Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dear Pastor: Music is not the Holy Spirit

So, dear pastor, have any of these things ever happened to you?

*In order to make worship more "exciting," you, or some members of your governing body, or perhaps some fringe member, or an advertisement that comes in your mail suggests switching the style of worship in your church to something more "contemporary." It's hard to find good organists, after all, and nobody sings those fusty old hymns anymore.

*Your organist/choir director is seeking to augment the choir with some professional soloists, possibly from the local opera company or university school of music or conservatory. With such singers hired, naturally (in addition to the choir's anthem each week) those soloists are going to need to sing, well, a solo, to help justify the expense. Also, the extra singers are effective and this means that the choir becomes a main attraction, which means possibly more than one choral anthem per service. When this causes the service to get long and unwieldy, the obvious response is to drop one of the congregational hymns or songs.

*So the hymn sings are kind of fun on occasion, but it seems like those have to happen more and more often to keep the congregation's interest, even though inevitably those hymn sings become trapped in the same little rotation of eight to ten hymns, every time. (Not to mention, you end up preaching less and less.)

If you're the type who actually reads this blog, you probably observed Pentecost in some way during your service this Sunday morning. Whether through visual representations of the "tongues, like fire" that marked the Acts account, or the evocation of multiple languages in that reading, or any number of hymns or anthems that might work for the day (even if you went all crazy and preached on the alternate reading from Ezekiel -- the "dry bones" vision -- like some crazy pastor around here), in some way or another the Holy Spirit was a prominent focus or subject of the service. That's quite natural for the one day on the liturgical calendar that more or less focuses pastors who would much rather avoid the subject of the Holy Spirit to avoid avoiding the subject.

To a large degree that will be it for formal acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit as a theme of worship. That doesn't mean, however, that the Spirit isn't of concern throughout the rest of the church's week-to-week life, even if the Spirit isn't acknowledged by name.

We are seeking the Spirit when we wonder what we need to do, for example, to "get people excited" about church, or to "get more young people" (who will, if we're honest, turn around and act and think exactly like the old people, so that everybody will get along) in the church, or any number of other convoluted ways we talk about wishing things were different or somehow better in our church. At root, we're seeking some kind of action of the Holy Spirit in the life of our congregation.

Except, really, we're not. Or only limitedly so.

We want the Spirit to do something safe. We want something predictable that will look good and have obvious tangible impact -- something that shows up in counting statistics, preferably. And that's not how the Spirit operates.

This explains, I think, why churches are so often prone to use music as a substitute or proxy for a genuine in-breaking experience of the Holy Spirit.

Music is not tame or neutral, as was hopefully made clear in the previous entry here. It inevitably affects any words to which it is joined, any audience to which it is played, any event in which it is introduced. And it is true enough that you don't necessarily know absolutely for sure what that effect is going to be, or at least not for every person involved (different styles of music will cause different people to respond differently and all that).

You don't know for sure, but you do have a pretty good idea, or at least an expectation, what that result will be.

For one thing, in the cases noted at the beginning of this entry, you've probably already got some feedback about the use of "praise & worship" music (still, no one has ever explained to me how those two things got separated) or a professionalized choir or hymn repertory, whether you asked for that feedback or not.

Some of what you can know is more or less baked into the style of music in question; by about the third contemporary worship song, at the latest, some of the congregation will be lifting holy hands or something. That's just how that goes. After the professionalized choir essays a movement of a Mozart mass, their efforts will be rewarded with judicious, tasteful, proper applause. Congregants will get all nostalgic and weepy when they've sung "Amazing Grace" at the thirteenth straight hymn sing. We know these things.

In short, music (yes, including congregational singing) is good at producing all the feels, as some of my seminary classmates would say, and so it becomes a quick and safe way of generating a series of largely emotional (maybe sometimes intellectual) reactions that can be passed off as "the moving of the Spirit" in the congregation.

It's not.

