Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Mereness of Church: Her Singing

One place that the absence of mereness will be felt is in the singing of the church.

Yet, the absence of mereness in singing will not necessarily be thought of as a problem to be fixed. When listening to music and singing, we're accustomed to hearing complexity. For most people, music and singing belong in the category of "creative arts," and certainly anything called "creative" should bring ingenuity and complexity. Unlike cluttered and complex preaching which is correctly regarded as anything but "artistic," full production music and singing are regarded by many as the apex of expression. It is considered the opposite of "boring" or "stale" worship, and a synonym for exciting, engaging and "real worship."

And not surprisingly, wherever mereness in singing and music are abandoned in corporate gatherings "style" factors heavily into any discussion about that church's "worship." A church segregates herself in order to offer various styles of music and singing to its various members--contemporary, traditional and blended services. In other cases, churches split altogether along these stylistic emphases. And some churches are planted with a distinctive emphasis on this or that style of music in order to reach a particular group. You can almost be certain that wherever style becomes the dominant criteria in directing a church's public singing that beneath that thin veneer are warring preferences threatening to tear a group apart (James 4:1-3). More often than we perhaps admit, our personal preferences are driving our emphasis in a selfish and lazy way. Selfish because we want what we want and we're ready to fight for it, and lazy because we can't even countenance the idea of working to learn or acquire a taste for something different, something not our preference.

Now a disclaimer: I know less about music and singing and worship than almost every pastor I know. If everyone else knows more about music than I do, then by definition I am definitely NOT an expert. So, feel free to take what's useful and leave the rest as one man's opinion.

But my main concern is for the unity of the local church, a unity meant to be expressed in her singing as with every other aspect of her life, and a unity that should include various age groups, cultures, ethnicity, and even languages. While most may be drawn to a professional, slick sounding music experience, it is mereness that helps us achieve the kind of unity emphasized in Scripture.
What is "mereness" in this area?
Honestly, I don't really know. This post is an attempt to put some thoughts down to chew on. As I said, I'm no expert. But here are a few short thoughts.

Mereness in the public singing must be Christ-centered. I trust everyone will agree with that, although a fair amount of material is actually fairly man-centered, emphasizing man's needs, desires, etc. Mereness means directing ourselves to God and His truth supremely revealed in His Son and leaving off preoccupation with self (which gives rise to self-centeredness and selfish preference in worship).

The most effective way to be Christ-centered is to be Word-centered. Sing things that are biblical in content and meaning and that are biblical in phraseology. Some of my favorite gospel rap artists are thoroughly biblical in their content, but their phrasing probably won't be edifying to most other people in my church. Likewise, songs that use biblical phrasing in an unhelpful or ambiguous way should be avoided. In the singing of the assembly, we should work to sing the Bible in its meaning and its phrasing where possible.

A mere approach to music and singing will also be lyric centered. Sometimes a public gathering can be cluttered and made more complex by overly-complex music and accompaniment. The accompaniment should accompany not dominate. One of the top two things most frequently cited when one ethnic group decides not to join a church made up predominantly of another ethnic group is musical style. It's the "They don't sing the way we do" argument. And that perception/reality has a lot to do with the interaction of lyrics and accompaniment. Make the accompaniment more mere, center the singing on biblical lyrics, and much of that argument is minimized.

Finally, a mere approach is edification-centered. The aim is to build up the congregation, not to entertain or fill the program. This makes the public singing of the church an incredibly important teaching and pastoral care ministry. It's by our singing (our lyrics) that we speak to one another (Co.. 3:16). When we choose songs to entertain or to exalt a particular style, we miss a tremendous God-given opportunity to mold our people to Christ. Singing and music is powerful! And because it's powerful it should receive more careful attention, not less. And it should be specifically employed for the edification of the people, not their entertainment.
That's a quick crack at trying to define a mere approach. A couple of thoughts regarding the positive advantages to a mere approach to singing and music:

1. Mereness helps us avoid the entertainment trap.

For too many people in too many places, the time of public singing on the Lord's Day is a time for being entertained. Many worshippers want to be dazzled Sunday to Sunday by a production. They want to consume the singing and music not provide it. They want a certain need met not to give themselves in edifying others. They become passive spectators, bystanders while the choir or the praise team or the neighbors next to them perform. And catering to this expectation inevitably leads the leaders of the public gathering toward providing more and more "entertainment value." This can be subtle, but the pressure is real. Most of us have a good and genuine desire to have people engaged in the public gathering. But that desire can be exploited by the temptation to entertain rather than educate and disciple in this area. Intentionally being mere helps us resist the pressure to entertain.

2. More likely to "sing to one another" for mutual edification.
This point is connected with the first. If we're mere in our musical approach, we create for ourselves opportunity to teach and train our people in this area. In our public praise, we are always teaching, instructing the people in some way. We're shaping them as we sing. The key question, then, is "what are we shaping them into?" Are we shaping them into consumers of music, much like those people at the listening stations in the local record store? Or are we shaping them into Spirit-filled thanksgivers, people who view the corporate singing as "speaking to one another" words of truth and encouragement? (Eph. 5:18-20) Where we keep our music and singing mere and word centered, we disciple people even in the singing event itself. Keeping the singing and music mere allows us to teach the people to sing with understanding rather than with reliance on technique or theatrics.

3. Allow wider groups of people to enter into the singing and participate in mutual edification.

And this mereness also allows the church to demonstrate Christ-centered unity across natural divisions of age, ethnicity and class. And this isn't a matter of "style," but of teaching. I've belonged to a congregation that placed pretty heavy emphasis on the singing of hymns (old hymns!) and benefited from the 20-somethings along with the 80-somethings singing them to each other with joy, love, and enthusiasm. I've been in congregations that primarily sing solid contemporary songs with a hymn or two added in, with great unity displayed as people from different ethnic backgrounds lifted their voices in thanksgiving to the God who bought them. In both cases, I think it was the pulling away of musical and lyrical "clutter" under the guise of cultural or age-group experience/distinctives that made that participation and unity possible. Avoiding the temptation to cater to a majority group's preferences and simply adding a word of instruction or introduction made all the difference in the world in the church's ability to demonstrate unity in diversity when it came to the music. I've seen two wonderful recent examples of this at conferences. At both the Desiring God Pastors' Conference and the New Life Bible Conference, there was music and singing that allowed this unity. Songs were chosen from various genres, various historical and ethnic backgrounds, biblical in their content, Christ-centered, singable, and introduced well. The effect was that the mereness aided a wider unity.

In all of this, I'm simply trying to grapple with what will allow the maximum number of Christians from the maximum number of backgrounds to join together in public thanksgiving to God and be edified in the process. I think the answer is to be as little distracting as possible. And I think that requires peeling off the kinds of barriers created by either an intentional "sector approach" where you appeal to a particular demographic or an unintentional, uncritical reliance on preferences that all too often are less inviting and edifying than we think. I think that requires the church to be mere in her singing and music.


Anonymous said...

Great post, pastor Thabiti.

In your local church there in Grand Caymen, would this be how you would describe your singing and your "worship"? And if so, how gas it impacted your church?

FellowElder said...

I would say that when we're at our best this is what is happening at FBC. And, I think this approach or something like it is necessary at FBC because of its rich diversity. There's no clear ethnic super-majority at the church, so folks are coming from literally all around the world. We want everyone to feel at home and to be able to benefit from the public gathering. Our pastor of worship does an excellent job at trying to "invite people in" to the worship. Like everyone, there are "off" days and things we'd like to improve, but I think the Lord ministers powerfully to people in the public gathering at FBC.