Monday, 15 March 2010

On Music in Church

Short of telling parents how to raise their kids, music must be one of the best ways to start a squabble in church. Or cyberspace. But if I’m to be true to this blog’s proclaimed purpose, this should be here.


I’ve been prompted to think about how music is best used in church. I’ll aim at expressing how I think it’s best used in church – I have more chance of hitting that target.

So, if I’m running a music ministry for a contemporary context, I have these things in mind…

New Music vs Old Favourites

I’ve got three agendas running here, in my mind – these are comments on the songs’ newness, apart from whatever good they do by their particular lyrics/style/themes etc.

1) I like to try to have a ‘theme song’ for each sermon series. The idea is that we can use it to help us get into the right headspace for hearing whatever the theme(s) of the series is. Let me give an example: in 2008 I did a series looking at Jeremiah. Jeremiah is unremittingly miserable for almost the whole time. You can’t avoid it. But I wanted us to be able to look at a hugely significant book, rather than dodging it forever. We learned two ‘theme songs’ during the series: Blessed Be Your Name and The Voice of the Lord. The first of these acknowledges the likelihood of suffering but doesn’t go off and sulk about it – it teaches a healthy response, and this is helpful in facing up to what’s happening in Jeremiah. The second of these is about the power of God’s word – probably the key theme of Jeremiah – and looks forward to how God’s word will do all sorts of wonderful stuff in the future. Together, they meant we could engage with the theology of Jeremiah, while not losing sight of our hope.

Note that the link is to the series, rather than individual sermons (though of course I was deliberate about when we used each song) – they meant I could preach an individual sermon without having to go over the same ground each week – the songs could help me with that.

A ‘theme’ song will get used multiple times in a short space of time. A new song will get used multiple times in a short space of times. Makes sense to have a ‘theme’ song be a new song, I figure. Otherwise…

2) I’ve seen too many decent songs die from overuse. My feeling is that you need to have enough songs rotating through to get a balance between ‘we know the song and can sing it unself-consciously and therefore engage emotionally/cognitively/spiritually through it’ and ‘we sing this every second week, and I’m so familiar with it that I tune out most of the time’. My rule of thumb is that means singing a song roughly every couple of months or so – so when you do, you notice what you’re singing but aren’t distracted by it. Allowing for some ‘seasonal’ songs, that means you’re looking at a stable playlist of around 50-70 songs.

3) I also have been thinking this week about the value of novelty. Again, this is a balancing act. However, if churches basically stop doing anything new, it becomes a plague. Energy, passion, enthusiasm all die. On the other hand, if everything is always new all the time, people are constantly off kilter and unable to simply be there and do church and engage with God and each other. So I like using new songs to communicate that ‘hey, we’re not satisfied and complacent yet; church can be even better; we need to keep on changing just a little so that we’re always forced to stay focused on mission (ie reaching the lost) rather than maintenance (ie just keeping the wheels turning).’ Left to our own devices, I think we’d all prefer to get things to a place we like, and keep it there – but then autopilot goes on, and it’s all downhill from there.

Song Selection (what’s in our playlist)

I work from a playlist that has around 50 songs. I derived it basically from a combination of various sources that reflected what we were singing when we moved to this church.

Some culling was involved – there were probably a dozen or so songs that I ‘left off’ the list. Some of these were because they weren’t in regular use; some because I thought the music or lyrics weren’t the best, and we didn’t need to keep it on the list; some because I thought they had simply had their day.

So I’m working from a list of what I think we can use on a regular basis.

However, there have been occasions when someone has said ‘hey, what about this?’ and so we’ve done songs that are outside ‘the list’. That’s fine – a decent song that’s suffering from overuse can still work – because it’s so well known you could pick it up in twenty years and sing it note-perfect, so there’s no issue with bringing it out, and also because having been well-loved you can slot into using it congregationally quite well. But if that same song was coming in every 5-6 weeks, it would start to tire very quickly, and you lose it again.