Music isn't neutral, remember; it really does have a first and foremost tendency to call attention to itself before anything else. It will have its affect; it will produce joy or sadness or rage or melancholy or any number of other responses if deployed without regard for that affective quality that is, frankly, a lot of the pleasure in most of the music that even has a chance of entering most churches (the likes of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez etc. have mostly not entered the church's musical repertoire).

Music can, when chosen and prepared with diligence and prayerful insight, be a vehicle through which the Spirit can move. It can and has happened, sometimes even working through those affective qualities that can otherwise make music more distraction than witness. The mere presentation of music in worship, however, is no guarantee of the Spirit's action in worship. People may well be moved, yes, but not necessarily by anything other than well-done music. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but by no means is it the main thing as far as worship is concerned.

Given that, about the best you can do, dear pastor, is choose what is yours to choose with the same mind and theological training you use to prepare your sermon; work with your musicians to prepare and present that music with the most skill and understanding possible; and to see that song of the people as an intrinsic part of the gathering of the congregation, the proclamation of and response to the Word, and the sending of the people out to be the body of Christ in the world. In other words, treat the hymns as if they are important parts of worship.

They are, right?

None of the musical types represented here guarantee that the Holy Spirit will show up and do what you want it to do. None of them. Okay?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Dear Pastor: Music is not neutral

It's an old canard, one that gets perpetuated in multiple forums and classrooms, not just in theology but even in music history as well (I used to teach that, remember, so I'm not just talking through my hat): Of the primary reformers, Martin Luther was the music lover, while John Calvin was anywhere from absolutely opposed to music to downright suspicious (in the manner of his theological ancestor Augustine), and Luther enthusiastically embraced congregational singing while Calvin accepted it only begrudgingly.

You'll probably not be surprised, if you know how historical misperceptions get distributed, to learn that this is a dramatic oversimplification, if not an outright falsehood.

It is true that Calvin's musical acceptance was never as wide as that of Luther: he never did embrace purely instrumental music in the church nor the use of music as accompaniment (the churches that followed in his tradition got over that fairly quickly in the grand scheme of things) -- he was not the organ-destroyer that Ulrich Zwingli was, but he wasn't hiring organists either. "Hymns of human composure" weren't favored in Calvinist churches, instead words of scripture -- the Psalms in particular -- were the stuff of singing. And that singing was strictly a matter for the congregation -- choirs and soloists and such weren't part of the design.

Beyond that, though, Calvin's attitude about music in worship was not only as hostile as often portrayed, but also (gasp!) evolved over time; after a time Calvin even came to a place of some enthusiasm about monophonic (or unison) a capella congregational singing. As described by Jeremy Begbie, "when Calvin speaks of Psalm-singing as enhancing and enriching the experience of worship, it is implicitly the Sursum Corda that is in play -- the lifting up of our hearts in the power of the Spirit to Jesus Christ at the right hand of the Father, who is in our midst 'conducting' our hymns."*

Pretty powerful image for a supposed music hater.

*Note: the quote is from Begbie, Music, Modernity, and God: Essays in Listening, p.27. Begbie offers a fairly robust discussion of Calvin and music. 

The distinctive musical contribution of Calvin's churches to music was the metrical psalm, a unison setting of a poeticized psalm text sometimes known slightly derisively as a "Geneva jig" for the utterly danceable qualities of many of the tunes (something Calvin would not have approved of). The term "metrical" points to the degree that the psalm texts were not only translated into the vernacular language (French, in Calvin's case), but also then reconfigured into poetic metrical patterns that were fairly easy to set to music.

Another part of the creation of those psalm tunes was the degree to which they suscribed to ancient musical theories about the particular affective qualities of different modes, or scales of music. (Nowadays most music we know is either in major or minor -- the latter often being stereotyped as "sad"; older musics could be in many different scales, typically called modes, according to the pattern of whole and half steps by which these modes advanced from one pitch to another. Any more explanation and this blog might break into a music theory lecture, and I'm no good at that.)

Here's the thing: different psalm tunes created under Calvin's influence were composed in different modes in order to use the presumed affective qualities of the mode to reinforce the particular emotional (or affective) qualities of the psalm text being set. As much as gets made of Calvin's sola-scriptura attitude about the singing of the congregation, Calvin's very tunes were in fact making use of musical affect to "enhance" or "enrich" the text, and therefore the singing of the people, and therefore the experience of worship.

