3 Errors of Corporate Musical Style

Congregation-blurThis is an excerpt from a worthy post I read yesterday at Challies.com:

It is ironic that music, an element meant to draw Christians together in mutual love and service (see Colossians 3:16) has become a force for significant division within the church. It just goes to show, I guess, that we can make a mess of pretty much anything. In their book The Compelling Community, Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop point out 3 common errors of musical style can stifle local church community:

Music that’s difficult to sing corporately. When you shape your musical style with the entire congregation in mind, you battle a consumerist mind-set that wants music that “appeals to me.” And you emphasize the breadth of community we should expect to find in a local church.

Music with limited emotional breadth. Much of church music is happy music. But if that is all we ever have, we substantially dilute the Christian experience.

Music that feels like a performance. Little can build a feeling of congregational unity more than hearing the whole church sing their hearts out in passionate praise to God. We should design our musical style with this in mind.

Above all, we must teach our congregations that congregational worship requires sacrifice [emphasis added]. If we’re serious about displaying the diversity that the gospel brings to a local congregation, then each of us will make sacrifices in the type of music we sing. But through that small sacrifice, we enable congregational unity that sings a much more profound note of praise than any individual could ever produce on his own.

My experience as a church musician and director resonates deeply with this. I hope you’ll take a moment to read the entire post.

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Brunch with Bobby & Kristen Gilles (of Sojourn Music)

Several months ago, a friend recommended the blog of Bobby and Kristen Gilles as a good worship/music resource. I found their posts to be extremely helpful, so I added their site to my own resource links. I even sited one of Bobby’s posts as a springboard for one of my own. To my great surprise and delight, their latest post was an invitation for any of their readers to join them for brunch at a friend’s home in Greenville, SC (where I just so happen to live). Though the introvert in me rebelled at the idea of meeting and mingling with people I didn’t know, I’m so glad that I did (as is usually the case)!

Bobby and Kristen are leaders in a group of church campuses called Sojourn Community Church in the Louisville, KY area. Bobby is a songwriter and communications director, and Kristen is a songwriter and worship leader. Both of them have many years of experience thinking through and planning worship services. At this meeting, they shared some of their experiences and insights. I thought these were worth passing along. (The information and resources that follow were all shared at the meeting and are not my own.)

What is a “liturgy”?

If the word liturgy scares you, then “gird up thy loins.” It simply means, “The work of the people.” A church service liturgy is just that–our service, together, to God. It’s the way we carry out our job, which is to reenact, teach and celebrate the gospel each time we gather.

An intentional liturgy helps us tell the gospel story to ourselves and each other, through preaching and singing. There is no head-heart distinction between preaching and singing. Our songs are just as important for teaching as they are for praise (Eph. 5:19).

Through repetition we cultivate good “vertical habits.” For example, we are constantly sinning and need to confess and repent of our sins all the time. Doing this together weekly cultivates an attitude of repentance through the week. If all of life should be worship to God, then our gathered times are also “rehearsals” for worshipping all week.

Our songs, then, should along with the sermon narrate the gospel story through the worship service. We can choose songs appropriate for each “movement” of the gospel story: call to worship, confession and repentance, celebration of assurance, passing of the peace, prayer for illumination, communion, giving, dedication, and benediction.

Won’t following a liturgy make the service stale?

We all know it happens: as soon as the sermon is done, we shut off and sometimes look for a quick exit. The problem is not that we follow a service order, it’s that we have a consumer mindset when it comes to our church. We’re there to get fed and watch a show. But if our people have ownership of the service, if they understand what we’re doing and why we’re saying these things, then they won’t want to miss it. We want to be invested as congregants.

The consistency of a liturgy actually helps. You’d think it would get stale. But we are creatures of habit. We crave and need regularity. And there are lots of ways to find variety within the service.

How often should we teach new music in our services?

It may be somewhat true that younger folks like learning new music more than older folks. But give people credit. They’re smart and can learn new music. There are no perfect guidelines when it comes to how many new songs to tackle as a church. The main thing is singability! Just be intentional. “We’re learning this because it’s the heart/voice that our congregation needs to have!”

The Call to Worship is a good time to introduce a song. We’re not in the middle of the service finding that we can’t sing the song. Invite people to be a part of the service through the singing.

What part does suffering play in our worship services?

Grieving happens in isolation, but mourning happens in community. Weep with those who weep. How do we make space in the service for those who are mourning? This is why we have a time of confession and/or lament. When we sing together about these things, it gives me truth for my moments alone. The songs we sing teach me words to say to God on my own in times of grief, sorrow, and repentance. People may wonder, “Can I not approach God about this?” because they are not experiencing it corporately.

Consider having a time of silence in your service (no background music). Silence makes people nervous, but it may be worth practicing corporately. It will take some time to push past the awkwardness. Call out the elephant in the room. And those moments might not be for me. But as a group, somebody needs silence. Can we personally sit in silence before the Lord?

Ideas: corporate prayer as prompt to engage during the silence; or put something up visual that they can relate to. Be sensitive to the fact that people are different and experience things differently.

But we don’t mourn as those who have no hope. We always get to the “hope” part of the story.

“When grief presses you to the dust, worship there.” ~Spurgeon

How do Communion and Benediction fit into the “story”?

We follow the model of Paul more than Jesus as far as story telling. A lot of our theology comes from the stories and songs that we know. The sermon may not be narrative, but as part of the liturgy, it becomes part of the story. Communion then becomes a part of the story as well. Lead into it from the sermon, and make the connection to the big picture.

Benediction: a blessing for the road. We are being sent. We are still the church, though scattered. We are blessed to be a blessing. We do a responsive benediction: preacher: “Peace be with you”—congregation: “and with you.” You’d be surprised at how much you look forward to that. You feel like you can’t leave until after the benediction.

Why follow the Christian calendar?

Practice the seasons of the Christian calendar (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, etc) as a way to rehearse the gospel all year—provides a balanced diet. And it’s just a tool. It’s not a requirement. We all follow calendars. Why not follow the Christian calendar instead of just the Hallmark calendar? It’s good to be conditioned by the Christian calendar.

For instance: the season of Lent is a time when we focus on our need of the cross—it’s building toward Easter. If we don’t take the time to repent and mourn over sin, then the joy of Christ’s rescue will be lost on us. If we don’t enter into the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, then Easter will not be the release that it’s supposed to be!

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