The strangely new radical discipleship choice to attend church services most Sundays

For almost 2000 years, Christians have regularly met together at least once per week (usually Sundays) to read and teach the Bible, sing, pray, break the bread and drink wine to remember Jesus’ death (communion), and build community together. This was a natural continuation of the Jewish Temple meetings, affirmed by the writer of the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:23-25), with direction to be orderly by Paul (1 Corinthians 14), and modelled in the Acts of the Apostles.  At first: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).  And eventually the Churches created their own Temple style meetings using the rooms in the larger houses of wealthier congregation members (Acts 20).

Due to legal complications concerning property ownership rights, services held in dedicated church buildings was uncommon until after Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century.  Of the few church owned buildings before Constantine, the earliest known is Dura Europos on the Euphrates River (eastern Roman Syria). Archeologists believe it was a house, bought by Christians, and renovated to suit church purposes between 240-250.  After Constantine authorised the Roman Church, he commissioned Basilicas, and church services begun to occur, for better or worse, in architecturally dedicated worship spaces.

There is not space here to trace the history of Christians and their attendance at church services to the 20th century, albeit to say that the model of temple and house gatherings continued in different forms and with different emphasis right up until contemporary times.

The point of this article is to consider the retrograde step of Western Christians, in the past 15 years, to attend services far less regularly.

In my context of Melbourne, Australia, this shrinking commitment amongst some Christians to attend weekly services seems to reflect a shift in priorities: families fitting in extra school activities, weekend holidays, going out for brunch with friends, and seeing church services as “a religious product that is provided for me” rather than an expression of Christian unity and covenant: thus, we have consumer Christianity.  Some church attenders express a sense of boredom: a criticism that may or may not be fair.  Perhaps the services are dull and predictable.  But if the said Christian is beginning from a place of apathy and spiritual dryness, then the expectation that services should inject them with all that they need to be excited about their faith is unrealistic and misguided.  If the Christian’s faith is childish (rather than child-like), they may  be unfairly comparing their local service, its preaching and music, to large Christian conference gatherings, or podcasts of the flagship churches.  (Perhaps the online marketing of churches to Christians via sermon podcasts and groovy websites has had a bigger negative impact on the local context than we expect?)

Of course some blame does go to church leaders, who haven’t worked to adapt their ministry to a culture changing rapidly around them.  Just like the local corner hardware store, now a quaint relic, that once was the go-to place for hammers and nails, but whose owner didn’t make any changes to his business plan when the hardware megastore opened up around the corner.  Or like the publishers who led their newspapers into redundancy by pressing on exclusively with print media as the advertising dollar shifted online.  Church leaders who have dug their heels in and preserved a bygone church culture for the sake of sentimental comfort rather than seriously respond to the challenge of relevancy, have limited their audience to a narrow pool of churchy people.  Ironically, even the Pentecostal movement in Australia is now dangerously holding on to past cultural forms, rather than adapting for new cultures (a quality they once held high): notice the commitment to mid -2000s Hillsong ministry forms.

Also, many church leaders suffer from one or more the following problems:

  • laziness
  • lack of skill
  • apathy
  • boredom
  • cynicism
  • burn-out
  • anger and bitterness at their own lack of results or circumstance
  • turned on more by denominational politics and bureaucracy than their faith in Jesus
  • overworked
  • under-resourced
  • lack of vision
  • low emotional intelligence
  • unresolved personal sin

And the big one:

  • lost their commitment to The Gospel

Why would you want to regularly attend a church service with a leader bogged down in the mire of despondency?

Some writers on the mission of the church from the 2000s have tried to argue that less of an emphasis on the Sunday church service could be a good thing because, in their opinion, there has been too much effort to imitate the mega-attractional church. The missional finger has pointed for a while now at churches who sink all their cash into performance based ‘digital worship’ (with lots of screens etc…), slick music, and a middle-class-upwardlymobile-alpha-male-pastor (with a sexy wife and a minibus of kids).  These churches have supposedly forgotten their mission to the world.  The other point that needed to be made, but is now twisted as a cliche excuse, is “we don’t go to church – we are the Church!”

