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Entries in Worship (9)

Tuesday
Oct032017

Don't close your eyes

I will admit that this is a post that many will disagree with. I am willing to admit that my feelings on this are personal bias, but I wonder if others feel the same.

I don't like it when the people on worship teams close their eyes.

Technically, we don't need 6-7 people on a platform to successfully lead worship, but that is beside the point. Those people are there to lead singing, to promote worship. Part of leading is, in my opinion, making eye contact with the people whom you are leading. I can bear the "sing it like you mean it" exhortations (although, inside I'm cringing) but when the song leaders are caught up in a private moment, with eyes closed, zoned out, they become something to be watched, not someone who is leading. And don't even get me started on the ones who feel the need to shake their booties while they lead singing.

I understand the desire for contemporary forms of music as a tool of worship. After all, Bach was at one time, contemporary to his day. But that does not mean the worship music is simply contemporary music played in a church building. It is meant to direct people to the worship of the God of the universe. I even find myself cringing a little when I hear someone say, "Good job, worship team." Is that what it is about?

I realize this is a rant, and I am trying to avoid being a ranting person. I need to be reverent and respectful. I hope this didn't come off as disrespectful. If a worship team member wants to have a private moment of worship, then he or she should wait until he's in the congregation, and then by all means, close your eyes.

Monday
Oct022017

Want to sing a story? Read a good one first.

People like stories. I'm always very surprised when I come across people who don't like stories. Whether it is a book or a movie, I love stories. And I think we all like good storytellers. Charles Dickens knew how to tell a story. Great Expectations? Now, that is a great story. 

Songs are like stories, too. And some tell stories in song better than others. Stan Rogers, a Canadian folk singer, told stories. And he knew how to weave them to draw the listener right into it. Gordon Lightfoot, another Canadian, has also told stories. When I drive to school, the only radio stations I listen to are the oldies and the country station (I switch away from the other when a song I don't like comes on ). Country songs definitely tell stories, and again, not all country songwriters are created equal. Sometimes, Christian songs remind me of badly written country songs.

One of the things I see in some contemporary worship songs is that they sing more about "my" story than the story of God. Now, I will concede that one of my favourite hymns "Be Thou My Vision", is a song full of "I" and "my, but it is one of those songs that sounds like a prayer to God, not necessarily one of those songs like the infamous "The Christmas Shoes." There is nothing wrong with such songs, but do they have a place in worship? Worship songs should sing more of God's story, not my story. 

I read a tweet by Fernando Ortega the other day that I really liked:

A songwriter should immerse himself in great literature. Poetry, novels, stories written by anyone with a piercing eye and beautiful words.

The fact of the matter is that some story tellers are better than others, whether it's a book, poem, or song. Go ahead and use the story motif to write a Christian song, but learn what a good story is. Learn how to use words. Here's a revolutionary thought: study literature (including the Bible) and music together.

There is a place for testimony, but when we gather for worship, our major focus ought to be to tell the story of Christ and what he has done for us. These days, anyone who can read a chord chart and write a few verses that prick the emotions is considered a songwriter. I suspect there may be a bit more than that. How about opening up a book of poems or reading some good books before putting pen to paper (or pixel to screen)?

Monday
Sep042017

The beauty of repetition

Around this time every year, the light coming from the east and into my back yard changes. Every September, the light peeking through the maple tree and through boards of the fence, is lower. There is an ivy winding itself around the trunk of the maple tree, and as I look out while making my breakfast I can see the leaves being lit up by the dawn of the new day. I look forward to that light every year.

It's Labour Day. Here in Canada, university campuses are filling up. The streets of those university towns will be full and young people will be carrying their boxes, bins, and suitcases into their new residences. In the town where two of my kids went to university, there will be furniture on the boulevards in front of houses; furniture free for the taking. It's a great way to get rid of unwanted stuff. My son and his roommates one year banked on getting a couch for free; and they did.

