TagJames K. A. Smith

Why Sunday Music Must Be As Unlike Pop Music As We Can Make It

If the amount of time given to the singing of praise and worship songs,

and the central position of the praise band on “the stage” is any indication,

many North American churches are implicitly asserting that singing of praise songs as the main way we interact with God in our Sunday services.

This means we’d better get it right.

We have all heard people, including some worship leaders, speak as if the term worship was synonymous with singing.  Even the title “worship leader” suggests the reduction of worship to singing.  Worship leader is an appropriate title if said worship leader also leads the congregants in the many other aspects of worship.  For instance:

  • prayer
  • scripture reading
  • the offering
  • the reading of the law
  • confession and assurance of forgiveness
  • the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed
  • funeral announcements
  • pleas for volunteers for the Sunday School
  • and anything else besides singing that also constitutes worship

If the worship leader only leads signing, then they should be referred to as song leaders.

But isn’t this just semantics?  Although it may seem like I am being petty, this is some serious stuff.

Little things like

  • using the terms singing and worship interchangeably,
  • and calling song leaders, worship leaders,
  • and removing all sign of the sacraments from the stage,
  • and calling that area “the stage”
  • and calling that area “the auditorium,”

are hugely important because we do them habitually.  The things we do habitually, change us–they shape what we do and the way we think and who we are.  If we habitually use the term “stage,” for instance, we will come to understand what happens on it to be a performance.

According to James K. A. Smith, human beings are liturgical animals.  He argues that our lives are not given direction by what we think, or even what we believe, but by what we love.  According to Smith, “what constitutes our ultimate identities—what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are—is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love, or what our love as ultimate—what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding and orientation” (26–27 Desiring the Kingdom).   Smith then argues that our loves are shaped and directed by “liturgies”–habitual practices.  Traditionally the church used to orient our identities toward God and the community of faith through all sorts of liturgies: the physical spaces of worship, the sacraments, the church calendar, genuflecting, kneeling, standing, offering  “Peace.”  Fish on Friday, the rosary, daily prayers, and many other regular and repeated practices linked the spiritual realm with daily life.  In modern Christianity, we’ve abandoned almost all of these habits and rituals–liturgies.  But, we’ve not abandoned liturgies . for being liturgical animals, we’ve simply adopted new ones.  We’ve replaced the old ones with new ones.  And the new ones are largely modern and secular: Starbucks and McDonalds, Saturday hockey and Sunday football, Homecoming and Holloween, Twitter and Snapchat, You Tube and Netflix, craft beer and green-coloured smoothies, inclusion and saying “I feel,” when we mean “I think.”   These are not just things we do, they shape who we are because they are regular, habitual–they are liturgies.

We have replaced sacred liturgies with secular liturgies.  This ain’t good if you believe that a spiritual reality is meaningfully interacting with the material one.

Why do people have such a hard time with faith in our culture?  Because our rituals direct our passions and desires to other things–other ultimate loves.  There is some (a lot of?) anxiety in the North American Church about people, especially young people, vacating the pews.   To retain their members, and attract new ones, many churches have attempted to become more culturally “relevant,” but this has exacerbated the problem.  Being culturally relevant usually means importing secular liturgies into the church.  The Starbucks’ Coffee culture, showing movies on Youth Nights, dress-up parties on Reformation Day and the singing to the instrumentation and stylings of popular music are examples. The problem is that secular culture does these liturgies better than the church does, so the church is actually training people to eventually prefer Starbucks and pop concerts to Church.

According to the Westminster Confession, one of the functions of the sacraments is as a “visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world.”  The authors of the Confession understood the importance of having a different experience at church than in the world.

Our rituals used to be different than those of the world, but in some churches, even our sacraments are being secularized.  For the health, and perhaps survival, of the North American church, we need to be different, not the same.

