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The Church Music Wars: Anything Not Banned is Permissible?

The Church Music Wars: Anything Not Banned is Permissible?

Posted by on Jul 29, 2011 in Church History | No Comments

The Bible speaks to orderly worship as it was acted out in the early church, but not in quite enough specifics to end the debate entirely.

So, the question remains, what is permissible? As language, culture, communication, rhetoric, tradition and music evolve, do we evolve with it?

This is the question at the heart of the Church Music Wars today. And the question that brought about similar contention between historical church leaders Martin Luther and John Calvin. Luther argued that “anything that is not banned is permissible.” Since the New Testament doesn’t negatively address unison singing, specific instrumentation or writing entirely new songs, they should be permitted. Calvin presented the opposing opinion, arguing that “anything the Bible does not expressly promote is banned.”

At first blush, Calvin’s argument seems theologically safer. What do you think?

“What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” by Carl Trueman

“What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” by Carl Trueman

Posted by on Jul 27, 2011 in Psalms, Relevant Reverence | 2 Comments

I often get in e-mail debates from Christians who have listened to my album, “The Fallen Cry” (sung from the voice of the fallen) and seen my claim that these songs are indeed appropriate for a church setting – and they go off on me. I am rarely/never able to convince these people of the merits of these songs for the purposes of corporate worship.

But, I recently came across a writing from Carl R. Trueman, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, that states my argument much more eloquently than I ever have. It’s worth the read.

“Having experienced — and generally appreciated — worship across the whole evangelical spectrum, from Charismatic to Reformed — I am myself less concerned here with the form of worship than I am with its content. Thus, I would like to make just one observation: the psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, have almost entirely dropped from view in the contemporary Western evangelical scene. I am not certain about why this should be, but I have an instinctive feel that it has more than a little to do with the fact that a high proportion of the psalter is taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented, and broken.

In modern Western culture, these are simply not emotions which have much credibility: sure, people still feel these things, but to admit that they are a normal part of one’s everyday life is tantamount to admitting that one has failed in today’s health, wealth, and happiness society. And, of course, if one does admit to them, one must neither accept them nor take any personal responsibility for them: one must blame one’s parents, sue one’s employer, pop a pill, or check into a clinic in order to have such dysfunctional emotions soothed and one’s self-image restored.

Now, one would not expect the world to have much time for the weakness of the psalmists’ cries. It is very disturbing, however, when these cries of lamentation disappear from the language and worship of the church. Perhaps the Western church feels no need to lament — but then it is sadly deluded about how healthy it really is in terms of numbers, influence and spiritual maturity. Perhaps — and this is more likely — it has drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that it simply does not know what to do with such cries and regards them as little short of embarrassing. Yet the human condition is a poor one — and Christians who are aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and are looking for a better country should know this.

A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience.

Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair — and joy, when it manifests itself — is very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity. In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?

I did once suggest at a church meeting that the psalms should take a higher priority in evangelical worship than they generally do — and was told in no uncertain terms by one indignant person that such a view betrayed a heart that had no interest in evangelism. On the contrary, I believe it is the exclusion of the experiences and expectations of the psalmists from our worship — and thus from our horizons of expectation — which has in a large part crippled the evangelistic efforts of the church in the West and turned us all into spiritual pixies.

By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. By so doing, it has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity, and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent. In the last year, I have asked three very different evangelical audiences what miserable Christians can sing in church. On each occasion my question has elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical — and yet I posed the question in all seriousness. Is it any wonder that British evangelicalism, from the Reformed to the Charismatic, is almost entirely a comfortable, middle-class phenomenon?”

–Carl R. Trueman, from “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” in The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004) pp. 158-160.

What if We All Sang to Each Other?

What if We All Sang to Each Other?

Who should our Church songs be written to? Not “who should they be written for?” But, who should we be singing to?

God? Ourselves? Each other?

In a congregational worship setting, we largely sing songs about the grandeur of God. Less often, our songs are prayers – personal confessions of weakness written broadly enough for a congregation to be able to internalize. Much less often, our songs consist of exactly what Jars of Clay has created with their latest album, Shelter.

They wrote lyrics that are meant to be sung AT each other. Go check out the lyrics to Jars of Clay’s latest album, Shelter, and see what you think.

Stylistic Snobbery

Stylistic Snobbery

Posted by on Jul 13, 2011 in Church Music | 2 Comments

One thing I’ve had to be incredibly careful to avoid (and have failed to on countless occasions) is a variation of what C.S. Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery“.