Tomorrow, all over Canada, like every year, the streets will be filled with busses and students making their way to school. Just like they did when I was in school. And just like it will be years from now. It's part of what happens here in early September. It's part of the pattern.

There are four distinct seasons where I live. Patterns emerge everywhere. Whether it is the beginning of leaves turning or the annual Spring competition between Crows and Blue Jays for supremacy of the neighbourhood, things repeat. I like that. I thought about that yesterday when my church observed The Lord's Supper.

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (I Cor. 11:23-26).

Every month when we observe communion, this passage is read. I like that. It's part of the whole process of remembering. Remembering is built into our lives as Christians as we worship weekly.

Early in my Christian life, I was discouraged from praying the Lord's Prayer regularly. It was rote; I needed to avoid vain repetition. Desiring to be a good Christian, I avoided that and used the Lord's Prayer only as a model for "real" prayer.

At a prayer meeting many years later, a man in the congregation stood up and prayed the Lord's Prayer. There was nothing rote about the way he prayed it. He meant every word. Sure, he could have found his own words to pray the principles found in that prayer, but it was clear to me that he was simply praying Scripture. And there is nothing wrong with that.

I've noticed in my church recently that there are songs we sing in worship which, in a few months, disappear. I guess something better comes along to usurp those songs. For some of them, I'm really glad they disappear, but the idea that we are being repetitive or out of date when we sing good songs year after year bothers me. Tradition and faith are not the same thing, but faith is transmitted through traditions whether we like to admit it or not. What is Sunday school except a well-established tradition? What is Vacation Bible School except another tradition? Even the fact that one church has its offering plate passed around and another has a box at the back of the church are rooted in tradition. We live out our faith in various ways, and they become tradition. We repeat those things year after year.

I find that beautiful. God created time. He made the seasons. He created human beings to go through various stages which are universal to every race and ethnicity. Instilled in his creation is repetition. I think it's something we should appreciate. It's comforting. It reminds me of the immutability of God. Sure, there is room for change and for varying things. But repetition can be a very good thing.

Tuesday
Aug152017

Want to write a hymn? Learn poetry

The September/October issue of Touchstone has a great little piece by Anthony Esolen regarding hymn writing. He echoed many things I have thought myself, but he's a great writer and says it much better. 

Now, this assumes that one wants to write a hymn. Most of what is produced today is referred to as a worship song, not necessarily a hymn. I wonder if that is deliberate; hymns are associated with the old and stodgy, so better to call it a worship song. Anyway, I don't know if the rules apply to what we consider choruses, but I don't see why they couldn't. I think all music sung in church should follow these guidelines. 

Become Conversant With English Poetry and English Meter

Some songsters seem to think that a creative aura floating a few feet over the head and a knack for sort of  rhyming are enough to get them started. That’s a little like saying that we should let you paint the walls of a church be- cause you can name most of the colors in the big crayon box. 

Poetry is an art; the raw stuff of the art is provided by your language. But you’re no more an artist in language because you talk all day long than you are a musician because you whistle in the car. There’s no way around it. You must steep yourself in English verse, and see—rather, hear—what centuries of artists have done with the sounds and shades and gleams and feints and glories of our words before. 

I agree that song writers could benefit from understanding poetry. Poetry is hard. It takes thought. Good songs benefit from rhyme, meter, and rhythm. What better place to learn than poetry?

Attend to the Musical Structure of Hymns

You can tell at a glance when a hymn is not a hymn but an off- Broadway show tune. It has bizarre intervals and strange syncopation and time-changes and ties of a half and an eighth and three-quarters of a sixteenth and who knows what. It “wanders” melodically ad lib. It cannot be sung by a congregation.

I think many of us have been in a service where the only ones who can seem to follow the song are the ones leading it. Give me a simple, repetitive, singable tune any day. There is a sentiment out there that reptition is bad. It can be, but when we're storing up biblical truth it's extremely helpful. Does it not follow that having good worship songs stored in our heads is also good? One of my most UN-favourite Christian songs is "Good, Good Father." I don't like the words at all. But it has a repetitive tune. Inevitably on the days when we have to sing it, I have the tune rolling around in my head. If only there were better words attached to it.

