There's a certain kind of ineffable elegance to a Christian blog post that is so exquisitely coached in luxuriant prose with so indefinite a second person address. You know the kind of post even if you don't think you do. But since the axiom among writing teachers is "show don't tell" ...
Of course Tim Challies could have said which church he actually visited and had in mind for this piece but perhaps the better part of Christian scruples advises against this.
It was a joy to finally visit your church a couple of Sundays ago, and to worship with the believers there. You know I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. Just as you promised, the pastor is an excellent communicator and a man who loves God’s Word. His sermon was deeply challenging and led to some great conversations with my children.
Now, you asked me why it looked like I wasn’t singing. I know that was probably a little awkward, so thought I’d send along a brief explanation. Primarily, it’s because…
Here we were just discussing at the blog the potential problems inherent in a plea to revive the didn't-exactly-end worship wars earlier this week. Ten years ago, actually, that church could have been one like the former Mars Hill. For that matter ... five years ago it could have been a church like the former Mars Hill. Or the church could have been inspired by example. In any event, let's consider Challies' reasons for not singing along. They do get to issues that keep coming up in worship wars between ambitious musicians on the one hand and people considered about liturgical or doctrinal fidelity on the other. This is hardly to say that these two impulses and groups never overlap. Those for whom both aspects are primary concerns tend to make the history of Christian music here and there.
…I was not familiar with the songs. Your church has a tremendously skilled group of musicians leading them and it was a true joy to hear them play and sing. They sound as good live as they do on their album! But, unless I missed something, all of the songs on that Sunday were drawn from their own music. There weren’t any hymns in the service or even any familiar worship songs. So it’s not that I didn’t want to sing; it’s just that I didn’t know the songs. I want to be fair—every church has some of its own songs, and there is nothing wrong with that. I tried to follow along the best I could so I could learn some of yours, but even then…
Before he moves on to his inevitable next point let's make a few observations here. Many of the churches that tilt more contemporvant also tend toward what Theodore Gracyk described as an "ontologically thick" approach to musical culture. In lay terms this means it's all about the recordings and the audio files, and it may only secondarily (if at all) be about media that are "ontologically thin", which was Gracyk's slightly unwieldy term for what we'd colloquially know as "sheet music". Fans of the "thick" approach to music and styles that are produced and mediated primarily by recording technology tend to fetishize authenticity by way of specific timbres and extra-musical narrative/social contexts. It's not even remotely the case that this DOESN'T happen in the "thin" cultures that rely on music notation and the rest of the nominally "classical" idioms. They are as picky themselves on all of those kinds of issues. The teams have their shibboleths in both directions.
Having said all that, the kinds of churches that are into being contemporary may not necessarily have more than a few charts indicating the words and basic chord shapes. It might be impossible to follow the music simply because unless you're already steeped in that specific church culture you couldn't possibly begin to guess at what the texts are or what the melodies are.
But given the "literate musical tradition" we so often associate with "classical" music the tricky part is that what if you go to a church that has a full-blown hymnal with hymnody and you're musically illiterate? You're still just as stuck. What if the liturgy is Serbian or Ukrainian and you don't know those dialects? Well the same problem accrues even if the chants are written out for people to sight-read and sing along with.
Challies is describing something like the alienation that can happen in either direction on the part of those who may not be musically conversant or who may not be conversant in the culture they're visiting.
That conveniently gets us to the next point.
…the songs weren’t congregational. Most of them seemed to have been written with the band in mind more than the congregation. What I mean is that they were unpredictable and often went beyond my vocal range and ability. This made them tough to learn and difficult to sing. Sometimes I would just begin to think I had it, but then…
There's this old book, decades old actually, called Why Catholics Can't Sing. Maybe you've heard of the book or read it yourself. The fusillade is largely against the importation o fthe Irish "sweet song" tradition for solo voice that had crept in or flooded into the Catholic church scene in the United States over the last half century. The complaint was not that the songs themselves lacked for beauty but that they were often soloist material and made some more or less impossible demands on the vocal abilities of anyone who wasn't Sundays-special-soloist.
