Whither Worship?

Over the last few years I have noticed that, in church, the worship element of the service for the congregation seems to be less “participant” than “audience”.  This is quite common now, particularly in “megachurches” (but by no means only in megachurches), where the resources available and high quality musicianship are great- but can also lead to “slick” presentations.  I honestly wonder in those situations whether the “worship” actually is (worship)?  Or, rather, is it just one more part of the show- along with the drama, etc.?  Full disclosure: I admit that I find myself, in certain situations, not participating all that much either.  The situation all too often doesn’t invite it, which is the point of this discussion.

I am curious whether anyone else out there has similar thoughts.  I’ll lay out several propositions, provide some historical background, and then follow that up with some observations about each of the points below.

The core purpose of “worship”, is to proclaim- to God, not to each other- His “worthship”.  It seems to me that anything that enhances worship, and increases the probability of- and opportunity for- worship is what ought to be sought.  It is not always clear to me that this is remembered as the real goal when the service is being planned.  If it is, there are a lot of well-meaning people planning worship services who don’t quite get it.

First, the summary propositions:

1) Top 40 Much music selection has become an in-church performance of the Christian “Top 40” play-list.

2) Song arrangements; put simply, a lot of those songs heard on the radio may be all right for performance, but simply not well-suited for real people to sing in a large unrehearsed group

3) Leadership goals and style The stage layouts for the leaders and worship teams are often arranged more as a performing group set-up than as would be conducive to getting the congregation to join in.

Now, first, some history.  Over the last decade and a half or so, the order and style of many (basically non-Catholic) Christian church services, particularly the evangelicals, has changed drastically and rapidly.  In the “olden days”, there once was a “song service”, consisting of, in evangelical churches, a man (one of those male roles, can’t have women getting too uppity, y’know, covered heads and submission and all that) standing up front announcing that we would now sing stanzas 1, 2, and 4 of hymn number 256, “All Hail The Power”, and please stand as we sing.  People who watched Billy Graham Crusades on TV are familiar with perhaps the best of this breed, Cliff Barrows.

If anyone recalls those days and remembers many of the hymns, they were not really “worship”- they were more like a cross between fellow pilgrims encouraging each other and the members of an exclusive club congratulating each other on having made it to the winner’s circle.  There was a definite need for a rebirth of the idea and meaning of worship, and to my memory of various evangelical churches it hit its best between about 1975 and 1990, after which “worship music” merged with “CCM” (Christian Contemporary Music) (in other words, record producers discovered that they could sell a lot of new discs in that category) and we have, to some extent, ended up losing it again.

In the classical singing of the Lutheran-style churches in which my parents grew up, it was a little bit different- you saw the hymn listed in the bulletin, and the direction came from the choir and the organist.  Most of the time, the older “mainline” Protestant denominations didn’t even have a pulpit in the center of the platform for “Cliff Barrows” to stand behind and prop up his hymnbook.

The dam began to break in the early 1970’s as the “Jesus movement” followed the earlier secular narcissism of the various revolutions of the ‘60’s.  There sprung up a few informal gatherings of Believers who shunned Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, hymnbooks, and a lot of the other pomp and circumstance that had been strangling the Church.  This was the first modern set of circumstances where I observed people in the corporate setting (plenary, as opposed to small informal groups) actually sing to Jesus rather than to each other.

In the churches of that type that I visited (as a mediocre occasional roving musician), there was more and varied instrumental support, with guitars, bass, drums, and primitive synthesizers, but most of the time there was still a single leader up there behind the pulpit.  He (almost always “he”) usually announced songs and “choruses” (rather than hymns) that were either in a “chorus book” or were generally known and memorized by the larger body.

This song service style was actually presaged a bit by the Pentecostalist “Holy Spirit” denominations, the largest of which was the Assemblies of God, who had the requisite (almost always) male arm-waver behind the pulpit up front announcing the hymn numbers and stanzas to be sung, but in these gatherings there were a few more leisure suits (remember them?) and often no church bulletins publishing the order of service.  That way, no one could object when you went off-schedule.  In fact, it was sort of encouraged, and became almost a point of pride- “We are led by the Spirit!  We’re not chained to an order of service!” Even though the order of service still existed (perfectly appropriate- you don’t dive into something as important as worship of God without some level of preparation).

