Eat This (In Worship), Not That!

A few years back I attended a four day seminar on congregational development in Atlanta.  These seminars typically offer high quality preaching and dynamic, often times diverse congregational song.  I liked the worship there the way I like worship most anywhere.  Liked it, didn’t love it.  On the third day I ventured alone into one of Atlanta’s night club districts and stopped at Jelly Roll’s, a place featuring “dueling pianos.”  We wrote requests for favorite songs on slips of paper and two piano players would bring the requests to life.  They would often improvise as well as intentionally draw the audience into singing or shouting such choruses as Garth Brook’s  “I got friends in low places” or Def Leppard’s “Pour some sugar on me.”  The energy did not seem to rely on the consumption of alcohol there, though I doubt that hurt, but rather it had more to do with the intersection of good rhythm, rhyme and relevance.   I loved it!

The Bible story from Acts 16 reports that Paul and Silas, imprisoned by local authorities on trumped-up charges,  prayed and sang hymns there among fellow prisoners.  The earth shook and their shackles fell!  Good congregational song frees us from shackles!  Bad congregational song simply passes the time.

I used this past year of leave time away from local church ministry to visit twenty-eight churches at worship.  I used this blog site to reflect on those experiences.  Now that my leave is coming to a close it is time to offer a guide for church leaders, based on those observations.  First I will address the KIND of music we choose for congregational singing and then second I will address the way hymns and songs FIT into the flow of worship.  In my experience numerous churches are offering tired, irrelevant hymns and choruses to an ever dwindling cadre of participants who may like the service, but do not love it.

I’ve chosen to frame my observations in terms popularized by David ZincZenko’s wildly popular diet books, “Eat This–Not That.”

EAT THIS–NOT THAT: Worship Edition

NOT THAT!
I loved most everything about this church near Providence, except this song:

I liked at least the tune of this song from a church meeting in the local movie theater, but it refused to end…

The contrast between two churches meeting in this same church in Worcester was striking. First the hymn from the long-time church.


In this view I pan from the room where one old-time church meets from 10 to 11 (see video above) toward the band rehearsing next door for the church that meets at Noon.

These signs graphically illustrate the dividing line between hymnal-based worship (Pilgrim UCC) and Contemporary worship (The Woo).  I generally found older people in strictly hymnal-based worship, younger people in contemporary worship and families in churches which attempted to blend the two.  There are of course other kinds of worshiping communities out there including “charismatic,” “formal liturgical” and “emerging.”  I focused primarily on hymnal-based, contemporary and blended kinds of worship, though my conclusions suggest a great interest in emerging worship patterns.

I learned that regardless of whether a church is hymnal-based, contemporary or blended, hymn choices and placement left me unsatisfied.

Carl Daws expressed the problem well in his interpretation of Psalm 96:

Sing to the Lord no threadbare song,
no timeworn toothless hymn,
no sentimental platitude, no empty pious whim,

But raise a song just off the loom,
fresh woven, strong and dense,
As new as God’s eternal now transcends time and sense.

On one side of the spectrum I find in evangelical, contemporary worship “sentimental platitude” with lyrics that offer “threadbare” conceptions of Jesus as atoning King and God as either Zeus-like terminator (ie. “Our God is an awesome God…”) or best-friends-forever (ie. “In the Secret…I want to know you, I want to hear your voice”).    At its worst, contemporary hymns can be FRUITLOOPS–The sweetness of rhythm and maybe rhyme but no “toothsome” relevance.

On the other end of the spectrum I find in progressive, hymnal-based worship a stark contrast to FRUITLOOPS, BRAN.  A few songs from the United Methodist supplemental hymnal The Faith We Sing come to mind:  #2138  “Sunday’s Palms Are Wednesday’s Ashes” and #2177 “Wounded World that Cries for Healing.”  It seems to me that these churches are attracted to “strong and dense” poetry or “just off of the loom” musical scores or arrangements (See the video above of children playing percussion for the otherwise beautifully conceived David Haas song “We Are Called” (Faith We Sing #2172).  Here is an example from the New Community Church in Washington D.C. of  a “fresh woven” tune which is quite scratchy to wear.

Somewhere between throat scratching BRAN and stomach-bloating FRUITLOOPS we need to locate congregational song which contains both the fiber of good poetry (or story) and musicality along with the memorable sweetness of rhythm and relevance.  The worship team at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church phrase it this way,

The trick is finding songs that:  1.  Speak to people.  2.  Are relevant to the message.  3. Can be effectively delivered by musicians.

As a United Methodist it is troubling to admit that I find barely 25% of the United Methodist Hymnal from 1989 useful.  Hymns # 57 through #151 speak of the Nature of God.  Of these 93 hymns about God, 34 employ old English “thee’s” and “thou’s.”  Well over 20 refer to God as “Lord,” a Biblical designation, sure, but one which is as culturally obscure as the term for God “King” which is used in 10 of the first 90 hymns.  On the other hand there are 17 poetically lovely hymns on the nature of God, some offering Spanish and Korean phrase and musical form, but I find them challenging to sing and difficult to teach to participants accustomed to more familiar offerings.  I am left with around 16 hymns which are neither FRUITLOOPS nor BRAN about the nature of God!