This next point Challies gets to is quite possibly proof of a couple of things 1) he's white and 2) he's either never been to a Pentecostal church or hasn't been to one in a reaallllyy long time.
…your singers would ad-lib. Twice through that final chorus they sang it one way, but then on the third they did something I didn’t see coming and just couldn’t follow. Was I supposed to follow them up the scale as they went high on that final chorus, or was I supposed to stick with the original melody? I didn’t want to mess it up, so figured I’d better keep it quiet. I might have had help there, but…
You may already know where he's going with this and he ends in the unsurprising riff about how it all seems like a rock/pop concert so he sat back and enjoyed the show. It's got no suspense at all and if he'd led with how pervasive he might find this ethos in American churches he could go on to have enumerated how often this happens and perhaps even gotten specific about which churches or brands of churches are apt to do this.
Here in Seattle this was Mars Hill. Many of us who went loved or didn't-quite-love Luke Abrams' voice and his vocal range was in the zone of what some guy kinda joked was the sound of a 12-year-old-boy. Around 2005 when the congregation had a groundswell of complaints along the lines Challies has shared about why he didn't sing at church X recently these criticisms were considered the basis from which to give the entire church a tongue-lashing courtesy of then pastor Tim Smith.
There weren't just complaints about the songs being difficult or impossible to sing along with there were concerns about the loudness of the music. Challies kinda gets to that next.
…I couldn’t hear the congregation sing. I wanted to learn from the people around me, but I couldn’t hear them. A lot of them seemed to be singing along, but they were far quieter than the band. Don’t get me wrong, I love loud music and often crank it to silly levels when I’m at home or in my car. (I’ve even got it at an obnoxious level as I write these words.) But as I understand it from Colossians 3:16, a key element of congregational worship is hearing the congregation. Singing is in the realm of “one-another” ministry, meaning that we are to sing for the other people there. But that was tough because…
finally ... he gets to the central, unifying point that he could have led off with.
…it felt like a performance. We were in a darkened room sitting on theatre-style seats. The band was on a brightly-lit stage at the front of the room, singing their own songs with the volume cranked right up. This set a context that struck me as more concert than church. I really enjoyed watching the band and listening to them, but it felt to me that they were doing rather than facilitating the worship. So finally I just sat back and enjoyed the show.
Now, please don’t think I’m trying to rekindle the old worship wars. I believe there is room in congregational worship for both traditional hymns and modern worship songs. I love them both! But the way the music was structured and implemented in your church was just not conducive to congregational worship. It was good, it was professional, but thinking about it now, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it wasn’t a bit too good and too professional. I wonder if the desire for excellence may have robbed it of much of its usefulness. It’s worth considering: If our desire for excellence puts the music out of reach for the congregation, perhaps we’re pursuing a wrong definition of excellence.
Whereas the Mere Fidelity crew want to revive the worship wars it seems Challies would like that to be avoided. Still, he's clearly willing to articulate some grievances with the state of contemporary praise and worship.
Maybe there was a visited church at some recent point or maybe it was just the sort of abstracted thinkpiece that seems virtually inevitable in the Christian subset of cyberspace whenever articles come along a few days earlier, such as this little number from Michael Lee Ed Stetzer.
Challies' points are boilerplate as they go and they're sound concerns. There are some potential caveats pertinent to musical culture and education. In contemporary music there's more likely to be a guitarist leading the song time. This is likely to be a guitarist who is not really comfortable playing in every imaginable major and minor key and who may also not have invested in a capo. Now the music director at my church knows I absolutely hate capos but I can easily forgive his use of one because while he ... uses a capo on his guitar, he's also played the violin. Anyone who's learned how to play the right notes on a bowed string instrument will have done something we fretted instrument players don't have to deal with unless we've got some custom-built microtonal instrument, consistently nailing down the difference between F sharp and G flat.