Whether it is a shift in priorities, a lack of leadership, or a well intentioned missional trend, attending services with one’s local church once every three or four weeks has not caused an increase in mission activity or passionate spirituality (as could be predicted).  Rather, it has led to churches with loosely committed apathetic members – many who pick and choose to attend the community gatherings around convenience or what “worship product” (preacher, topic, music etc) is on offer that particular Sunday.  Let’s face the reality that, except in churches with high mission accountability amongst its members, Christians are not substituting Sunday services to get out and be ‘incarnational’ or ‘present’ or whatever missional weasel word we might want to dribble.  Let’s also face up to the sad truth that for many churches there is little sense of covenantal community or extended spiritual family.

I want to advocate for the mission focused church to also believe in Temple gatherings.  The church that I lead, Merri Creek Anglican, is a mission focused church, and we also believe in the long term power and importance of the weekly church service gathering. Watch this video and see why it’s so important…

Contemporary Christian Worship Music – New Academic Research

…as popular Christian worship music gains a larger audience, Ari Kelman, associate professor of education at Stanford, has uncovered a surprising paradox. The very musicians, songwriters and music producers who create the music are increasingly sensitive to the “precarious relationship between rock music and worship,” Kelman said. (From Stanford News, article by Ashley Walters)

Kelman’s new upcoming publication Shout to the Lord: Music and Worship in Evangelical America, looks to be asking some important questions about the role of music in contemporary evangelical churches.  His research is revealing the secularisation of this music, where musicians are focused less on their role as leaders of liturgy and more as musicians trying to produce a good sound:

Kelman underscored the powerful role musicians and music producers assume in faith practices. “If people sing their faith, then those who write, perform and produce this music” become central to worship performance and practice.

Worship songs, Kelman noted, seek to model a “heavenly version of prayer” derived from Christian scripture. They attempt to deliver

Martin Smith

theology while leading the audience through a performance by listening and singing along to a scriptural message.

Not all professional worship leaders and musicians attempt to address these issues. When Kelman was doing fieldwork at a school for worship leaders, he joined a class in which participants learned how to work with a worship band.

The rehearsal classes focused on instrumentation and arrangements, leaving “almost no room for questions about the religious purpose of their playing together.”

I’m looking forward to reading this musicological study.

Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Discussion in the Mainstream Media

Raising Hell for Jesus is a recent article in the Fairfax publication The Good Weekend.

I love the little window we get at the end of the article into how to write a contemporary worship song.  Ryan Smith is a relatively high profile worship pastor in a high profile pentecostal megachurch:

In a sound studio at the main c3 campus in Oxford Falls, I meet the church’s music director Ryan Smith and singer Dan Korocz, who give me a short lesson in constructing a contemporary worship song.

“That’s probably one of the hardest things in the world,” Smith says. “We might come up with a theme – ‘God’s unconditional love’ is a classic example. Then we start with a chorus.”

Smith strums his guitar in the key of F and sings in a soft voice: “Unconditional, unconditional, You have saved me, You have loved me.”

Korocz joins in: “Your love is relentless, Your love, uh, uh, uh, uuuhhhhh, love is relentless.” Then Smith: “Love is amaaaazing.”

Rhyming words always help, he says. “A lot of people are quite ‘Christian-ese’ about it, where you use words like ‘mercy’, ‘consecration’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘crucifixion’ .”

What rhymes with crucifixion, I ask? They think for a while.

“If it was crucifixion, you could rhyme it with ‘His love we’re in’ ,” Smith replies, finally.

“Or ‘salvation’,” Korocz adds.

Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 4, I Wanna Cross Over: The Struggle for Mainstream Legitimacy

In the last forty years there have been very few notable pop-gospel artists who have been strong enough to build a mainstream audience.

In Australia we had the first million record selling chart album with the singing nun, Sister Janet Mead, who was a one hit wonder with her electrified rendition of The Lord’s Prayer.  While Mead’s Holy Orders were a significant novelty factor, she did not keep attracting non-church audiences past that song.

