Puttting the work into music in church

I made an observation on Twitter yesterday that I want to flesh out a little more.

Now, my experience is limited to the handful of evangelical churches I’ve attended over the years. But in general I observe that we focus a lot on learning when it comes to doctrine and practice. Our pastors preach long, well-prepared and often academic sermons. We encourage Bible studies and recommend books from the beginner level to very advanced levels for study in all theological areas.

When we get to music in our worship services, though, we very often have a different approach: our music is very often chosen based on what is familiar to people from listening to Christian radio. Those old hymns with lots of big words and thick doctrine? Confusing. Singing parts out of hymnals? Nobody knows how to read music anymore. Why confuse them with the notes?

When we lose a vision for singing in church as a means of embedding truth in the hearts of each believer, we can be content with going for whatever is easy and familiar. When the goal is to entertain and get people “feeling” the worship before the pastor comes to preach, we are best served by grabbing whatever they’re singing along with on the radio this week and having them sing it along with the praise band on Sunday.

Christian singing can be so much more than entertainment, though. Songs use music to ingrain words into our minds and hearts, and the great hymns of the Christian faith are full of truth to inspire, challenge, and comfort believers. Efforts to teach those hymns and how to sing them will result in a life-long benefit to those who will remember the truths in them long after they’ve forgotten every Christian book they’ve read.

Not all hymns are old, not all old songs are deserving, and there is still a place for singing entertaining songs. But favoring easy entertainment over formative singing will leave the body anemic and lacking.

Worship Night in America

This showed up in my Twitter feed over the weekend:

“Worship Night in America”. To quote my friend Chrissy: “NOPE. Big, big NOPE.”

I dug into Tomlin’s website for more details. Billed as “An Evening of Unity and Prayer for Our Country”, it features Tomlin along with musicians Matt Redman, Phil Wickham, and Matt Maher, along with speakers Max Lucado and Louie Giglio.

Event sites have been set up at theaters across the country – there are two listed in Iowa including one here in my hometown of Cedar Rapids – with tickets on pre-sale for $12. Per the FAQ, these sites won’t actually host the event unless some minimum number of tickets are sold in advance. For an additional $3.99 ($15.99 total) you can get a CD or digital copy of Chris Tomlin’s new album along with the ticket.

Also from the FAQ: even though it’s a “one-night-only” event, this is not some sort of live simulcast. “Worship Night in America was created by Grammy-award winning artist Chris Tomlin”, and “the event was recorded at Madison Square Garden and edited for theaters and non-theatrical venues.”

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Where do I even start?

The Title

I gotta admit, when I hear “Worship Night in America”, the first thing I think of is “Football Night in America” – the tag line NBC uses for Sunday Night Football – and then quickly to “Hockey Night in Canada”. Hey folks, let’s hype a trendy event! Who’s got an idea for a name?

The Medium

First it started with video venues for churches – some local live staff, sure, but we’ll pipe the popular preacher in from some other campus. Then came “online church” – just stream the service on your computer, submit your prayer requests via a web form, and tithe with your credit card, all from the comfort of your jammies and your couch! Now we have “worship night”, where we line up to sit in a theater and watch a pre-produced event from Madison Square Garden featuring only the hippest musicians and high-octane speakers.

Virtual ain’t church, folks. Don’t get me wrong – I see a huge value in (and have personally benefited greatly from) friendships cultivated primarily online. But the body of Christ is called to assemble in person, and there’s a vast amount of encouragement, accountability, and support that can only really come with in-person assemblies. We’re fooling ourselves if we try to argue otherwise.

The Politics

Any other year, I’d be 95% certain that this sort of event, scheduled one week before the elections, was going to be leveraged to push attendees hard toward voting for a certain sort of Republican candidate. This year I’m not quite so certain. The FAQ says that the event “is not tied to any candidate or political affiliation”, which is good. I guess I’m cynical enough to assume that a flag-waving prayer-and-worship evangelical event the week before the election is another “If my people who are called by my name will GET OUT THE VOTE then I will heal their land” sort of event. I hope they prove me wrong.

The Money

It’s no accident that the new Chris Tomlin record is slated to come out the same week as this event, and that attendees can get a copy for only $4 when bought in conjunction with the event ticket. In the same way authors can hit the bestseller list by engineering the sale of lots of copies of their book, musicians can hit a similar list with first week sales. So, 95 event sites listed at the moment. Say they each sell 200 tickets, and 50% of the ticket buyers also get a CD. That’s nearly 10,000 copies of Tomlin’s new album sold that week. That’s not insubstantial.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with marketing and wanting to sell lots of records… but attendees should be aware that this “evening of unity and prayer” also looks to be a pre-produced marketing event to sell a lot of records.