In ways that escape our modern ears, even Calvinist psalm tunes are "affective."

Here's the deal, pastor: music is not a neutral resource for worship. Music always favors one thing over another, namely itself. It demands attention. It must be heard and its particular affects or abilities or powers must be reckoned with, and indeed music mismatched to words can utterly overwhelm the words or uttery undermine them.

In the church, this is far more likely to be obvious or noticeable in choral music in worship. A humble text set to raucous music (or vice versa) can not only fail on its own but can wreak havoc (or whatever the opposite of havoc would be -- somnolence? lassitude? torpor?) on the entire service to follow. That's just one possibility. Even music well-matched to its choral setting can land with a clang if it is out of step with the rest of the service, to the point of the music and worship seeming to be part of two separate and unrelated events.

But these things aren't impossible to find in the congregational-singing part of worship either. It usually happens with the chooser of hymns (you, right, pastor?) starts to feel desperate and decides to throw something in to "liven up the service" without much regard for the text being conveyed or the context in which the hymn or song is placed. It's a virtual inevitability when the congregation's singing is employed primarily as a mood-setter, a program of emotional manipulation with no further design or intent to bring the congregation to an emotional high and then "settle it down" in time to hear the pastor speak.

(Of course, if you're the pastor of a congregation where that is the principal purpose of the congregation's song, let's be blunt about it; you're pretty unlikely to be reading this blog.)

Music as neutral agent in worship is like the square root of -1; imaginary. Music inevitably affects anything to which it is attached. That affect (and effect) may change over time, as what was once radical and daring becomes melted down and has its rough edges sanded off, but the music still is not a neutral actor on the text being set; it does something to that text.

Understand this, dear pastor, about this thing you are deploying in worship. It isn't a submissive tool. It isn't harmless. This is, of course, a large part of its power and, frankly, a large part of its appeal. However, this is also part of the real risk of music in worship, even in congregational singing.

Of course, if you're using a hymnal, there's a pretty good chance that the committee charged with compiling that hymnal included more than a few musicians and theological types who are fairly sensitive to the ways that music and words go together, or don't. At least in theory, very few hymns with such clash of word and music affect are likely to get through into the final collection. As far as music from other sources, I can't speak to those in any large-scale way.

Here is something really important, though; you probably reecognize this when you hear it. 

You probably can't articulate it in lofty theological or theoretical language, but you can tell when the music and the text are "off," or they "don't fit," or they're "out of sync" with one another. These are not rules made up by a secretive cabal of music theorists; they come from experience. Those experiences may be felt or perceived differently in different musics of different cultures, so don't go thinking your perceptions of what affect a music may have necessarily apply to, say, Indonesian gamelan music or West African drumming or Native American vocalizations. But your instinct, if you're listening with even a modicum of care, has a real good chance of being correct.

And for the sake of worship and singing, the lifting up of our hearts to Christ our Great Conductor, listen to that instinct. It may save your worhsip service.

His thoughts on music in worship were probably more complicated than you think.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Dear Pastor: The preacher's voice

Just briefly, I'd like to revisit from a slightly different angle one of the topics already discussed in this series, the role of you, the pastor, in the singing of the congregation (first addressed, in a somewhat minimalist way, in the first entry in which I put forth the radical idea that you should sing when the congregation is singing). Here I'd like to discuss the different ways that will mean something depending on the kind of congregation in which you serve.

You will be vital if you are preaching in a small congregation.

