Thursday, October 06, 2011

I come not to praise praise and worship songs

About a year ago, my pastor was preaching on legalism and, for lack of a better phrase, church snobbishness.

Ours is a seeker church, so it's important for us to avoid, if possible, any perceived barriers to anyone who might be seeking us.  So he likes to emphasize the way our church differs from churches which seekers may have attended as kids.  Funny skits before the sermon, a coffee shop in the corridor, a critically noted Christmas show each year, and a modern band.  Which is fine. 

But during this particular sermon, he was not talking so much about the good stuff we have.  He had words to say about what other churches have, and how it's not necessary from a Biblical perspective.  The tradition of wearing your Sunday best, for example, instead of the torn jeans and t-shirts that read "Green Day" or "My parents went to Vegas and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" often preferred by our younger members.  Or of particular rituals.  As Jesus to the Pharisees, he exhorted that anyone who attended one of the dress-up/ritual churches shouldn't look down on those who went to church in Green Day t-shirts or whose only ritual was a weekly spin around the parking lot to find the best place.  Blessed are the poorly dressed and those who park close to the exits; they shall be excused from filling the collection plate.

But he reserved most of his fire and brimstone for the most Pharisaical icon of all:  the traditional hymn.  "You may have thought our church was strange to play music like this, but who says you have to listen to and sing old songs that aren't even relevant today?  Who says you can't play rock and roll in church?"

I tried not to burst out laughing.  Who, indeed?  Since every church I've ever belonged to has played mediocre folk songs, their lyrics helpfully projected on the wall via overhead; or the modern "praise and worship" songs, most of which have melodies that evoke dishrags and limp handshakes, and lyrics that try to stray away from "we praise you" and "Lord you love me and I love you" (It's the Christian Barney song!)?  If a person wanted to hear "contemporary" music at church he need listen no further than the nearest Catholic parish after Vatican II, or the nearest evangelical Protestant church after 1980 or so.  My local church imploded many years ago, eventually becoming a small community with another pastor and creed I was not comfortable with; after looking to find another, I can truthfully say that finding rock and roll in church (or some semblance of on electric guitars and the requisite "Jesus is my girlfriend" songs) is a lot easier than finding traditional hymns being sung in church.

Which didn't used to bug me....until my pastor said what he said above.  I started paying more attention to hymns when I heard them or incorporated them in my own prayers, to their lyrics, to their arrangements, to their  lilting melodies.  As a result, I am losing patience with the "praise and worship" and I truly miss the theology of old fashioned, if dated, hymns.

Who can really compare  "Lord we love you/We lift up our hands/Oh yeah" repeated over and over again with these lyrics from "Rock of Ages":

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Well, OK, maybe we can find our theology in other places.  What's the harm in clapping our hands and shaking our booties to simple but lilting melodies before the pastor preaches?

That brings us to my next complaint about praise and worship songs, or at least those led at my church:  they are not lilting.  In fact, they are awful.

I think I have the expertise to make such a judgment.  I'm not a little old lady in a hat and veil primly sitting with arms crossed in the front pew, insisting that "This is the devil's music!"  I grew up in the 70s, and fancy myself a pretty big rock fan (see my reviews on Amazon, for example). 

Part of the problem with the music at my church appears to be the darned obscurity of the songs.  I don't remember ever hearing any of  them in any other setting, and I don't think I ever hear the same ones again.  So very few people know the words to sing along with, and if there is a dose of wisdom in any of them, one doesn't get the chance to really get it, since that often comes with hearing a song several times. 

I love my church.  I love my pastor's sermons, I even love a lot of the solo songs some of the very talented singers do, and the skits, and the videos, and the Christmas play.  But I dread the music we need to survive each weekend, each weekend. 


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