I’ve resorted to other hymns and songs outside of my tradition, and I want to advocate for some of them here.

EAT THIS:   Good Resources for Congregational Song

From the United Church of Christ:  The New Century Hymnal (2005).  Quite controversial upon its release, the NCH removed patriarchal language and what the team considered exclusionary, anachronistic theological perspectives like the “blood atonement” of Jesus.  Compare the United Methodist Hymnal’s version of Johann J. Schultz’s 1675 text, translated in 1864 by Frances E. Cox (#126 “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above”) with the New Century Hymnal’s 1993 translation of Schultz’s text by Madeleine Forell Marshall (# 6 “Sing Praise to God, Our Highest Good”):

UMH:  Sing praise to God who reigns above, the God of all creation, the God of power, the God of love, the God of our salvation.  With healing balm my soul is filled and every faithless murmur stilled: To God all praise and glory!

NCH:  Sing praise to God, our highest good, profound respect expressing.  God gives us health, life, livelihood, with every needed blessing.  To God, who wondrous works performs, creating life and calming storms, to God give praise and glory!

The United Church of Canada uses two hymnals, Voices and More Voices. I particularly like the 2007 More Voices songbook and appreciate that it was published along with Mp3 CD’s of each song performed not using hokey sounding Midi keyboard (ie. Faith We Sing) but by congregations.  We also hear pronunciations for non-English texts.  Here is one of my favorites which is musically and poetically “toothsome” while also being relevant as we dream of justice for the poor.

There Was a Child, words and music by Janet Gadeski, 2005

There was a child in Galilee who wandered wild along the sea.  A holy child, alone was she, and they called her dreaming Mary.  And she dreamed rejoicing in her savior, she dreamed of justice for the poor.  She dreamed that kings oppressed no more when she dreamed, that Dreaming Mary.

One holy day an angel came with voice of wind and eyes of flame. He promised blessed would be her name when he spoke to dreaming Mary.  Then she spoke rejoicing in her savior.  She spoke of justice for the poor.  She spoke that kings oppressed no more when she spoke, that Dreaming Mary.

And did she dream about a son?  And did he speak, the angel one?  We only know God’s will was done in the son of dreaming Mary.  Then she prayed rejoicing in her savior.  She taught him justice for the poor.  She taught that kings oppressed no more when she taught that dreaming Mary.

Then Jesus grew in Galilee, they wandered wild along the sea.  Now he calls to you and me to dream with Dreaming Mary. And we dream rejoicing in our savior.  We dream of justice for the poor.  We dream that kings oppress no more as with dream with dreaming Mary.

The Unitarian Universalist Church has a terrific history with congregational song.  Songs from the regular hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition)can tend toward toothsome to a fault, but I found much to commend in the 2005 supplemental hymnal Singing the Journey.  Like More Voices, Singing the Journey offers audio clips but unlike Voices, the clips can be heard online for free!  Visit the UUA site and listen to this clip for Paul Gaugin and Brian Tate’s “Where Do We Come From” which is shared in a round.  For those congregations uncomfortable with adding harmony, I suggest rounds in order to arrive at the kind of textured harmony that creates satisfying, memorable experiences in worship.

1.  Where do we come from?  What are we? Where are we going?

2.  Where do we come from?

3.  Mystery.  Mystery.  Life is a riddle and a mystery.

4.  Where_ do we come from? Where_ are we going?

United Methodist Hymnal Supplements “The Faith We Sing” and “Worship and Song” are also good.   I particularly like the number of Taize chants included in “The Faith We Sing”:  #’s 2013, 2014, 2017, 2054, 2057, 2156, 2157, 2179, 2195, 2198, 2200.  Some of my favorite weddings of text and tune are found in Faith We Sing:

# 2051 “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,”

#2117 “Spirit of God” (which offers a beautiful piano accompaniment),

#2128 “Come and Find the Quiet Center,

#2130 “The Summons,”

#2172 “We Are Called,”

#2202 “Come Away With Me,” and

#2218 “You Are Mine”

The  “Contemporary” songs in Faith We Sing are less contemporary now, twelve years from that publication date.  Worship and Song offers a more up-to-date list which includes songs I have heard often in contemporary praise services:  “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “In Christ Alone,” and “How Great is Our God.”  But these songs represent a strand of contemporary songs which trend more toward FRUITLOOPS than BRAN.  God is far removed on some heavenly throne toward which we bow or bend our knees and the world must hear about King Jesus, the Lamb, the only way to God the Father, who is praised for paying the human debt of sin.  My personal list of adequate contemporary Christian songs looks like this:

THIS: All Things are Possible                                              NOT THIS:  Trading My Sorrows

THIS: Enough                                                                            NOT THIS:  I Could Sing of Your Love Forever

THIS:  Knowing You                                                               NOT THIS: I Stand in Awe

THIS: God of Wonders                                                           NOT THIS: Here I Am to Worship