Whether or not that congregation has an organ and/or piano, a music director and/or choir, or (as occasionally happens) relies on some sort of pre-recorded accompaniment to have something to sing with, your voice will matter here and will matter in the most literal sense. They will need your help in some cases to get going. It is possible that in some cases you will be the "song leader" for all practical purposes. (I did have some supply preaching experiences where this was the case before coming to my current position.) Even in the case of a very familiar hymn, a voice to "set the tone" or to provide a focal point for getting the singing started matters. As well, in a small congregation your participation (with a bit of enthusiasm, even) does send the very important message that this activity matters. It's bad enough to blow off the congregational songs in a large, expansive space where you might think you can get away with it because half the congregation can't see you; in a small, close space, the importance of your participation is magnified exponentially. In that situation you are "on stage" more fully and completely in a sense than in the most highly choreographed and scripted "contemporary" worship service, simply because everyone really is watching you. Don't demean the act of congregational singing by your indifference.

In more of a mid-size congregation, the effect may be different. Perhaps there is an organ (still after all these years the best instrument by far for supporting a group of singing voices, but that's a subject for another entry), or at least a piano, for the support of whatever singing goes on. There may be a choir as well (and you'd better believe they'd better be singing the hymns, but again, another entry). Still, your voice will matter, and matter a lot, particularly if you are taking the counsel provided in these earlier entries in this series.

If something less familiar to the congregation is being introduced, as is necessary for a theologically healthy congregation (yes, I actually mean that), it is vitally important that you are singing that song. If you've done your prep work the choir is also prepared to put forth vocal leadership for this new song, and it may even be helpful to have the choir sing a verse of the hymn before having the congregation join in for the remainder. (In some cases, though, a good, "game" congregation might just be better off jumping in headfirst and catching up; it's not remotely a failure if they're finally chiming in strongly by about midway through the second verse.) At any rate, if you've chosen this new thing to sing, it's hopefully obvious that you should be singing it strongly and with engagement, whether you sound like Gomer Pyle or Barney Fife. (Suffice to say that this level of participation is equally important in that smaller congregation too, where you are likely to be teaching the new hymn, and for that matter in whatever size congregation you may serve, when introducing something the congregation doesn't know.)

Now here's the part you may not believe; it might be most important of all for the pastor (or pastors, but especially the lead pastor, whatever that title may be) of a large church to be engaged in the singing of the congregation. Here's why.

Here we are speaking of a congregation with a multi-pastor staff. There may be members of the congregation who participate "up front" in the service's liturgy, leading prayers or reading scripture; there's a good change that there are other pastoral staff who also take leadership in these parts of the service. Indeed, there is some possibility that, until near the time of the sermon, you as the "lead" pastor have not visibly taken a leadership role in the service yet. Up to that point, what visible involvement do you have in worship? Or are you slipping into the role of spectator, watching the "rest of" the service go by until your big moment?

Truthfully, I don't personally know any pastors who would treat the service that way, or at least I'm pretty sure I don't. But honestly, if you're not singing, or if you're at best mumbling along with the hymns, aren't you kinda doing that?

By visible and energetic participation in congregational singing in that setting you are redirecting any straying attentions in the congregation back to the hymn at hand, which you've presumably selected with some intent towards connecting with or reinforcing other elements of worship like, I dunno, your sermon. Your "performance" demonstrates that the hymn matters; your lack of attention or participation in the hymns, as would be the case with any other part of the service, very clearly states to your congregation that it does not.  

So yeah, it matters if you sing. If you have that much trouble, get your church musician to help you prepare. But do what it takes to sing.


I'm not saying you have to go quite this far with it, OK?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Who gets to sing spirituals? A reckoning with James H. Cone

Here's the deal: I really haven't read much of the work of James H. Cone, the theologian and author who passed away yesterday. Only one book, in fact.

There, I said it. Not particularly proudly, but it's true.

You can blame my whiteness, sure. You can blame the fact that I'm a latecomer to theological study, and was busy loading up on courses on worship in seminary and didn't sign up for the right courses to read Cone's stuff (if there were any). You can blame the fact that even now I'm more likely to read religious history stuff on my own time these days. Or you can just blame me for being a wuss theologically and spiritually and in most ways, basically.

But I have in fact read only one of Cone's books, and it isn't one that most would consider one of his major books. Furthermore, I didn't read it as a theological person; I read it as a musicologist.

