Lowering the mentality, or lowering the barriers

My second post reacted to a comment about contemporary style worship being “culturally accommodating”. I want to unpack that phrase and offer another way to look at “modern” worship styles.

(None of these posts is meant as a slam against the author of the quote I used. That quote just happened to be handy, but it’s not unique.)

So, what are “traditional” and “contemporary” worship?

By traditional, I understand the Protestant liturgical style of the second half of the 20th century (including Unitarian Universalist). This involves singing The Doxology, a unison or responsive reading, a hymn of ancient heritage, a reading, a sermon, a meditation, an offering. These elements may vary slightly from week to week, but they are stable and predictable. Today’s typical Unitarian worship is fundamentally similar to what I experienced in a Southern Baptist church in the 1960s.

This is a virtue – the stability of the form lets congregants concentrate on the content, without worrying about what’s coming next, how to act, what to say, etc. And a major component of successful worship is spiritual comfort, which a liturgical tradition provides to many.

But it’s not without its problems. Among these, I will focus on one: the musical style.

The typical hymn (even in a “liberal and modern” hymnal) is “four-square” – highly regular in form and in rhythm. Of the first 100 songs in Singing the Living Tradition, fully twenty are from the 16th-18th century, mostly by German composers. Think of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (SLT No. 303). And another ten or twelve are from Southern Harmony (1835) or related shape-note sources, which draw from the same four-square tradition.

This is not a musical form you hear much, if at all, outside of traditionalist religious services. In other words, it’s a distinctive part of the Protestant religious culture. And in this context, “distinctive” can mean “foreign” or “difficult to understand” for newcomers who weren’t raised in the tradition. For those who were raised in the tradition, it may sometimes mean “throwback” or “obsolete”.

In either case, the comfort factor is replaced by a cultural barrier for a newcomer, and a serious cognitive dissonance between our self-professed progressiveness and modernity and our centuries-old musical worship style.

By contemporary , I understand a worship style that uses fewer (perhaps none) of the traditional elements mentioned above. It replaces them with less formality, with modern musical styles and with more congregational participation. Rather than singing The Doxology and a four-square hymn, reading an affirmation, then listening to a visiting harpist, we sing a couple more popular songs together at the first of the service. Clapping, swaying and dancing are encouraged to engage the whole body in worship.

(Just as each congregation has local variants on traditional worship, of course, they will also have their own way of adapting “contemporary” elements.)

Here’s the central idea: the musical style and content reflect what people are hearing today. The song styles mirror pop structure. We use a rhythm section (bass/drums/guitar/keyboard) and rotating volunteer singers. Our repertoire leans heavily on popular music from the last 30 or 40 years.

Both these changes aim at one goal: making the worship style transparent to worshipers. Rather than bumping up against the language or musical style, or feeling baffled by the unspoken but (mostly) silently assumed traditions, the newcomer to a contemporary service hears music and language that is so familiar that it doesn’t even warrant notice.

So, calling contemporary worship “culturally accommodating” is a disparaging way of noting that it cares about communication first, and maintaining sometimes uncommunicative traditions last. When it’s done right, the form disappears, and the mind is free to concentrate on the content.

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About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
This entry was posted in contemporary worship. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Lowering the mentality, or lowering the barriers

  1. David T says:

    Oh really?

    I’ve done web research on the question “Why don’t men come to church?” The distilled wisdom from the faster-growing Evangelical churches include “The music!” And their prescription is “Up-tempo, 4/4 time, anthems, choose a major key and stay in it – guys in church expect music that sounds like holy music, not radio music.”

    Compare that with the latest UU attempt to make music relevant – the Teal Hymnal; (I don’t have the exact title handy, but it’s paper bound with a blue green cover. Came out about 6 yr ago.) It’s filled with odd time signatures, lots of key changes. The women in our church seem to like it. The men.. not so much. Most Sundays, our congregation is about 70/30 female to male. (Blue Boat Home is a lovely song for a choir; please don’t make ME sing it.)

