Monthly Archives: July 2008

Prologue to a new theme – Hype

When he was in Houston last spring, Fred Harrell made a comment about church marketing that has stuck with me.

Advertising doesn’t work. None of that stuff really works anymore. Secular people see it as nothing more than hype.

The quote has haunted me because it intersects with where I live. I follow a lot of blogs; most of them are very much pro-advertising the church. They endorse methods like billboards and monthly mailers to the community and TV ads and carnivals and radio spots and, well, you name it. One of the things that I appreciate about most (if not all) of them is their zeal for telling people about their faith and their local congregation. I find a lot that is laudable in their planning and desire to connect people with the local church to connect them to Jesus. The only problem is, I don’t really think it works in all contexts. Though they’re becoming more similar, a college town in the midwest is different than a beachfront community in Florida. A city in the deep south is different than a suburb in the Pacific Northwest. Even here in the Houston area, The Woodlands is very different from the Heights which is itself very different from the Third Ward.

I live in the ruins of the Bible Belt. We’re not a completely secular culture here in Houston. Though there are people from every corner of the globe and every faith under the sun here, there’s also kind of a cultural echo of Christianity. To put it in clearer terms, there are a lot of people here who have been burned out of the Christian church, many of them for reasons quite unrelated to the Christian Gospel. Billboards here don’t call out to people, “Come, see Jesus, the man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah?” like the woman at the well in John 4. They scream, “We’ve got something to sell you!” whether it’s the minister or the programs or the lifestyle of contemporary (predominantly white) wealthy evangelicalism.

Maybe the best and most responsible advertising we could do would be to say something like this to our churches:
“We’ve decided to eliminate the line-item for advertising in our budget. That’s right. Not one dollar will go to billboards or commercials or anything like that. That money is for church planting; that’s where lives are changed, not by a slogan on a freeway. Now it’s your job to get to know people around you and bring them with you to church. We’re not looking for people who go to other churches; we want you to get to know people who aren’t Christians and don’t share our beliefs. We want you to bring them here. We promise that this will be a safe place for them to hear about Jesus without all of the extra junk that so often goes along with it. We’re not going to sell ourselves to anybody. We’re not going to treat human beings as mere consumers. We’re going to be respectful; we’re not going to lie and tell people that we’ve got everything figured out. We’re going to worship God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

How’s that for a marketing campaign?

Why Psalms and Hymns (and not the third category)?

I would imagine that everyone who knows the biblical reference where “Psalms and Hymns” comes from asks the same question.

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Colossians 3:16 (TNIV

“What about the third category? What about the spiritual songs?”

That’s a great question.

The short answer is that I think that there are enough spiritual songs out there and that the other two categories are neglected (especially the psalms). There are also side issues of simply wanting to write music and not spend hours fine-tuning lyrics when there are perfectly good lyrics out there.

The long answer is that I started writing when I was in college. Every week, I was learning new music. (Or, to put it more accurately, I was playing along with unknown music and figuring it out as I went along. That was a pretty harrowing experience! Thankfully, all of the music was fairly predictable.) There was such a drive for the latest expression of worship, the freshest tune, the newest lyric, that I got burnt out on it all. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t involved with some fine people who were doing a great job leading several hundred college students each week. It was just that the continual drive for what’s new forced me to stop and take a look at what’s old.

What I discovered was a treasury of incredible lyrics that my peers had all but forgotten. Here were words that were not captive to the latest pop metaphors for God but were rich and full of meaning. I found lyrics that had withstood the test of time and were rightfully called “the great hymns of the faith”. (Of course, there are some truly wretched old hymns, just like there are some fantastic spiritual songs being written today. One isn’t better than the other based upon its genre, necessarily. The content is the standard by which it should be judged.)

I found great hymns with some great tunes but also some great hymns with lesser tunes. Different musical settings of the same text can be wonderful counterparts to each other, as long as they both faithfully represent the content of the text. It’s like looking at a diamond from many different perspectives or like reading the bible in several different translations. They all add to each other. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is a fabulous hymn whether it’s sung to “Hamburg” or “Gift of Love” (but not when it’s sung to the tune of “Green Acres”). So I began trying to compose tunes that would accurately reflect the content of hymn texts with a musical vocabulary that was more common to my peers.