In contrast, perhaps my favourite 1970s gospel artist who did draw worldwide attention is Andraé Crouch – especially when he was with his band The Disciples.

Andraé Crouch and the Disciples

In albums such as Keep on Singin’ (1972), Take Me Back (1975), and This is Another Day (1976), Crouch fused traditional Gospel with soul, funk and folk rock to get a sound that had emotional guts and artistic brilliance.  Crouch is the real deal.  His performing career started in 1960 with the Church of God in Christ Singers which included everyone’s hammond player of choice, Billy Preston.  But when he formed the Disciples in 1965 they elevated to such heights of popularity as to find themselves performing on Johnny Carson and at Carnegie Hall.  Crouch went on to collaborate with Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Michael Jackson and Madonna and even had Elvis Presley perform one his compositions ‘I’ve Got Confidence.’  Andraé Crouch is living proof that gospel artists that are truly great musicians can be appreciated for their talent by the mainstream: his songs still get sung in churches (mainly in America).

More recently there have been many gospel artists find chart success in USA.  Bands and solo artists such as dc Talk, Lecrae, RED, Casting Crowns and the David Crowder Band have debuted in the top ten, but temporary chart success does not necessarily mean that the music is finding the mainstream.  When Christians purchase these albums all at the same time, (such as at a conference) the sales will register high on the charts for a week but quickly drop down the following week.  This phenomena occurs annually in the Australian charts.  The Sydney Morning Herald explains it (July 11, 2011),

Beyonce and Lady Gaga may lay claim to some of the biggest audiences worldwide, but Australia’s Hillsong Church has bumped off both pop powerhouses to score a top three berth on the ARIA albums chart.

Their latest album God Is Able, released to coincide with the annual Hillsong conference, debuted at number three this week, entering ahead of Beyonce’s 4 and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, which stand at fourth and fifth respectively.

It is the 10th Christian record to reach the top 10 since 2002.

The fact is, in the last thirty years, the only musicians singing about Jesus to consistently draw a mainstream audience have been those singing in traditional gospel (The Blind Boys of Alabama and Mavis Staplesor classical styles.  While Andraé Crouch’s pop-gospel did wow the world, not many others have done likewise.

In my next entry I will write about the great secular artists who found Jesus, the many who flirted with Jesus.

Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 3, From Innovators to Imitators (the 1960s and 70s)

In the early 1960s, young North American folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan repackaged the songs of their poet strumming heroes Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and became megastars.  They were beatnik Greenwich Village radicals, anti-establishment prophets with dark glasses, street philosophers, anti-McCarthy, post-religion and yet oh so spiritual.  For a few years it seemed like there was a grassroots revolution of ideas led by intellectual doped out pop-stars.  They cried out against injustice; stood alongside Martin Luther King Jnr at march on Washington; created a sense of camaraderie amongst disillusioned youths; and they were very cool.  It was natural, then, for the parallel tribe of long haired baby-boomer Christians to be swept up by this tide and challenge church conservatism.  Instead of the formality of the robed choirs, grand organs and Hymns Ancient and Modern, they opted for jangly guitars and ballads about a Jesus in their own politics.  Many of the newly ordained wore side burns and bell bottoms with their clergy shirts and habits.  Then, as Dylan smashed the very genre he helped invent and scandaled his fans with folk-rock, so followed the church music of the Jesus freaks.

