Who is worship actually for??

So the question was asked – as follows:

How do you balance professionalism in music in worship but still be inclusive?

Great question. Important question. Here is what one of the most highly-regarded gospel choral directors working in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church had to say about this:

I’m going to throw in another perspective. The ministry in the Old Testament temple – the Levite ministry – shows us the way; when it comes to the worship service, you need to use experienced people who know what they are doing. Other services/programmes can incorporate musicians who are developing, but worship is an offering being presented to God, so we need to make sure it’s a presentable offering – not an offering in the making.

In the temple, students and teachers alike performed their services, so it wasn’t just the ‘graduates’ but the ‘undergraduates’ – but as they were students, they were being trained in the system, and no doubt were given things to do according to where in the system they were. If it was playing a cymbal, or carrying the cymbal case, (I’m just guessing here, so please do not take this as authoritative) until such time as they graduated, I am sure there was some organised way of taking them through the system. The underlying point here is that they were chosen for a specific purpose, and had to qualify for that role.

Conclusion: have an organised way of incorporating appropriate musicians for worship. Musicians not suited should not be given a responsibility for the worship, but can be included in other areas of church music life which [does not specifically involve worship services].

[note: some may say ‘it’s all worship’, but that is not the case. Again, the Old Testament shows this most clearly, as it is talking about a theocratic system. Within Jewish life there were ceremonies, temple services, and festivals. The Levite role was concerned with a specific aspect; in that system ladies were not allowed to perform certain roles (that was then, not now!); it’s possibly for that reason why tambourines, normally played by women, were not typically found in the temple services; however on occasions of celebration, such as Miriam / Deborah, the ladies led out; and there is the basis of my point: there are many parts of our Christian experience as SDA’s : Sabbath School, AYS, evangelism, etc…, but when it comes to the worship service; that which is being offered to God as an offering – it requires those who are called for that purpose.]

The sanctuary was not set up like a church. Your Bible / SDA Commentary will have diagrams of the sanctuary, and you will note that it is not set up as seats facing one way, and those leading out facing the other. The choir did not face the people; the choir faced the altar! Why? It was about worship, not performance.

The current set up we have (please set me on the right track if I am mistaken – I do love learning!!) is based on the idea of ‘teaching’. You can see how the buildings are big, ornate, and where does the priest/vicar/preacher stand? Facing the congregation, and very often above the congregation – which suggested the congregation – the laity was lower than the priesthood, (maybe it was so they could be seen by shorter people, but we know enough about Christianity’s history to know that priests were [often] seen as ‘rulers’).

The New testament churches were house groups – very practical, people oriented.

We have an expression in our churches where we talk about ‘up there’ or ‘at the front’; strangely enough (I say this in jest) the pulpit is seen to be the ‘front of the church’, yet the ‘front entrance’ is the opposite end of the pulpit. Just a throwaway comment – don’t take it too seriously.

So we have this mentality of the worship service being those ‘up there, at the front’; we watch/listen to them pray; we watch them sing – we give our approval by soft amen, loud amen, very loud ” A – MEN!!’ or applause; sometimes on the rare occasion ‘standing ovation’; they sing a ‘special’ item (let me say it in proper church talk, they ‘render a special’). We introduce the preacher, and give his/her list of credentials, a short biog about them!

So it all becomes performance, and not worship. Hence, we then want to ‘give people a chance to perform’ to include them in the service, because we are very much ‘performance minded’. We may even say ‘didn’t she do well’ after the performance? And we call this worship to God.


I am not advocating a cold church where people don’t encourage; that’s not my point; my point is based on the original comment which said ‘music is worship’ and not just ‘music in church’. My encouragement to us all is that we encourage a move to worship which dispenses with introductions of items and human beings, congratulations of human beings, and is just God focused – all about lavishing God with praise, and not sharing it with any other human being.

