Friday, July 18, 2014

contemporary worship, tradition and so forth

During my second turn at Music & Arts Week at Camp Sumatanga, in 2008, the clinician, Dr. Randall Hooper, introduced to me the concept of "aleatoric" music. In the most layman of terms -- I'm not particularly good at music -- it means "singing or playing without paying a great deal of attention to anybody else around you."
As part of this, he had his choir sing a 1,000-year-old Gregorian chant — "Victimae Paschali Laudes" — in aleatoric fashion. It sounded like ... well, you be the judge.

(Go ahead and listen. I'll wait.)

If you listened all the way to the end of the track, you likely heard Hooper at the end say that the beauty of music is that we can experience it in our present state, much the same as the people who experienced it 1,000 years ago.
(Note: Listen to it again and gauge the audience's response. They don't even know when to applaud. It's kind of hilarious.)

Obviously, I was raised and remain a United Methodist, and one of the most fundamental characteristics of the United Methodist Church — as it relates to worship, anyway — is its emphasis on tradition. The Apostle's Creed is more or less the same, as is the Lord's Prayer, the "Gloria Patri" and so forth. Periodically someone monkeys around and sings a different version of the Doxology, or uses an affirmation from the United Church of Canada ... and eventually that stops and everything returns to routine.
Like everything else, however, there is a growing emphasis on "contemporary" worship. Such services take many different forms, but they all typically share the common thread of guitars, a laissez-faire approach to church norms — "The pastor is wearing jeans! The guy leading music is drinking coffee in the sanctuary!" — and music that is loosely defined as "praise and worship."*
* Someone much more clever than I once referred to "praise and worship" music as "7-11 music," i.e., 7 words repeated 11 times. I wish I knew who made that up. Maybe we'll pretend I did just now.

Now ... here's where the water becomes murky. Lots of churches have separated "traditional" and "contemporary" worship completely. At our church, only the diehards participate in "traditional" worship, which starts at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday. The main service is the "contemporary," at 11.
Every church has its own approach. At the church where I grew up, the "contemporary" begins at 10 a.m. — during the Sunday School period between two "traditional" services — and the senior pastor delivers the sermon in all three. At my wife's home church — the church where we were married — the "contemporary" service takes place simultaneous to the late "traditional" one; the church gets around the ministerial issue by simply employing another minister, whose primary job is preaching at the "contemporary" service.
The end result in most places, I have observed is something of a schism — those who worship in the "traditional" fashion, and those who attend the "contemporary" service. It is possible for people to worship at the same church and never actually meet.

As you might have already guessed, I'm of two minds when it comes to all this. I love the UMC and its worship traditions; I love the fact that — stealing a thought from Hooper — I can participate in worship in much the same fashion as people who came 100 years before me. I love the idea that I can sit down with a hymnal at a "5th Sunday" singing, and sing the same hymns that my great-grandfather used to help lead.
But "contemporary" music holds a special place for me, as well. That music grabbed hold of me in high school, when my youth minister, Rick Lane — one of the reasons I am who I am today and I wrote a column about him about a year ago that I can't link because I can't find the thing — introduced me to the music of Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill. That begat a lifelong love of "contemporary" music that, while it was never disrespectful to traditional church music, influenced an entire generation of musicians today (some of whom are, frankly, making and selling garbage, but then again, a lot of music is garbage in general).
In my mind, "traditional" music evokes memories of Sunday mornings; "contemporary" music evokes memories of Sunday nights. Both are equally meaningful to me*.
* While we're on the subject, we might mention that the current version of the United Methodist Hymnal isn't exactly beyond reproach. At least as many of the tunes in the hymnal — "Morning Has Broken," that weird song about lake shores and a handful of other songs I can't remember at the moment — belong there about as much as "Born to Run" belongs at the New York Philharmonic.

In December of last year, my wife and I were at Bluff Park United Methodist Church for Derek Webb's show there as part of his "I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You" tour (the album of the same name is, of course, remarkable). Because I'm a big fan of Webb's — and because my wife enjoyed all his stuff with Caedmon's Call and often humors me in these matters — we paid a few extra bucks for our ticket, that earned a special "green room" audience with the performer (it was actually just the church parlor, but whatever).
Webb was, as one would expect, as thoughtful and intuitive as the songs he produces. I probably could've stayed there for hours, but I almost certainly would've been escorted out.
In any case, at some point the discussion turned to worship, because of course it did. Unsurprisingly, Webb himself made a point that I hadn't considered until that moment: That every time your favorite hymn or praise song plays, there's the distinct possibility that the person sitting next to you hates that song, and is only going through the motions for the purpose of being worshipful. The inverse is equally true; people next to you may love a song you abjectly loathe, and will expect no less than the courtesy they have already afforded.
"The only thing people who attend worship have in common," he said, "is their brokenness and their need of a Savior."

When I describe the meaningfulness of hymns — or the meaningfulness of "contemporary" music — what I am really describing is what each of them means to me. I have recreated what worship should be — my adoration for the love and grace of a forgiving God — and decided it must be exactly as I say it should be. I've become the thing I always said I would not: The person who quits church because we don't sing songs the way I want them sung. Even as I consider what a worship service that blends together the two elements — the word "blended" scares the bejeezus out of churchgoers, for the record — I become aware that I am making a service that has meaning for myself, and (most likely) myself alone.

What's the solution? I have no idea. Instead, the only way I know to wrap this up — and since I'm sure nobody else is reading at this point, I might as well — is with my favorite worship story of all time.
It happened when I was a graduated high school senior, traveling as part of the One Accord youth choir from FUMC Opelika. We were staying at a church in San Francisco — at one point we locked out one of our college counselors on the way to a YMCA for a shower, but that's another story for another time — that had a large Korean population as part of its congregation.
One morning while we were there, I woke up early and stumbled through the halls of the church — we were sleeping in a Sunday School room, on the floor — in search of a restroom. As it happened, there was a sunrise service that morning, and the restroom I found was in close proximity to the sanctuary.
I had missed the service, it turned out, but I heard a solitary voice coming from the sanctuary. As quietly as an 18-year-old boy can, I snuck to the doors of the sanctuary and peered through the window.
Near the altar, seated on the floor of the sanctuary, was one woman. She was sitting cross-legged, with her face bowed towards the floor, singing in what I assume was Korean. For just a moment I listened, and recognized the tune: "What A Friend We Have In Jesus."
I don't know how long I listened to her — it couldn't have been more than a few seconds — before I slunk back to my chambers (it's not polite to eavesdrop on someone's personal quiet time, after all). That image, though, is burned into my mind, maybe the purest, most honest expression of worship I ever saw.
I wish I could design a worship service like that. Maybe someone smarter than me can.