Monday, April 21, 2014

Praise Music Discontent: Part 3 - An Alternate Approach - Jeff Wiersma

Part 3 - An Alternate Approach

If we really believe that God created everything and called it good, then everything is not just potentially-redeemable; any creative work is inspired by the spark of the divine.  Art for art's sake glorifies God.  For some reason, this worldview hasn't permeated church music.  We're still saddled with contrived, outdated and theologically erroneous labels like "secular music" and "Christian music."

In Part 1 of this blog series ("Missing The Biblical Narrative & Why The Music That You Do Matters"), I provided a lot of questions to think about regarding how the church relies too heavily on unfiltered Praise Music and the missed opportunities that result from that.

In Part 2 of this blog series ("Demographics Malnourished by Praise Music"), I explored some serious, critical questions about whether Praise Music, though helpful to certain specific demographics, is any longer beneficial to many of those already attending and any of those not already attending church.

In part 3, I will discuss ...
  • So Then What Do You Do Instead of Unfiltered Praise Music?
  • Encouraging Participation

So Then What Do You Do Instead Of Unfiltered Praise Music?
Filter/Edit Praise Music
If it was up to my personal preference, I probably wouldn't do many Praise Music songs as a band leader. But since leading the music portion of Sunday Service isn't about my preferences, I work in Praise songs that are sound theologically, artistically and creatively. However, I do go over them with a fine-tooth comb and often swap out problematic words for ones that give either a different perspective or a fuller, missional expression.

Non-church Songs
In my years of leading music at church, I have often been asked, "Why would you do a non-church song as part of a church service?"

My answer usually goes something like this; if we really believe that God created everything and called it good, then everything is not only potentially-redeemable but any creative work in inspired by the spark of the divine. 

This worldview hasn't permeated American Church Culture.  We're still saddled with contrived labels like "secular music" and "Christian music."

But God is way bigger than the labels the church often uses.  So I stretch beyond the cloister and tap into the often more spiritually and creatively genuine music being made outside of the Christian Music Industry.  (For a more comprehensive, detailed probing of this particular idea, check out The Holy Spirit, Common Grace and Art ).

The church that I attend purposefully designs services to follow an intentional flow.  The Double Ramp Model we utilize aims for broad appeal at both the beginning and ending of the service.  This is done in the effort to ensure that anyone coming in off the street, ESPECIALLY the unchurched, can relate to what they are hearing. 

I always do a non-church song as an opening tune. I've used everything from Pink Floyd to U2, Killswitch Engage to Pearl Jam, Amos Lee to The Smashing Pumpkins, The Cult to Coldplay, Nick Drake to The Killers.

That non-church song opener is always a song that ties into and reinforces that day's theme.  However, it distinctly demonstrates that you don't have to be a church-goer to relate to what we say and that you're welcome if - like me - you draw more spiritual sustenance from regular music than any Jars of Clay, Third Day, Hillsong or Chris Tomlin song.

I also turn to hymns quite often. They have several qualities that make them an excellent fit for what I feel church music should strive to achieve. Primarily, they were written to be sung in a community worship setting.

Additionally, they were not generated by a for-profit industry - whereas the goal of the Christian Music Industry is to moving unit, which leads to the reverse engineering their product to meet the demands of a predominantly consumerist, individualistic society.

Also appealing is the fact that  hymns were songs written on organs - because that was the way that bar patrons were used to hearing songs played. Additionally, many were put to the melodies of their day's non-church songs.

This doesn't mean that I have my band play hymns as they've always been done. After all, we don't have an organ! Like any other song I arrange, I tweak the key, instrumentation and song mapping to arrive at something that gives the congregation the best chance to participate together in song, which is one of the most powerful of all spiritual experiences.

Encouraging Participation
Arrangement and Key Choice
I play with the arrangements and key of almost every song I select. As I noted in Part 1, many CCM songs are written to show-off a single vocalist's talent in order to sell records. But when the goal of the music during Sunday Service is to come together as a community and participate corporately, CCM songs are ill-suited for the task.

One extreme in Praise Music is excessively melodramatic production.  By taking sometime to trim the fat of Nashville or Bethel largesse, you can help to keep the congregation engaged and feeling like they are active participants, not passive spectators.

By adding your own feel to counteract the other extreme of Praise Music - bland, vanilla arrangements without soul - you can keep the congregation from zoning out. It will also help your band members to look alive if the music they are playing actually has feel to it and interests them.

It also helps to change the key of the song to one that allows both genders to comfortably sing the melody.

You can give a visible, unspoken invitation for both genders to sing the melody by having a band member of each gender sing the melody from the beginning of the song through to the end. Since I began using this tactic, the difference this has made in congregational participation has been immense. Not only does everyone in the seats physically see someone of their own gender singing the entire song, it also actively counteracts the Praise Music tendency to have a solo, show-off vocal performances.

To be able to change the keys and structures of song, an audio editing tools like Audacity is a must.

Band Positioning and Body Language
Another tactic that I've discovered helps to keep a congregation from lapsing into spectator mode is to locate as many band members as possible close to the front of the stage.

Think about how live bands set up on stage. Bands that put on good live show engage the audience by effectively if they are positioned well.

If you're doing a song designed for full participation and you ask the congregation to stand, having some musicians sitting down undercuts your efforts.

If you have musicians standing behind other musicians, sitting down and looking lifeless and/or hidden behind a barricade of towering music stands, they won't be engaging the congregation. (If music stands are a must, keep them as low as humanly possible so that the congregations sees people on the stage, not just heads showing over the top of the back of music stands.)

To sum up - when those in attendance are engaged, they can't help but sing along and join together in making a unique musical experience as a community.

Involving Others
One mistake that the contemporary church has made is relying to heavily on the band leader as the only person to communicate with the congregation.

The band leader introduces the songs, guides the flow of the service and even does most of the readings and announcements.  This can send the unspoken message that the band leader is the one person acting as conduit for the worship experience.

One way that I've actively countered this cultural bias is to involve as many different people as possible in the presentation of the material.  I will have a different band member read each of our readings.  This is has the result of bringing other voices (youth, female, non-leaders) to the fore and showing that each member of the community has the ability (and responsibility) to make our time together one of corporate expression.

Gather Data
In my time as a band leader and service planner, I've developed some ways to gather data on a weekly basis to provide long-ranging, quantifiable data by which to grade your church's performance.

Keep Track Of Song Selection
First and foremost, document your song selection. Anecdotal or  non-quantifiable statements like "we do a good job" or "this person liked  that one song" can be helpful in short-term encouragement of volunteers, but you will be ill-served if you rely on them as a comprehensive data set.

By documenting the songs you use and categorizing them, you'll soon be able to see whether the goal of being welcoming is something that is intentionally implemented or merely remains an abstract value everyone just says that they believe in.

This also allows you to track how often songs are being repeated, how much diversity you are offering in the way of genre and style, and give quantifiable ratios that can be discussed and assist in future strategic planning.

Actively and Continually Seek Input

Secondly, solicit feedback from the groups you are hoping to provide a space for. Churched people are often very opinionated and more than willing to share their opinions on what you should and shouldn't be doing as a service planner.

To cut through this white noise, you need to actively seek the input of those may be less prone to share their opinion - those who may reside at the margins.

Seeking out input in this way is especially effective because it shows interest and appreciation to groups who may be experiencing the exact opposite from a typical church services. Don't assume that you know what these groups are looking for or how they prefer to express themselves; actually find out.

Most importantly, work to put together a time of music that genuinely reflects the culture and needs of your community and don't be afraid to stretch artistically and creatively.