Cone's The Spirituals and the Blues was first published in 1972 and reissued in 1991. Cone isn't a music scholar and doesn't claim to be so, and is diligent to credit those who did take up the music of the spiritual with a more scholarly or at least serious intent. His interest in them is, not surprisingly, not about the music to a great degree, although he bristles mightily at suggestions the music is "unoriginal" or derivative of white models (and yes, people said that kind of thing backintheday).

Cone's interest is, not surprisingly, cultural and theological (in the sense that the two are inseparable in his thinking). He reads them for their understanding of God, Jesus, heaven and other "churchy" topics, but never leaves behind the brutal reality of the slavery from which the songs were born. It is in the final chapter that the blues, a "secular spiritual," are introduced and discussed.

Looking back at the book now, from my current situation, the most difficult stuff might be in the introduction. After some reflection on his own experiences of both spirituals and blues, he makes the statement that "I am therefore convinced that it is not possible to render an authentic interpretation of black music without having shared and participated in the experience that created it" (3).

One could interpret that as a warning against spirituals being sung by anybody but black folk. Having never met Dr. Cone, nor heard him speak, I'll likely never know if that's how he felt. And of course I've gone on record saying that churches, particularly very white churches like my own, need to sing not only spirituals and other black forms of hymnody.

At the risk of disrespecting the dead, I stand by that assertion, with the understanding that Dr. Cone is also correct. I won't "understand" black music, necessarily, and I won't come close to understanding the spirituals and the experiences that formed them. In a way that's the point. White folk (and white churches) very specifically need to confront exactly those experiences they cannot understand, even if the musical experience won't be anything like authentic. We're entirely too likely to think we "have things down," we white church folk, and desperately require being disabused of that notion. It probably doesn't happen nearly enough.

There is, of course, the risk that the spirituals get "domesticated," rendered harmless in much the way that, say, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s work gets defanged in the modern understanding, stripping away the radical and contentious nature of his preaching and writing. That's the preacher's job to guard against, I guess. Particularly as the spirituals represent a form of music that owes its very origin to one of the worst sins of the (white) American people, that risk is real; nevertheless, the music must be sung, and heard, and confronted for its very confrontation of us.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Dear Pastor: The Appeal to Authority, part 2

Picking up where this left off...

In considering the use of congregational song in worship, it is needful to remember the point of worship. Different traditions may answer this question in different ways; I speak from the denominational tradition in which I work, and those who read this should consider these points in light of the tradition in which they work (and if you don't know what that tradition has to say, there's a homework assignment for you).

Continuing with the PC(USA)'s Book of Order, specifically the Directory for Worship, section W-3.01 opens up to a broader outline of the church's worship, offering an order for that worship while taking pains to clarify that this is not the only possible order of worship. Section W-3.0103 offers up the claim that the offered order of worship "seeks to uphold the centrality of Word and Sacraments in the church's faith, life, and worship." For those in, say, Episcopal and Lutheran traditions, there probably isn't much to make clergy blink, but we in Presbyland have to hesitate for a moment, as this cannot be said of many churches -- the Word is there, but the Sacraments are largely absent unless (a) someone is being baptized, or (b) it happens to be that one Sunday of the month the church practices the Lord's Supper.

I have no answer for this. Some Presbyterian churches manage to partake of communion weekly; most, I'm guessing, don't. Nor am I sure that congregational song offers any help here. I suppose one could sing a communion hymn even if communion isn't being taken in that worship service, but that feels a little passive-aggressive.

Nonetheless, the idea of the centrality of Word and (even absent) Sacrament in worship still has ramifications for the practice of congregational song. Do the songs or hymns we sing support and point towards the proclamation of the Word and the sharing of the Lord's Supper?

One doesn't have to be a practitioner of any particular worship style for this trap to be sprung. There are no doubt parishioners who go to contemporary worship (whatever that means) services only to hear the band do its thing, and check out on pretty much anything that happens otherwise. There are (I know this for fact) parishioners who go to traditional worship (whatever that means) services only to hear the organist tear it up on hymn or anthem or prelude or postlude, or to hear the professionally-supplemented choir knock out some Mozart or Mendelssohn, and check out on pretty much anything that happens otherwise. Neither is a desirable or even acceptable result. Neither really encourages a focus on the centrality of Word and Sacrament, and in fact are quite likely distractions from those central features of worship.