THIS: Your Love is Amazing                                              NOT THIS: Above All

THIS: Breathe                                                                           NOT THIS: Agnus Dei (Worthy is the Lamb)

NOW That’s What I Call Music 1-42 and KIDZ BOPS

Because I have a twelve-year-old in the house I make it my business to learn the music that he is hearing at sixth grade dances and elsewhere.  Although I list to a little pop radio, the easiest way for me to learn which songs are favorites in the pop, hip-hop, rock and country genres is by listening to the NOW Hear This Series.  I also find ideas for worship songs among secular hits as well.  Current hits “Good Life” and “Paradise” offer memorable, hopeful choruses while songs like “Born This Way” or “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” offer welcome, contemporary wisdom.  Even better for the church context than “NOW That’s What I Call Music” is a similar series for young people called “KIDZ BOP” which can be previewed at www.kidzbop.com.   Kidz Bop songs tend to be cleaner and more positive.  Although I tend to alter secular songs I offer in a worship context, there are certainly songs that naturally fit such as “Fireflies”  and “Stand Up.”

The churches I visited this year have tended to offer either simplistic “FRUITLOOP,” contemporary Christian songs or ancient hymns which sound the same and offer the same basic theological point of view, or they offer complicated “BRAN” that are bulky, thorough, and yet often inaccessible, musically.  Website visitors quickly discern the basic package offered by a church and tend to choose the style they like best, which leads to situations where older generations worship at one time in one place and younger generations worship at another time and place.  Some suggest this variety is natural and good and churches ought to meet diverse demand with diverse services.  But in places where resources are thin, infrastructure for two or three different (well executed) styles of worship is cost prohibitive.

I believe “Blended Worship” remains the best hope we have for reaching a multitude of generations while also maintaining “unity in the Body of Christ.”  Toward that end I advocate the use of “Music Mash-ups” much more than either offering twenty minute blocks of opening praise songs (contemporary worship) or plugging three or four (if trying to offer “blended worship”, diverse) hymns into various worship slots.  In food terms, I think of Contemporary worship music sets as “Imperial Buffet” where people get too much of their favorite orange chicken.  On the other hand, hymnal-based worship that fills slots reminds me of TGIFriday’s “Three for Twenty (Dollars)” deal; the three courses may have little or nothing to do with each other and may actually be as unnecessary as potato skins and cheesecake.

Somewhere between the Imperial Buffet and TGIFriday is a homemade meal which is carefully composed on one plate.  Yes, I advocate for lumping music together in one place in worship as contemporary services do.  But I need for the music offered in that time to be relevant, to be music that “speaks to people.”  So it needs to be somewhat eclectic.  But it also needs to fit the given theme.

I was invited to offer music for ordination at a large conference gathering which typically relies on songs from the United Methodist Hymnal.  I like most of those hymns, but I tried to imagine a segment of congregational song that had a broader appeal across generations and theological perspectives.  Here is what I imagined, a mash-up that integrated a contemporary worship song “Potter’s Hand” with the traditional classic “Spirit of the Living God” (offering a Taize-like opportunity for participants to sing harmony) blending-in a secular song by Jason Mraz, “I’m Yours” and ending, perhaps with the tune of “And Are We Yet Alive” flowing underneath Jason Mraz’s lyrics.   It works!

I fantasize about beginning worship with the contemporary worship song “God of Wonders:”

Lord of all creation
Of water, earth, and sky
The heavens are Your tabernacle
Glory to the Lord on High

God of wonders, beyond out galaxy
You are holy, holy
The universe declares Your majesty
You are holy, holy

Lord of heaven and earth (2X)

Early in the morning
I will celebrate the light
And as I stumble through the darkness
I will call Your name by night

God of wonders, beyond out galaxy
You are holy, holy
The universe declares Your majesty
You are holy, holy

Lord of heaven and earth (2X)

Follow this admiration of God’s handiwork with a song from the popular singer Adele which expresses a sense of regret:

When was the last time you thought of me?

Or have you completely erased me from your memory?

I often think about where I went wrong,

The more I do, the less I know,

But I know I have a fickle heart and bitterness,

And a wandering eye, and a heaviness in my head,

But don’t you remember?

Don’t you remember?

The reason you loved me before,

Baby, please remember me once more.

I would likely change the word “baby” to “God” or “Jesus” as an act of confession, then I would lead gently into Pete Townsend “Let My Love Open the Door.”

When people keep repeating
That you’ll never fall in love
When everybody keeps retreating
But you can’t seem to get enough
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
To your heart
When everything feels all over
When everybody seems unkind
I’ll give you a four-leaf clover
Take all the worry out of your mind
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
To your heart I have the only key to your heart
I can stop you falling apart
Try today, you’ll find this way
Come on and give me a chance to say
Let my love open the door
It’s all I’m living for
Release yourself from misery
Only one thing’s gonna set you free
That’s my love
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
To your heart
When tragedy befalls you
Don’t let them bring you down
Love can cure your problem
You’re so lucky I’m around
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
To your heart

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