So, anyway, a key that is easily played on the guitar by a guitarist of modest skill is likely to be a key signature that is NOT easily handled by an untrained voice. The reverse is also the case. An average singer in a choir can sing in F major more comfortably than E major because of where all the register breaks happen in the voices of adult males and females. But which key do you think the guitarist is going to try to play the song in? E major, of course. If the singers were to ask the guitarist to play in F major instead do you think a guitarist would comply? I would because I love F major and F minor on the guitar! Were it possible to pre-order the scores and recordings of Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar today I would have done it already!
But for the average, or even slightly-above-average church music guitarist odds are still pretty good that the guitar-friendly keys are not going to be voice-friendly keys. This problem shows up even when we're talking about faithful old stand by songs like "What Wondrous Love is This?" or even "Amazing Grace". Just because a tune is easy to sing doesn't mean it's easy to sing above a shimmering open A major chord struck on the silvery strings of a Stratocaster. The situation is not necessarily changed if we're talking about Martins or Taylors or Ovations.
Even if we grant there's too much of a rock concert vibe to a lot of contemporary church music this is a problem that has been incubating for generations and is not likely to go away inside of even one generation. We'd need to ask questions about where music education for people happens. Gone are the days when families would entertain themselves and each other by playing parlor music. Sousa warned more than a century ago that once the mediation of music rested in machines and technology rather than people that we'd see and hear a flattening out and homogenization of musical culture. That's not ... entirely true but that's not the point. The point here is that most people get their musical education from music they hear by way of machines even if they are used to singing songs in church.
Do something to address the musical literacy issue across the board and it may become easier to articulate when and why this or that song doesn't sit well in the throat of X number of congregants.
The thing about shifting musical styles is that this is literally the history of church music. Would we expect Lutherans in German to insist on singing Veni Creator Spiritus in Latin? NOt so much. Would a Catholic rite for Pentecost have that? Likely. One of the fun parts about music history and musicology is tracing how a chant like Veni Creator Spiritus can appear vestigially in the fugue subject of Bach's C major fugue from his famous violin sonata. There's a historical case to be made that the version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" that you may have sung in church is probably not the version that was first penned but the isorhythmic post-Hanssler version. One of the weaknesses fans of old music can sometimes have is forgetting (almost as if on purpose) how much the standard repertory of even an earlier generation was steeped in incremental modification of existing traditions.
If the adage that ninety percent of everything is crap the musical canon means we've preserved or had preserved for us just the most workable stuff from preceding generations. There are reasons we may still sing hymns by Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby more often than B. E. Warren, for instance. Decades ago I remember checking out the Rolling Stone guide to albums from a city library and was surprised to see entries for Amy Grant, Al Green and Keith Green. Both entries had jaded introductions about how those who don't believe may have qualms about listening to Gospel music. The verdicts were that with Al Green the fears were unjustified because the music was great. For Grant the fears were justified. For Keith Green the riff was that even though Keith Green's songs were often pedantic and doctrinaire you never had moments where you felt like the person singing the songs wasn't a real human being.
If I wanted to I could diverge into a fantastic episode of South Park called "Christian Rock Hard" but that's not something I feel like doing on a week night. Besides, the 20th anniversary of the show is this year anyway so there's some other occasion during which that episode can be discussed.
Challies' points aren't exactly bad points. They were concerns I had about the musical culture of Mars Hill a decade ago. But there's a point past which we might want to ask what the broader scope of our musical culture is. Given how frequently unoriginal and uninventive evangelicals can tend to be let's be mean about it here for a moment, evangelical musical culture probably lags behind mainstream musical culture by something on the order of a decade, right? ;)
Just a day or so ago we were looking at how historically the Baroque era, particularly the high Baroque era, was full of exalted church music that was completely beyond the abilities of the untrained to follow, participate in or understand.
Challies' comments are not exactly original or even inspired and yet in a way they're perfect because if we were to compare them to Bukofzer's general observations about the complaints made that the music of a J. S. Bach was too esoteric it lets us know that these concerns go back centuries. If it be protested that there's no way a Chris Tomlin three-chorder is at the level of J. S. Bach we'll just grant that point while noting that for the purposes of this blog post that's not where we're going. There's nothing new under the sun.