Thursday, August 05, 2010

The impossible dream of contemporary worship (Sunday Reflections for August 8, 2010)

 I must have been in 5th or 6th grade when our church had its first “folk service.” I remember using mimeographed copies of the then new Chicago Folk Service, developed by an avant-garde Lutheran congregation in the Lincoln Park. I don’t know if the adults actually liked it but, since they were happy to see “the kids” doing something in church, the service continued to be used a couple times annually through my high school years.

The 1960s began a journey of worship experimentation that continues to this day. It’s been a bumpy road. Churches of all kinds have seen a parade of new worship books, liturgies and worship styles, some denominationally sanctioned but many not. Conflicts over worship formats became so intense they were dubbed the “worship wars.” The friction has abated somewhat because churches feel more free to do their own thing. Even official worship resources now include considerable variety (e.g. Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s TEN settings of the communion liturgy). There is no one way to do worship anymore.

The elusive holy grail of worship reform during these decades has been to make worship contemporary. Much of the conflict during this time, however, has been due to the fact that no one can agree what contemporary worship means. Those wanting to keep the traditional liturgical format thought it was enough to update its language and musical style. Others have wanted to make more radical changes to the worship experience. Many congregations (perhaps most) have tried to find a middle ground and ended up with a schizophrenic blend of worship styles (with Emergent Christianity being the most recent example). Whatever their choices, few churches feel the matter is settled or that they’ve arrived at their liturgical destination. It’s all still very much up in the air.

I think the contemporary worship arguments have gone in circles because there are actually bigger issues underneath that never get fully identified, if they’re recognized at all. The vagueness of the term “contemporary” is one indication that we aren’t sure what the objective really is. The folk service movement, for example, began when churches were at the height of their popularity. They weren’t done to keep or attract members, as the motivation for worship change often is today. Rather they represented the impact popular culture was having on the church. They were also signs that even bigger changes were coming.

Since the 1960s, churches have basically been chasing after popular culture. It’s a race they never seem to win. In regards to music, for example, contemporary church liturgy or songs rarely rise above average in quality and often are mediocre or worse. The problem is not lack of talented composers or performers. Rather, it’s a misunderstanding of contemporary music.

Popular music, gathering steam in the 1920s and 30s, exploded after World War II. Radio, TV and the invention of the LP put music and musicians in front of everyone. With the arrival of rock and roll, music became one of the primary means for personal expression, especially for teens and young adults. Elvis, the Beetles, Michael Jackson, mega-concerts, the IPod and the internet have caused this relentless tidal wave to inundate everything.

Contemporary worship misunderstands pop music in thinking it is a style that can be laid as a veneer over traditional Christian theological content. The affect is not unlike how you feel when your favorite rock anthem gets used as the theme song of a TV commercial. There’s a nails-on-chalkboard disconnect and a sense some rule is being broken: “Nooooo! THAT’S not what that song is about!”

The reality is that pop music, like all of pop culture, is about a break with the past and with tradition. That includes, of course, Christianity and the church which dominated Western culture for well over a thousand years. The break began with artists, musicians and writers in the Enlightenment but they mostly related to the educated elite. It was 20th century “pop” culture that enabled the mass population to experience this creative and intellectual independence for themselves.

The church’s pursuit of “contemporary worship” has been a chase after a mirage—it evaporates whenever the church thinks it’s found it. For worship to be genuinely contemporary would mean not just changes in style but changes in substance, as well. What’s needed, in short, is the creation of “pop religion.” And that’s actually happening already.

What I said last week about contemporary art is also true of contemporary music. Musicians also explore questions of meaning, beauty, human relationships, community, and transcendence. This pursuit of spiritual meaning and values in the arts parallels the growing popularity of personal spiritualities. This “pop religion” then includes the whole array of options for personal spiritual expression, beliefs and practices—as well as the option for developing new ones.

