Having been around churches for more years than I care to admit, I’ve seen my share of changes. Some of these changes are related to songs used in worship services.
The first church songs I remember were “testimony songs.” These songs often created an atmosphere that encouraged the saints to shout in the aisles. (You haven’t seen real joy until you’ve seen a 4’8” Baptist born and bred grandmother walk back and forth in front of the casket at your grandfather’s funeral while waving a little white hanky and shouting during the song, “Farther Along.”)
Morning worship during my childhood included songs such as, “Victory in Jesus,” “He Lives,” “He Abides,” “At The Cross,” and “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” These songs gave testimony to God’s love and grace. As a child, I knew all of these songs by heart (whether or not I understood their meanings). All was well.
During my teen years, at about the same time my church began to use Luther and Wesley hymns during worship services, southern gospel music started to have an impact in religious circles. Songs of this genre evoked a range of emotions from crying to laughter. My friends had begged for and received permission to attend lively shows (known as “gospel singings”). My dad had reservations, but finally agreed that I could go. Most likely this was based on his wise decision to choose which battles he wanted to fight with a rather headstrong teenage daughter.
Despite obvious disconnect from theological meaning, these action-packed performances were met with shouts of approval and much applause. Although not used in morning worship at my church, guest singers would occasionally include one of these songs in their repertoire.
The next change I saw in church music came with the introduction of a feel good variety that came to be called, “Gaither Music.” The simple melodies and words of these songs soon found wide acceptance by churches. Eventually, some of these songs made it into new hymnals.
Sometime during the 1990’s, all previous genres of church music were abandoned and replaced with what we now call, “worship songs.” For some inexplicable reason, this new music requires a team of people to encourage congregational singing. Hence, worship teams were formed and the designation, “contemporary worship,” was coined.
With these changes in both music and worship style, my church abruptly embraced popular culture along with its lack of refinement. In a casual atmosphere often almost indistinguishable from a secular concert venue, simplistic contemporary choruses are the norm. Some of these choruses have identifiable meanings. Others? Not so much. At one service where I worshiped, the team sang, “I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more” The lady standing immediately to my left (not a member of my church) leaned over to me and whispered, “Who are they singing about?”
With this now established contemporary model of worship, our ears are often assaulted by quasi-melodies, repetitive phrases, and abrupt mid-sentence endings – much like butting one’s car against a wall to stop rather than using the brakes to slowly bring the vehicle to rest. Since hundreds of new choruses are introduced each year, it seems to be incumbent upon worship leaders to use as many as possible before moving on the next round of offerings. Each week much of what I hear is new to me.
For the time being, I’ve decided on a “whatever” attitude. I sing when I can pick up on a discernable melody and just stand with the crowd when I can’t. Basically, I’m waiting for the minister’s message. However, last summer I was exposed to another way of dealing with this dilemma.
Following a two-week vacation, we were headed back home on a Sunday morning. When we travel on Sunday, we target a place to attend church. On this morning we arrived in the parking lot of the selected church just a few minutes before service time. Since Hubby and I were wearing traveling clothes, we attempted be inconspicuous by locating chairs close to the back of the sanctuary. (Though not on topic, I will add here that we do not ordinarily attend church in our jeans. However, at this particular church there was really no need for us to hide. We were dressed for being there. Shorts would have blended in, also.)
In this very hip, contemporary church, we found ourselves standing for the first half of the service. I think this is the new Protestant form of penance and I no longer feel sorry for the Catholics I was told about when I was young. Those poor people did penance by ascending steps on their knees to the foot of The Cross. (At least that journey ended when they reached The Cross.) But I digress.
This particular morning, while we stood, the worship team led multiple choruses chosen from among the thousands. Words were on a screen, but there was no hint with relationship to tune or meter. Since I wasn’t singing, I did some people watching. One row ahead of me stood a gentleman who obviously intended to worship. On the first word of the first song he began to sing. No timid voice for him. He sang lustily. He sang loudly. He made up his own tune. Every word and every note (or non-note) could be heard above all of the voices in our section. This well-dressed, nicely groomed, mid-fortyish man, standing next to a beautifully coiffed, fashionably dressed lady, did not plan for his worship experience to be stolen by a clueless group of up-front people intent on hogging the tempo and the tune. I was amused, but admired his determination.
Would it possibly send a group message if all congregants who had not previously rehearsed the songs followed his example. Just wondering?
(This post is by a person who sometimes listens to Gregorian Chants while writing. If you don’t love the beauty of Gregorian Chants, or even know what they are, then never mind. We likely exist in different religious spheres.)