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God’s Playlist

02.18.2011

Building on the previous discussions on why we go to church and the modern phenomenon of church hopping, today I want to look at two of the more visible factors in choosing a church and, in doing so, tee up a discussion for next week on more fundamental elements in church choice.  Those two visible factors are music/worship style* and expectations of dress.  Let’s address each in turn.

Music/Worship – Despite CS Lewis’ oft-repeated claim that hymns are fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music, I really like hymns.  Allow me to list just some of the reasons why I prefer them over contemporary worship (some of which I’ve lifted from this great list of requests to worship leaders):

  • I think they can be poignant and beautiful in a way that contemporary worship music cannot.† 
  • I think their antiquity makes them timeless; It is Well with My Soul is no more out of date in 2011 as it was 20 years ago, but how many churches are still singing Open the Eyes of My Heart
  • There’s something beautiful in joining with bretheren across the centuries by singing the same songs to God, visibly and audibly expressing unity in the body.  Contrast this to worship songs that have a life-span of about two years and are largely unrecognized by my friends from California, who are singing songs that are trendy there and that I’ve never heard of.
  • As my wife pointed out to me years ago, hymns tend to be more God-focused, whereas contemporary worship tends to be more me-focused. 
  • I think the emotional display of contemporary worship more readily lends itself to distracting pop/rock concert atmospherics.  The curmudgeons at my church call it ‘smoke and lasers for Jesus.’
  • Many (if not most) contemporary worship songs are composed in higher keys and with more daunting musical attributes, further relegating the congregation to audience status.

Despite all that, I must confess: when I moved from the non-denominational churches in college to the Baptist church here in Washington, it wasn’t long before I was looking around again for churches with contemporary worship!  I felt emotionally disconnected from the songs I was singing on Sunday morning, and I longed to sing the songs where I could squint my eyes and sway my head (Stevie Wonder-style) and reach out to God in worship. 

Let’s look at clothes and come back to this disturbing hypocrisy in a minute.

Sunday Best – People in poor countries and throughout history have kept their finest clothes in the best condition possible to break them out for attending church services.  If communing with God is something special, why would we do it in the same clothes we wear to Arby’s or to play Goldeneye at our buddy’s house on Friday night?  No one suggests that God cares what we wear, but there’s something to be said for the change in our attitude and reverence when we physically recognize the unspeakable privilege we have to approach the throne of grace.

Again, I lack the courage behind my convictions here.  When I moved to Washington, I clung to what I called my ‘California casual’ identity, and I specifically looked for a church with casual dress.  I felt that wearing something other than my jeans and flip-flops would violate the ‘come as you are’ call to worship and somehow invalidate my sincerity.  That and I just wanted to be comfortable!  About six months ago, I felt convicted on this point and vowed never to wear jeans, shorts, or a t-shirt to church (but I maintained my right to flip-flops!), and I asked my wife to hold me accountable to that.  It wasn’t two months before I was rationalizing my way back into jeans, where I remain today.

What gives?  Why can I not seem to follow up my convictions with regard to these stylistic preferences?  I think that this largely has to do, again, with cultural changes.  As our culture becomes more experiential‡ and consumerist, we define and measure our lives by the ‘get,’ the emotions and takeaways from an experience.  How did it make us feel?  Was it a worthwhile experience, or was it just going through the motions?  We lack an ability to value activities and relationships for what they are or to acknowledge that there may be unperceived value. 

Is this bad?  Absolutely, but I don’t think it’s the kind of bad for which we can hold individuals accountable.  People are going to be shaped, in the way they think and the things they prioritize, by the culture around them.  People don’t find organ music and fancy church clothes stuffy and dead because of some deficiency in their maturity or belief, but because those things are as culturally inaccessible to them as if they were observing a city council meeting held in a foreign language. 

So what to do?  These things, as opposed to our focus for next week, are essentially stylistic, and there’s much to be said for deferring to preference.  These fights over music or attire (‘old fogeys, dead in faith and in uncomfortable clothes, droning together from musty books’ versus ‘shallow apostates attending rock shows and self-help lectures in their shorts and sandals and calling it church’) can get really bitter, but Douglas Wilson points out that this is deceptive:  Churches know they ought not fight over what’s petty.  So they invest all of their fights, however petty, with theological importance to justify the fight.  Regardless of how one feels about the cultural trends at large, and/or the church’s efforts to be relevant to that culture, the fact remains that these issues, while springing from deeper issues, are themselves not worth fighting about, judging over, or taking the risk of driving people away.

I’d also throw in this article from Michael Patton.  I think it serves as a good perspective with which to cap this post and as a good launching pad for next week’s examination of liturgy.

————

* I’ll acknowledge, without wading into, the argument that equating worship with music is shallow and reductionist.  I’ll do my best not to perpetuate that conflation, but I also want to retain clarity.

† Don’t get me wrong, there are some awful hymns, ranging from the abominable crimes against art (Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!  There’s Just Something About That Name!) to the downright bizarre (God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens).  Click thru to those lyrics, I beseech you.

‡ More on this next week.

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