As to where in worship congregational singing might be most appropriate, that answer might well be "anywhere." Something at or near the beginning of the service is particularly appropriate, and typically a hymn or song will appear at the end of the service as well; other places might include in or around the reading of scripture (a sung psalm is particularly appropriate here) and, at least in this pastor's opinion, following the sermon. Yes, that's four possible hymns or songs in worship. Remember, they're more likely to remember one of those than any particular thing about your sermon. Swallow your pride and get your congregation singing.

Get them singing, though, with an eye towards what matters most in worship: the Word proclaimed, and the sacraments given and received. If the congregation's song is not pointing towards these central tenets of worship, then they are frankly distracting from worship (remember, not every experience, not even every spiritual experience, is worship), and may be doing more harm than good.

Just something else to think about, dear pastor.

This guy is great, really, but he's not the point of worship.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

In which this blog makes the mistake of responding to clickbait, and probably runs people off...

Note: the "response to authority" theme will resume, presumably next time. I feel compelled to get this out of the way while it's still reasonably fresh in my attention.

I don't know who runs the website "Church Leaders." My first impression is "I don't want to know, I don't want to know." I see names among their contributors I either (1) have never heard of or (2) I have heard of, and do not trust. The titles of many articles seem to be pretty clear that they aren't talking to me. We don't have a praise band, and aren't a likely candidate for one. That alone seems a good indication that the article isn't for me.

But one particular article from said site got shared, by somebody who runs the social media for my seminary alma mater, no less, and I don't have the wit to walk away. A wiser blog would simply walk away repeating to itself "not my circus, not my monkeys" over and over again, but this is not a wiser blog.

So, here this blog goes, foolishly raising up to interrogate an article with the clickbait-ish title "Nine Reasons People Aren't Singing in Worship."

Naturally, I can't even get beyond the title before starting to quibble. Who or what is this random undifferentiated "people" you speak of? You are charged with leading a congregation. The children of God. The body of Christ, or at least one community thereof. Call me pedantic if you want; clearly I'll disagree. How you see the people you are charged with leading and encouraging in worship matters, and matters intensely. There's nothing random about the gathering before you on a given Sunday (or whatever day your congregation ends up gathering). Some are long-time "belongers," and some may be absolutely new, but this isn't a random assemblage, it's not a group of patrons, and it sure as Hell isn't an audience. It's not a sporting crowd trying to encourage its team to score. It's a worshiping community.

Another question: is singing the only outlet for participation in your service of worship? Clearly I consider singing a huge, major, distinctive, unique means of participation in worship, but it's not the only one. Or is it? If your congregation members have no other means of participating in worship -- prayers, responses, liturgy of any kind -- maybe it makes sense that they aren't inclined to sing either. I don't know, I'm no expert in musical psychology, but it's maybe not a good thing if that's the only option.

OK, let's see if we can actually get to the the author starts with a deeply superficial sketch of church music history that would get  maybe an F- from any professor worth hiring. No, the sketch isn't the main point of the article, but if you can't take the time to flesh out that history more effectively and accurately, maybe don't include it in your article? (And the thing is, the author isn't necessarily incorrect; it's just so sloppily and glibly stated as to be unbearable.) So my trust level is already low and I've not even gotten to one of the author's nine points.

(Oh, and let's get one thing clear: the "pre-Reformation mess" cited by the author did produce some of the most passionate, amazing, beautiful, profound sacred music ever. It wasn't meant for congregations to sing. That doesn't make it a "mess." Sheesh.)

(I'm going to trust that if you really want to follow this, you'll actually pull up the article above and follow along with those points I address.)

1. Unless the author is omniscient, I'm not sure he should be making this claim. It is true that the praise & worship industry grinds out new songs at a steady pace, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the churches that subscribe to this kind of worship are necessarily using those songs. I am told that the "best sellers" in that genre tend to be "old favorites" (by pastors who actually work with that stuff and consult those charts), so to speak (yes, the phrase is used just slightly ironically). Now such a phenomenon would be, it seems, a reaction to that very issue -- too many new songs are coming out of the fire hose too fast, so churches stick to sing what they know. That this may present a problem or challenge to the p&w industry isn't really my problem to address.

