Thursday, February 15, 2007

Church Music Wars

In my meanderings across cyberspace, I stumbled across this, which I think does a good job of identifying the deep chasm between the singers and "culture" (if that makes any sense) of praise music and hymns:

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,
The cows,
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,

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 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.



Hot Cup Lutheran said...

Dear LH - I have no comment but questions... I serve 2 parishes both fairly "traditional" although one has dived into WOV's HC settings recently and that has gone rather well. The other is stuck and I mean stuck on setting 1 LBW as are so many. So... we have one organist who is faithful as the day is long - but does play things f-a-s-t (I know kind of an anomaly in a Luth. congregation) but anyhow... for the folks stuck on setting 1 - how can I pursue with them something newer? any recommendations? They will be getting WOVs for Lent. We have been using pieces of ELW here & there. I myself am not hugely gifted at leading music or canting for that matter. And they are small in number, big in heart & misison giving, but not hugely musical for the most part... although a new member who is a tenor has been a HUGE help. So... all ideas would be helpful.

LutheranHusker said...

Well, I wish I could give you some tried, tested and true methods...this is my first foray into this particular jungle myself. Though something I HAVE done in the past is introduce a new hymn or piece of liturgy by first doing it as a special music piece (like during the offering).

I've also been playing "soon to be new" parts of the liturgy as preludes and postludes, to try to help put them into folks' unconscious memory.

There are some GREAT, singable selections in the "Service Music" sections of both WOV and ELW. Most of Marty Haugen's Now The Feast and Celebration liturgy is in ELW in its various parts, ("Now the Feast" and "Praise to You O God of Mercy" are hymns in WOV, as well). "Now the Feast" might be best done with a cantor doing verses and the congregation coming in on the chorus.

If your new member is willing, it might be a good idea to have him sing with a microphone on any new piece you end up doing, kind of as a song leader. If you do that, I'd suggest having him in the balcony if you have one, or somewhere not up front so it doesn't feel too much like a concert for your traditional folks.

What we're doing here will be an amalgam of selections from WOV, ELW, and "Worship and Praise", all pieced together to form one (hopefully) unified sounding liturgy.

Ironically, I've found that in many ways our "traditional" folks are more accepting of different music than are our "contemporary" folks. For many at the contemporary service, if it doesn't sound like it could be played on K-LOVE, it ain't worth doing. With our traditional service, I have to be careful how far out I go, but I've found they're much more accepting of different sounding stuff.

I have a feeling this hasn't been as helpful as you would have liked, but hopefully there's something there that may be of help to you. God bless, and keep us up to date on how things go if you do make any changes!

Anonymous said...

Excuse me -- I came late to the party and so I doubt that anyone will see these musings but....
What is so terribly wrong with being "stuck" with "Setting One"? OK, OK - I'm one of those dreaded "Conservatives" so what do I know? Add the fact that I'm an avowed "layman" and perhaps I've lost all my credibility. But here's the view of one pew-sitter:
Amazingly enough, it is absolutely possible that there is really NOTHING WRONG with being "stuck" on setting 1 or 2 or 102. What have "Contemporary" services done to unify Christians. Is it wrong that I have attended enough "Setting One" services that I can conduct an entire church service in my head while driving down Interstate 40 going across Oklahoma on a Monday morning. I can sing Christmas carols with a group of any of my fellow Christians but I doubt that my Grandchildren who attend Contemporary services will have more than one or two songs in common with THEIR fellow Christians when they are adults. Liturgical services centered on worship and actually taught Bible verses because the worship consisted of Bible verses. Today's services are performance-based: concentrating on sound, rhythm and "Jesus is my boyfriend" poetry. Much of what passes as religious music isn't really Christian. With few exceptions, the hymns of "yesterday" preached about the Crucified Christ. With few exceptions, today's contemporary songs could be used in any nature-worship rite. Picture yourself as a tree-worshiper. What about the songs you chose for your church's contemporary service last Sunday wouldn't fit in your "tree-worship" service this week? LH, as you write your liturgy, PLEASE keep it Bible-based (sounds like you would anyway!).

LutheranHusker said...


Thanks for your comments...I think we see things mostly the same way. I think much of what passes as praise music is theological drivel...not that we should never praise God, but if that becomes the only thing that's happening (as is what happens so often in "praise" or "contemporary") services, we miss out on the crux (literally, the "cross") of what God's relationship with us is.

