The plugged-in revolution

woodysguitarWriting in the May edition of Touchstone magazine, senior editor S.M. Hutchens sees all sorts of dangers in contemporary church services that emphasize performers and egocentric lyrics. Hutchens begins his essay, "Please Me, O Lord," by describing what he witnessed during his return to an evangelical congregation:

On a recent visit to a fairly typical Evangelical church, we were treated to one of its regular features. A handsome young woman, attractively dressed, stood before the congregation with an eight-inch microphone, the head of which she held gently to her lips while she writhed and cooed a song in which she, with closed eyes and beckoning gestures, begged Jesus, as she worked her way toward its climax, to come fill her emptiness. The crowd liked it.

Kenneth Tanner, a friend of this blog commenting on the post "When bad music happens to a good God," made a similar critique when he cited Marie Barnett's "Breathe" as "perfectly awful" and "a classic of the new erotic-worship genre."

Jim Remsen explores the theological tensions of worship wars in a recent feature story for Knight Ridder Newspapers. Remsen mentions the book Give Praise to God, which the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is using to promote a more systematic approach to worship.

Remsen offers two witty summary paragraphs that get to the heart of the debate:

The alliance extols the approach of the late Rev. James Montgomery Boice, who led Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia -- and the alliance -- until his death from cancer in 2000. Steady as a metronome, Boice took his worshippers through: call to worship; doxology; psalm reading and responsive song; creedal confession; (lengthy) pastoral prayer; Scripture reading with pastoral explanation; offertory; singing of "the great hymns of the faith" (often derived from psalms); long sermon of "systematic expository preaching" through the books of the Bible; hymn; benediction.

In the feud often called "the worship wars," critics have called regulative worship outdated, puritanical and chilly as the northern European climes that nurtured it. Michael Horton, an alliance leader, counters that it is "logocentric and theocentric," whereas much current worship bespeaks consumerism, marketing and "a modern therapeutic orientation in its preaching, liturgy and music."

In an essay distributed by the alliance, church musician Leonard Payton offers an incisive list of 11 factors for identifying the "worship and praise choruses" that often draw large congregations but also agitate many Christians who long for lyrical depth:

These marks might be 1) small, guitar-based chord vocabulary; 2) slow rate of chord change rather than one chord per melody note; 3) performance by a "worship team," i.e., several people in front of the congregation leading at the same time; 4) lyrics without multiple stanzas; 5) lyrics that predominantly emphasize the subjective experience; 6) lyrics that can fit on a single overhead folio; 7) a visible claim of copyright; 8) lyrics that speak to God vaguely without a lot of cumbersome detail about his attributes or actions; 9) repetition of the song within the service; 10) people in the congregation closing their eyes, raising their hands, and gently swaying to the music; 11) an induced state of "worshipfulness," etc., in short, an overall music package that is rather strongly indexed to commercial, American popular music of the last three decades. (In the most extreme cases, some worship services are merely sanitized rock concerts, i.e., no foul language and no cloud of marijuana smoke up at the ceiling.)

Payton's essay is most striking because of the daring solution he proposes:

In some sense, the minister needs to become a musician and poet. I would add quickly that we are not necessarily talking about years of piano lessons or about aping popular music. No, the post-worship-wars-minister of the Word will be able to write poetry intended for the congregation's use, will be able to furnish the text with a melody intended for four generations to sing at the same time, and will be able to teach it to the congregation whether or not he has an instrument.

Back in 1999, Michael Hamilton wrote a worship wars cover story for Christianity Today (archive subscription required for full article). In that report, Hamilton mentioned a United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that offers such baby-boomer comfort quilts as the Doobie Brothers' "Jesus Is Just Alright With Me" and a new "Amazing Grace" set to the tune of the Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling."

Thousands of churches across the nation are making similar musical choices, and to report on it is to step into a river of passions.

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