Have you ever heard somebody talk about "worship wars"? I really dislike that phrase. Usually it has to do with "traditional" vs. "contemporary" or "blended" vs. "traditional" or "blended" vs. "contemporary."
Music Ministers all have stories to tell about experiences with searching congregations. I have stories of my own. But all of those stories belong to our communities and are deeply personal, so it's often difficult to share them without evoking strong emotion - passion . . . even anger!
You have stories, don't you? Anybody who has attended any church for any length of time has stories like this. It's ok that we have stories. And feelings. But it's important for us to share them in a way that is not alienating to others. That's hard for us because we, as human beings, tend to be competitive. We don't enjoy disagreement (well, most of us don't). It's uncomfortable and we like to win for "our side" so that "our way" can prevail and remain stable for us - consistency above the health of a community . . .
Modern people are not so modern. These sorts of arguments have come up again and again.
This is the primitive baptist church in Cades Cove, TN. I have a painting of it, made by my grandmother (Mary Turner Smyrl), hanging in my home. The finger prints of the church builders can be seen in the centuries old ceiling, once cut and built while the wood was still green. People still periodically gather in this building to sing Sacred Harp music, lined out by a song leader. Sacred Harp singing came about largely because people were arguing about how to sing in church and it had become such a contentious mess that "singing schools" were instituted in small churches all across the United States. Folks learned to sing - all the same - so that they could get through their Sunday hymns without stepping all over each other. Interesting testimony, right? Even if you don't particularly like the Sacred Harp singing style, you have to admit - the Sacred Harp movement had a meaningful impetus. It was a way of preserving unity through music during worship.
I think we've gotten confused in our pursuit of unity, though. I believe we've told ourselves a half truth - that unity can only happen when we all look, act, think, and sound the same. Unity can only come from "sameness." Why would God have created such incredible, incomprehensible diversity, though? God - the three in one! God - the paradox of a triune communion. Why?
I really enjoyed reading this blog as I was researching the idea of the "emerging church" and "postmodern worship." It's a reflection on the exploration of a few Unitarian Universalist pilgrims searching for truth in this movement (which is no longer a new movement, if it ever was really new . . . as a movement). Here's a bit of what I found meaningful:
That's right, folks. You can boil the whole postmodern/emergent church issue down to one very important guidepost: intention.
Church music has been one of my "jobs" for much of my adult life. I have treated it with professionalism and have leaned heavily on work experience and education, just like I have with my career in public school teaching - which is to say: I am a planner, I try to finish my work in a timely manner, and I revisit materials and mentors that have instructed me in the past for guidance. I also try to keep up with what the profession of church music and music education seems to be doing around me, and have made a study of the traditions and trends of the past. This is what all professionals try to do. It's a pattern - a formula.
But as a music teacher I live for something that teachers of all stripes like to call "the teachable moment." A "teachable moment" is something that will probably derail a nice, neat lesson plan. Teachers and music ministers both keep lesson plans. A worship order is like a lesson plan. It's meant to help instruct people, and it is often built on a tradition of similar plans (formula, formula, formula!). When a teachable moment pops up at school, I try to have the courage to ignore my plan long enough to follow the rabbit trail. For example: I might be teaching about a particular rhythmic element - 16th notes, maybe - and a kid notices an important historical connection to one of our songs that day. Am I going to say, "That's right, little Johnny, but we're talking about 16th notes right now and so we need to ignore that." No! What kind of teacher would that make me??? If a kid makes a meaningful and unexpected connection or notices a detail I didn't notice, I should be thankful for their creativity and jump on board!
Should those planning corporate worship prize the formula above all else?
Prize the musical style of choice above all else?
Prize the placement of the Lord's Prayer within the service above all else?
Prize the clock and the schedule above all else?
In short - should we worship the order of worship itself? Should we make it our idol?
This is one of the first songs I ever recorded in my living room. It's not a great recording and I was still really searching for my voice as a songwriter - I guess I'm still searching even now! But I never have had the heart to get rid of this recording. I love the idea of the song too much. And I sort of love that it's not perfect. Because churches are not perfect. And I am not perfect. And you are not perfect.
"Where is the body? Is it buried in our buildings? Or in our names?"
Where is the body of God? We know it's not buried because it was raised from the dead. We know it's not dead because it has walked among us. We know it's not physical anymore because of the Holy Spirit. So . . . is the Holy Spirit informing our practice as music ministers and planners of corporate worship?
I still plan. I do a lot of research, reading, and planning to come up with songs each week. I try hard to lean on professionalism when I'm interacting with congregants. But I also want to be a good teacher. And I want to have the courage to put the plan on the back burner so that teachable moments can be honored. I think the Holy Spirit probably has something to do with teachable moments.
When we bow down to a formula we shouldn't be surprised by the stagnation of our worshiping communities.
Lesson plans are there to help us begin thinking like teachers. Liturgies are there so that congregants can begin to communicate with God. They are a starting place, not an ending place. They are a tool . . . not a purpose.
We do our best teaching when we have the courage to embrace flexibility.
This lack of labeling "traditional" and "contemporary" and "blended" . . . this ability to "just have church" - I am interested in pursuing it all further. I am curious about how the body of the Church universal can have the courage to embrace teachable moments through corporate worship.
Until next time . . . stay curious!