Immersion in the Bible

Finally, Esolen encourages the writers to meditate on Scripture, "as Christ did, and the apostles, and the poets after them." I cringe when worship songs contain only vague references to the Godhead. My church has sung songs where the only indication that the song is actually Christian is the presence of the capitalized "You." It is as if they afraid to use words like Christ, redeemed, or crucified. 

What has happened in church music is that its creators try to make it sound like popular music. Doesn't that mean it has more appeal? Perhaps. But one thing I ponder often is the fact that Sunday morning worship, a time with God's people, is supposed to be a calling away from the rest of our lives. It is a time devoted to worship. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing a worship song in a contemporary mode, but I believe we have gone overboard.

When I was in my firs year of university, I told my roommate that I had to sing at church but didn't know what to sing. She, not a Christian, suggested John Lennon's "Imagine." Sometimes, some of the songs we sing today aren't too far off from that.

The idea that everyone can do everything because we all have the freedom to do so trickles down to the fact that we refuse to recognize that there are some people who simply can't do a particular thing. I can't write a worship song. I don't have the ability to do so. And if I wanted to try, I'd labour long and hard to do it, and I'd take Esolen's advice.

Monday
Apr102017

From can't read to don't read, and its affect on worship songs

Update, Tuesday, April 11: Oh the shame. How could I have possibly missed my misuse of the word "affect" in the title of this post? "Affect" is a verb. I should have used "effect." Oh well, maybe my error was only noticed by a few. Mea culpa.

I don't like the song "Good, good Father." It's one of those songs which is so vague, it could be sung about a human father. I was wondering yesterday as we sang, what kind of spiritual truths the song actually teaches. He's a good father. Okay, fine. What does that mean? The song doesn't really delve into specifics. In fact, it doesn't use the word "God" at all.

There has been much written about worship songs. Tim Challies had an interesting article recently about the impact of digital technology on the use of the hymnal. People are divided over the matter. He doesn't think we should go back to hymnals. I don't know as if it's a matter of "shouldn't" or "can't" go back. What would happen if we did go back to them other than just a barrage of complaints? His observations are worth considering.

The reality is that worship music is influenced by the nature of popular music, so that when we get tired of singing a song, we need to find another. And if we must keep producing new songs every few months, is it any wonder they may not have a lot of depth?

At one time, literacy was not universal. The ability to learn about God had to be found through the preached word and through hymns. For someone who could not read a word, he could hear a word and learn a spiritual truth. These days, it isn't really a matter of can't read, but don't read. There is a reason why literacy programs are pushed forward. If a child can sit in front of a device which reads to him, is there any incentive to be a good reader? I love audio books, and it is often a much different experience to listen than to read, but I only listen to them when I can't hold a book; like while driving, riding the stationery bike, or knitting.

What happens when people don't read a lot and are faced week by week with worship songs that tell them little about God? Or only emphasize the subjective, personal aspect of our faith? We won't learn objective truths about God; we will learn about our experience of God or how we feel about God. 

I would like to suggest something which is probably shocking: I think that potential worship song leaders should expose themselevs to a lot of good literature; especially poetry. Seeing how great writers used words helps us write good material.

And what about learning to read music and understand theory? These days, if you can strum a few chords, read a chord chart, and find a YouTube video, you can proclaim yourself a song leader. A pastor goes to seminary to get biblical training. If we are going to add someone to the leadership of our church who focuses on the music, why not expect him to have training in that area? It is false to say that all someone needs is sincerity. To believe it is one or the other is a false dichotomy.

When my daughter was about seven or eight years old, she loved the song "Wonderful Grace of Jesus." In those days, people knew the parts, and it was a really enjoyable song to sing. My daughter actually said one Sunday that she hoped we would sing it. If worship songs are less about what God has done and more about how we feel about it, what are today's seven and eight year olds learning? It's worth thinking about.