I have been worshipping the Lord for many years, in different cultures, alone and together with other believers. I admit that, in the last 15 years or so, I have found it increasingly difficult to participate in corporate worship in most of the congregations with which I have worshipped. Some of this I attribute to the “generation gap,” and the increasing speed with which new generations arise. I appreciate the time and energy that many leaders of “praise and worship,” as it has come to be called, put into their ministry. I am reluctant to speak from the perspective of a “grumpy old man,” so I rarely venture into the “worship wars.” I sympathize with church leaders today, whose desire to provide a venue where people with widely differing musical tastes is very difficult to fulfill.
All of that being said, I resonated very deeply with the sentiments of James Smith (Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College) in his “Open Letter to Praise Bands.” Jamie is a fair bit younger than I, so he does not risk being dismissed as a grumpy old man. He is also a much more astute student of culture than I am, and he has attended more carefully to the theology and practice of Christian worship. For all of these reasons, I commend to you his thoughts in this blog post, and in the postscript to which he links at the end of the post, to address some of the response that his original expression triggered. I’ll not clip anything from his post here because it is a well written piece, and you are best to read it all, if my own reflections have aroused your interest in it.
3 replies on “Smith’s “open letter to worship bands””
I hope some people pick up on this post, Terry. I have enjoyed a wide variety of musical styles — as you know from walking past my office door. But I admit to resonating with James’ comments and the distance you express from a lot of what we do in church. James gives three basic thoughts. I add the importance of worshipping in my heart language. It doesn’t help me to use Low or High German in worship: It is not my heart language. But it does help some in our congregation. And we have musical heart languages too. If we never get to speak them, we are shut out in the long run — young or old, whoever we are.
Terry, I’m pretty much where you are on this one. Twice in the last year I have rushed in where angels fear to tread and addressed the topic of worship music in a sermon. The more recent case was in a combined college and seminary chapel. I hear that at least one student tweeted about it, but I don’t think it’s gone viral yet! I too am impressed with Jamie’s treatment of the subject, especially his point about group singability. My observation is that many contemporary songs are relatively useless not because their content is bad, but because they are not singable for a large group of amateurs. Much of the rhetoric about worship music argues that it must be contemporary to appeal to seekers, but I wonder what seekers think when they see half the congregation not singing. I suspect that musical worship is most effective when seekers can see that the believers are seriously engaged.
To pick up, Stan, on the perception that worship music must appeal to the seekers’ musical taste, I don’t remember my source, but I remember one church growth expert (Chuck Hunter?) observing that people who really are seeking don’t expect to find everything in church to look like what they already know. In fact, looking too much like what they know may turn them off more than attract them. In a similar vein I heard Pannenberg critique German churches at this point — that they work so hard to get rid of the supernatural that those to whom they seek to appeal wonder why they should change from what they already believe. Authenticity and community are probably more vital characteristics than simply making our musical style relevant. Contemporary music is good; but a piece of a larger whole.