Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Praise Music Discontent: Part 1 - Missing the Biblical Narrative & Why The Music That You Do Matters - Jeff Wiersma

Part 1 - Missing the Biblical Narrative
& Why The Music That You Do Matters

"Our music should reflect the sophisticated, creative, beautiful and big God whom it aims to worship.  But due to the lowest common denominator nature of Praise Music, we aren't exposed to new expressions of faith in God and living in a community of grace."

There are no shortage of excellent online articles about the shortcomings of Praise Music.  Among them, I have appreciated Don’t Call Me A Worship Leader by Elias Drummer, Is Your Worship Welcoming To Those Not Like You? by Dr David W. Manner and An Open Letter To Worship Songwriters by Brian McClaren.

I highly recommend all of them and draw upon the regularly. Yet none of these pieces comprehensively addressed the totality of my thoughts on the topic.

So I decided to compile several year's worth of notes from those and other pieces that I've read, discussions that I've had with some creative, deep-thinking friends and observations I have made in my time as a band leader at a local church.

This series, entitled "Praise Music Discontent" consists of 3 parts:

In Part 1, I will discuss ...
  • “Praise Music” Defined
  • How Does Praise Music Miss Out On The Biblical Narrative?
  • Why Does The Music A Church Uses Matter?

"Praise Music" Defined
When I use the words "Praise Music," I am referring to a highly commercialized, mostly American/British/Australian genre put out by the Christian Music Industry. It is an industry that creates a product that is designed to sell as a consumer commodity (like t-shirts and bumper stickers).  

How Does Praise Music Miss Out On The Biblical Narrative?
Biblical Narrative Is Real Life, Warts and All
In Hurting with GodGlenn Pemberton notes that laments constitute 40% of the Psalms. Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) licenses local churches for the use of contemporary worship songs. CCLI tracks the songs that are employed by local churches, and its list of the top 100 worship songs as of August 2012 reveals that only 5 of the songs would qualify as a lament!

Praise Music often tends to focus primarily on the most transcendent, ultra-spiritual parts of life, which accounts for only a minuscule percentage of reality and existence.

As a contrast, the Bible is a rich narrative. It is full of examples of  faith being lived out in the full 100% of what human beings encounter in life. Real life isn't rapturous spiritual bliss. People need to know they are not alone in struggling. People need other people to be brave in telling their own honest, real stories.

Biblical Narrative Is Communal, Holistic 
Praise Music most often communicates in individualistic terms, much like consumer advertising and marketing do.

 However, the Biblical narrative uses communal language; like "The Kingdom of God," "The Church," "The Whole Earth." The church should be creating and using art that accurately reflects the overflowing and abundant nature of grace and redemption - let alone that they are supposed to be Jesus to those who are struggling ("Lord, when did we see you hungry?).

A crucial question for me is, "Can catch-phrases and sloganeering accurately convey the counter-culture teachings of the Biblical narrative?"

The church's music should reflect the sophisticated, creative, beautiful and big God whom it aims to worship.  But due to the lowest common denominator nature of most Praise Music, we aren't exposed to new expressions of faith in God and living in a community of grace.

Additionally, the arrangement and key-choice of many Praise Music songs are intended to show-off the solo vocal abilities of the performer.  This sells records and creates profits for the CCM industry.  While this is somewhat understandable in a world of The Voice and American Idol, these showcase pieces are often ill-suited for a time of communal singing.  In both their vocabulary ("I" versus "we") and vocal accessibility, they don't facilitate the participation of everyone gathered in a corporate expression of faith in song.

Despite these drawbacks, it has become second-nature within many churches to use "Praise and Worship Music" in their services.

As Elias Drummer explains, "[I]n the evangelical world, 'worship' has come to refer to something like God-focused music. And music is inherently emotional. So it follows that our understanding of 'worship' could then be reduced to the personal expression of a God-centered, emotional experience. This then shapes our expectations in a church setting."

Why Does The Music A Church Uses Matter?
Some churches design their weekly service to be a place where people can grow together in the context of a community.

Other's priority is to create a safe place for people that have given up on church but not on God.

Either way, the songs that we choose and their vocabulary say a lot more to people about our churches than we probably realize.

Language Matters
The vocabulary we use in church has built-in expectations and assumed meanings associated with it, and these shape how we view reality.

To get a better grasp on this idea, it can be helpful to look at some interesting findings in the field of brain science.

Researchers have found that the human brain is in a constant state of rewiring, something called neuroplasticity.  Unused pathways in our mind dissolve and new ones, with repetition and focus, are formed.  This means that what we think about and say actually changes the way that our brains physically function.

In other words, language effects how we view the ideas that we attempt to describe and helps us to form our expectations of the world around us.

This means that even a small change in wording can radically alter our perceptions.  (For a poignant demonstration of exactly how much perspective matters, check out The Same Place, From A Different Angle)

Storytelling vs Slogans
The idea that a small change in wording can radically alter perceptions is something that effective preachers understand and implement.

Each week, they use a text that many in attendance have heard before and likely have even heard sermons preached from before. The preacher's task is to work with this familiar passage in order to draw new meaning out of it, to stimulate the thinking and questions that spur growth and to bring new life from it. Like a good artist, skilled preachers tilt our heads and change the vantage point from which we view things.

Effective preachers bring other perspectives on and understandings of the subject at hand into view.  Then they tie it all back into the redemptive work of God. They often draw upon stories from their own lives, communities or cultures.  This is the timeless story-teller technique of helping listeners make a story their own by helping them to identify with it.

Jesus loved to teach in parables.  The choice of characters, settings and plots in his parables were tailored to relate to those gathered.  It's interesting to note that the way in which Jesus told stories often left the audience with more questions than answers, and often any answer he gave was cryptic and incarnational; meaning it need to worked out in life of the person it was addressed to.

So why doesn't church music do the same?

Would any congregation tolerate their pastor reading someone else's sermons verbatim? Wouldn't the anecdotes not at all fit the congregations lives, community or culture? Whereas effective preachers (including Jesus) are skillful story-tellers in their specific setting, Praise Music more often resembles an infomercial.

Surely good pastors are inspired and informed by the work of other pastors.  Still, the best sermons always seem to result from the preacher running whatever is being used as teaching material through filters; filters who's goal is to make the story and subject matter as genuine and relevant as possible for the specific cultural context and community. This is a bottom-up, grass roots approach that allows new, fresh and dynamic revisiting of faith.

Yet every single week, churches use unfiltered Praise Music. While often the most effective service elements are part of an effort to make the experience real to the congregation's context at a grass roots level, Praise Music is a franchise, top-down, one-size-fits-all approach more akin to AstroTurf.  It blocks new, fresh revisiting of Christianity's radical, dynamic teachings.