Let’s not compromise…

We’ve seen this before. Just as church leaders do today, 1st century Christians wrestled over what true ‘orthodox’ (that is, ‘right-way’) worship means. Biblical authors describe and discuss what is fitting and proper for worship in the temple. To that end, determining what instruments, voices, styles, and forms were appropriate for worship has been debated throughout every generation. Similar to fields such as church architecture, art, iconography, and leadership structure, we’ve seen ebb and flow in the church’s theology of music.

The early church was born from a variety of political (Roman), cultural (Greek), and religious (Jewish) influences that helped shape the worship practices. In the 4th century, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the state and prohibited congregational singing and the use of instruments. In the 5th century, Pope Celestine I developed antiphonal singing and the Christian hymn, and in the late 6th century, Pope Gregory codified plainsong (now known as Gregorian chant) as the official song of the church.

Some argued for a stripping of overly lavish decoration (Council of Trent, Calvinism, Methodism), others for greater accessibility through worship in the vernacular (Luther’s Protestant Reformation, Pope John Paul and the Second Vatican Council), and others still for the abolition of music altogether (Zwingli). It is through this understanding of the genesis of worship music that we can properly evaluate it; as one paradigm shift inside the larger context of sacred music’s history.

It’s no surprise that we got here; music is full of emotion. Therefore, any affirmation of what ‘orthodox’ worship is, will indirectly define what ‘orthodox’ worship isn’t. This will undoubtedly stir up tensions. Tradition, likewise, is drenched in emotional bias. Though not entirely documented, the aforementioned reforms in church music likely involved much debate over the future of worship in the church.

Equally important are the tangible justifications for seeking proper worship today. In a result-oriented culture, it is hard to extract immediate analysis based on church attendance from the debate. The fact of the matter is, the use of contemporary music in churches is increasing, and more and more churches are setting aside hymnals for video projectors, organs and choirs for guitars and drum sets.  I hope to evaluate the meaning and implications behind the use of contemporary worship music and traditional hymnody, and, to some extent, argue that both are important and necessary for the health of the church. In multi-generational and multi-cultural churches, there are inherent biases toward certain worship styles, and furthermore musical tastes are simply diverse. In order to reconcile disparate tastes and empower all generations of worshippers to worship God at full-stretch, we must not only access the depth and breadth of the musical ‘canon’ through psalms and hymns, but sing music that resonates with the culture of our current generation. Unlike current literature on the subject, this amalgamation ought not be considered a ‘compromise,’ which implies a negative outlook on either side. Balance is essential. Church worship leaders must continue to pastorally reflect on the life of their congregation, and evaluate the use of any particular hymn or worship song on a case-by-case basis. There is no simple answer or quick solution to the debate. It is, in fact, through this very process of debate and reform that the church maintains devotion to God and relevance to society.

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The language of space

A few months ago, I saw yet another interesting ted talk, this one on the way that architecture has influenced music.  The spaces in which we fill sound directly affect the kind of sounds produced there.  David Byrne chronicles the history of music in relation to the history of archetecture.  Reverberant gothic cathedrals allow for polyphonic music, concert halls request loud symphonic music, arenas require slower tempos and clear vocal lines to be understood.  Check out the video:

This term at BU’s School of Theology (my new stomping ground!), I’m taking a course titled “Introduction to Christian Worship.”  For this course we are reading James White’s book of the same title.  I’ve just finished the chapter on the Language of Space, which discusses how the spaces we use for liturgical worship affect and reveal our beliefs.  His main point seems to be this:  Whatever the space, it must function to allow for “speaking and touching in God’s name.”  I like this stripping down of the definition of worship.  Too often I think of worship as what we do on Sunday mornings.

A few definitions of worship:

The Vatican defines worship as “the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity”

The Anglican Church calls it “setting forth of God’s honor or glory, and to the reducing of the people to a most perfect and godly living.”

Russian Orthodoxy says “the response of men to the Divine call, to the ‘mighty deeds’ of God, culminating in the redemptive act of Christ.”

And White, as quoted before, likens the phrase “speaking and touching in God’s name”.

My professor, Don Saliers, has his own definition that is more focused on Christ: “The ongoing word, prayer, and action of Jesus Christ in and through his body in the world made alive by the holy spirit.”

I digress…

Whatever your definition of worship, you need to have a space in which to worship.  I could go into discussion of why a community of worshippers is important, but that is for another blog post.  White outlines 5 different criteria which are required for proper worship spaces: Utility, simplicity, flexibility, intimacy, and beauty.   After all, “Churches are built to be used, not to be monuments for tourists to admire or art historians to chronicle.”

And it is for good reasons churches debate over the planning of new spaces for worship.  During high school, my church demolished and built an entirely new building, providing new spaces for classes and many different ministries to meet.  During college, for many years my church was creating drafts and proposals for a new building.  After many discussions and an eventual decision made by the congregation the project was cancelled.

White’s five criteria are important to think about when making decisions about church buildings and worship space planning, but I would imagine it very difficult to think about all of them at once.  Gothic cathedrals are beautiful but not flexible.  My home church (no offense!) is quite simple but not always beautiful (just don’t look up).  That new building they made?  Very flexible (cascading partition walls, multiple classroom configurations), but not very intimate.  To me it seems that more and more reformed churches are going for utility and simplicity over beauty and intimacy.  I attended on church that met in an elementary school multi-purpose room!

But what effect does that have on the music, if I may transition to the main topic of this blog?  What does David Byrnes talk say about the direction of christian worship through music?  Buildings are much more permanent than the latest christian rock song.  White says “After it is built, it will continue to shape worship in its image for generations.  Although it is not completely true that the building will always win, we must at least recognize in it a powerful ally and a formidable foe. Its witness will outlast its builders.

And this is true.  I formed a choir for christmas and good friday services at my church in Santa Barbara, which I really enjoyed doing and was pleased with the music.  In the end, however, the space was not correct for that style of music (my church did praise music), so as good as they sounded, the style did not fit the space.

My new church has a fantastic history of hymnody and a marvelous organ, which fits the space really well and envelops the congregational voice.  This church is one that does morning “traditional” and evening “contemporary” services.  I try as often as I can to attend the morning services, because I like the senior pastor a lot and am partial to “traditional” worship music…whatever that means.  I also attend the early services because I hope more young people would discover the beauty of hymnody.  [Anecdote: Saliers told us a heartwarming story of a kids choir that was learning hymns and kids worship songs.  When one kid was asked which song was his favorite, he told him the hymn was his favorite.  This puzzled Saliers because the language was much too complex for a 8 year old boy.  When asked why, the kid replied “The words taste so good!”] Anyway…lead by example right?

On some Sundays, however, I’m lucky to have a church job playing piano for a morning service.  This leads me to attend the evening services at Park Street.  In the same physical space where choir and organ sing, drum set, electric guitars, bass, synthesizers, and powerpoint.  I’ve since gotten used to it, but the first time I walked into the evening “contemporary” service, it sounded like mush (again…no offense!).  The whitewashed walls, high ceiling, and wooden pews made the music echo and sound generally boomy (though not as bad as that church in the M-P room).  It’s not that the music wasn’t worship-full, but it seemed out of place in such that space.  Should churches have services for “traditional” folks, and services for “contemporary” kids?  Should we have two different spaces for two different styles of music?  My inclination is no, but more on that later.

Utility, simplicity, flexibility, intimacy, and beauty.  Let’s strive for these in our worship spaces.