About the early 1980’s, the first “mainstream rebels” began to appear, joining the non-traditional “Jesus People” churches such as The Vineyard- that is to say, you began to more consistently see instruments used in music that were not the organ or piano, including (gasp) drums in Baptist, Free Church, and other non-Pentecostal Evangelical gatherings.  Shortly thereafter, the pulpit-bound arm-wavers gave way to “worship teams”- groups of 3 to 8 singers leading the congregational singing, backed up by combo-type musicians.  At first, people used chorus books and relied on memory to sing all the non-traditional songs that were replacing hymns, then slides and overhead transparencies became common as the publication and use rights issues got resolved through the Christian Copyright Licensing organization (CCLI), then digital display and projection became universal.  This brings us up to today and my first of three issues.

Top 40- How did we move from the situation where the song selection was rigidly culled from one hymnbook full of hundred-year-old 4-stanza music, to the case where many people go to church today and don’t know a single song being sung unless they listened last night to the local Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) disk jockey?  Worship songs today seem to have a useful life of about six months.

This is not in any way a criticism of using newer songs. New inspired material comes along all the time, has for centuries, and should be embraced to enhance worship.  I have no doubt whatever that Charles Wesley got a lot of flack in 1740 over the singing of “And Can It Be” instead of a medieval dirge chanted in unison by clerics.  Charles Swindoll told a story of a man who visited a church one Sunday for the first time, and the music was not exactly to his taste.  On the way out after the service, he was greeted by the minister, who said to him, “We hope that you enjoyed worshiping with us this morning.”  The man replied, “Well yes, it was all right, the sermon was good, but I had problems with the worship music.”  The minister then responded, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.  Just which songs did you think God didn’t like?”

But all too often in churches today you get the sense that if it was written too long ago, it isn’t Relevant.  The selections almost seem to be driven by fads- you go and sing three songs from Chris Tomlin’s latest release.  Certain songs on the CCM playlist show up everywhere, frequently repeated, until the next new release from Matt Redman or David Crowder.  This says nothing whatever to criticize these fine artists; it is about balance.  Just because a song is ten years old, or a thousand years old, does not mean it is no longer relevant to today’s worship.

And they disappear as soon as the fad is over- in the Summer of 2001, I visited a different church every week to get a flavor of what the broad trends were.  Every single week, every single church I attended for a two month period sang the same blockbuster for that time, Darlene Zschech’s “Shout To The Lord”.  A great song, yes- but not so overwhelming that eight different churches selected almost at random should choose the same song in the same time period.  And now it is basically gone, replaced by a new set; how long has it now been since you heard that song this year in your own church?  Did it suddenly go bad or become meaningless again?  In 2007 it was Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” and Chris Tomlin’s “Holy Is The Lord”.  Today, there is yet another list.  Many are fine songs- but not so unforgettable that they should make us forget last year’s “worship hit” or the classics of prior decades.  If the song really speaks to the spirits of the group as a whole and honors Jesus Christ- and you can tell by the participation and atmosphere- it makes no difference whether it was written by Martin Luther in 1536 or yesterday by Joanie Smith.

Over just the past half century, we first saw “sacred” music (classics plus safe artists like George Beverly Shea and composer John W. Peterson), joined next by more populist folk and country artists (such as Stuart Hamblen, the Jordanaires, not to forget the early Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash), the Southern Gospel quartets (the Statesmen, Speer Family, etc.), and the vibrant and joyful “Black Gospel” (from solo artists such as Mahalia Jackson, Willa Dorsey, the early Sam Cooke, to the mainstream crossover groups such as Andrae Crouch and the Disciples).  The rise of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) began first with early 1960’s Ralph Carmichael composer/arrangers, flowing next into the early 1970’s California sounds (Love Song, Petra) that presaged the first true “Christian Rock”.

The next step evolving from the Jesus Movement in the 1970’s was a return to more folk-oriented singing of Scriptures- early groups such as the Living Letters of Love showed the populist style of worship rather than music performance, in concert-type programs, with involvement of the audiences; these events have found their niche with leaders such as Don Moen, Michael W. Smith, and, of course, the current group whose biggest stars are Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, and (I’m sure I’m behind, fill in the blank________).

This is a good thing- if you are going out to a concert, why not make it an opportunity to worship as well as be entertained?  It beats the atmosphere at secular events.  And a lot of the music is genuinely wonderful.  But not all of it, of course, is any more memorable than the latest bubble-gum pop hit, and even less of it is suited for congregational singing. And Sunday’s worship service is not a concert- unless we turn it into a concert.