2. The list gets a little sloppy here, as (3) is really a subset of (2). A song too high for the average singer is, more or less by definition, a song not suitable for congregational singing. However, does the whole song have to be trashed? Is it not possible to rework the song so that the leaders take on the higher or more difficult parts and the congregation responds with the more accessible parts? You see, hymnals actually allow for that possibility, and even provide instruction for a leader, or maybe a choir, to sing a part of the song and for the congregation to respond. Certainly "worship teams" can figure out something like this?

4. A fairly generic point, to be honest. Churches with organs face the same questions of providing enough support for the congregation without overwhelming the sound of the congregation (and choir, when applicable). The difference is that the organ is the most naturally supporting instrument for the human voice, where guitar or even piano are not. Simple instrumental mechanics are the reason; the organ sustains the same level of sound as long as a key is held down, providing the congregation with a consistent source of supporting sound without having to be jacked up so much. With guitars or pianos or other such instruments, the sound begins to decay as soon as the key is pressed or the string is plucked. The temptation then becomes to jack up the volume so that the decay takes longer, which can lead to overwhelming volume. (Again, I'm no expert, but I do think I've experienced this as a congregation member.)

5. Now here is where I'm guessing the author is getting crosswise with his intended audience (as opposed to someone like me). Rightly or wrongly, I'm going to guess that many of the worship leaders (and a big chunk of congregation members too) are at that church precisely because of (5), and probably (6), (8), and (9), which (like 2 & 3 above) are all part of the same point. There's a pretty good chance that a not-small number of folks attend such churches precisely for professional-style performances that ask nothing of them but to be good audence members, or maybe even more good consumers. If you're going to take churches to task for these things, you're going to need to address a lot of underlying questions that aren't going to be solved by tweaks to the praise band.

7. Again, I'm not certain that congregations are not selecting their own "common body of hymnody" quite on their own, no matter how much the p&w industry turns up the spigot of new stuff. And also again, I'm not sure that praise bands or congregations are all that bothered by this when it is the case.

To wrap up, I am forced to wonder if the author is at the last addressing the wrong audience. Is this the kind of things that praise bands or worship teams should be expected to address or grasp? Or is this a situation where the pastor should be addressing in and with the congregation?

Maybe this was a "Dear Pastor" blog entry after all.

Now is where I admit my bias; I'm not convinced that a full-fledged p&w approach to worship is really compatible with a mainline theology of worship. I'm not even certain what theology of worship is in play in p&w, or even if there is one at work. Someone else is going to have to convince me on this subject, and they won't have an easy time of it.

At the same time, I am pretty certain that many, if not most, mainline churches have no clue about a theology of worship that isn't some pale copy of evangelical practice. What is Lutheran worship, or Presbyterian (my particular bailiwick) worship? What is particular to it? Where does our identity show in that worship? Are churches in mainine denominations so paralyzed by fear of shrinkage that they do their dammedest to bury their identity, either treading water in a traditional worship style in which nobody understands what "tradition" means or why we did it so long that it became traditional or running after the hot new evangelical thing (even if it's not that new) to try not to be offensively Presbyterian, or offensively of any identity at all?

And if the pastors of these congregations can't even begin to address these questions, what hope is there for any kind of thoughtful progress on the subject of worship?

And how are pastors going to learn how to address these questions?

It's just not as simple as that...

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Dear Pastor: The Appeal to Authority, part 1

Pastors get busy during Holy Week, so Good Friday and Easter Sunday passed without new entries here. However, the blog is back, and tonight is given to a minimal form of the Appeal to Authority.

