June 10, 2014

Shut Up and Sing Up: Reflections on American 'Worship'

There is a growing sense of unease when I visit many American churches. Call it something I can’t quite discern gnawing away at me. I noticed it a while back, and it has only really become more and more apparent as my experience of American Christianity has broadened. Here’s the thing. American Christians, by and large, do not sing when it comes to congregational worship. And speaking as a complete cultural outsider, can I just tell you how eerie it is? No, eerie isn’t the right word. Weird? Hmm, Not sure. Unnerving? Maybe. Unnatural. Yes, that’s it. Unnatural.

Now let me be clear before I proceed. The musical part of our worship at Niddrie is not going to win any awards. Let’s put it this way: We won’t be releasing an album on iTunes any time soon! We make, at a (very) generous best, a joyful noise to the Lord (We’re Scottish after all, so we don’t want to overdo it with expressions of unadulterated joy and worshipful happiness). But I like to think that when we do sing we do it together as our little body of believers in Niddrie. It may not be flash, it may not be pretty and, in the words of one sceptical visiting A29 planter, we may be very 80’s (still don’t know what that means—I think it may be the white glove I wear while preaching) but when we stand to worship Jesus we make ourselves heard in unison.

So, you can imagine how bizarre it feels to stand in the presence of (sometimes many hundreds) and practically nobody around me is singing or even making an attempt to sing during the (so-called) worship time in many churches. It's almost as if worship has been devolved to whatever group of people are up the front caterwauling to some funky beat with a few sexy guitar riffs thrown in. It’s like, “You worship people do the job while we just stand here, sway a little, and maybe mouth the words quietly to ourselves.” Then at the end, for some inexplicable reason, Jesus gets a round of applause (the height of weirdness btw, although that is not to suggest he doesn’t deserve one! Just not sure how much it adds to the feeling of the ‘show’). For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts (and observations) on modern worship.

1. Some dude strumming the guitar in the background while the leader earnestly prays, or beseeches us to pray, is distracting at best and annoying at worst. In a world of noise, some quiet reflection is a welcome change (my assistant pastor Andy will ram those words down my throat when he reads them). Also, I don’t like the feeling of being emotionally manipulated. Just saying. The best thing that most of these self-styled leaders can do is pipe down so that the congregation can pipe up. American worship seems to have it all backwards, and it shows.

2. I don’t want to turn to the person next to me and say, “You’re amazing.” How do I know that? They may be some sort of weird sexual deviant just released from prison for all I know. So, not really very amazing at all. It is toe-cringingly horrible. I want to worship Jesus Christ in the presence of my Heavenly Father as led by the Holy Spirit in unison with my Christian brothers and sisters without being pushed into an awkward handshake/hugging situation with a fat bloke called Biff who could do with a bit of underarm spray and is already looking past me to the next person/victim. Leave the cheesy gimmicks and student-y ice breakers at home. This is not a frat house (US) or freshers week (UK). I am capable of chatting to the people around me when we hang out at the end of the service or in the seats around me.

3.When it comes to songs, old is not ‘dead’ nor is new ‘more spiritual’. We have a rich tradition of beautiful music and hymnody in our Christian history. Strive for balance and, above all, make sure that what we are singing has doctrinal and theological meaning. “I’m just gunna sing this inane chorus for you Jesus” does not qualify as meaningful worship. Here’s an observation. I have no scientific data to back this up (only have years of experience visiting churches all over the world). Here it comes. Watch out for it! It is simply this. People sing Psalms and hymns better congregationally than most modern music songs. It is true at Niddrie with some of the most unchurched people on the planet. I don’t know why they sing the hymns better, but they do. I am assuming there is some musical reason for this, but I am unaware of what it is. As long as I explain complicated or outdated words, then we are good to go. It is noticeable that when we sing a hymn, the volume in our church increases dramatically. And no, we are not full of old people trying to make a point. A (so-called) worship leader earnestly singing a modern song at the top of his voice, dropping in a little falsetto (for tone you understand) accompanied by Animal from the Muppets on the drums and some long-haired kid, who looks like he surfed to church, wandering off on an extended solo is not leading anybody closer to the Lord just cos he ‘feels it.’

If you ever get the opportunity, visit a Free Church in Scotland and listen to some of the most hauntingly beautiful, unaccompanied, congregational Psalm singing you will ever hear. No irritant in the background mouthing platitudes while he strums his guitar. Just an old dude with a metal thing which he clangs and then we’re off to the races. Majestic and holy singing. Deeply spiritual. When done properly, of course.

At Niddrie, we help out an old and dying congregation. There are about six old people left. They sing some old school stuff but they do it with gusto. We have a little guitar or a piano (sometimes both if we’re lucky). One woman screeches out at the top of her voice, completely tone deaf but meaning every word she sings. It’s hard not to smile as the others sing along with her in their own offbeat time. It’s not pretty. It’s not very attractive for outsiders. But, man, she inspires everybody there to raise their voices in song with her as they worship Jesus. We could do with more of that kind of corporate worship noise and less showy polish is all I’m saying.

Just my thoughts on this trip so far. Listen to Psalm 16 and be blessed by what congregational singing ought to be like (IMHO).

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