There are some songs where I think the words are so bad that they just shouldn’t be sung. People may love them for various reasons; they may be able to interpret the lyrics so that what they mean when they’re singing isn’t dodgy (it might require a little verbal gymnastics, but you can do it). However, I feel bound by my role as a pastor to say that we won’t sing them, for the sake of the weaker brother/outsider/etc.

For example – there’s a newish song that’s starting to get picked up by churches all over the place. I’ve heard it a few times. The song is trying to do something commendable, but to my mind the writer has made such a total hash of the lyrics that they can mean almost anything, and unfortunately, one of the most natural readings teaches an absolutely abhorrent view of repentance. The music itself is quite good, so there’s a real danger of horrible theology working its way in via the music. I can’t think of any compelling reason why the song should be used when it has this massive drawback.

Song Selection (from week to week)

I pick five songs each week. Of these, there’d be a couple that I really want (for fit with sermon/service), and then the rest are chosen to balance things out. If a service leader or the musos need to change a song for some reason or other, there’s room for this.

Actually, the last paragraph began with an untruth. I pick five songs for each week, but I do the picking in big blocks – up to two months at a time.

The advantages of doing song selection this way, rather than just ‘what shall we have this week’, are that: you can cycle through the songs and give them all a go, rather than favouring particular ones; you can make sure that a song is used in its best week (rather than, oh, this would have been perfect, but we sang it twice in the last month already); and, as above, there’s a chance for some to-and-fro before you get to rehearsal!

As I go about picking the songs, then, I try to find the best couple of songs for a given weekend, in terms of matching the theme of the sermon/service, and then with the songs that are left over, I try to place them so we get a mix of tempos, moods, etc (so not all dirges, or not all ‘I- songs’ and no ‘we-songs’).

The disadvantage of the system is that it’s time consuming when you do the picking. I think it’s worthwhile enough to pay that price.

Songs + Sermon + Service

I’ve been a bit too imprecise in the past in how I’ve spoken in this area – I’ve tended to talk about ‘matching the sermon’, which isn’t quite saying what I mean.

Within a service, we have various elements – we hear from God (readings, sermon, for example), we respond to God (prayer, singing), we engage with each other (creed, perhaps; announcements; sharing informally before and after, etc). The idea is that overall, we aren’t skewed to any particular direction – and if you only did one of these categories, you can imagine how impoverished Sundays would be.

So when it comes to music’s part in this, I try to spread it through the different bits. We want to sing some ‘we-songs’ so that we’re encouraging each other (psalms hymns and spiritual songs!). We also want songs that are more personally addressed to God. We want songs that admit our sin, others that rejoice in salvation, others that praise God for his blessings, and so on.

What I mean is, music is really really good at engaging our emotions, and I want to make use of this for all the emotions that we should feel – both positive and negative. And I want us to be able to emotionally engage all the way through the service, so I like having the songs sprinkled throughout.

An interesting question is whether to begin a service with praise songs to get us off to a good start – not an uncommon practice around the traps. Let me preface my comment by saying what a good Anglican is supposed to say (before I go on to disagree!). Anglican services have deliberately made a habit of kicking off almost immediately with a confession. Week in, week out. The idea was it would teach the congregation that we’re sinners, and that coming before God is a huge privilege not to be taken for granted.

Obviously, this is about as far as you can get from starting out with a string of praise songs every week!

Now, I disagree with the ‘Anglican’ position, in our context, for a simple reason: we tend to only have Christians come to church. The Anglican services were written in an era when church attendance was literally compulsory, so you’d have bucketloads of unbelievers there. Confession up front made sense in that context, but ours has changed.

My preference is to be free to be flexible. For example:

Service X – the sermon is going to call us to repent. It makes sense then to open with songs that remind us of how good God has been. Then we hear the call to repent, know he has always treated us graciously, and can more readily admit our sin. Then we can sing a more downbeat song that reflects on forgiveness, for instance, then finish up the service on an up note again – hurrah for being forgiven.

Service Y – the sermon is going to provoke us to some positive action. It would make no sense to follow the sermon with a confession – that’s just saying we’re planning to change nothing. Nor do you want to go through the service without the quiet moment of confession/recognising our dependence on God, because then the sermon’s all about how we can do good works in our own strength. So in this scenario, the more reflective song might come earlier in the service.