In this case the "authority" at hand is the Directory for Worship, one of the components of the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination to which I belong. If you belong to another mainline denomination you may wish to consult any similar governing document (the BoO, as it is semi-affectionately known, is one-half of the constitution of the PC(USA), the other half being its Book of Confessions) to see if it has anything similar to say on the subject of congregational song. (If you are reading from an evangelical/fundamentalist position, I have nothing useful for you here, and I refer you to the first entry of this blog reboot.)

Here's an example: remember that talk about singing in worship, and why it is a needful thing? Here's what that DfW has to say about that:

The singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is a vital and ancient form of prayer. Singing engages the whole person, and helps to unite the body of Christ in common worship. The congregation itself is the church’s primary choir; the purpose of rehearsed choirs and other musicians is to lead and support the congregation in the singing of prayer. Special songs, anthems, and instrumental music may also serve to interpret the Word and enhance the congregation’s prayer. Furthermore, many of the elements of the service of worship may be sung. Music in worship is always to be an offering to God, not merely an artistic display, source of entertainment, or cover for silence. (W-2.0202)
That is a fairly serious statement: The congregation itself is the primary "choir" in the church, and the purpose of any other choir or ensemble that may exist in the church is to lead and support the congregation in the singing of prayer. Yeowch. Note that other functions a choir may perform are not eliminated, but by this interpretation above such things are an "enhancement" of the congregation's sung prayer and not a replacement for it. Your church's choir may, in fact, be the principal "teacher" of congregational song in your church. Use it.

That same section of the DfW also contains this useful warning that does not apply only to music, but is one that pastors and musicians might both be well served to take to heart:

The gifts of the Spirit are for building up the Church. Every action in worship is to glorify God and contribute to the good of the people. Worshipers and worship leaders must avoid actions that only call attention to themselves and fail to serve the needs of the whole congregation. 
Yeah, pastors and musicians never call attention to themselves, do they?

Just a little further on, here's a nice scary selection from W-2.0304:

Ministers of the Word and Sacrament (also called teaching elders) are called to
proclaim the Word, preside at the Sacraments, and equip the people for ministry in Jesus's name. Specifically, ministers of the Word and Sacrament† are responsible for: the selection of Scriptures to be read, the preparation of the sermon, the prayers to be offered, the selection of music to be sung, printed worship aids or media presentations for a given service, and the use of drama, dance, and other art forms in a particular service of worship. (emphasis mine)

Bam. The buck really does stop with you, doesn't it? The next paragraph, W-2.0305, does lessen the blow a bit, noting that in a "particular" congregation a minister may select things such as hymnals in consultation with the church musician(s), and such consultation also apply to such things as anthems (heck, sisters and brothers, I don't even do that much consulting on our choir's anthems), but the congregation's song...sisters and brothers, that's on you. It makes sense. If to any degree one considers that the congregation's song is at all part of the proclamation of the word, or the prayer of the church, then the selection of that song really does belong among all those other responsibilities assigned to the Minister of Word and Sacrament in W-2.0304. Choice of hymns is as much about the proclamation of the Word as choice of scriptures or prayers, it seems.

Now for one last kicker (for this post, at least), here's something to strike fear not into pastors, but presbyteries, also from 2-0305:

It is appropriate that the presbyteries discuss with sessions the character of their congregation’s worship, the standards governing it, and the fruit that it bears in the mission and ministry of the church. It is appropriate that the presbyteries provide instruction in worship, making use of this Directory for Worship in the preparation of candidates for ordination, and in the ongoing nurture of ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
Show of hands: how many of your presbyteries do this? (Bueller?...Bueller? Anyone?...Bueller?)

Again, this is from the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA); Lutheran, Episcopal, and other mainline denominations may have different formulations, or not address the question at all. But there is not merely appeal to authority; there is a fundamental assumption behind the DfW's proclamation. If the congregation in song is the congregation at prayer, if the hymn is in any way part of the church's proclamation, then the choice of hymns or other forms of congregational song is to be given the same care and consideration as the choices of scriptures, prayers, and indeed any other part of worship.

And again, my minister sisters and brothers, the buck really does stop with you.

The Directory for Worship is in here. It is not to be confused with the Book of Common Worship, which is useful but does not have the force of the Book of Order behind it.