To be a song that can be sung reasonably easily by a mass group without rehearsal, there has to be some level of predictable structure, even repetition, and it can’t rely very much on neat little music tricks that sound good in performance but are difficult to coordinate with a large group.  The sixteenth rest followed by a dotted eighth may be nice on a CD, but try to get even 50 people to attack the line together after the rest; many will simply give up and listen, which is not quite the point of corporate worship.

I will go one step farther- the more cleverly the song is “arranged”, the less useful it is in group singing. If it requires a lot of rehearsal, there just might be a problem. For example- occasionally starting a song with a performance solo can add a special flavor, an opportunity to contemplate, to search within as one listens, then joins in. If that happens on virtually every song, the pattern suggests more performance than leading in worship.

And no matter when the song was written or how the melody and rhythm flow, it should say something meaningful, not just be catchy.  For example, one piece that was relatively popular a couple of years ago was called “My Glorious”.  I have no doubt that this song is intended to be helpful and meaningful.  It has a catchy tune and rhythm, but is hardly memorable; the words don’t make any kind of sense:

“God is bigger than the air I breathe” (Bigger than air? Inapt metaphor alert)
“The world we’ll leave” (I’m not sure how this relates to the air in line 1)
“God will save the day and all will say” (From what?  And how does this apply to leaving the world?  If you leave it, why does the day need saving?)
“My glorious!” (Direct object, please, right now the adjective is hanging- “My glorious _______”- fill in the blank, please)

If the words don’t carry a coherent meaning, they don’t really lodge into your brain or your heart.  I don’t understand why we can’t sing great songs of today, and still those great songs of five years ago, great songs of a decade ago, great songs from the seventies and eighties, from the forties, and from the nineteenth century; there are enough of them that we don’t need to repeat the same ones every month or so.  Even old hymns from the hymnbook, updated as to meter, rhythm, presentation, and accompaniment.  The objective should be to foster worship with great worship songs, no matter when they were inspired.

Even those who are agnostic notice this, as in this piece by writer Virginia Postrel: “…..today’s suburban Christianity is all about accessibility. It’s been dumbed down.  Now I’m not a Christian, let alone an evangelical. If megachurches want to play bad-to-mediocre rock instead of great hymns, that’s their business. But the spread of Christian pap does have spillovers, not the least of which is that devout Christian faith no longer brings with it a deep familiarity with what’s actually in the Bible, as opposed to a few verses from the preacher’s PowerPoint. Unless the person is over a certain age, Biblical literacy, when you do find it, rarely means acquaintance with great English. Forget theological or philosophical sophistication. I’d settle for the ability to comprehend complex sentences.”    http://www.dynamist.com/weblog/archives/002019.html

Compare the words above from “My Glorious” with “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, All Thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea!”.  “Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee, how great Thou art!”  “Be Thou exalted by seraphs and angels, saints in their anthems of rapture adore Thee, Thine be the glory…”  “Holy Lamb, God’s only sacrifice… I’ll give to You the praises of my heart, all the glory that might ever come my way…”  Or, recently, “Holy, You are Lord God almighty, worthy is the Lamb, worthy is the Lamb, You are holy, holy!”  I can tell you easily what truly speaks to me.

Song arrangements To be useful in worship, that is, to help establish a spirit of participation and “heart involvement” on the part of the congregants- after all, that would seem to be the point of corporate worship- the music has to be singable.  So often, little consideration is given to some basic factors about humans and their voices.  This includes other song selection issues, and the ways the songs are arranged.  This emphatically includes the selected keys (that is, how many sharps or flats); these are all too often not conducive to the effortless and worshipful participation of the “regular people”

In fact, I can say from experience that the keys in which worship songs are sung are generally selected for the convenience of the musicians.  In particular, guitar players, for whom most of the best key signatures for vocals and many other instruments are quite limiting.  Essentially, guitarists like to play in G, D, A, and E, which permit the most open string or easily-reached chords to be played.  I tend not to be as sympathetic to this issue as I might be, since keyboardists such as myself tend to prefer flats to sharps, but I routinely hit all of the guitar keys.  My view is that the songs should arranged for singers, not musicians.  I don’t see why we can’t have songs that are built for rock-guitar-type bands, others for strings, for pipe organ, and for R&B-soul black gospel piano and B3 organ swing.  Periodically, have a service that is “unplugged”- and listen to the Spirit instead of outshouting Him. Consciously vary the styles, and you end up varying the music as well, mixing the best of old and new.

