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.

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4 thoughts on “On the Importance of Complaining about the Music

  1. “(damn I miss you, FT!), that’s not why I’m writing this post.”. Just wondering if you know what the history of the word damn is? It comes from damning someone to hell. I am thinking that you might not want to “damn” your former church that you miss so much.

    • An interesting comment, Barry, which allows me to give another example which furthers my point: language is fluid, fitting itself to whatever contained (context) it’s in. This is an important part of culture, and communication, both of which are central to the relationships we build in the Church (and everywhere else).

      Yes, I know what “damn” meant, and still means in other contexts, but here it has another function. In this function, it could have been replaced by an emoticon, or a “geez” or a “holy” or a “cripes”. The function of all of these words is to express something that can’t be expressed clearly, usually an emotional response. But if someone comes along and looks over my shoulder and says “‘Geez’ is a short-form for Jesus, so you shouldn’t say it like that”, not only do you miss the real meaning of my words but you impose someone else’s culture over top of mine.

      In some circles, “the shit” means something that is really, really good. In wealthy white circles, it’s a vulgar term for feces. If those wealthy white circles were to censor that term everywhere, to impose their meaning on all cultures, we’d call that cultural colonialism. That’s bad…unless it’s the Church doing it, right?

      I guess all I’m trying to say is that the Church is not the same Church it was fifty years ago, or even ten years ago, and it shouldn’t be. If we try to make it so, then the Church (the people of God) will simply spill outside the four walls of the church (the local building where the real Church is supposed to assemble) so that they can participate with God authentically.

  2. This topic (worship music) is very much a double-edged sword with valid points on complete opposite sides of the argument.

    Similar to what you said, I’ve had some suspicions that some people who dismiss complaints about music are often in a position of power and generally have music that is to their taste already.

    My problem at times with worship though is often I resent some of the format because it is too tailored (or attempting to) for my generation and culture. A couple years out of high school I went on a cultural exchange program for a few months to Burkina Faso. The one Protestant church where I was, was an Assemblees de Dieu (same family as PAOC) church. One of the things that struck me was that while being very charismatic; people closing their eyes or raising their hands was completely absent. It was essentially a room of about 75 people, with about 3 drums and everyone singing a clapping in full awareness of each other with songs lyrics generally with a corporate worship theme. A few months upon my return, I went to Summit and the POV in worship songs was generally the opposite (and a reflection of the Canadian church in general). Clapping was virtually non-exisitent (which for me is a powerful unifying action), there was much more emphasis and dependency on the abilities of the worship leaders, and a significant portion of the songs’ themes were essentially: “thanks for what you’ve done for me”. There’s nothing inheirently wrong with any of these characteristics, only that they easily excess into self-consumed, my-needs-first worship. By my second and third year my head was about to blow up everytime I heard “forget about everyone around you” from the worship leader. Why am I here then? I could just as easily and prefer to talk a walk alone and play worship on my headphones.

    For me, the self-centered pull in worship has not improved and is IMO a symptom of the age and culture in which we live. My own church has transitioned into being purposefully seeker-sensitive and as such I feel a lot of the worship songs are directed to individual needs and comfort (i.e. “you gave your life away for me”). I cannot fully relate to a seeker as I’ve been in the church the vast bulk of my life. All I can say is I’m increasingly drawn to places of worship that aren’t catered to my supposed tastes and familiarity. There’s apart of me that believes this must be true for some seekers as well for that very reason. Perhaps that’s an opinion of an overfed, self-indulgent Christian, but that’s the way I can’t help to feel for quite some time.

    Am I on topic? Probably not, apart from that worship approaches do matter; however giving people what they want is not necessarily what is needed in every case.

    The other side of the debate, is that expecting maturity and people to lay aside their preferences can be perfectly valid at times. It’s a tension that has to exist almost like faith-works. The church needs to be a true reflection of it’s people and adapt; yet every particular church should be multi-generational, and “multi-taste” even within the same generation. Overemphasizing your preferences ultimately because self-worship and often conceited to think your personal tastes are the highest expression of worship. And yet being able to connect naturally to the music and worship is important.

    I don’t really know if there’s a middle-ground. All one can hope for is that they’re is in a church where they generally feel it connects with them and for a worship leader to understand his/her congregation and it’s demographics and plan accordingly…as well as being grounded theologically. The execution of that though is rarely so easy.

    • Good thoughts Jonathan; as always, I’m happy you’ve commented 🙂

      I agree with you, but I think we’re talking about different things, in that you’re talking about preferences and I’m talking about participation. I was always of the opinion that musical preferences shouldn’t matter, until I realized that there’s a profound difference between preferences and true participation.

      What I mean is, it’s not just that we like certain types of music, but that we put something of ourselves into our worship. We usually see participation in worship as being able to sing along, or raise your hands like everyone else, etc. – but real participation goes so much deeper than that, and goes far beyond preferences. Even if you hate a certain music style, if you can relate or identify with it, you’re involved with it in a deeper way. But if it’s something that you identify with inherently, your involvement is that much deeper.

      Anyone can mouth the words, or sing along, and if that’s all participation is then our conversation is really just about preference of style. But if participation involves us identifying with and giving of ourselves through the music, then preference is only a small part.

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