    • Interesting angle. Can you point us to some research (web or printed)?

      I’m a little skeptical of the claim. Women have outnumbered men in all churches for decades, and in that sense we can include UUs, too. If it was the “secular-sounding” music driving them away, where were they in 1960?

      For example:

      Past research on the gender factor in church membership generally demonstrated that more women attend church. Those women who attend church, do so more frequently than men. Bultena states that “the majority of the church members are women” (Bultena 1949, 384), and Smith, Denton, Faris and Regnerus (2002) conclude that “adult American women consistently score higher on cost [sic] measures of religiosity than adult men” (605). Mueller and Johnson (1975) find that “it is generally held, for example, that because of role expectations or social marginality, females participate more frequently than males” (788), and Roof summarizes that “women are more religious than men” (Roof 1976, 196).

      (I think that should read “most measures”.)

      And, later

      NPCC’s strategy can be summarized as: Having Andy Stanley as the preacher, and having cutting edge music, technology and children’s programs are great assets to get people in the door. Small groups are the way to keep people coming back. …
      NPCC’s worship band uses electric guitars, and drums. They play contemporary Christian music, as well as some secular songs. The difference may also be explained by the fact that FBCW is an older church, and the older people who now attend FBCW might have started attending a long time ago and continue attending.

      Geographic Analysis of Two Suburban Mega Church Congregations in Atlanta: A Distance and Demographic Study, Georgia State Univ. master’s thesis by Ulrike Krampe Ingram

      Although the contemporary services I’ve attended (including ours) have attracted people of all ages, it’s commonly accepted that the older a population is, the most likely it is to prefer a traditional service (or political style, or automobile brand, or whatever).

      And doesn’t “up-tempo, anthemic, 4/4, major key” pretty well describe “We Are The Champions”, too?

      Seriously, hit us with some reading matter, please.

  2. Paul Oakley says:

    Interesting aside (for me, anyway):

    I’ve recently read online complaints of traditionalist Lutherans about church music. They can’t stand the plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk butchering via musical oversimplification of the traditional Lutheran hymns as printed in the hymnals and as sung by congregations in much of American Protestantism (in services that still use those hymns). They object that the simplified versions are not only boring but inauthentic.

    Of course, resource-deprived remote congregations with a reed organ and no trained musicians made do with what they had and developed their own traditions. Plodding became holy.

    There are layers upon layers, and that is an enjoyable fact…

    • “Plodding became holy” is a brilliant statement of the reason we should always be examining our worship music to see if it still does the job. It also reminded me of this:

      IN THE TEMPLE
      Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das wiederholt sich immer wieder; schließlich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der Zeremonie.
      Franz Kafka


      Leopards break into the temple and drink up the contents of the sacrificial vessels until they’re empty; they do it again and again; eventually one can anticipate their behavior and it becomes part of the ceremony.

      Translated by Peter Firchow

  3. Kaye says:

    I do not believe it is a case of either-or. (We do not have to choose between traditional and contemporary music. We can and should have both.) More important than the TYPE of music that is used is HOW it is used. Whether it’s a song drawn from the contemporary pop world or a traditional hymn, it needs to be woven into the fabric and rhythm of the service in a way that’s meaningful. Marcia McFee, who is doing some very good work in this area, says “Music needs to have theological depth and stylistic diversity, and it must serve to communicate the message… and help us on our spiritual journey.” She speaks of the “4 i’s” of worship– the need to make it “interactive, intergenerational, interesting, and inspiring.” There are many ways to make traditional hymns meaningful and moving, but instead, what we usually see is the typical sandwich service, ie, a sermon and some readings sandwiched between an opening and closing hymn. Not only that, but the singing of hymns is usually rote and boring (stand up–sing a hymn–sit down). In addition, hymns are frequently chosen because the words fit the topic of the sermon rather than considering the purpose or function of the hymn in the flow of the service. It is critical that we incorporate a variety of musical styles in our worship (and Singing the Journey was an important although flawed effort in this direction), but if all we’re doing is changing the style of the music from traditional to contemporary, we are not solving the basic problem.