Use the Sabbath School – which is a more workshop/creative programme; AYS, which again is more free;, and other programmes to help develop and encourage talent, and when people are ready to have this awesome, even life/death responsibility of leading people to worship God. (Life/Death statement may seem a bit extreme, but Israelites were led into worship …. of a golden calf!) A worship leader has a frightening responsibility!

At some point there will be a follow-up to that post, but for a number of regular and not-so-regular readers of this blog, there is some serious thinking to be done…

The scariest reason why we don’t sing in church

Growing amounts of words have been and are being written on the question of congregational singing – or lack thereof –  across denominations. It does not appear that the ‘charismatic’ traditions suffer from this problem in anything like the same way other denominations and movements do. All sort of interesting theses have been put forward; as ever, these vary in cogency, rigour, cultural savvy and theological/Biblical literacy.

As a humanities geek who now crosses the divide between both philosophy and theology, I’d usually have a lot more to say about this. But I have come to type this straight from my devotional this morning. Have a look at this:

The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; The right hand of the Lord does valiantly.

That’s Psalm 118:15 in the KJV. That’s not necessarily going to get you to the import of the text. Try this:

Songs of joy and victory are sung in the camp of the godly. The strong right arm of the LORD has done glorious things!

Now that’s the New Living Translation – one of the many that is berated by various ministry-types and while on one hand I could never recommend it for non-basic Bible study, I refuse to kowtow to the conservative-Biblical mindset that dumps on all but the handful of approved versions. I’m more literate than many people and I grew up with the King James (aka the ‘Authorised’) version and I love literature, but I had to get away from the KJV in my twenties to get back to actually reading the Bible. So I say: any Bible you can and will enjoy reading is better than an excellent translation that you don’t read.

This is relevant because I love Psalm 118 but had never read it in the NLT, and here’s what jumped out at me: what do we hear in the ‘camp of the God-fearing and God-believing?

Songs.

What kind of songs, pray tell?

‘Joy’ and ‘victory.’

Hmm.

I have to ask myself when last I went to church and I could describe the singing as manifesting ‘joy’ and victory.’ I know that people are trying to get people to sing louder – with varied results. I know that people are trying to get people to be more ‘lively’ – with varied results. But far, far, far too often, I am not at all sure that the praise teams or song leaders – and this is before we even consider the pastoral team and the congregations at large – are convinced by what they are singing. You can tell when ‘they like the song’ – but this is now about aesthetics! People like the beat, the flow, the melody, the words (and you can like the beat without there being a drumkit in sight, by the way). But that’s not the same sound as when you are singing out of the depth of your own experience!

I once went to a football (soccer) match. It was set to end in a draw…until the very last minute of the game, the home side scored a winner. I was one of the home fans, and I had the unforgettable experience of standing to my feet with thousands of people and singing the following charming ditty (to a tune that was essentially based on the ‘Bread of heaven’ chorus of the hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah):

You’re not singing,
You’re not singing,
You’re not singing any more;
You’re not singing any more!

That was as HEARTFELT a singing experience as any I’ve been part of. Perhaps the use of a religious hymn contributed to that… Anyway, here’s a final translation – this time, from The Message:

Hear the shouts, hear the triumph songs in the camp of the saved? “The hand of God has turned the tide!

Interesting how it is put in the form of a question-and-response. Let me now give you my personal paraphrase of this verse:

“Can you hear the shouts of joy [Psalm 32:15 is a very sobering text on the question of those who are qualified to ‘shout for joy’] coming from that church over there? Can you hear the songs of deliverance? God has done something for these people, and you can hear it in their praise!”

The scariest reason why we don’t sing in church?

It’s not because “we had a bad week.” Or because “we don’t know the song.” It’s not even because “I don’t like this style of music” (or, to be more ‘Christian’ about it: “this music is unholy and not fit for the house of God”). And worse yet, it’s not even because “I know that the keyboard player is having an affair with the first elder’s wife.”

It is because we have not experienced victory over sin and self in Jesus Christ.

You ain’t going to sing about what you don’t know unless they’re paying you or you’re auditioning for X-Factor (or something else in that dimension).