An all too common practice is that of confusing performance songs with worship songs.  Some types of music fit a person, or a group performing as offeratory, but do not work for congregations to sing, due to range, music complexity, or style.  What is often attempted, seemingly because it sounds so cool on the radio, is to do the equivalent of asking 300 or more people to sing an unrehearsed choral anthem, where the melody jumps an octave and a half again and again, features sixteenth rests followed by dotted eighth notes, unusual progressions, etc.  These are different styles of music.  Sometimes it works to pull them off the radio and project them on the screen at church, sometimes it simply does not.  Which leads directly into the next point.

To invite the participation of the congregation in corporate worship, it is necessary to make it possible for them to do so easily and unselfconsciously.  The average male has a relatively easy range between B-flat or A an octave down from Middle C, up to D or E-flat one or one and a half steps above Middle C.  In addition, to comfortably sing the notes above Middle C, one normally needs to be standing and singing loud to have the air flow to get it out.  If the song is softer, and/or the people are seated, it is better not to push most men far beyond a C to C octave.  For women, most of whom tend to be altos, the comfort zone is about six to eight notes higher than for the males; roughly the octave beginning at Middle C.

If you are a musician, you immediately recognize one little problem with this.  Unlike the earlier generations of worship leaders who built the instrumentation around keyboards, many of today’s leaders from the “rock generation” are guitar-oriented.  In the natural guitar keys of E, A, D, and G (because of the basic tuning of the strings) the range is one to one and a half steps higher than if keyed in C, F, and Eb, the latter also being more comfortable for the average Sunday vocalist.  Singing a song in G where the melody rides on the fifth (D above Middle C) and sixth (E, a stretch for most) doesn’t work nearly as well for the average plain voice as doing the same song in F or E.

Another factor in the structure of the melody has to do with where in the key most of the melody actually occurs; this is arguably a lot more important than the total range for the song.  Singing a song with most of its notes between the base note and the sixth, with just a quick one-note jump up to the octave works far more easily than one that rides on the raised octave; for example, “Holy Holy Holy” in D is singable because the top D is one note, sung quickly and strong, then back down to the fifth: “God in three persons”- just “God” is on the top D, the other notes are A, B, and F-sharp, easily reached.  Compare that with “Lord, Reign in Me” in D, where the entire chorus is D, C-sharp, B, and E, with only one note down on A.  Most people just stand there and listen to that one because they can’t sing; the spirit may be willing, but the vocal cords are weak.  If it were keyed in B or B-flat, they would sing it.

Time signatures are also an issue with some instruments- a guitar-based ensemble (e.g., rock-style) virtually demands 4-4 time. When was the last time you sang songs in church in 3-4 or 6-8 time? Is it because it can’t be done? No, it is because guitar strumming doesn’t match waltz time very well- “Oomp-strum-strum, oomp-strum-strum” is a bit awkward for those guitarists who can’t play lead lines. Think of the famous Welsh melody “Hyfrydol”, which is used for “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”, “Our Great Savior”, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”, “I Will Sing The Wondrous Story”, and so many others. Done right, it made the chills run along your spine from its composition in 1844 until, say, 1995 or so. It is still great done by pipe organ patches on a synth or in the “spiritual gospel” style of black churches with swing B3/Leslie organ sounds. It doesn’t work very well with purely rhythm guitar.

These issues are not that difficult- all that needs to happen is for the leaders to think about such matters more than they do about cool intros or endings, guitar solos, and all that.

Leadership goals and style One of the most worship-enhancing innovations of recent years was the idea of a Worship Team replacing a Song Leader; that is, moving away from the focus on an individual, whether Cliff Barrows or Joe Littlechurch, up front.  The transition to leadership by a group of singers far more naturally promotes the message that worship is equally to be engaged in by everyone, and these folks just happen to be on the stage helping point out when the song changes, and so on.  This works even better if the singers are not stars.  Worship should not be just the big shots who passed the audition.

The stage layouts for the leaders and worship teams, however, are often arranged more as a performing group set-up than as would be conducive to getting the congregation to participate rather than simply watching.  This is especially the case, to my own observation, with guitar-based, rock-style worship bands, where they tend to emulate the stage make-up and styles of rock bands as well.  If you watch the more or less standard make-up of a rock band, there are a drummer, a few guitars, perhaps some other instruments such as horns or a keyboard, and then the single ubiquitous gravel-voiced and virtually always male “lead singer” (in rock bands, of course wearing sunglasses and baseball cap).  Often, he might strum a rhythm guitar now and then.

