True Confession: I’m a liturgy nerd.
I’m a sucker for good order, for letting Scripture “dwell in me richly”, for the beauty of a chanted kyrie (even if I can’t do it), and a reverent Eucharistic prayer that places Christ’s inauguration of the New Covenant squarely in the context of God’s entire salvation narrative beginning in Genesis, for a full-on cross-led procession in and out of the service. I like this stuff because I think it points to Jesus. I like it because it’s different, and it reminds me that, as a Christian, I participate in a reality that is simultaneously “not of this world” and also the most real of all realities. I like the liturgy, and “high church” because it’s the Sesame Street method of learning the faith – lex orandi, lex credendi, and when we pray and sing and read the actual words of Scripture, over and over and over again, we learn them, we marinate in them, and the Word that goes out and does not return empty transforms us, slowly, deeply, over time. I love the old hymns. I love that they were written by people with a deep faith and love for the Lord, and I love that they were written to teach and defend the faith. “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a beautiful, haunting, lovely, deep, rich hymn – more so when you know that it was written in the 4th century at a time when the debate about the quality of Jesus’ divinity was raging, threatening to tear the Church apart. In short, I believe in mystagogy.
I’ll be honest – I think that when we scale down or eliminate altogether the depth and richness of our liturgical heritage, of our hymnic tradition, of the Eucharistic celebration in favor of a couple spontaneous prayers, a few songs that were mostly written for performance rather than congregational singing, and a “message” (however orthodox and well-delivered) given from a “stage”, we have lost a lot.
And I’ll continue to be honest – I think that a great many congregations that make the decision to adopt this sort of “contemporary” worship have done so in order to play to “what people want”, to take the easier route of creating an “on-ramp” to the faith that never actually merges with the rest of traffic rather than doing the (admittedly difficult) work of teaching appreciation of the historic patterns and language of worship. That’s harsh, I know.
True Confessions: I also love “contemporary Christian music.” My alarm clock is set to KLOVE, it was Northwestern College’s radio stations that got me through seminary. My “fav” playlist on my iPod is chock full of Lincoln Brewster and the Newsboys and Matt Maher and Brandon Heath and Sara Groves and Moriah Peters. On Sunday morning I want “Lead On, O King Eternal”, but on Saturday night, what’s wrong with “How Many Kings?”
This is where my liturgical friends start to get antsy, I think. CCM is so vapid, it’s so “emotive”, the theology is crap, it’s impossible to sing congregationally, it’s all 7-11 songs, “worship leaders” perform like they’re at a concert rather than leading others in worship of the Most High God, why do I feel like “Jesus is my boyfriend”, it’s unsacramental, etc. I get it.
These are all valid critiques. Every one of them. There is a lot of CCM out there that is garbage, especially if you subscribe to a sacramental, non-Arminian version of the Christian faith. It’s part of why I don’t like CCM in worship – because it’s so hard to find music that is theologically acceptable and congregationally-singable – and even more so in smaller parishes with far less musical resources to support using it in worship. Personally, I’d be pretty happy if I went my whole career without ever having to deal with that.
But. But, as a former pastor used to say, “the organ is God’s favorite instrument never mentioned in the Bible.” There’s something slightly ironic about claiming to want the most ancient liturgies of the church revived – and played on an organ. And even more than that, is the fact that culturally, the organ is rapidly falling into disuse. Organs are expensive to buy (for new mission start congregations) and expensive to maintain once you’ve got them. Organists are expensive to employ. Very few congregations can afford a full-time, well-trained organist who can properly prepare for worship each week. A goodly number of congregations are “getting by” with the (admirable, dedicated often heroic) efforts of near-volunteer musicians who serve the church as something of a moonlighting opportunity. In no way do I wish to denigrate their service. Most of them are hard-working wonderful people who love the Lord and love music and love serving their congregations in this way. But most of them are also on the far side of their midlife crisis, and in 10 or 20 or 30 years at best, they will no longer be able to serve in this capacity. Fewer and fewer people are enrolling in “sacred music” degree programs – the ones who do will have massive student loans to pay once they graduate, loans which will require a better pay/benefits schedule than many congregations can offer. It’s chicken and egg, to be sure, but I don’t think that anybody has really come up with a good long-term solution.
So what are we to do? To oversimplify, there’s nobody left to play the organ, and all the non-organ music is crap.
But, of course, not all non-organ music is crap. There’s some that’s good. Virtually all of Matt Maher ‘s work is fantastic. Stuart Townsend rocks. Some of Chris Tomlin is good. Tenth Avenue North is usually pretty solid. But it’s hard to get around the fact that if you’re from a sacramental (read: Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox) tradition there’s very little CCM that is acceptable. Why is this?
I have a theory: my theory is that we (traditional, liturgical, organ-loving worship nerds) have so wedded ourselves to Bach-ϋber-alles, that we have effectively suppressed the potential gifts of our own congregants, our own theologians, our own musicians. “Styles” of music come and go – Gregorian chant sounds different than medieval choral anthems which sound different than antebellum fiddle songs which sound different than early 20th-century-jazz which sounds different than Elvis which sounds different than hippie folk music which sounds different than…well, you get the point. So it stands to reason that modern-day writers and composers aren’t going to be coming up with the next Beethoven symphony. They’d probably write something that sounds more like Matt Redman than Charles Wesley. If we let them.
But do we shout down “contemporary” so loudly that our high school youth who love music but not so much Isaac Watts think that if they wrote something that was Biblically and theologically sound we’d reject it out of hand?
In recent years, I’ve really taken to Matt Maher. If you don’t know who he is, think of songs like “Your Grace Is Enough”, “Christ is Risen,” and “Turn Around.” He’s a sensation on the Christian music charts, he plays “modern-sounding” music that resonates with those less enamored of Martin Luther or Ralph Vaughn Williams. And he is thoroughly Roman Catholic. Maher’s songs are drenched in Scripture and liturgy, in the words of the daily offices and the wisdom of the saints. They are theologically rich, and avoid trite “Jesus is my boyfriend” style clichés. They open a new world of contemporary music to congregations who would like to use a particular style without compromising orthodoxy, they provide words for individual praise and prayer among the faithful. And in a CCM culture that tends toward deep suspicion of “pre-written prayers” and sacramental traditions, especially Roman Catholicism, he has steadily been making inroads and building friendships and showing that the RC church isn’t scary, and it gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. So, yay, Matt Maher.
But it makes me ask – how many other “Matt Mahers” are out there? How many grew-up-Lutheran (or RC or Anglican) composers and lyricists have we pushed to non-denom Baptist/Reformed circles because we explicitly and implicitly communicate that any music less than 200 years old (theirs) is inherently inferior?
Once upon a time, the pipe organ was new. Once upon a time, Bach was but a gleam in his father’s eye. Surely, because there is nothing new under the sun, once upon a time somebody thought that “kids these days” needed to stop trying to reinvent the wheel, when God hath so clearly ordained the psalms for the purpose of corporate worship why do you need anything different isn’t what we have good enough for you?
I’m not giving up on my homeboys, Watts and Wesley. But I love me some Matt Maher. Someday my congregation isn’t going to have an organist (we only barely do now). So how do we, who love and respect and honor the Tradition of the Church and the sacred words and music it has given us, also find ways to lift up and honor the gifts of today’s saints, as well? If God has given them the gifts, then it must be because the Church has need of them. What do we do with that?