Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Distinct Musical Forms in Worship

The topic of church music has surfaced frequently in my thoughts and in conversations during the past several weeks. One of the more interesting discussions concerned whether there should be special, distinct forms for liturgical music. The original idea was gleaned from Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (P&R, 2006) by Paul S. Jones, director of music for Tenth Presbyterian Church. Several responses suggest themselves to this approach.

First, this idea runs contrary to the spirit and principles of the Reformation. One of the great results of the Reformation was the removal of the barrier between the sacred and profane by seeing all of life as consecrated to God. No longer was a dichotomy between the work of the clergy and laity acceptable. Since the life of the common Christian was seen as significant, the Reformers took great strides to make the service of worship accessible for them by translating the Scriptures and a simplified liturgy into the common tongue and by writing music able to be sung by all in the assembly. The Dutch Reformed theologians, such as Abraham Kuyper, set forth the cultural mandate, that all of life and all of culture falls under the Lordship of Christ. Christian principles were applied with great (even if temporary) profit to education, government and the arts. Applying Kuyper’s famous dictum to musical styles, it can be said that no musical style, classical, rap, grunge, R&B or scremo is free from Christ’s ownership and dominion. Thus, since all musical styles are Christ’s, and can be used for his glory; there is no a priori reason to deny the possibility of any music style being utilized in worship. The limiting factor is not the musical expression, but the nature of corporate worship and the particular circumstances of the congregation. To automatically disallow any musical genre, or to elevate and separate one as being the only proper form by which to approach God in worship reestablishes the dichotomized view of life the Reformation set aside.

Second, even if idea were acceptable, it is impossible to actually realize. It is not feasible, or even possible, to create a musical form totally abstracted from any wider cultural movements to use as the “worship style.” The only form that approximates this is gospel, yet there does not seem to be a movement in conservative Reformed churches to instate gospel as the official liturgical musical style. What really seems to be the motive behind such an attempt is to officially mandate a traditional, high-culture liturgy. Examine the bulletins posted online where Dr. Jones ministers; it is hard to miss the cultural orientation of the service at Tenth. Yet, the church must never canonize a particular style of music, whether it be modern or traditional. It must be open to allow, as has occurred throughout the history of the church, Christians of all ages from all walks of life to express their faith through music- and to allow the appropriate, Biblically-sound and corporately sensitive expressions to become the voice of the community in worship. It is wrong for the modern church to be so enamored with itself to forget the rich history of worship that nourished the church through centuries; but it is equally as wrong for an elite traditionalism to disenfranchise contemporary contributions to church music.

Third, the absurdity of the principle is shown by application to other aspects of the service. Taking just a single example, consider prayer. It is possible to establish certain formal and linguistic peculiarities that are reserved only for prayer. Thus, the use of archaic personal pronouns such as “thee” and “thou;” and other language reminiscent of the King James Version would become mandatory to be used exclusively in prayer. Further, effort could be made to compose a Reformed version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to make the special, distinct forms and language of prayer universal across all Reformed congregations, thus eliminating the undesirable qualities of spontaneity and accommodation to a particular situation. The absurdity of such an idea should be apparent; why is the idea any better when applied to music in worship?

Finally, the principle does not correspond to the manner in which God has chosen to communicate to his people. New Testament Greek is not a special, unique language God created in order to reveal himself, but was the common, vulgar tongue at the time of the New Testament’s composition. Further, Greek was not at the apex of its literary elegance, but was the common, democratic hybrid spread across the Mediterranean world. The literature of the New Testament is not marked, even in this stage of the Greek language, as being particularly distinct or elegant. Rather, the language is similar to other, common writings, and the quality of the New Testament is, for the most part, rather rude and simple. If God was content to accommodate himself to the common language of the general populace, why should the church seek differently in expressing ourselves to God with music?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Random Thought on Church Inspired by NYC

When I was in New York City, I had the privilege of being removed, albeit temporarily, from things I have grown accustomed to normally. By being removed and able to experience differences, I am better able to evaluate more clearly areas where I have become accustomed and desensitized. Aside from the major challenge offered to my regular diet (which was a good thing), attending two different churches has allowed my to reflect on my own church and some of the differences.

On the positive side, I really appreciate the general depth of the preaching at Covenant. This is made possible not only by a great pastor, but also by a generally Biblically literate and dedicated congregation. This is not to say that the sermons are exegetical lectures or theological treatises, but that the general content and tone of the sermons are more substantial than most evangelical churches. My pastor is able to balance in a way I have rarely encountered in person or in reading solid exegesis with a relevant and sensitive application based on the text to the congregation. This is by far what I most appreciate about my church and what I will desperately miss when I move on.

Another aspect that has surprised me in how it has stuck in my mind is age distribution in church. Covenant is a mixed congregation age-wise, there are a lot of ages represented, but not a lot of any particular age group. The churches I attended in NYC tended to be on the young side, with most of the congregation at Emmanuel and Redeemer being roughly my age or a little older. I knew this from the last time I visited the city, but now it is striking me how much I miss having others closer to my age who show a mature dedication to their faith and to the church. I am not saying that there are no young adults exhibiting this in Rochester, but it is rare and it is something I really realized that I long for here. Seeing older friends with this commitment and perspective is great, but it is not the same as seeing it among others of your own age group and general life situation.

One final observation concerns music. Emmanuel’s worship tended towards the modern, but with a fair representation of some solid hymns- many with updated tunes. I noticed that these modern adaptations of the hymns came from Redeemer. Two thoughts have been running in my mind the past couple weeks concerning music. The first is how much I like the content of hymns, but am not as much a fan of many of their tunes and their traditional accompaniment. Hearing solid words with a more easy to follow melody and more pleasant instrumentation is something I really liked about the churches in New York. I try to say style is irrelevant, but I am realizing that it is a bigger factor than I want to admit. Now, the musical portion of worship is something I generally bear, but in New York it was actually something I benefited from. Secondly, I am reflecting on the placement of the “modern” songs which my church does utilize. They are all grouped at the beginning of the service, at times before the invocation. The general impression is that these “Songs of Ascent” are lightweight fluff to be gotten out of the way before the real worship begins. It is interesting to note that the older songs that the church uses fit into this category, while the newer songs generally have good content and some depth. It would be nice if Covenant would integrate the modern music into the core of the service so as to unambiguously acknowledge the validity of contemporary expressions of musical worship to God.