So here’s a thought

If you want an evening of unity and prayer leading up to election day – and Lord knows we could use both – invite some people from various churches in your community to get together. Make sure you invite some who have a different skin color or accent than you do. Have somebody bring along a guitar. Sing some songs you all know. (Or learn some of each others’ songs!) Pray for each other and for your community. Listen to each others’ stories. Make new friends.

That will be a productive step toward building Christian unity in your community, far more than plunking down into a theater seat and singing along with the screen.

A couple recent podcast episodes worth recommending

I listen regularly to a handful of podcasts, and irregularly to a couple handfuls more. This past week I’ve run across a couple episodes that I feel are particularly worth recommending:

Radiolab Presents: More Perfect: “The Political Thicket”.

More Perfect is a short-run podcast (they plan to produce 7 episodes) by the wonderful folks at Radiolab that is focusing on the US Supreme Court. The Political Thicket is an episode about the 1962 Baker vs. Carr decision in which SCOTUS first really got involved in political decisions – in this case, by forcing Tennessee to reapportion legislative districts in a way that provided equal representation for both whites and blacks. Fascinating stuff.

Fresh Air: Christopher Eccleston On ‘The A Word,’ and Rethinking His Faith After ‘The Leftovers’

Fresh Air is hardly a novel or surprising podcast recommendation, but this Terry Gross interview with actor Christopher Eccleston was superb. I’m really only familiar with Eccleston from his season playing the lead in Doctor Who, but after this interview I also really want to catch up with The Leftovers.

Eccleston talks frankly about his wrestling with faith, talking about how he’s moved from an angry atheism to a more open viewpoint, and how the Biblical book of Job has loomed large in playing his character in The Leftovers. He also talks very personally about his struggles in relating to and caring for his father who suffered from dementia for 15 years before passing away in 2012.

A really fantastic interview – Terry Gross is of course a premier interviewer, and Eccleston is a very engaging and forthcoming subject. Worth 40 minutes.

Finished reading: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

I haven’t been posting on every book I’ve read, but wow, this was a good one.

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The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is a history of what she calls “America’s great migration” – the movement of African Americans from the south to northern, midwestern, and western urban areas between 1930 and 1970. She follows three primary characters through their journeys from the Jim Crow south to new jobs and lives in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Wilkerson weaves together their stories with the bigger picture of a changing country, where racial discrimination stubbornly persisted (persists?) even in states where the Jim Crow laws didn’t exist.

Given the unrest in the country at present this was a timely read. It struck home more than history often does because its time frame was so close to the present. It’s easy for me to think of even the 1960s as an old, black-and-white time; each of the characters Wilkerson follows, though, live at least into the 1990s… which I remember well.

Our history in this country is short, and this book was a good reminder that the racial tension we have today isn’t far removed from a long history of racism and slavery. We have so much yet to learn.

Finished reading: compendium 4

I’ve hit a bit of a slowdown in my reading as the summer got busy, but have still made some progress on the book pile…

  • Porcelain: A Memoir by Moby – Interesting stories, but what a sad trajectory. From the struggling musician trying to make his way in the world to an addict who makes light of being drunk and missing his mother’s funeral, and brags about getting sexual favors from models in strung-out parties. Here’s hoping God has a third act in plan for this guy’s life.
  • Shaker by Scott Frank – A not-particularly-memorable detective novel.
  • The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding by Robert Hughes – How awful was the culture around dealing with criminals in the 1700s in England? Awful. Maybe worse. First eye-opening, then disturbing, then almost tiresome… you can only read so much about how horrible things were for everyone (prisoners, guards, and aboriginals alike) without having to just stop.
  • Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda – notes and pictures about the Broadway production. Love it.
  • The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman – Wanna hate a self-absorbed protagonist? This is the book for you.
  • You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith – A lay-level treatment of his big Kingdom book. Makes me want to go join a church that’s serious about catechesis and liturgy.
  • Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey series, Book #1) by Dorothy Sayers – I’d never heard of this series before, but a couple librarian friends recommended it, and book 1 was enjoyable. Currently reading book 2.
  • Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton – continues the remarkable Humans of New York photo series, but enhanced with comments and stories from those photographed. A wonderful (and sometimes sobering) celebration of the joyous diversity of the human experience.
  • Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older – an interesting little novel postulating a future where an all-reaching Information service drives micro-democracies. As ever, the question is this: who watches the watchers?

In addition to the second Sayers novel, I’m slowly working my way through Volume 1 of Pelikan’s church history series and more quickly devouring Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent The Warmth of Other Suns. More on that later.