Suddenly there was an explosion of Jesus rock.  For every mainstream artist and style there was a Christian imitation.  And the music of the Christian copies shaped this new church music of the “radicals.”  As there was Dylan inspired Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, so there was a Dylan inspired Paul Clark and Phil KeaggyLarry Norman took on the blues folk rock of Country Joe and the Fish.  Led Zeppelin tried to buy their way into heaven, and then Resurrection Band showed the gospel way.  Joe Cocker had a little help from his friends and Randy Matthews had a little help from his congregation (with much less whisky).    Elton John flew with the Rocket Man, Billy Joel sympathised with the Piano Man, and Keith Green worshipped the Son of Man.  James Taylor swooned about something in the way she moved, but Al Mossburg’s woman drove him insane for introducing him to Jesus.  Bowie counted down with Major Tom but Agape was simply a Voyaging Pilgrim.  As Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks wailed “who do you love?”, C. McPheeters and the Bible Belt Boogie Band simply loved Jesus.  There was a Creedence Clear Water Revival, but the real move of the Spirit came with the Hallelujah Joy Band.  I could go on.  If there was a chart topping act, there was a Christian counterpart in your local Christian book store.  The key musicological point I am making is: as secular led – in most cases – Christian musicians followed.  And this pattern was reflected in church music led by local musicians who only had their record collection as a reference.

Of course there were some exceptions.  In my next entry I will write about the struggle for gospel pop artists to find acceptance in the mainstream . 

Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 2, Church Music for Common America

In my last post I declared my distress at the lacklustre state of Contemporary Christian Worship Music.  I am not, however, necessarily going to advocate a high brow alternative; it is good for churches to sing the music of the people if they want to.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

When Gospel music emerged, it provided church music for common America: the uneducated classes, the slaves, famers, and factory workers. It was a fusion of the protestant hymn tradition and the African music introduced by the slaves of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries (see the Gospel history timeline ).   By the 1770s, the most popular hymn composer amongst slaves was Isaac Watts (1674-1749), whose pioneering influence over the lyrical and emotional content of Gospel Music should not be underestimated.  Watts controversially diverged from the starch musical tradition of his calvinistic English dissenting church (who made up a core part of the settler American church).  Watts reasoned,

Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament. Click here for more about Watts

Soon the slaves took the lyrical ideas of Watts, and brought their own sound.  Thus, out of the darkness of the slave-trade God made something beautiful.  At the beginning of the nineteenth-century, the first clear examples of Gospel music emerged in the form of spirituals, shouts, lined-hymns, and anthems.    While this music was aesthetically attractive and deeply emotional, with the “fear” and “love” of Watts, it was also music of the people.  Which is why the revival-pentecostal tent meetings from later in that century, under the leadership of evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody, adopted this style.  Moody employed the music of Ira D. Sankey, George F. Root, and P.P Bliss who published the song book ‘Gospel Songs’ in 1874 which was the first time a publication used “gospel” in reference to a musical genre.

In the early twentieth-century, the Pentecostal-holiness movement continued incorporating Gospel music in their meetings using guitars, tambourines and harmoniums for accompaniment.  The genre subdivided under the influence of  related genres blues, bluegrass and country.  And it soaked into the consciences and culture of influential popular artists who would start recording in the 1950s such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mahalia Jackson.  Soon this music was broadcast over the newly invented radio playing the records of the Carter family, Arizona Dranes, the many gospel quartets and the songs of Thomas A. Dorsey.      In 1938, Sister Rosetta Tharpe sold one-million records with the single “This Train.”

After the second world war, the popularity of Gospel music elevated to the concert hall, and was appreciated by mass audiences for its true artistic significance.  Recording artists such as Mahalia Jackson, the Swan Silvertones, the Caravans, the Original Gospel Harmonettes, and the Clara Ward Singers all became world-wide hits.  This music inspired people because it was raw, it had ache and passion, it reached inside of you and connected you with God.

While Gospel music bloomed and became the staple for many American churches, the European hymn tradition continued in parallel for those churches who so desired.

In my next entry I’ll explain what happened when the logic of “church music for common America” evolved in the 1960s and 70s. 

Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 1, From Mozart to McDonald’s

This first entry comes from a speech I made a recent conference in the style of TED on new ideas for the church on 22 October 2012.

At the 2005 Guardian Hay festival, British television personality Stephen Fry made this statement in the “blasphemy debate”.

Here is an excerpt of what he said:

 I mean it’s perfectly obvious that if there were ever a God he has lost all possible taste….you know God once had Bach and Michelangelo on his side, he had Mozart, and now who does he have? People with ginger whiskers and tinted spectacles who reduce the glories of theology to a kind of sharing…?

