Worship music is the cultural carrier of faith.
Or perhaps worship music is the carrier of culture into faith.
If either of these statements are true then what we sing together in churches is formational, fundamental. Our songs shape our belief, our worldview and our action in subtle and profound ways. Perhaps it is another one of those times when the medium might become the message.
What comes first, the culture or the song? Instinctively we would have to say the culture, but the idea of culture is one that demands a little more examination. I am using the term not to describe the shared tenants/creeds of the Christian faith but rather to describe something of the shared context, deep assumptions and instinctive reactions that people tend to converge upon in our collectives.
Culture is so powerful a force on how we live and think about ourselves that it can come to be indistinguishable from creed. I think I need to demonstrate this with a couple of examples.
I have spent some time in America, doing some worship music with a Southern Baptist Convention. There was, shall we say, a degree of cultural friction, but it was on the whole a fantastic experience. What was obvious to me as an outsider to this culture was the degree to which expressions of faith became interwoven with a whole set of wider assumptions- political, economic, commercial. These assumptions became totally self perpetuating, as many people seemed to have virtually no contact with people outside this culture. They shopped at ‘Christian’ shops, employed ‘Christian’ tradesman, listened only to ‘Christian’ voices (and only ones from a particular part of the spectrum) and voted always for ‘Christian’ politicians. God, community and country were indistinguishable.
I particularly remember a store with a whole isle selling nothing but Aslans, in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Next to another selling Bible cases decorated with the American flag.
Those who did not conform to a particular way of being were gently corrected, or would find themselves ‘outside’.
The best way of describing this culture I have heard is this one- Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. God exists as a kind of divine therapist, mediating the psychological and financial rewards of society upon those who can conform to a certain moral code. God is a personal saviour, who will guarantee self esteem and success. Those who lack these things need to repent, and get more God so that they get some kind of a chance in the next life if not in this one.
All this has real strengths but it is hard to fully reconcile it all with the story of Jesus. Jesus called us to go, not stay. He seemed intent on overturning tables erected by the religious folk. He gravitated towards the outsiders, the poor, the broken. He started no political parties, nor would be joined to any. And he certainly gave no guarantees for health and wealth.
If I sound critical of the American church, then this is only because these issues were so much more obvious to me as an outsider. We can make equally critical comments about our own religious institutions. Think back towards the days of Empire and the complicity of our own churches even with genocide.
But how is this perspective reflected in our songs of worship?
When you stand back and look at the canon of songs that we have inherited over the last thirty years written both sides of the Atlantic they have some common characteristics;
- They focus primarily on individual encounters with a personal God. Often it is as if worship is the means by which God ministers to us in some kind of Holy Spirit therapy.
- They assume that repentance is required to allow us to be acceptable to God, and therefore to receive his blessing. However, repentance is primarily concerned with individual morality- particularly sexuality or dishonesty. We hear next to nothing about injustice, consumerism, over consumption or the workings of international capitalism.
- There is little call to collective action, apart from parallel individual actions in line with the point above. There is little idea that repentance can be collective, or that change requires sacrifice and joint action.
- Then there is the theological assumptions of the unassailable centrality of penal substitutionary atonement. The only way to save the world is one soul at a time- and our interest is really only in saving them from hell in the next life.
Does this sound familiar? I am of course not saying that the views above are necessarily wrong, rather that they arise from culture. They are then reinforced and communicated within our songs. Where then are the songs of protest, of prophetic vision, of renewed or alternative perspectives? The songs of the marginalised now welcomed home, the songs that disturb and challenge? The songs that confront power in the name of the weak? Where are the songs that remember the God who liberates captives not just in the abstract, who breaks actual chains? Where are the songs for the wayside pilgrim campfire, not those that require a graphic equaliser and power amplifier?
As ever, Brian McLaren has some interesting things to say on this issue. If not songs about personal relationships with Jesus, then what? He suggested some of the following in this article which is well worth reading in full;
- Biblical vision of God’s future which is pulling us toward itself
- Not just evangelism, but mission – participating in the mission of God, the kingdom of God, which is so much bigger and grander than our little schemes of organizational self-aggrandizement) is the key element needed as we move into the postmodern world.
- Re-discover historic Christian spirituality and express it in our lyrics.
- Songs that are simply about God … songs giving God the spotlight, so to speak, for God as God, God’s character, God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s wonder and mystery, not just for the great job God is doing at making me feel good.
- Songs of lament. The Bible is full of songs that wail, the blues but even bluer, songs that feel the agonizing distance between what we hope for and what we have, what we could be and what we are, what we believe and what we see and feel. The honesty is disturbing, and the songs of lament don’t always end with a happy Hallmark-Card-Precious-Moments cliché to try to fix the pain. ( Amen Brian!)
By way of another example;
Who remembers the song ‘Heart of Worship’? I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you. If I remember rightly, this came about as a result of a song writer/worship leader coming to the realisation that the music had taken over, so they stopped singing for a while to reflect and rebalance.
Then wrote a song about it.
It is not just the irony of this that should raise an eyebrow, it is the fact that the only cultural response to such a challenge to worship culture is to do the same thing again with a bit more passion.
Perhaps it might be time to do something totally different.
One of the things about the most recent renewal movement to sweep through the church, which I will describe using the words ‘emerging/missional consciousness’ has been the LACK of songs, and the lack of singing.
I think this is partly reaction formation against the things mentioned above, but also because other forms of worship have been in the ascendancy. I have taken a similar journey with my own community, Aoradh. We became much more interested in ‘Alternative worship’, borrowing more from the art gallery than the auditorium. Worship became more about encounter within a shared space, with the emphasis being about openness and creativity.
All movement however need a corrective because the pendulum will swing too far and will overbalance the clock.
And all movements also need to communicate their hopes, dreams, ideas and worship. Within the emerging church this has tended to happen over the internet- blogs, podcasts, you tube clips, twitter feeds, even the old archaic websites.
But we still need to sing. We are not just individuals with access to chatrooms, we are also flesh and vocal chord.
Sing me a song of freedom and a song of hope, and I will sing it with you.