On Watching the Tonys for the First Time

Last Sunday night I sat down with my family and watched the Tony Awards ceremony. (The Tonys are given out yearly to award the best in musical and stage theater, similar to the Oscars for film or the Grammys for music.)

I’d never watched the Tonys before. I’m usually an Oscars guy, and every once in a while I’ll watch the Grammys (or at least that year when Arcade Fire was up for a bunch of awards), but the Tonys? Nope.

Then Hamilton came along, and we had an excuse. It’s been a bit of an obsession in our house, so an opportunity to see a performance from the show, and to see if it would win all the awards? Gotta watch it. (How much of an obsession, you ask? In our house, now, if the girls want to know the time, they will precisely ask “what is the time?”, because they know if they ask “what time is it?”, at least one member of the household will reply “showtime!”, which is invariably followed by “like I said…”. Every time.)

In retrospect I’m not sure why I follow the Oscars every year. I follow film (via podcast far more than I watch it. I guess I get a kick out of seeing the celebrities off the big screen, hearing the speeches, being able to discuss the ceremony the next day, whatever. But the Oscars ceremony has a history of being pretty awful. It runs long. The hosts are lame, or wooden, or both. The patter between presenters is forced. Depending on the year you might get a good musical number or two – the song from Selma brought down the house last year – but otherwise… it’s more an event than a great show.

Enter the Tonys. What a fantastic awards show! Host James Corden was funny (and very talented!) without dragging any jokes out too long or being obnoxious. The show moved along at a good clip, full of musical numbers from the nominated musicals. Leading up to commercial breaks, a cast from one of the nominated shows would move to a little outside stage on the street to perform a quick bit from some other classic Broadway show. (This led, charmingly enough, to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber playing the tambourine to accompany Steve Martin on the banjo for one song. Not bad, Sir Andrew. Not bad.)

And the performances. Wow, the performances. Carmen Cusack belting it out in a number from Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s musical Bright Star. Audra McDonald singing and dancing (while 4 or 5 months pregnant!) in Shuffle Along. The big wedding dance number from the revival of Fiddler on the Roof. And The Color Purple. Goodness me, The Color Purple.

Having tuned in to see Hamilton, what I found along with it was a theater full of incredibly talented people who, to all appearances, really love the music and dance, and who even between show casts share a great camaraderie. In contrast to the cool, cynical detachment often seen at the Oscars, the Tonys were enthusiastic, joyous, and intense.

And then there were moments of brilliance like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acceptance speech, which he provided in the form of a sonnet:

On the night after the horrific mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub, the Tony Awards show both acknowledged the loss and provided, if not some healing, at least a respite from the pain – an embrace saying we are in this together and we will get through it.

And when the Hamilton cast came back on stage for the closing number, and a good chunk of the audience stood up and sang along with them, the joy in their voices, faces, and dancing bodies shouted out that Miranda’s lyrics hold a timeless truth.

“Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

Worship Pastor as Tour Guide

A couple weeks back I linked to a two hour panel video discussing The Worship Leader as Pastoral Musician. I’ve finally gotten all the way through the video and want to highlight some thoughts from it that stuck out to me. The first one I want to talk about is Worship Pastor as Tour Guide.

This thought comes from Sandra Maria Van Opstal, who after 15 years with InterVarsity currently serves as Executive Pastor of The Grace and Peace Community, a church community associated with the Christian Reform Church on the northwest side of Chicago. She says [around the 25:00 mark in the video]:

The fact that worship leaders are pastors means that we meet people where they are, and we’re responsive to them, but we also lead people to new places where they need to go, and create spaces to introduce people to practices that form them….

It’s like a tour guide. If you come to Chicago and you’re really into sports, I’m going to take you to all the stadiums, and show you all that stuff – I’m not into it, but I’ll take you, because I’m a good tour guide. I’m asking what is on your mind, what is important to you.

And then, I’m also gonna take you to places in my city that you don’t even know exist, because they are fundamentally what it means to be in Chicago. You can’t eat deep dish every time you go to Chicago. There is so much other food that exists there.

So in the same way we as pastors don’t only meet people where they’re at… we also have to take them somewhere.

Sandra goes on to talk about how this relates to addressing current events and issues, and leading a congregation to lament and open discussion rather than just ignoring the issues.

I also see an application for worship pastors as it relates to music selection and service content. Yes, we need to meet people where they are, to speak in their musical dialect, in the words of Sandra’s metaphor, to show them the places they want to see. But we can’t stop there. We then have to take them to where they need to go in worship and formation.

In my church’s mission statement we talk about coming alongside people as they take their next step toward Jesus. This pastoral “tour guide” activity is placing an arm around their shoulders and helping them head in the right direction as they take that step. What a great picture.