We’re not QUALITATIVELY different to anyone else. So we cannot get too close to God in praise and worship, because coming into the presence of a holy God would mean we’d have to change.

So the football fans and the rock concert attendees are freer to worship than we are, because they’re not playing the same game we are. Their game does not involve worshipping one’s own existence whilst pretending to worship God…

 

 

 

A response to Christian Berdahl; #1 – Syncopation (Part Four)

Aha, you kept your word about not waiting light-years to meet up again!

Praise God, here we are. But I’ve come to share another conversation with you, which I am sure we’ll talk about in and of itself.

Cool. So who is this other person? Well, she is a lady who heard our conversation and got in touch to start another one herself. I think you’ll find that it relates entirely to what we are talking about.

Okay, great. Bring it on!

[Hi, and thanks for getting in touch!]

It is very interesting to me that as a conservative Christian who was raised against rock’n’roll and drums in all forms, I was also conditioned to believe that ‘charismatic’ Christians were long on their desire to experience a ‘worship high’ and very short on biblical literacy and doctrinal awareness. As it is, my chaplaincy activities have brought me into contact with a number of young Christians attending charismatic churches who have ended up on my radar because they wanted to study the Bible much more. They had clocked that ‘worship’ was not enough.

All of us in whatever our traditions have to be honest enough to stop and critically evaluate what we are doing in our churches from time to time. I salute you for doing this. I do not want to come across like some sort of know-it-all, but let me pick up a few things from your first comment now.

“Desperately wondering what God thinks of drums and middle of the road rock music as worship;”

These are two different things. What does God think of drums? Good question. What does He think of any of our ‘modern’ instruments? I am not going to make the mistake I have made in the past of launching into a technical diatribe. I am going to point out that Western harmony as we know it did not exist in Bible times – over 1000 years after the NT canon closed, we have the origins of modern hymnody with harmony in four parts. So the assumption that keyboard instruments cannot be a problem but drums might be a problem is an assumption that has opened itself to critical attack from the outset. So whatever position anyone adopts, they need to be able to defend it. My viewpoint in a nutshell: God is less interested in WHAT is being played than with HOW it is being played. Psalm 33:3 exhorts the musician to play with “skill.” That is a musical value that in an ultimate sense is not dependent on individual aesthetics. Something is either in tune, or not. Or in time, or not. Etc. And then, the musician either has a sincere desire to worship God with their whole heart – or not. Only God is qualified to judge, but there are times when human beings can have a pretty good idea about the motivations of others; ‘by their fruits ye shall know them.’ If the worship setup really does resemble a rock concert, complete with smoke machines, people whipping up the crowd and a style of playing that showcases technique over God’s grace, people will know.

As for ‘middle-of-the-road’ rock music, I guess you mean a style, right? Actual ‘middle-of-the-road’ rock music is secular music, not contemporary Christian music in a mid-rock style. What about that style? Does God like that? Similar question to last time: what would make God favour one musical style over another? I am NOT saying that ALL styles of music can be used to worship God, but there are mid-rock songs and groups who write wonderful music. And it’s not that loud and it is never all about the drums. What would make God favour contemporary ‘black’ gospel over contemporary ‘white’ CCM music? Or classical music over hymns? The internet is full of people making cases for and against one style over against another and most have the kind of biblical/theological reasoning that if applied to other questions would guarantee heresy on doctrinal matters that are in fact salvific.

“no drums in OT worship, and no timbrels in the sanctuary, despite drums being used by surrounding countries. Was it because they stir up the flesh, which is at war with the Spirit, too much?”

Interesting. I studied Jewish music traditions in some detail as a postgraduate student. It is a massive area of study; Jewish culture is more diverse than many realise and their musical traditions are hugely wide-ranging. And all of them go right back to temple traditions. This is not the kind of historical overview that I can right easily (it will take too long to type) but I am interested to know which of your authors (or whoever) is arguing that what can be defined as a ‘drum’ was used in neighbouring countries. Which countries? And what is the language in which they have gotten this information? There are several ‘Semitic’ languages, but what is the word that is being translated as ‘drum?’ And what is the definition of that word in the original language?