Here are some questions that might be a part of a discussion around how to make the singing part of worship, unlike the secular liturgy of the popular music concert:

  • How can we increase the involvement of the congregation in the singing part of worship?
  • Is there a way to teach the worshipers how to harmonize?
  • Should we sing more hymns?
  • Should we sing different hymns (than just the 5 we do now)?
  • Should we sing hymns in their original forms, same harmonies and no modern (and inferior) additions?
  • Are volumes and mixes supporting congregational singing, or drowning it out?
  • Can we use different instrumentation than a typical rock and roll band?
  • Can we develop different song structures besides the verse-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-chorus pattern?
  • Could we create a new genre of Christian music for corporate worship?
  • Is it necessary for the worship band to be front and centre?
  • How can we utilize lighting to take the focus off of the musicians?
  • Can we resurrect some traditional liturgical forms or elements of worship?
  • Can we invent new liturgical forms that are different than secular liturgies?
  • How can we emphasize God’s action in worship and the sacraments?
  • Can we move toward thinking about the sacraments as more than ceremonies of remembrance?
  • Can we mention, or even link our sermons to, the church calendar?

This list includes just some of the ways that we could bring more sacred liturgies into the Sunday service.  Do you have any ideas you could add to this list?

 

 

The Focus of Worship

Chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford

Traditionally, Christian worship has been arranged around two things, the Word and the sacraments.  These were the means by which human worshipers interacted with the transcendent God.  In churches with the more contemporary feel, a new means of encountering God has been given center stage.

In the Roman Catholic worship service, the sacraments are emphasized–particularly the Eucharist.  The primacy of the Eucharist is obvious; the altar from which Holy Communion is served is front and center.

After the Reformation, the new forms of Christian worship still emphasized Word and sacraments, but their importance was inverted.  The sacraments, reduced to two, were moved to the side.  The pulpit upon which sits a huge Bible takes center stage.

From Sacrament and Word to Band

More recently, North American Christianity has apparently undergone another reformation; this one much quieter than the first, but it is not insignificant.  The modern church has cleared the stage of the Word and Sacrament and replaced them with the worship band.  Some might argue that the Word and the sacraments are still central, it’s just that the physical representations of these things needed to be moved to make room for musicians and instruments; it’s not a shift in meaning, but merely a physical shift made from practical considerations.

My core assumption here, and why I think all of this matters so much, is that the physical environment and liturgies of worship have profound effects on the worshipers. and how they think about the God who we worship.

When the Word is the focus of worship we find a very active God.  In the scriptures, God interacts with his creation and with his people.  He speaks, breaths, commands, warns, condemns, promises and whispers.  He causes water to come from rocks and turns it into blood.  He makes walls fall and curtains tear.  Jesus is the Word made flesh; he healed, walked (even on water), taught, ate, fed, died, rose and ascended.  The Holy Spirit is also active as we read scripture.  He guides, comforts, indwells, guards, intercedes, baptizes, restrains and combats. God is active in the sacraments as well.  In baptism, he makes promises and in doing so he creates a people.  In Communion, Jesus extends the elements to us and says “take and eat,” “take and drink.”  When the Word and sacraments are central, and properly understood, we cannot help but understand our God to be active in worship, and in our lives.

Human beings are shaped by worship, especially through the things that we repeat every Sunday.  With the weekly repetition of the Eucharist, Catholic worshipers come to the profound understanding of the unifying presence of Christ in his body the church and the Grace we receive by his death.  With the Protestant emphasis on preaching, the weekly reading and exposition of scripture help the faithful to understand the centrality of the Word in our life.

When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.  Or at least there is a danger that something very important could change.

Properly understood, the Word and the sacraments point to Christ and they present our interaction with an active God. When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.
Who is active in the singing part of the service?  It seems to me the human beings are the primary actors, and this is a problem.  We can be receiving a weekly reminder that God is passive. One might argue that, just as in the sacraments, both God and humanity take part.  But this isn’t so obvious in practice.  Singing is something we do–we are active, but we think of God as listening–possibly smiling during the choruses or seriously nodding if the song has a confessional element.  When worship is primarily singing, God is relatively passive.

Things get worse when the band steps out of the worship leading role into a performance role making both God and congregants passive.  Now the musicians and singers are the only ones doing anything in worship.  Almost every worship leader that I know would recoil at this suggestion because they are forever on their guard for this shift, but just because they don’t intend it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t or it cannot happen in the minds of the congregants.  It really is a no win situation; if the worship leaders are not a little animated then it seems like they are not engaged and worship lacks energy, but if they move around a little bit, they are accused of drawing attention to themselves.  Perhaps this conundrum is a symptom of the deeper issue.  That the worship band shouldn’t be front and centre in the first place.

