music to read, congregations were less aware of how many times a chorus or refrain were repeated and were less aware of how a song was laid out. This allowed a sense of...creativity.  We were no longer following the organist who was simply playing through the four part harmonies.  The music got a little more complex, and a little more rudimentary at the same time.

Here's my point.  Because all of this happened, the music required something of the listener, it required their ear.  In order to pick up on a song, they must do a couple of things: 1)listen 2)follow 3)learn by ear.  They could no longer just read, there had to be some sort of thought put into the process.  If you wanted to participate, you had to figure it out.

We haven't really seen this much creativity and thought from so many (meaning...not just the composer) in music in worship since early church music.  We haven't seen this type of use of "the ear" since Gregorian Chant.  You may not agree, but I really think it is true.

The Pros:

  • Creativity
  • More participation
  • Easier to recreate (a lot of Guitar players can play G, C, and D, not as many people could play the organ)
  • Developed a sense of "ear" moreso than reading harmonies from a hymnal
  • Made the church more approachable for first time visitors

The Cons:

  • Wasn't as "High Church" as we were all used to
  • Made hymnals all but obsolete to these services
  • Made it very possible for the average Christian never learn to read music
  • Created riffs in many congregations
  • Made it possible to attend church and not participate
  • Made writing music for the Church a commercialized thing (think Willow Creek, Chris Tomlin, CCLI, copyright infringement)

I think it has changed the Church. Mostly for the better. Most of the cons listed above are due to closed minded thinking.

Although that is just how I see it.

More to come on these ideas in the future.