An old farmer who is a member of a traditional church decides one weekend to visit a church with a contemporary service, just to see what it's all about. He comes home and his wife asks him how it was.
"Well," says the farmer, "It was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns."
"Praise choruses," says the wife, "What are those?"
"Oh, they're ok. They're sort of like hymns, only different," says the farmer.
"Well, what's the difference?" asks his wife.
The farmer says, "Well, it's like this - If I were to say to you: 'Martha, the cows are in the corn,' well, that would be a hymn. If, on the other hand, I were to say to you:
'Martha, Martha, Martha,
Oh Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA.
the big cows,
the brown cows,
the black cows,
the white cows,
the black and white cows
the COWS, COWS, COWS are in the corn,
are in the corn,
are in the corn,
are in the corn,
the CORN,CORN, CORN.'
then if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well that would be a praise chorus."
The same Sunday, a farmer from the church with the praise worship service attends the traditional church. He returns home and his wife, also named Martha, asks how it was.
"Well," says the farmer, "It was good. They did something different, however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs."
"Hymns," says his wife, "What are those?"
"Oh, they're ok. They're sort of like regular songs, only different." says the young man.
"What's the difference?" asks the wife.
The farmer says, "Well, It's like this - If I were to say to you, 'Martha, the cows are in the corn,' that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you:
'Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth.
Turn thou thy whole wonderous ear by and by
To the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth.
For the way of the animals who can explain
There in their heads is no shadow of sense.
Hearkenest they not in God's sun or his rain
Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced.
Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,
Have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed.
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
They all my mild Chilliwick sweet corn have chewed.
So look to that bright shining day by and by,
Where all foul corruptions of earth are reborn.
Where no vicious animal makes my soul cry
And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.'
Then, if I were to do only verses one, three and four and do a key change on the last verse, well that would be a hymn."
And never the twain shall meet...
...or shall they?
I'm in an interesting position as the director of music at a church where the music for one service is very traditional, and the other is very contemporary. My church began their contemporary service a little more than 4 years ago, so it was pretty well established by the time I came on board.
For the record, I'm not a big fan of either service.
On the one hand, I think the traditional service is too full of German and Scandanavian sounding chorales, with language that's either archaic or as the LBW tended to do, so modernized it sounds cutesy and shallow, especially if you know how the original was supposed to be (see LBW #58, Lo, How a Rose Is Growing as one of the more egregious examples). In the LBW's defense, modern for modern's sake was all the rage in the 70's, and I suppose the hymnal that resulted was in many ways a product of the times.
But, as usual, I digress.
Point is, there's some incredible music and some incredible texts to be found in your run-of-the-mill traditional hymnal (i.e. LBW). But if that's all you hear, listen to, or are exposed to, you're really missing out on a lot of the breadth of very good theology and hymnody that's come along since 1978. And there's a lot of it out there.
On the other side of the coin, we have the praise service. While I commend the crafters of this service at my church for retaining the general feel of the Lutheran liturgy, when I came on board the vast majority of the music that was being sung was...well...without mincing words, a lot of it was crap. Music that a pastor friend of mine refers to as "Jesus is my boyfriend" music, or that a fellow music director refers to as "7/11" music (the same 7 words repeated 11 times). Stuff that may sound nice and may be fun to play, but is the theological equivilent of marshmallow fluff. Tastes good at first but after consuming too much I end up with a stomachache and run the risk of falling into a diabetic coma. I mean, how often do we need to tell God how great he is? Think about it. If you had a good friend whose only words to you were words of praise, after a while wouldn't you be thinking "this is nice and all, but can't we someday have a real conversation?" I don't think any part of the Trinity has self-esteem issues, maybe we oughta explore a little more deeply what it means to be the church and live out his grace in our everyday lives than spend 10 minutes singing "I Exalt Thee" over and over and over.
And over and over and over and over and over and over.
But see, the problem is that this service was very well established before I even arrived...yet I'm in charge of picking the music. There's generally 5 songs sung at this service, so what I've been doing is trying to stay close to this general formula:
- One new (or relatively new) song that is theologically sound that I think needs to become part of the catalog.
- One song that they've done in the past that is also theologically sound (not a ton of these right now).
- Three "greatest praise hits" marshmallow fluff songs to keep things recognizable.
Over time, I hope to raise the numbers of category #2 and in turn lower the numbers of category #3. At the same time, I'm working on educating folks on what liturgy and music are all about in worship so that I can change the general perception that the most important thing to consider when choosing the closing song is "how fast is the tempo."
I know it ain't gonna happen overnight...but in the words of a great song, "a change is gonna come."
It really bothers me that people see hymns and a contemporary sound as mutually exclusive. Truth is, they can work together quite nicely. Sometimes when I'm between projects or just need a mental break, I'll go into the sanctuary and play a song or play around with the very nice electronic keyboard we have there. It has a lot of bells and whistles, most of which are never used, and I figure I ought to at least know what it can do, in theory at least. So I was listening to some of the drum beats it has, and found a "techno" setting. Wow--I suddenly felt like I was in a dance club on a Saturday night. On a whim, I found an electronica sound for the keyboard, and with the techno beat pounding away started playing Crown Him With Many Crowns.
That was one kicking techno song. And hey, where else are you gonna find the phrase "ineffably sublime" in a dance mix?
Not that I ever plan on doing that in worship (unless I ever decide that I want to be fired), but the point is with a little creativity it's possible to make the old new again.
The ELCA's new worship resource, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, does that with a number of hymns and in many of the new liturgies and special services it offers (no, you won't find any techno dance club music, unless you count Crown Him With Many Crowns, which is hymn #855). Recapturing the old and presenting it in new, fresh ways. But that's a subject for a different post.
For now, I'll continue to work in small ways to make our traditional service more contemporary, and our contemporary service more traditional.
I'll be starting next month by introducing our traditional worshippers to a man named Marty Haugen. I'll be sure to keep y'all updated on that.
Our contemporary worshippers have already been introduced to Marty (they've sung Now The Feast And Celebration), as well as songs like David Haas's We Are Called, Rory Cooney's Canticle of the Turning (which you can totally rock out to, btw), and Larry Olson's Kyrie Eleison. More to come there, as well.
Taking it one small step at a time.