  4. Steven Rowe says:

    How can someone say anything about UU music, without the usual joke?
    “Why do UUs sing so poorly? Because they’re too busy reading ahead to see if they agree with it or not”. Of the songs that I hear in various UU congregations, it seems there are too many dirges, and not enough anthems. This is IMHO. Of course if the goal is to help me nap during the sermon, it’s a good thing.

    • Oh, I did, I did: here. I came to the same conclusion you did.

      And your reaction (sleeping) was exactly what I had in mind when I posted the admittedly provocative video of James Brown. If he was delivering a message of UU hope, you would listen, wouldn’t you? If he said “get up”, wouldn’t you get up?

  5. Steven Rowe says:

    Hmm, looks like I need to re-read the earlier parts before I post -( not that I will…..).
    I actually find most UU sermons (that aren’t classroom lectures) to be very interesting. But yes, more participation during a service would be better. “Responsive readings” while usually not great, are at least a toe-in method of audience participation.
    And one would have to be rather stuffy to not get up to James Brown…..

  6. Kathi Foy says:

    Thanks for making these distinctions in a clear, neutral fashion, Vance. I look forward to our Contemporary service starting up again next week.

  7. Elz says:

    Last week at Ferry Beach, what struck me was that people (including me) felt free to test our body’s sense of boundaries. It showed in the name-tag decorations, the singing, the marching and dancing, the drumming, the freely bright and flowing clothes on display. Typically, people only feel safe to do this in environments with a secure cultural center, which they can reference as they test, and to which they can return without fear of retribution. And what struck me is how restrained we were. Our hymns broke into glorious harmony, but they ended right on time. Nobody felt free to improvise into the repetitions by which chanting, or even gospel, unlock the mind.

    One of the strongest definitions of difference among cultures which happen to be other races is how the individual inhabits space. And I wondered what would happen to the sense of freedom among us older folks if that “safe space” had been dominated by a carefully negotiated etiquette. There we were, with bodies which still wanted to play, but knew only the older patterns of the last century. We wanted to sing louder and more widely than we do on Sunday morning — which we could only do by using music we already knew from Sunday morning repetitions.

    Maybe having a culture is a good thing. Certainly in raising children, we emphasize that they need a stable environment — morally, expressively, ethically — for decades, in order to form a solid core from which to launch their adult selves.

    But what if we adults are always launching? What if we want to keep coming back to that core, again and again, until our days are done?

    • I wasn’t thinking of your comment (consciously) when I posted the latest entry here, but it obviously ties in with what you said.

      I think maybe it’s time for some “Swami Beyondananda” in the meditation!

  8. newbdmbr says:

    I would like to reinforce in case previous posts have already described this: the Unitarian Universalist Church as a larger body dedicated to the worship of a Christian God operates under the only caveat that if one does not accept what Christians believe, the place of worship is still available to you. Furthermore, Christianity is large enough a religion to communicate with, co-exist with and build upon the strengths of each person to become a stronger soul.

    That said, the idea that any prescription be delivered to define or steer how we should know or come to know God is presumptuous at best.

    • Paul Oakley says:

      newbdmbr wrote: “…the Unitarian Universalist Church as a larger body dedicated to the worship of a Christian God…

      Two things:

      1 – The “Unitarian Universalist Church” does not exist. There are Unitarian Universalist churches, fellowships, societies, congregations, etc. And there is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

      2 – Unitarian Universalism is not “dedicated to the worship of a Christian God.” Non-Christians and those who do not give assent to any notion of “a Christian God,” undefinable though that is, are not a tolerated periphery within Unitarian Universalism but the norm.

      3 – Worship of God or gods is not what Unitarian Universalism is about.

  9. newbdmbr says:

    As to “cultural accomodation”, there is not one single church, mosque or temple that does not bend down to accept its membership. UU’s have a weakness in that they are enlightened and sometimes it shines so brightly as to blind people entering the church.

    You can miss a stair or walk into a donation box that way.

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