Chronological snobbery is the dismissal of things belonging to a past age as being inherently inferior to those of today. In my case, having moved from a church where Gaelic acapella psalms were the order of the day – to a church where we now have drums and electric guitars, it’s very easy to slip into stylistic snobbery. Stylistic snobbery says that “We’ve got the style right now, and this is the only way to do it”. In an American context, you might want to replace “Gaelic acapella psalms” with “Stuff written by dudes called Wesley” or “Stuff that was penned before the Clinton adminstration”.

The point is that style is just that. It’s a way of doing something. But remember, It’s the ‘something’ that we’re doing that makes worship worship. The heart of worship is that worship is from the heart.

Contributed by Iain MacKinnon, Worship Leader, Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Matching the Mood to the Meaning

Matching the Mood to the Meaning

Posted by on Jul 12, 2011 in Church Music, Songwriting | No Comments

One reason some people don’t like drums and electric guitars at church is that it doesn’t match the “reverence” they’re looking for when singing about the holiness of God.

Whether or not you agree, there’s a universal lesson to be learned here.

Try singing Amazing Grace to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started from this tropic port,
Aboard this tiny ship.”

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”

It almost hurts your soul, doesn’t it? To take those beautiful lyrics and place them within that sea shanty?

This is an extreme case. But, it’s a great lesson when writing to make sure the mood matches the meaning.

Sticking to Psalms Protects us From Bad Theology

Sticking to Psalms Protects us From Bad Theology

Posted by on Jul 6, 2011 in Church Music, Psalms, Songwriting | No Comments

Some churches today only sing songs that lyrically come straight from the Bible. This conviction requires them to stick largely to the Psalms. Whether you agree with their reasoning or not, here’s the big benefit I see with this approach.

Sticking to Psalms protects us from bad theology.

If we’re writing our own songs, we run the risk of being theologically inaccurate. If we take from the Psalms, we’re safe.

The only problem is – the reason the Psalms were such powerful songs was that they directly reflected the current cry of the people. Their situation. Their fears. Their faith.

If we stick only to scripture, the best we can do is find our closest substitute. Mimicking someone else’s prayer-songs, rather than our own.

Selah: Put Pauses Back in Your Church Services

Selah: Put Pauses Back in Your Church Services

Posted by on Jun 30, 2011 in Church Music, Worship Leading | No Comments

We work really hard on seamless transitions in our church music services. One song feeding perfectly into the next. Ending a song on the first chord of the following. Leaving no awkward space.

But in the process of leaving no awkward space, we also leave no thoughtful space.

In the Psalms, when you see the word, “Selah“, this literally meant to pause and reflect during this instrumental interlude.

You don’t have to have silence, even though you may find that extraordinarily powerful. You can have your synth player hold a pad. But consider giving the congregation some time to think.

Give them some Selah this week. After all, it’s biblical.

The Beauty of Brevity

The Beauty of Brevity

Posted by on Jun 28, 2011 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

“If I had had more time, I would have written to you more briefly.” – Cicero, in a letter to Julius Caesar

Matt Redman Says “The Church Needs its Poets”

Matt Redman Says “The Church Needs its Poets”

Posted by on Jun 21, 2011 in Christian Lyrics, Psalms, Songwriting | No Comments

“The church needs its poets – people who somehow congregationally, biblically and relevantly translate all that’s happening around them into words for the church to sing.” – Matt Redman

That sounds to me like we need a lot of modern-day Davids. So, why are we spending our church services singing about the situational relevance of 3,000 years ago, when we could have modern-day poets sing about the struggles of community within the modern-day church?

No one Uses the Word, “Hosanna”

No one Uses the Word, “Hosanna”

Posted by on Jun 16, 2011 in Christian Lyrics, Church Music, Psalms | No Comments

When’s the last time you used the word “Hosanna” in conversation?

I’m going to guess never. So, why are we using the word in our church songs? Now, I can present an argument for the ‘beauty’ of the word. For the ‘reverence’ of the word. Choosing to use holy phrases to sing of a holy God.

But, in the Psalms (where we’ve hijacked the word) the Psalmist used the word, “Hosanna”, because people used the word “Hosanna”. It was, in itself, a word of great meaning to the Israel community. It meant, “God, save us”.

But, it doesn’t mean that to the modern-day church, because we don’t use the word. And I wonder how many people, if pressed, could even define it? The truth is, we sing it because it sounds ‘holy’. But can a word devoid of meaning really be that?