I think there's a way to do good, sound, liturgical, solidly Lutheran worship with contemporary sounding worship...I just wish I had the opportunity to start from scratch somewhere and do that.

I hope to get the folks at my congregation there eventually, but it's going to be a process of educating. Educating about what liturgy IS, educating about the role of music in worship, and educating about what hymns and songs are out there that are so much deeper and spiritually filling than the "marshmallow fluff" they've made their diet on thus far.

As far as being "stuck" on setting 1, there's nothing wrong with that in the long as God is still using it to draw the worshippers close to him (as it sounds to be the case with you...and me, honestly. Not with setting 1 as much as setting 2, but I could do LBW Setting 2--which incidentally, is also ELW Setting 4--every Sunday for the next 50 years and be fulfilled...same idea, different setting.)

The problem arises when it becomes apparent that whatever liturgy is being used has lost its meaning...when the eyes glaze over in the pews. And that can happen no matter what you do, whether it's the old Service Book and Hymnal setting or whatever the newest thing is out there.

I maintain that it's the responsibility of the church to constantly keep educating its parishoners about what they're doing and why they're doing it. Doesn't make a hill of beans worth of difference that "this is the feast" is lifted straight from Scripture if you don't realize it's scriptural in the first place (as I didn't until I was in college).

On the flip side, keeping it meaningful is a spiritual discipline that every self-professed Christian ought to undertake...because when that happens, not only does Sunday morning mean more, but life itself becomes an act of worship. Which is how it ought to be anyway.

The music canon has expanded and will continue to expand as time goes's a natual function of time. I hate to see the old thrown away and the new embraced just because they are "old" and "new"...HOWEVER...I also hate to see the old grasped on to and the new dismissed just because they are "old" and "new." Either extreme is a mistake.

There's plenty of good stuff out there from all parts of the church's history and of all musical styles. When I'm looking at music, I ask myself how God is revealing himself through this particular piece. How does this express God's relationship with his people? How does this show the new life we have received through Christ's death and resurrection?

I think there's a place for music that praises God for his creation, or lament music that asks "why is this happening?" The Psalms alone (as well as other parts of scripture) are full of the breadth of human experience with God. As long as it's God that's the center. Not me, not his creation, not the circumstances that surround me, not how many times I can use the word "exalt".

I just wish I didn't have to move so slowly to change my congregation's music catalog to reflect that. But as I'm learning, paradigm shifts don't happen overnight. Luckily, I have a very supportive pastor. We'll see how it all goes.

LutheranHusker said...

One other thing...have no fear, the liturgy I write will use the "classic" texts. I've already started on my "This Is The Feast" piece. =)

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

Setting 1 is sound good stuff... but sometimes we do something often enough that we no longer think about the words, their meaning, their purpose and that is why I'd like to make some additions. Just a slight addition here or there to perk up our ears and reignite our hearts. I'm not throwing out the liturgy, or tradition and we won't we waving our arms and dancing in the aisles (because that is simply not this congregation's particular pulse)...
So anonymous calm down! LH - thanks for the input - "sample slices" of new pieces during the offertory etc. are great ideas.

As always worship planning is not change for the sake of change - it is always about connecting people to Christ and crafting a space and experience in which that happens.

Chuck Hyneman said...

People enjoy worshipping in a traditional style and other people enjoy worhsipping in a contemporary setting. I read where you want to make traditional less so and contemporary also less contemporary? When I read this I got the impression of arrogance. Your statement about how many times can you say how great our God is reflects a lack of understanding of praise music. Praise music praises God, that is what it is about. It is not about expressing pseudo intellectual positions on certain biblical theories as you seem to want. Tomlin's song How Great is Our God has been sung in worsip in millions of churches throughout the world (do the research). If you in your current (hopefully) elitist attitude don't select that song you will be doing your church a disservice. I suggest that if you do not understand (and you apparently don't) contemporary Christian music and do not love it (ditto), they you ought to have someone else (preferably the band) select the music. I suppose you are OK with the ELCA's complete rewrite of the Psalms in the new red hymnal to remove masculine references. That narrow-minded elitest, politically correct attitude on the part of the ELCA will be its downfall. If you continue with your attitude toward contemporary music, I am afraid it will be on the same path. Sorry if this tone is offensive, but I am a contempory music worship leader in a ELCA Church - Missouri Synod. I hope I am wrong about the impression I got from reading your post. Like Paul said, I am speaking as plainly as I can.