The church’s problem with this, of course, is that none of it is church-centered. In fact, there is no institutional center. It’s “pop”—personal and individual. This is not to say the church can’t have a role or contribute something of value. It just can’t be in charge and that’s going to be hard to swallow. Can there be a Christianity that isn’t church-centered, where the church isn't in control? It’s an idea that may take some getting used to but we probably should because it seems to be happening anyway.

“Contemporary worship” then is a kind of oxymoron—a self-contradiction. The problem isn’t the contemporary part—it’s the worship. One of the primary insights of modern culture is that holiness, the sacred, is not something “out there” but is all around us, permeating life and the world. Thus you don’t need to set aside a special place and time to commune with it—any moment or place can be and is sacred.

And so, increasingly worship is nostalgic, a connection with the past. That isn’t bad or without value. But it does mean that as memory of that past recedes, fewer and fewer people will find it meaningful—which, of course, is already happening. All this can be distressing until we realize how ambivalent the Bible itself is about institutional religion. Some of its most biting words of condemnation are for temples and priests. And rather than theological symbols, Jesus seemed to draw more inspiration from everyday things like flowers, birds, widows and squabbling brothers—just the kind of things you might put into a song.


Kim Holmes said...

Well said, Doug.

Zach said...

Your whole premise is shot when you actually consider a few facts:

1. All music was/is "contemporary" at one point in history. Luther chose melodies he heard at pubs... So, by choosing "traditional music" for your church--you are simply choosing music that was "contemporary" centuries ago. So, what makes music written 300 years ago more applicable today? What makes music written 300 years ago better or worse than music written 200 years ago?

2. This is no such thing as "Christian music", only "Christian lyrics". An organ could potentially accompany demonic lyrics, and a heavy metal band could also potentially accompany ancient hymn lyrics. There are contemporary songs with deep and meaningful lyrics, and their are contemporary songs with shallow, vapid lyrics--and the same is true for traditional hymns, too!

3. Jesus went to where the people were. He engaged in their customs. Do you think he would have a problem with someone singing praises to him in a folk music style, or a bluegrass style, or a rock music style? I think it is all music to his ears!

4. Less than 2% of the population listens to classical music. A vast majority listens to contemporary music. How important is it to reach out to unchurched people? Jesus seemed to think it was a big deal (Matthew 28). How do you think we best reach unchurched people...force feeding them music they don't identify with, or helping them hear the truth (see #2) in a manner that is palatable. (By the way, if you say worship should only be done are dangerously close to turning it into a work...Eph.2:8).

4. Organs are not found in the Bible, but guitars, and drums are!

Barb D-P said...

Great thoughts, Doug! What I find is that any talk or changes in "style" of worship - whether contemporary or otherwise, is like a discussion of what clothing to put on. Worship is not about the church or the culture's about God and our relationship with God. We get lost when we start worrying about the clothes when our body is unhealthy, or not being authentic. I'm convinced no amount of changes or tinkering with styles of worship to suit the congregational preferences, or to attract people "into church" can address issues of true authenticity in our relationship with God. We must each as individuals and as communities of faith find that authentic voice, that deepest connection with God before our "style" will mean anything to anybody!

Doug Kings said...

Zach, thanks for reading and commenting. I do think, however, that you’ve gotten worked up for no reason because whoever you’re arguing with, it isn’t me. LOL Seriously, I’d ask you to go back and read the piece again but I will also try to explain myself better by responding to your points. I may also post a follow-up as I realize I wasn’t entirely clear and there are some other points I’d like to make.

To begin, though, I am not advocating for traditional church music or for any type of music. My concern is broader: namely, the viability of any type of congregational worship. In recent years, the primary response to the “worship crisis” (if you will) has been to try to make it “contemporary” and my judgment is that those efforts have largely failed. They inevitably have the feel of creating a modern chariot or bow-and-arrow. My main point is that the problem of worship is not solved by putting a contemporary veneer over it.

As to your specific points, I mostly agree with them but have some responses:

1) Luther, of course, is famous for not wanting the devil to have all the best tunes. I do think, however, that he was somewhat naïve here as he was in other instances (e.g. his shock and dismay at the peasant rebellion: what the heck did he think was going to happen?) The use of folk/people’s music ultimately nationalized the church and divided it, as American Lutheranism and American Lutheran hymnals have demonstrated. The “here-and-nowness” of such music also runs counter to worship’s attempt to create transcendence.