There’s a random collection of thoughts in search of a conclusion. There’s more that could be said; I’ve really only focused on the practicalities and the theology that might lie behind them. But it’s a start!


Heather said...

Thanks Anthony. I really appreciate the balance and common sense of this.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the use of 'items' - their use, frequency and placement. There is some stuff that is not necessarily suited to congregational singing but has much merit in other ways. What do you think?

Also, I notice that you have talked about emotional expression but you haven't mentioned the issue of expressing identity. I think this is where many style arguments spring from. "Am I the sort of person that sings this sort of song?" "Do I identify with the group of people that use this sort of music.?" Exactly because music calls up an emotional response, it is very powerful in saying who you are. How can we make good use of this and minimise its difficulties?

Anthony Douglas said...

Thanks Heather for your comment - you've certainly found a couple of oversights for me, which is helpful!

Regarding items: I suspect this is the thing that calls for the most delicate judgment in the whole field of church music. I've seen items done, and the congregation sits there at the end, thinking, 'How am I meant to respond?'. It's awkward - what's a 'performance' doing in a church service?

I definitely agree that some songs are better as items than for congregational singing. They tend to be lyrically very rich and moving, whereas the music can range from very simple through to highly complex.

Their value lies, I think, in the power with which the song can impact us. They say something concrete and profound; I think they call us to agree with them.

However, I'm of the view that part of the potency of an item is in its rarity. If you do one every week, nobody tunes in. Once a month - 'oh, we were due for another one, it's item week come around again'. I think if they are used infrequently then they can be positively dynamite. I just had a look back, and on average I tend to go for one every six months or so.

Some examples of where I think an item has 'worked':
- to open an 11pm service on Christmas Eve - a pianist singing alone in darkness - it set us up for awe and intimacy as we considered a fairly awesome event
- immediately following the last sermon in that series on Jeremiah, where after weeks of suffering with the prophet we finally drew the link to Christ, an item on his death for us was immensely powerful.

I guess I'd want to reserve them for key moments in the life of a congregation - to set us up for something (ie raise the problem/issue), to punctuate the conclusion (help us to buy in), and perhaps at a focal point - sometimes a series of sermons are really anchored by one of them, perhaps in the middle of the series.

Not exactly precise or concise, I'm afraid.

Your other question I went nowhere near. I basically presumed a contemporary context and went from there. I haven't thought as much about this as you have; what you say sounds pretty true. I doubt I can add much (but I'll have a shot, seeing as you asked!).

Firstly, it screams to me that the choice of what songs make it into rotation is serious - because not only do they reflect a congregation's identity, they also influence it. There are times when our behaviour modifies our beliefs, and where emotions are high, I'd guess more so.

So the choice of songs itself has a teaching maybe, we should try to add songs that shift a congregation in a helpful direction? So, not just because it's a good song, or because it's also a popular song; we pick ones for our particular congregation. Not unlike how a minister plans what to preach around what he thinks a congregation needs to hear.

And just to go right out of the box here: if we're working in a style that isn't our preference, we're more likely to be uncomfortable or self-conscious. There might be a time when that's helpful. I remember, from way back, I once came across a song in a minor key that mourned for the lost, and mourned our apathy for evangelism. It didn't make you happy to sing it, either in terms of style or lyrics. But that was what could make it useful, I think. [I lost the argument then, so it was never used at my church...but I'm sure I was right ;-)]

So perhaps there are times when the dissonance is fight against complacency? ... To wake us up to unpalatable truths?

It's a very interesting question though, I'll keep thinking on it!

Tom Barrett said...

C'mon Anthony, you knew a church music discussion would start a squabble, why not dive in all the way and tell us what the "newish song that’s starting to get picked up by churches all over the place" is?

Anthony Douglas said...

I left things that vague because it is just possible that to identify it further might unnecessarily wound people, certainly if I did so in public.

Perhaps it's best to leave you checking all potentially 'new songs' for dodgy views of repentance ;-)

If you really want to know, you can track me down via an email to myfirstname at spsh dot org dot au.