The make-up of the worship teams in several of the larger churches I have visited over recent years frequently emulates this form, giving an impression of a “star” system rather than the communicated desire to pull all the “regular people” out there into corporate worship.    (I have an impression that a lot of the newer generation of worship leaders appears to be made up of frustrated Christian Rock artists who really want to be touring acts, but need a regular job; that makes the apparent commitment of Third Day, Michael W. Smith, and Matt Redman to “worship first” all the more impressive).  This is most noticeable when the leader is very prominent, out in front of a too-small group of vocalists, or if the presentation ends up being slick, or so perfect that it can almost distract from actual worship.

I was in a church for a while where the pastor was also worship leader, and he was, to put in simply, a Tommy Walker wannabe.  It was so important to him to have things be “just so” that he would hire professionals to come in if there was an instrument missing in the band- then after the singing, the hired guns would go off and read their Star Trek novels outside (literally) to pass the time of the rest of the service till it was time to tear down.  I talked to a jazz drummer once about his experiences doing fill-in gigs at local large churches and it was kind of disheartening to hear how he described some of the people he worked for; he made a comment about one martinet he called “Sergeant Worship” who would be upset and grouchy if everything during worship did not go exactly as planned.

How tragic.  Instead of the church being a witness to the itinerant drummer, it gave him an opposite impression of a “show”, and reinforced his ideas about Christians as phonies.  There is also the question, of course, regarding the practice of hiring professional musicians.   Does God love it when we “make a joyful noise” with a pure heart, or does He have certain quality standards that can only be met by paid professionals? Does the worship band always have to have drums, lead guitar, etc., to the extent that we need to hire a professional to fill it out? Or will God appreciate what we have to offer on any given day from among the willing volunteers?

The leader sets the atmosphere.  I have seen both good and bad leaders who were loud, quiet, great musicians, average musicians, played guitars, piano, even no instruments.  That suggests that the critical factor is something besides the instrument or other environmental elements.  Matt Redman’s ‘Heart of Worship” (a song that dates back a few years, so you hardly hear it any longer) says that “all is stripped away, and I simply come.”  Yes.

If the leaders simply come- and the setting isn’t distracting by attempting elaborate introductions to sound just like they do on the radio, so that the focus is on Jesus instead of the band- worship can happen, instead of a show.

I think that this is best enabled when the stage layout is set to minimize the focus on individuals.  The two best stage maps I have seen are that at Hillsongs in Australia, where there are about six singers lined up all across on the edge of the stage with the musicians behind them, and a somewhat smaller Baptist church in the Northern suburbs of Minneapolis, where they had four people lined up at the front of the stage with musicians behind.  In each case, there was no one person stepping forward as the star.  At the Baptist fellowship, there were actually four different teams- four sets of four or more singers, and rotating musicians each assisting once a month.  The music and worship leader of the church only participated on one of the teams.  This diversity of personnel ensured that there was no star colony, and also brought different styles into the mix, both instrumentally and through song selection.

In all cases, what was consistently eliminated was the one-person focal point.  When the leadership is diffused, the focus can move away from the stage.  When I am in those situations, I make sure that my keyboard is behind the singers and largely hidden from view so that there is minimized temptation to look at me as an individual.  I want the singers’ mics turned up so that they are at least as loud as I may be, and so that the group singing invites the congregation to be part of the group.  There is certainly no need for the leaders to sing in unison- as long as the songs are not so over-arranged that they give the impression of being a special music performance.  Solos are seldom beneficial, unless they are there to teach new music.  This is corporate worship, not a show.

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One Response to “Whither Worship?”

  1. Robert Sterling Says:

    Well said. Your observations are pretty spot on, I think. Each of your three points is worthy of its own discussion.

    I recall a conversation I had with two of the “founders” of Praise & Worship Music, nearly 30 years ago. They expressed concern that the then-current model of church music (choir-based) was too performance-oriented (and apparently not God-oriented). Their goal was to replace that model with a more inclusive, God-centered approach.

    Fast-forward three decades – and we are inundated with “Worship Artists.” What goes around comes around?

    For all their good-intentions, music in church today is more performance-oriented than it has ever been. The whole idea that the congregation is really participating is mostly a myth, I fear. (I have an untested theory, based entirely on anecdotal evidence, that in most contemporary worship settings, nobody past the first ten rows is singing.)

    Again – thanks for the post.

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