Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Church Music and Worship Context

So, as a follow up to my previous post, the jury returned and the answer was "mandolin".  A healthy dose of Eliot members contributed to the conversation (virtually and in person) and a goodly number of others chimed in  as well.  It was nice to hear from folks.  It turns out that many of us have opinions about music in general and church music in particular.   I find that reassuring.  It isn't really just a consumer product after all!

During the "discernment process" I learned a few things.  Actually, it might be better to say that I was reminded of them.  Many of them had to do with ritual and symbol.  I started thinking about this when it was suggested to me that the uke--though certainly capable of achieving depth in a wide range of musical styles--is perceived by many as a "toy".  This perception then alters the experience of the worship service.  In a different way the same can be said for the organ and the piano.  They, too, are capable of a wide range of expression.  However, if the uke is viewed as whimsical, these more "traditional" instruments are viewed as formal.  In both cases, bringing them into a church makes them liturgical objects invested with religious meaning.

This simple fact brings up questions for the worship leader and church musician.  Should you play in a style that reinforces the instruments' perceived strengths and biases, or should you change it up?  Will a serious song on the uke or a folk (or jazz, or rock) song on the organ help or hinder your message for that week?  The instruments we use are themselves symbols that say something about what worship will be like on a particular Sunday.  In addition (particularly for the larger instruments that double as furniture) they send a message to the observer about what kind of people worship in that space.  The message may be true or false.  After all, they do this without ever playing a note.

I usually try to avoid the terms "traditional" and "contemporary" when talking about worship because they are more of a hindrance than a help.  What, after all, is traditional for one group is not for another.  What is true is that the instruments we use and the music we play on them tells the story of who we were and who we are right now.  The real question for people is whether or not our worship experience fits the context  we find ourselves in Each week we ask our selves if what we see and here is in some way us.

One thing we must all remember, though, is that this context evolves over timeAt Eliot Church we originally accompanied singing with bass-viol, violin, clarinet and flute.  Today that would be considered odd. Back then it wasn't.  It would be wrong for us to look back and assume that our predecessors' greatest wish was an organ (in 1830!!??).  More likely it just worked for them.  Many songs we now consider "traditional" when played on the organ were made for other media.  I still maintain, for example, that one of the worst crimes perpetrated in hymnody was to move Were You There? to the organ.  I am sure others disagree.

What does all this mean?  It means that we come to church with different expectations about music just as we come to church with different expectations around other parts of the worship experience.  We also come with different hopes and desires for what worship will be like for us in the future.  This process is different for each of us just as it is different for each congregation.  Our challenge as communities of faith is figuring out how to have conversations around these things.  This means understanding how our context changes over time.  It also means we must understand how it remains the same.

In my Doctoral Project Paper that no one is ever likely to read I talk about how it is important when preaching to speak the symbolic language of the congregation one is preaching to.  The landmarks of our lives have special meaning to us and when they are used well, we are better able to engage with an idea or theme.  Music is one of those landmarks.  It is important to know what works for us and to understand that other styles probably work well for others.  The challenge for those of us who lead worship regularly is to be aware of and connected to our communities in ways that make these landmarks accessible to us as well.

So, anyway, the uke isn't going anywhere.  Neither are the piano or the organ.  However, as time goes on we will continue to seek ways to expand our worship pallet (musically and otherwise).  This will include mandolin and guitar.  It will include offerings from children and adult volunteers.  Each congregation speaks its own language, after all.  I think we all want that language in our particular congregations to be as rich as possible.


  1. I read your doctoral paper. Twelve times. ;-)

  2. Well yeah...but it was eight different papers... ;)