For centuries, Christians not only sang hymns, but they also had settings of the Psalms to sing (the Psalter). I can’t possibly write everything there is to write on the use of the Psalms right now, but I’ll leave with an observation that we have all but forgotten the Psalms in public worship and it’s to our detriment.

God has given us the gift of music and he has given us a song to sing. Psalms and hymns allow us to sing the same song as the saints of old – the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs and all who have gone before us. We sing along with the “living faith of the dead” (as Jaroslav Pelikan has written) and join in the thunderous chorus praising:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Luke 2:14 (TNIV)

Note: This was a post that I originally wrote on January 28, 2006 but haven’t posted until now. My thoughts on the subject have changed a little but I still agree with the main thrust of what I wrote. Today, I would only qualify that we be vigilant in rejecting any romanticization of the past, thinking that older lyrics (and older theology) must necessarily be better than more modern expressions. We must always be returning to the scriptures as our source for life and our vocabulary for worshiping the living God.

The Slow Death of Congregational Singing?

Michael Spencer (whom I quoted last week in my sermon) has brought to my attention an article that’s come out of the Australian Anglican church. See The Slow Death of Congregational Singing and Michael’s riff on that article, Riffs: The Briefing on “The Slow Death of Congregational Singing.”
Here’s a quote from his reflection on internetmonk.com:

[In the place of robust congregational singing,] we have a lot of songs that a lot of people don’t know, a lot of bad and unknown tunes, a lot of watching the worship team perform (especially if they are female of the right type and dress), a lot of forgettable, narcissistic lyrics, a lot of bad and inexperienced worship leaders, a lot of bone-headed thinking about congregational singing in relation to church growth, a lot of imitation of churches and methods that most congregations can’t imitate, a lot of lay people who simply don’t know how to sing at all, a lot of churches that don’t teach singing, a lot of turning congregations into audiences anyway and whatever else goes into the stew that does away with congregational singing.

It’s unfortunate that the discussion turns into old songs vs. new songs so often. Ultimately, when the songs were written, what kind of beat they have, what instrumentation one uses, etc. are secondary (and even tertiary) issues. The fundamental question that those of us who plan and lead music must wrestle with in terms of our role is “What does it mean to lead in song?” Does it mean that people are supposed to be inspired by the devotion and the passion of the person who sings at the front? Does it mean that we’re to model what the congregation should be ideally doing? Or is it different than that?

For me, leading in song involves a lot more behind the scenes work than overt, up-front action. Leading in song means that we pick keys that are the most comfortable for a congregation to sing in, no matter if they’re good keys for a lead vocalist to “shine” in or not.* (That’s why much, if not most, of the worship music coming out of places like Nashville and Atlanta has to be rekeyed before congregations can even attempt it. In CCM worship recordings, men are usually tenors and women are usually altos, while congregations are typically more oriented toward baritones and mezzo-sopranos. If you’ve been singing along with a worship leader until they reach a high note, at which point your voice cracks and you look around sheepishly to see if anyone noticed, you know what I’m talking about.) Leading in song means eliminating confusion from the musical arrangements so that the congregation feels confident of where to come in. Leading in song means picking accompaniments and arrangements that support the congregation’s singing, rather than allowing them to feel naked and left out to dry.

*Ideally, you shouldn’t need to turn up a lead vocalist’s volume so loud that anyone can hear if he or she is in their best key. And what does it say about our sales-oriented approach to worship that we would care if someone is in their best key or not?

Mark Galli on the physicality of liturgical worship

Mark Galli writes concerning the physicality of liturgical worship:

The liturgy does not point us to “the Christ spirit,” “the ground of all being,” “the Universe,” or any other amorphous, abstract spiritual entity. Instead it points us to the one who did not think Pure Spirit a thing to be grasped. He who created flesh and called it very good, put his money where his divine mouth was, and took on bodily life and lived among the embodied. To put it simply: we worship a material Savior.

Mark Galli, Beyond Smells and Bells, p. 85