1 Chronicles: 4000 instrumentalists. 288 singers. Some argue that David was not authorised by God to bring instruments into the temple. They use certain texts. Problem: if God wanted us to know that David should NOT have introduced instruments into temple worship, why do we have an injunction in Exodus 20 insisting that the priests not raise the altar beyond a certain height and also ensuring the dress modesty of the priesthood, but not a clear injunction as to what instruments were banned? Anytime a person makes a theological case using an ‘argument from silence’ they are on terribly thin ice – it is a flawed methodology of Scriptural reasoning that cannot bear scrutiny and cannot be consistently applied. So it fails the smell test theologically, but many of us STILL use this way of thinking and then wonder why people don’t find our Christian reasoning to be persuasive and compelling. If one is to argue that the only instruments that God approved of were the ones mentioned in Scripture, it is not just the organ/piano/keyboard/saxophone/drumkit that would have to be ditched – it would have to be all the songs and repertoire that can only be played on those instruments…so our hymns would need to go as well. And I can make this point much more rigorously and with more teeth if a genuine occasion arises.

How do we know that there were no ‘drums’ in OT worship? How do we know that other countries had ‘drums?’ What is the logic in arguing that there were no drums when there were percussion instruments? Cymbals can make a very loud noise and can be played in all sorts of ways rhythmically…

2 Chron. 29:25-30, “King Hezekiah then stationed the Levites at the Temple of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres. He obeyed all the commands that the LORD had given to King David through Gad, the king’s seer, and the prophet Nathan. The Levites then took their positions around the Temple with the instruments of David, and the priests took their positions with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah ordered that the burnt offerings be placed on the altar. As the burnt offerings were presented, songs of praise to the LORD were begun, accompanied by the trumpets and other instruments of David, king of Israel. The entire assembly worshipped the LORD as the singers sang and the trumpets blew, until all the burnt offerings were finished. Then the king and everyone with him bowed down in worship. King Hezekiah and the officials ordered the Levites to praise the LORD with the psalms of David and Asaph the seer. So they offered joyous praise and bowed down in worship.”

We have no idea what those ‘other instruments’ were. We are not told. But it was not quiet. This suggests that volume is not the issue. You use a very important word: ‘sensuous’ to describe the effect of the drumming in various contexts.

The fact that the drums can be played that way is undeniable. But when you hear ‘sensuous’ drumming, do you only ever hear drums? Think about it. Yes, drum solo features take place and they can and do whip up a frenzy. But no-one would listen to 3/4 songs in a row of just drums. What makes some tracks more sensuous than others? The bass has a huge role. The keys/guitar can also really create excitement and emotion – harmony is so powerful that some church musicians have gotten laid because of the chords they can play. Forget drums, some girls (and boys) are excited by harmony in very unspiritual ways. And the vocals are ALWAYS involved in the most sensuous songs. So the drum beat may be especially compelling, but all the other things on the track are complicit too – which means that to single out the drums because it is easy to pick out the beat is easy, but susceptible to major criticism as an interpretive outcome.

“What about rhythms derived from pagan, spiriting and animist rituals such as Latin rhythms and rock and roll, see Robert Palmer, Rock and Roll, an unruly history.”

I would be the first to agree that some rhythms are just not suitable for a church service. But what are the grounds of biblical and musical principle for any assertion of this nature? We can talk about the unholy origins of all sorts of things (the story of the organ goes back to pagan Rome). We can talk about the inappropriate use of all sorts of things (the Bible has been used to justify racism). Does any of that automatically make those things totally null and void? If I want to refer to a person as being happy and carefree, it is still technically within my rights to use the word ‘gay.’ But the difference between what gay ‘denotes’ (‘happy’ etc) and what it ‘connotes’ (homosexual) is considerable. We have a framework for certain things in our societies. The same is true of rhythms. Some immediately evoke a nightclub dance stage. Others, a military march. Now we are happy to use march-style rhythms in our sacred music – but not all Christians believe that our modern, geopolitical wars are endorsed by God and some choose never to bear arms even though we accept that war is a reality of our world. Would we suggest that a marching beat to ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ was an endorsement of human warfare?

