Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Megachurches, Misery, and Music

I admire Gene Veith. From the years that I've read him I haven't known him to be one to exaggerate or thoughtlessly commend things for others' consideration. He also seems to be the kind of guy who uses all caps with reservation. So, when he told readers "You simply MUST read this article" by Sally Morgenthaler, author of Worship Evangelism, I took heed and advise you to do likewise. In it, Morgenthaler explores how effective churches focusing on a worship-driven model of evangelism (one in which the worship service is considered the best means of witnessing) are at actually attracting lost people. She also looks at the simultaneity of an increase in the number of megachurches in the U.S. and a net loss of church attenders nationwide.

One of the things Morgenthaler emphasizes is the need for Christians to be willing to give ear to the attitudes and perceptions of the unchurched (I really don't like that term because there are plenty of unsaved though "churched" individuals) about us. As an illustration of those perceptions she includes the following excerpt from an article written by a non-Christian journalist after attending what Morgenthaler calls "one of the largest, worship-driven churches in the country":

The [worship team] was young and pretty, dressed in the kind of quality-cotton-punk clothing one buys at the Gap. 'Lift up your hands, open the door,' crooned the lead singer, an inoffensive tenor. Male singers at [this] and other megachurches are almost always tenors, their voices clean and indistinguishable, R&B-inflected one moment, New Country the next, with a little bit of early '90s grunge at the beginning and the end.

They sound like they're singing in beer commercials, and perhaps this is not coincidental. The worship style is a kind of musical correlate to (their pastor's) free market theology: designed for total accessibility, with the illusion of choice between strikingly similar brands. (He prefers the term flavors, and often uses Baskin-Robbins as a metaphor when explaining his views.) The drummers all stick to soft cymbals and beats anyone can handle; the guitarists deploy effects like artillery but condense them, so the highs and lows never stretch too wide. Lyrics tend to be rhythmic and pronunciation perfect, the better to sing along with when the words are projected onto movie screens. Breathy or wailing, vocalists drench their lines with emotion, but only within strict confines. There are no sad songs in a megachurch, and there are no angry songs. There are songs about desperation, but none about despair; songs convey longing only if it has already been fulfilled.
Morgenthaler calls the kind of worship the journalist described "Worship for the perfect. The already arrived. The good-looking, inoffensive, and nice" and adds "No wonder the unchurched aren't interested."

Ironically, the desire to make worship attractive by insisting that we only sing positive, upbeat songs, leads to a revulsion because unbelievers know that life isn't like that. Much of our contemporary hymnody (using that term loosely, of course), in its zeal to get to the joys of redemption, frequently skips over the misery, disappointment, and corruption characteristic of a world under the curse on account of humanity's sin.

The inescapable fact that many don't seem to want to consider is that when style dictates, there are simply some dimensions of our human experience (not to mention a biblical perspective on life) that will go unacknowledged or glossed over. That's why the thought of deciding what style of music will be dominant in a local church based on a poll of the musical tastes of its "target audience" is problematic. No one musical genre is capable of adequately conveying the broad range of human emotions with respect to God or, for that matter, the spectrum of God's attributes. Contrition and lament, for example, are biblical themes that probably don't get much air time in churches committed to an easy listening, pop style. Cries of repentance don't fit well with major keys and beats you can tap your toe to (try, for example, to retain the feeling of Psalm 51 using the tune of "Zippity-do-da.") Likewise, schmaltz is woefully inadequate for communicating the Lord's holiness, wrath, and majesty. Despite the frequent and voluminous cries that style is neutral, it seems clear to me that when style drives, theological considerations have to ride shotgun. Insisting that we sing things a certain way means there are some things we will not sing.


Jeff Burton said...

Thank you for posting this. The wider problem is the elevation of music to the sine qua non of the church. This leads to the idea that worship=music, music as the centerpiece of corporate worship, and multitudes who neglect their Bibles but couldn't imagine life without constant immersion in religious music.

dconnery2 said...
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