On the Importance of Complaining about the Music

When I walked into Free Church Toronto (then called Freedomize Toronto), I was 24 years old and fresh out of college.  It didn’t take me long to discover that I was around the average age of members at FT, and absolutely everyone was way cooler than me.  It was with some chagrin that the pastor, Cyril Guerrette – also known to the Toronto hip-hop scene as Ill Seer, a rapper – admitted “we’re a hipster church.”  I prepared myself for an adventure in new territory as I started my internship there.

Around the same time, I started working as a security guard at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD).  After a few weeks working these new jobs, I wasn’t really surprised to see the same people in both places: FT was made up of a lot of artists and designers.  Our worship band was led by professional musicians (they’re pretty obscure, you might not have heard of them) and we were treated to several periods a year when the church was decorated with a new, emotive, challenging design each week, courtesy of our resident OCAD students.  Kevin Makins (now of Eucharist Church in Hamilton) would open services with Sigur Ros videos, or reminiscences about zombie walks; Cyril would freestyle prayer at the end of most sermons; and we would rip pieces of bread off of a communal loaf and dip them in grape juice, and share the presence of Christ in the Eucharist in our own way.

As much as I enjoy reminiscing (damn I miss you, FT!), that’s not why I’m writing this post.

A few months ago I attended a meeting of youth and young adult workers in my denomination, and we tried to discern the answer to the church-question of our era: why do youth leave the church as soon as they graduate?  How can we keep young adults in church?  In spite of my best efforts, at certain points the evening degraded into frustrated rants and bitter laments about everything that’s wrong in the church – and not just from me.  The “r” word was thrown around a few times – “relevant” – with the usual responses, and the evening ended with long silences in response to the question “what’s the church doing right?”  The answer, of course, is some combination of everything and nothing.

My wife and I discussed this on the long drive home, and came to some conclusions of our own.  I don’t remember exactly what those were, but I was determined to blog about them.  That was a few months ago, and the desire to write about it hasn’t gone away; it was enough to bring me back to blogging, and however much my ideas have changed since that night, this is the conclusion I’ve come to.

Complaining about music is really important.

Pastors love to complain about complaints.  We’re taught to do it in Bible College.  The joke is that churches have the deepest divisions over the stupidest things: the style of worship music, and the colour of the carpet.  In the grand scheme of things, what do these things really matter?  Who cares if it’s gospel or grunge, if we’re faced with God?

As much as I’m inclined to agree, that we should worship God just as eagerly no matter what style the music is in (and as long as it’s theologically correct – but that’s a rant for another day), it didn’t hit me until that drive home that musical style is only unimportant as long as we’re uninvolved, as long as we’re only receiving, as long as we’re sitting in pews but mentally removing ourselves from the situation around us in the hope of somehow seeing God in our mind’s eye.

After 20 years of that type of worship, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not really worship.  Sorry if that thought offends anyone.

Real worship isn’t an experience, it’s an action; it’s a verb.  But more than that, as I’ve been learning in school, worship is participation: with God, with each other, in an endless economy of grace and gift.  Some people call it “relevance”, but ultimately, if I can’t even relate to what I’m “giving” to God – the songs I’m singing – then am I really giving Him anything?  What am I participating in?  It’s good to sing old hymns and feel connected to the billions of Christians throughout history who have sang those same words, but I don’t just participate with the church of the past, but also the present, and if I don’t relate to the modern worship I’m mouthing, all I’m showing to God is that I’m willing to warm a pew and repeat words that are almost meaningless to me in a religious ritual of boredom.  There is nothing of me in what I’m presenting to God; it is not my worship.

Worship is inherently creative, and being someone who’s always staunchly said “I’m not creative”, it’s taken me a long time to admit that.  But when I think about the way in which human beings create, I can’t deny it.  We can’t create like God – there is nothing new under the sun – but we co-create with God in wonderful ways.  We recombine the things that God has created, whether they are colours or sounds or genetic material; we name them and study them and put our own mark on them, and express our own ideas about them; and in so doing they become in some sense ours, but are never less than fully God’s.  Co-creation.  Participation.  Worship.

And this is why every generation complains about the style of worship music.  Because without being able to relate to our act of “worship” there is no co-creation, there is no gift…there is no worship.

I find it interesting that the same people who complain that young adults are leaving the church are the ones who have pushed the “safe” “Christian culture” on us all our lives, and then fight against those who try to make church “relevant” by embracing popular culture.  The fight to keep our children “safe” from popular culture has killed generations of real Christian culture, culture that flows from the co-creating activities of God’s people.  The fight against our culture has killed our worship, giving us very little reason to show up at church.

So by all means, complain about the style of worship music.  Then make some “music” to the Lord, whatever that looks like for you.  Someday, your kids will be the ones complaining about the worship style, because it’ll be your style and they won’t be able to relate to it.  Listen to them.