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Contemporary Worship and Congregational Singing

October 6, 2006

The issue of church music has been a regular feature on this blog here and here, but also Daily Scribe, here, and here. Indeed I have thoroughly enjoyed an ongoing conversation with Rob over on threedays about this whole thing. I continue to wrestle with what has been a personal journey for most of the last year or so. Just this past Monday, in the Café at work, I was called over to a table where two local pastors were deep in conversation. They invited me to join them for some lunch and proceeded to talk about their ventures into contemporary worship with their congregations.

Both of them are deeply committed to connecting with younger generations through the power of contemporary music, but in the words of one, ‘It’s only working for a select few’, often only those leading the worship and handfuls in the congregation.

A few things occur to me.

  1. I used to fret over the content of contemporary worship songs. Whilst that’s still an issue for me, I’m less exercised about it now. What I think I struggled to articulate in the past was my discomfort with the intimacy of the songs in the context of congregational singing. What I’m more concerned about now is the fact that I think we are losing the gift of congregational singing and all that that brings to the church.

    We are losing it in favour of a much more intensely private and privatised experience of praise and worship in which the worshipper is encouraged to look inward. Consequently, it is often difficult for those who are unused to worship to engage with what is going on making it increasingly a specialist activity – you either get it or you don’t.  Or else, the intensity and intimacy of the lyrics makes a potential worshipper uncomfortable, or  forces them to sing things that are not true to their experience, or even their aspiration.

    Worship is perhaps the final element of Christian practice to surrender to the privatisation of faith. And this surrender is being aided and abetted by the celebrity songwriters and musicians of the contemporary worship scene.

  2. If ever I was in a position of responsibility in a local congregation I would hold a ritual burning of praise cds at the front door of the church.

    Possessing these cds enables an individual to listen to praise music in all sorts of contexts divorced from the life of the community. In the car on the way to work, at home doing the ironing, on the ipod. Two things happen. Firstly, the individualisation of the act of praise is deepened. Secondly, the music or the scratchy voice of your neighbour on the normal Sunday morning with the rest of God’s people, will rarely measure up to the quality of the highly produced music in the recordings. So disappointment is inevitable.

  3. We are not being given the tools to interpret what is actually happening to us when we engage in singing these songs. The emotion is all it seems to me, but who says it’s Christian worship. The mere presence of some tingling feeling in no way guarantees we are worshipping. Judging the quality of the worship by the feelings it produces seems dangerously close to me to walking by sight and not by faith.

    It’s not that I think worship leaders are involved in some grand conspiracy. I think they’re just as clueless as the rest of us, though maybe more culpable.

Every revolutionary movement has developed its own music and songs. These songs give shape and identity to the movement and the very act of singing together unites the community and gives voice to its story. Over time the music and songs carry a collective memory and have the capacity to unite across the generations. I hope we’re not losing a rich heritage.

Or maybe I’m just a grumpy old man.

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From → Worship

5 Comments
  1. I like the use of praise music in church or home. The reason is that I see so many in church simply sing the old standards from rote and they have no personal impact. The use of praise music gives the singer a vehicle for personal worship. However, my ideal is a combination of the two. One must, though, be careful as to not manipulate the worship experience, but allow it to happen as the Spirit leads. I see too many worship leaders who do the whole “three fast, three slow” song choice and work to bring the people to a predetermined place. That, I feel, is not the purpose of the music nor the music leader.

  2. ha ha! if you are grumpy it is perhaps because of all the ‘jesus is my boyfriend’ music you have had to endure. or maybe that’s just me… i like your thoughts on privatisation. too true. john bell, speaker and hymn writer, of the iona community speaks about the issue of christian song here. http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/shop/talks/details.php?ref=GB05-12

    and besides, i thought you didn’t get ‘old’ til tomorrow! 😉

  3. Rev Cindi, I agree with what you say on the dangers of manipulation in worship, and that much of it is done by rote. There is however, much that is positive about GOOD habit. I’m intrigued for instance by the stories that seem to indicate that the memory of songs is one of the last to leave the mind. Pastors and researchers talk of visiting older people in care homes who appear to have no faculty for social integration until old hymns are sung. Then the whole memory returns or is uncovered. It seems to me that when we sing songs as a congregation things happen in us and through us that we are not always conscious of. It’s not just their value in singing the story of a group but also the capacity of old familiar songs to define community. Rote singing isn’t to be despised.

  4. Hey Gail! Rob Borley on the threedays blog talks of songs whose lyrics are more likely to lead us into the bedroom than into the heavenly throne room. Brilliant.

    BTW, I don’t get old tomorrow, just older! Who told tales?

  5. Hey Glenn – nah, I don’t think you are a grumpy old man 🙂 You raise some good points here – and a lot of folk seem to be feeling challenged about the whole issue of intimacy in our worship and how that was not how it was designed to be. After all, you don’t read about the elders and the living creatures singing ‘My Jesus, My Saviour’ in heaven do you?

    So we are probably in agreement that the balance of what we sing about needs to be re-addressed. However, a ritual burning of praise and worship CD’s? Hmmm, perhaps not so much in agreement here 🙂 You are right that it can foster the idea that me, my boyfriend God and my favourite worship CD is all I need – but worship music can also prophesy, encourage, teach and draw us to deeper understanding of who God is. Surely it is actually down to us as church members / leaders to be teaching more accurately about what worship is and to enforce the knowledge that actually worship only becomes truly beneficial to us when we make it our priority for it to be beneficial to Him? If we get that bit right I feel more confident that the rest will fall into place.

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