I hope that the principles of thought I am employing are made clear. I think I want to draw attention to this business of ‘African music’ – it seems to receive very bad press. Again, as an ethnomusicology student I studied some of the musics of the African continent. Some of the cliches used in anti-drum Christian music arguments are dire beyond comprehension…

Okay okay okay!

This has definitely given me something to think about, Theomusicologist. I’m going to think about this before we meet again. I like this journey we are on very much.

So do I, my friend. So do I. Until next time!

Is Controlled Worship Keeping Churches from Fulfilling the Great Commission?

‘Controlled Worship?’ Surely a contradiction in terms…!!!

Yes, it is. But at the same time, no, it really isn’t. Not in practical terms – i.e. how many worshipping communities organise themselves. This blog post has beaten me to the punch on a subject on which I have some very strong views, and so why not re-post this for others to read? The subject matter could not be more relevant, and the timing more appropriate. While I work on the next post on prayer, this can provide something for all of us to chew on…

Is Controlled Worship Keeping Churches from Fulfilling the Great Commission?.

Up above my head…

This post is in response to a previous request to elucidate on some comments I made regarding a song with the title of this post as the opening line – not just any old version of this wonderful African-American spiritual. And, even as I type these opening lines, I’m listening to this track and turning up the volume and getting excited – the praise going on here is in fact very serious. I’m talking about the Kirk Franklin and God’s Property version of this spiritual. I really need to arrange and direct a version of this track as soon as God wills, because I think we could do certain things chorally that would bring the spiritual message out even more strongly…

Let’s start with the lyrics:

Up above my head I hear music in the air
Up above my head there’s a melody so bright
And fair
I can hear when I’m all alone
Even in those times when I feel all hope is gone
Up above my head I hear joybells ringing
Up above my head I hear angels singing
There must be a God somewhere
There must be a God somewhere

I hear music in the air
I hear music everywhere
There must be a God somewhere

There must be a God somewhere
There must be a God somewhere
There must be a God somewhere

~

Martin Luther wrote:

“Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate — and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the
emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?—what more effective means than music could you find?”

Readers of the last post will recall having been introduced to Sir Colin Davis, the uber-renowned British conductor who is fast becoming a hero of mine, as he also seems to be for one of my own great teacher/mentors. He has some very serious things to say about the power of sacred music – he recently conducted one of the hardest pieces of classical music ever written, a major choral/orchestral work called Missa Solemnis by Beethoven  – that little-known composer who may or may not have written something called the Moonlight Sonata…

Now, if you are a honest church musician who has not really ever properly considered the effect that sacred music can have on those who do not confess that Jesus Christ is Lord – and that God exists – take a very good look at what Sir Colin has to say:

“That piece is a hell of a task: it’s so difficult for the orchestra to play and the chorus to sing that performing it is like failing to reach the top of Mount Everest. I think it’s one of the great statements of any time… At the end of the piece, in the final movement, the Agnus Dei, Christ has gone back to heaven, and Beethoven gives us this image of humanity left behind, crawling about in this mud, loaded with sin. The music is saying that humans cry for peace – and make war. That’s what Beethoven means. It’s absolutely clear. The music reaches an intensity of protest which is almost unbearable. And yet, there’s the power with which he sets the words: ‘Credo in unum deum!’ [I believe in one God!] You’d better believe him when he says it. And I do. I believe every word of the Missa because Beethoven makes it possible. But when I’m left alone, I can’t believe anything. So it’s even more poignant for me. But for that brief hour and a half when I’m conducting the piece, I do.”