The problem is that from the central position, the Praise and Worship band is almost identical to secular performance bands.  It’s a minuscule shift, then, for the congregation to move into the role of the audience.  This shift isn’t unavoidable, but it requires some deliberate effort from the individual worshiper to experience the Sunday worship music in a different way than they would a concert.  And churchgoers aren’t usually doing this work.

I am certainly not saying that singing praise and worship songs in church is a bad thing, we may have gained much with this shift in focus, but perhaps we’ve lost something too.

I’m not sure where to go from here, but I have some discussion questions that might help us address these issues.

  • How can we do communion and baptism in ways that help us to see God’s activity in them?  If we’re calling them ordinances instead of sacraments, should we rethink that?
  • Can we put the table, the font and the pulpit someplace on the stage, with the praise and worship band?
  • And can we preach from something other than a music stand?
  • How can we do worship music in such a way that it’s as unlike a rock concert or dance club as we can make it? Can mix our volumes in such a way that the voices of the worshipers are heard?  Can we reduce the lighting on the musicians?  And can we turn down the bloody bass!?

This last point will be the subject on my next post:

 

 

 

Turning Routines into Rituals

RitualsBoth routines and rituals involve a regular repetition of some action.

But they are very different.

Routines will flatten our lives, but rituals can thicken them.

Routines are like ordinary time and rituals are linked with “higher times.”

With a routine there is a clear, linear connection between the act and the purpose of the act. The routine of brushing your teeth is performed so that you have clean, healthy teeth. You routinely make a breakfast of oatmeal with flax and blueberries to prevent cancer or heart disease, I can’t remember which, maybe both. You grab a coffee on the way to work so that you can hit the ground running when you arrive. There is no more meaning in a routine than the desired outcome.

A ritual, on the other hand, does not have this clear relationship between the act and purpose. The purpose of a handshake, or fist bump or whatever it is the kids are doing these days, has nothing to do with the touching of hands. At a graduation, we don’t throw the hats in the air because we want them to be up there. In Holy Communion, we don’t eat the bread and drink the wine because we are hungry and thirsty.

The meaning and purpose of a ritual transcends the action itself.

In some Christian circles it is a given that we must avoid “mindless rituals.”  Notice that the basis of this censure is that it is non-rational. This preferment of the mind over all other aspects of the human being still dominates the Western church.  The thing about rituals is that they are fundamentally not about the mind–they are not supposed to be.  Does shaking hands when we greet someone make any rational sense?  Rituals train us in ways much deeper than the mind, deeper than the emotions even. They train and transform the deepest part of ourselves, precisely because we do them over and over again. And it’s not with our minds that we repeat rituals, but with our bodies.

James K. A. Smith says, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, that rituals aren’t just things we do, they are things that do something to us.  He says we’ve got it all wrong when we think that humans are primarily rational beings.  Yes, Descartes was wrong with his conclusion, “I think therefore I am.”  Rather, Smith says we are desiring beings–“I love therefore I am.”  Rituals get at the core of who we are, through out bodies.  If you say a rote prayer before the every evening meal, with folded hands and closed eyes, you are physically acknowledging a presence that deserves your reverence, a providential being to whom you ought to be grateful.  This simple ritual shapes identity, and it “thickens” experience in the world as it connects a person and his food to a transcendent provider–this “mindless” ritual is an incarnational event.  If this simple prayer is such a significant event, think about Communion.

We engage in functional, but empty routines all day long.  I wonder if we can’t elevate some of these to the level of ritual.  I’ve ritualized the routine of hitting snooze on my alarm clock.  Every morning when I wake up, well almost every morning, I say, “Good morning, Lord.”  This ritual reminds me that the day does not begin when I wake up; during the seven hours that I’ve been sleeping, God has been busy.  I am joining God’s day, “already in progress.”   It is a quotidian reminder and that the all-powerful king of the universe loves me because he’s there every morning to hear me say, “Good, morning Lord.”

