Monday, October 27, 2014

Music in the church - Part 1

This is an American Idol culture.

There aren't many places that people sing together anymore. A few uncertain voices sing the national anthem at sporting events, but most folks are silent. Some of us remember singing in school choirs. And everyone sings "Happy Birthday" together when the cake comes out.

A concert might gather together people who love a performer's songs so much that a crowd will sing along together. But it takes hours of listening quietly alone on your smartphone before that happens.

Today we are a culture of solos, not choirs. We listen; we don't sing. We watch a performance. We evaluate; we don't join in. Or we have a few beers and wait our turn at the karaoke machine, where solitary failure is embraced.

But Christians have a long history singing together to worship God. This poses a challenge. How does a church use music to worship God if most of the people present do not like to sing, or do not know how, or are afraid of looking silly?

Christians are told in the Bible to sing. Our Bible tells us to "teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts." One whole book of the Bible, called Psalms, is the songbook of ancient Israel. Singing has always been one of the ways the people of God express their joy in God.

So how do we do it today?

Every worship service has an entry point, a place of assumed knowledge that, once met, allows visitors to participate in the worship service. However "missional" or "seeker-sensitive" the church, this point exists. The "worship style" of the church is often based on the entry point for participation in the music of the church.

Churches with rock bands leading worship tend to assume several things for their entry point: 1) Guests don't read music, so displaying musical notes only confuses and alienates people. 2) Guests learn music by hearing, so songs must be repeated for the congregation to get it. 3) A musical style inside the church will be most inviting if it matches the musical style that is most popular in secular society. 4) Many guests will only watch and listen, so make the show worth watching and listening to. It's a performance first, and participation second.

Churches that sometimes get called "traditional" (not a particularly useful word - there are all kinds of traditions, many of them older than Isaac Watts. Not many protestant churches, for example, regularly sing in antiphony, and that church music style dates back to the first century) have a different set of entry points for singing. The songs are usually hymns written between 1600 and today, accompanied by organ or piano, which always includes playing the melody. Sometimes a choir assists. The entry points for this kind of worship are: 1) Guests can read and understand poetry that is hundreds of years old and often uses archaic language. 2) Guests can read music well enough to be assisted by musical notation, rather than intimidated by it. This includes being able to distinguish between melody and harmony.  3) Guests can appreciate a musical style that disregards trends, even if those trends have been around for eighty years and have become the standard music of the rest of society.

Neither of these worship styles has a null entry point. To sum up, if you want to sing along in church, the traditional churches assume you have a moderate to high level of education, and the contemporary churches assume you listen to Christian radio. 

Both these styles are trying to worship God, but by their entry point they end up attracting and engaging different groups of people.

Next time: the "worship style" we chose and why.