Now, I had – and still have – the huge privilege of being able to come to the conducting table of European sacred music with a rather greater technical theological knowledge than most conductors. It was absolutely amazing to have had the opportunity to study this work even briefly as a conductor. I have found that many of the finest conductors do in fact get their theology confused and muddled at times (well, they are not Christians or theology students and not claiming to be), but their sincerity about getting the best interpretation that they can is in fact humbling. There is also the fact that Beethoven did indeed do some very, very unusual things in this particular piece – but I don’t want to be too distracted by those technicalities at present. It is the essence of what Davis is saying that matters right now –

– namely, that the spiritual power in this piece of music is so great that for the duration of it’s performance, he actually suspends disbelief in order to faithfully conduct the work. The Missa Solemnis is actually pointing him towards God!

So then: are we suggesting that only the very grandest music points to God? Is it only classical music from the proto-European vanguard that can bring people face-to-face with the idea that God really might just be real? Or can this happen with other music as well?

Liturgical musicologist Mary McGann writes the following:

“A Latino community singing cantos, accompanied by a conjunto or Mariachi ensemble; an Indian assembly singing bhajan to the accompaniment of a tabla and harmonium; a Vietnamese assembly chanting sacred texts and prayers in doc khin – an a capella form of chanting based on the tonal scale of the Vietnamese language. Each idiom is not only an acoustic/sonic tradition, but a carrier of social customs, or ritual expectations, of spirituality, and of cosmology.”

Now, that might be a little bit harder to unpack, but what she is saying is that each of these different religious music traditions is more than just a music tradition or style or genre – they are actually carriers of spirituality itself, and of spritual worldview!

So there are two massive implications for us:

  1. When we hear music, it really can and does point us towards a reality beyond itself. The question is: which spiritual reality are we being drawn towards? Music can make us feel so much and so deeply that we can be fooled into thinking that the sense of fervour aroused within us is the worship of the true and only God, when in fact we have only tapped into the inherent spirituality of the music itself! People can hear music and be drawn towards (and closer towards) God – but they can also be drawn towards (and closer towards) the enemy himself! But ultimately, the kind of music – be it vocal or instrumental – that actually truly lifts the spirits and brings peace to the soul and mind can only come from one side – the side of Truth – as in, the person, not the concept…
  2. Wouldn’t it be amazing if all true Christian believers made a firm commitment to never ever perform a piece of music other than as praise to God?! Whether secular or explicitly sacred, such a policy would have a huge impact on the choices we make as Christian musicians…

I know that I have experienced the positive truth of someone hearing my music and knowing something different about it – it pointed them to the truth. They HEARD it in my playing – no words – no Bible – no theology. Just the music itself carried the spiritual content that made two unbelievers think that there had to be a God somewhere. That was a moment which changed my life as a musician forever.

I didn’t do that. The Holy Spirit did. And now that I am in ministry, sitting in my house in this first phase of Sabbath, preparing to serve as Worship Pastor in my home church tomorrow, I am desperate to be filled with the Spirit so that everything that I do as a musician for the rest of my days on this earth will point someone to God. If Beethoven could explore faith in music to such an extent that an agnostic like Davis is intellectually persuaded by the music itself – even if only for the duration of the music in real-time performance – then it is possible – absolutely possible – for any seriously committed and well-trained Levite to sing, play, direct, conduct, compose and arrange music in such a way that folk will say…

THERE MUST BE A GOD SOMEWHERE!

Believe it.

That is the only reason I am in music – to offer the highest level of praise that I can to my God – and to share faith. Music means everything to me for one reason only – it has helped me to worship God in ways that transcend language, and through it I have learnt what it means to “make melody in my heart unto the Lord” (EGW). God has used music in a powerful way to help me on my spiritual journey and so I can only give it back to Him. It is the highest privilege a musician can have – to praise God in music.

~

I hear music in the air
I hear music everywhere
There must be a God somewhere

~

Music really is one of the ways in which we KNOW that there is a God. What are you going to say to Him today?