This was a cheap shot.  Fry made me so annoyed.  Why? Because it’s true.  I reference Fry’s statement as a way to launch into a rant about “contemporary worship music.”  Which, in case you are wondering, is a genre of church music, that gradually emerged starting in the late 1960s and being in full swing by the 1980s. In 2012, most mainline Christian churches sing these songs; if you go to churches in India, America, Europe or even China, you will experience the same.

I am going to argue that much contemporary worship music is aesthetically poor (the music and the lyrics), and as a result, is playing a part in hindering the worshipping life of the church, it is limiting the Church’s cultural appeal to the wider society (contrary to what we tell ourselves), and it reveals something about the church’s theology and self-perception.  I’ll return to that in a later post…

The English academic and worship song composer, Vicky Beeching  commented that it’s as if many of the contemporary worship songs were written blindfolded with a box of Christian fridge magnet poetry. She wrote,

Friends of mine joke that they play ‘worship cliche bingo’ when they hear a new contemporary Christian CD. They can basically guess what the next line and the next chord progression will be, as everything is starting to fit a predictable grid.

And Beeching is right about the predictable grid.  I once played keyboard in a worship band for a youth worship conference and for about thirty minutes, all of the songs used almost the same chord progression, in the same key, with only slight variation. And the same emotional structure of: soft opening with a gradual build to an epic rock out two thirds through, with a quiet drawn out ending.

You might like contemporary worship music.  You might like the repetition.  Well…I think it’s because you have been conditioned to like it.  You are like a child who has been brought up on McDonalds and thinks that’s the best food life has to offer – you haven’t discovered the splendor and variety of the world’s cuisine.  But there is so much more in store for you.  Did you know that God has in his record collection a library of wonderment, and it’s as if you’re only going back to the same old lame album (which he only has to be ironic.)  Don’t feel too bad if you have been brainwashed.  The weird thing is that most of the really gifted musicians in your church also have come to accept this sorry state of affairs.  They go home, listen to great music, and then come to church and leave their musical brain and heart at the door.

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Have you ever wondered why non-Christian people don’t care about contemporary Christian worship music?  They don’t know much about it, they don’t buy it, and they don’t seem to choose to listen to it.  If they go to iTunes to download music with Christian content, it is almost guaranteed that it will either be African American gospel music (such as The Blind Boys of Alabama or Mahalia Jackson), perhaps some gritty folk country album (Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan), or classical music (requiem masses, cantatas, choral music etc…)  But you won’t find them downloading contemporary worship music.

Similarly, in my home city, Melbourne Australia, apparently there are 141 choirs (not including from schools) listed on the guide to Melbourne choirs.  Of those listed, roughly 90 percent included either gospel or traditional Christian choral music as part of their repertoire – but none of them sing contemporary worship songs.  Secular choirs, the world over, look at the enormous canon of Christian music, and filter out everything labelled “contemporary worship.” I don’t blame them.

You might think I’m being elitist.  Isn’t it simply the case that we are now in a new egalitarian era when artistic brilliance in the church no longer matters, and where it’s better to encourage anyone who wants to, to get up and lead us in a song?  Shouldn’t anyone have the freedom to strum a few chords on a guitar and start a singalong.  Answer: yes, but why not have a singalong which is artistically pleasing, musically strong and inspiring?  Who wants to have to sit through a poor rendition of a poorly composed song?

You might question me from a spiritual point of view, arguing that all that matters is that you have a genuine person up the front, filled with the Holy Spirit and “focused on God.”  I agree.  But you can have both.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the church could once again inspire the world with music just as it has for most of its history?  Wouldn’t it be brilliant if contemporary worship music was such that it communicated the heights and depths of the majesty of God?  Wouldn’t it be great if you were moved to tears in the worship – not tears of laughter as you play worship-cliche-bingo to the latest Jesus is my boyfriend song – but tears that come from hearing an incredible band, or putting on your favourite album.

In my next post I’ll explain the history of the formation of Gospel music and how it spoke to common America.