2) For that reason, I think you are wrong on this point. Gregorian chant really is “Christian music.” It was timeless, had no national or ethnic affiliation, and was exclusively for use in the church. It was the music of Christendom but Christendom is over and the church has never really figured out its response to that. In any case, contemporary pop music is a part of modern culture’s over-all rejection of religious domination per se, which makes its use in worship problematic as well as just really confusing.

3) Yes, Jesus was “of the people” but the analogy is anachronistic. There were no music “styles” in Jesus’ day. This is one of the characteristics of modern culture and its emphasis on individual self-expression. Not a problem, in my view, but not easily melded into traditional Christianity.

4) You’re right, of course, but the division isn’t classical vs. contemporary. It’s the whole nearly endless array of music “styles” (if that’s the best word) that we now have, which continue to grow and morph, and from which people can choose. And they don’t have to choose just one style, either. That, of course, is the dilemma churches have faced when trying to create a contemporary worship format: what style or styles do they choose? Which gets back to the inherent contradiction of contemporary music (and culture generally) with the church: namely, that music today is about individual self-expression while Christianity is about binding people together as the body of Christ. On a broader front, this is the primary challenge of post-modernism.

5) Yes, the organ is a product of the medieval church which is why it is so associated with traditional Christian worship. I’m not so sure about the Bible and the guitar.

Seriously, Zach, thanks for your thoughtful response. It got me thinking more about some important questions.

Doug Kings said...

You’re absolutely right, Barb. Authenticity should be the standard for evaluating what we do in worship. The reality, however, is that most moderate and progressive churches have been reluctant to acknowledge the sea change that has occurred theologically and culturally within Christianity and society. As I say, much of worship now is nostalgia, remembering and holding onto a beloved past which we nonetheless know, for all our affection for it, can never return. So, for example, we continue to sing about and pray to “God above” even while knowing how nonsensical such a notion is now.

“Contemporary worship” then becomes a way to avoid confronting this new reality. By pasting some modern style over our essentially traditional worship and theology, we hope to be staying with the times. But as you say, it is just like changing clothes—what’s underneath hasn’t really changed at all. Authentic worship of God, not to mention an authentic relationship with God, would mean, of course, becoming clear about who or what this God is—but few are willing to risk going down that path.

David Mc said...

That was a fun read Doug. Thanks.

Anonymous said...


Doug, I really like your posts; they give me lots to think about.

I would like to point out a couple of fallacies in the argument(s) regarding Luther and church music.

First, Luther did not use tavern or pub tunes in his music. This is a misinterpretation of the musical term "bar form" or "bar song"--the word bar here being spelled and meaning the same thing in German as it does in English--the pattern of verses in a song/hymn that arose during medieval times.

Reading Luther, you can get a pretty good idea of his real attitude toward popular music. In the preface to his Wittenberg Hymnal he describes a desire to give young people "something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth." Martin Luther, Preface to the Wittenberg Hymnal, in Luther’s Works, vol. 53, p. 316).

Second, when Luther said, "Why should the devil have all the good music?" the devil he was referring to is not the secular world but the Roman Catholic church. Some of his contemporaries wanted to ditch traditional music altogether, but Luther advocated for keeping the good stuff. (Sound familiar?)

Some background and a disclaimer, if it matters (I think it does, and someday I might write more about it): My husband is a pre-baby boom, lifelong Lutheran, a church organist and a musicologist (who also plays jazz piano hymn arrangements in church and leads a band for the ELW Setting 8 liturgy). My own demographic is either late baby-boom or early Gen X (depending on whose chart you look at). I was, until fairly recently, "unchurched" and have grown to love corporate, liturgical worship and good music that supports it, whether it be old or new.

Doug Kings said...

Deana, thanks so much for sharing your insights as well as your personal experience.