I think I just leave the brushing of my teeth as a routine, but there are some interesting possibilities for ritualizing my morning coffee.

 

Commercial Calendar is Changing Our Identity

CalendarIt’s the first Sunday of Advent and I hope we are going to light the candles again this year. There is something cool about doing something that has its origins in the Middle Ages. I recently re-read Desiring the Kingdom by Calvin philosophy professor, James K. A. Smith. In it he says that rituals are very important because they shape who we are. For some reason repetition affects us very deeply–on the level of our identity.

Advent is the beginning of the church calendar. It is a time of expectation. It commemorates the hope that God’s people had for the Messiah, but it also reminds us that we, too, are waiting for Jesus. The Advent season reminds us that we are people of expectant waiting–that this world is not all that there is and it’s not as good as it gets. There’s more, much more, in store for us.

Christmas Day, when we celebrate the Incarnation, is our next stop on the church calendar.   It is an incredible thing that the material world was visited by the transcendent God. God has bridged the huge chasm that separates us from himself.

Lent is a time for reflection, repentance, and prayer as a way of preparing our hearts for Easter. This is often accomplished by “giving something up.” The idea here is that some form of deprivation helps us to attend more deeply to the sin in our lives and our need for salvation. A keen awareness of these can make participation in a Good Friday and Easter Sunday services very profound.

These are just the highlights. The traditional church calendar celebrates the Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Assumption, and more. The annual remembrance of these events is a ritual in itself, and these have shaped the people of God for centuries.

How might the rituals surrounding these important events in the church calendar have any formative influence on our identities? According to Smith, rituals aren’t just something we do, they do something to us. When we celebrated these annual events, we understand ourselves as sinners in need of salvation; we know ourselves to wait expectantly for something better, and that this something better is the person of Jesus Christ; and we know that we are beloved. Our “knowledge” of these things is not on a cognitive level, says Smith. It is a knowledge that resides in our bones.

Many Christians don’t really follow the liturgical calendar and are therefore not being shaped by it, but this does not mean they are not being shaped by rituals. There is another calendar that dominates our culture and it, too, is filled with repeated activities–it is the commercial calendar.

The commercial calendar does not begin with waiting, but receiving, immediately. (Well, almost immediately; you usually have to wait till the 25th to get your stuff.) Christmas is the most important shopping season of the commercial calendar. Where the center of the church calendar is God made flesh, the high priest of the commercial Christmas is Santa Claus who models a generosity that, for those of us without a workshop of elves, must be preceded by purchases. Not only do we buy gifts, we buy wrapping paper and bows, ornaments to dress our trees and homes, and enough meat to feed a non-Western family for a year. Out national economy is dependent on these weeks (months) of spending. And the day after we celebrate all our purchases, we go out (in Canada at least) to take advantage of the Boxing Day sales and buy more things.

The next significant event on the commercial calendar is Valentine’s Day. We celebrate romantic love through the purchase of a card, roses, chocolates, and dinner with Champaign.  At Easter, too, we have a list of ritual purchases–if not Easter dresses, then certainly chocolate bunnies and eggs, and, my personal favourites, Peeps. The stores have sales to encourage our consumption on or around each of our national holidays. And in August we engage in the annual ritual of Back-to-School shopping–not just for paper and pencils, but for a new wardrobe as well.  As soon as school starts the Thanksgiving and Halloween related products and sales are advertised, and then we arrive at American Thanksgiving.  This is the holiday where Americans give thanks by fighting over “door crasher” televisions.  This holiday is important to Canadians as well because merchants north of the border must offer Black Thursday Sales to compete with the American rock bottom prices that kick off the commercial Christmas season.

Rituals shape who we are. Which are the more powerful rituals in our culture? The consumer calendar is adding new rituals all the time–Presidents Day Clearance Sale!? The church calendar is down to about two events, and even then most Christians we are engaged in commercial rituals at the same time.

What is a human being? A beloved creature, helpless in sin, but saved by a loving heavenly father? Or a consumer that finds comfort an meaning in consumption? Even if we think (or even believe) it is the former, before long we will know deep in our bones that we are, in fact, the latter. This is the power of ritual.

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