what goes into worship?

When we were surveying the congregation about adding another service, one of our active young adults made an interesting comment. It was (paraphrased) that “churches that do [contemporary music] have a ridiculous, unbelievable message. The music is a bribe, and we don’t need that.”

Let’s unpack that sentiment. There’s an underlying connection made between worship style and theological content that is disappointing.

First, the speaker recognizes that music is a Good Thing, that it can be used as a reward to entice someone into doing something otherwise undesirable. So far, so good.

Next, there is the widely-held belief that contemporary music is only used by people without theological depth (whatever that may mean to us).

And finally, that we UUs live by the intellect alone – we don’t need that emotional stuff because our mojo is strong and we live in our heads.

Say what? Yes, naturally I agree music is a good thing. It is a different experience than reading, or looking, or even listening to carefully structured words. Music is a language (see previous post). Music can convey emotion without the intermediation of words. Making music together synchronizes the brains and nervous systems of the participants into united intentional action. Music reaches parts of your brain that are inaccessible to words.

And so, would we want worship without music? Indeed, does anyone anywhere worship without music? In the universal quest to experience something transcendent, music is uniquely able to turn off the “monkey mind” and get us there fast. As far as I know, music is universally used as part of worship.

So, why the stigma that “contemporary worship music” is inevitably wedded to shallow theology? Disagree with Rick Warren on whatever you wish, but don’t call him shallow. He thinks hard about his faith and then challenges his congregation to do the same. Among the many worship styles at his church, there is some kicking contemporary music. And of course he is not alone in this. (Conversely, I have heard some incredibly shallow sermons in very traditional worship settings.)

Likewise, may I point out that UUs don’t have any corner on depth. If you’re honest, you must admit you’ve heard some pretty thin sermonizing at some time or another, even from usually reliably wonderful UU preachers. Nobody is “on” all the time, and some ministers have more inherent depth than others. Some don’t ask themselves every week “how can I bring the congregation to a turning point in their lives today?”, and some don’t have it in them to accomplish that even if they do ask it.

Conclusion: traditional worship doesn’t lend a sermon depth any more than contemporary style takes it away. In fact, our traditional and contemporary services feature the exact same sermon every week. Form and content are largely independent of each other.

All this is a way of noting that musical and worship styles have no inherent link to theology. Sorry if I’m shouting the obvious, but the statement I opened with shows that some people still don’t get that.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s get back to discussing why contemporary worship style can get the message to people faster.

About liberalreligiongetsloud

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

15 Responses to what goes into worship?

  1. Scott Wells says:

    These are straw man arguments.

  2. Paul Oakley says:

    “Indeed, does anyone anywhere worship without music?”

    Er, um, ever heard of the Quakers? In addition, a quick Google search finds several discussions of ways and values of worshiping without music. No, it’s not the majority way, but it does exist and does work for some.

    • OK, I see in Wikipedia that “How Can I Keep From Singing” isn’t really a Quaker song. My bad. And I’m sure there are other sects that avoid music as too sensual or somesuch. Some groups also avoid sex, or comfort.

      I think the general point is valid, though. If singing was good enough for King David, it’s good enough for me.

      • Paul Oakley says:

        King David also arranged Uriah the Hittite’s death so he could marry Uriah’s wife, whom David had gotten pregnant while Uriah was off serving in David’s army. So David did not give proper respect to those who served him and was a murderer and an adulterer to boot. “Good enough for KD,” isn’t a good enough reason.

        And though there are Quakers who worship using hymns (regardless who wrote them), there are other Quakers who worship mostly in silence and by the spoken word, without music having an expected place.

        But I get and completely accept your point that music is the frequent companion of religious and/or spiritual ritual, ceremony, liturgy, or celebration across a wide span of cultures, beliefs, and practices. Just please don’t universalize it because it isn’t a universal.

        Furthermore, the perceived tone with which you dismiss those who worship without music and those who take restrictive vows or live lives of intentional simplicity not only does nothing to advance your position but suggests an intolerance that I will assume you did not intend.

        While I have sometimes sat in silence with the Quakers, I definitely love music-based worship, from the Gregorian chant of Trappist monks singing Compline, to the swell of old German organ music, to postmodern crypto-Jewish music from the American Southwest, to folk music from the Pyrenees, to some of the stuff in each of our UU hymnals, to Taizé, to some of the better examples of Christian rock, to anything whose words fit the theme of the service and whose tone and tenor fit the intended feel of the service.

      • Let me be more specific: if the Psalms are revered as worshipful, and if David exhorts us to sing praises “with the harp”, then I take that (among others) an an invitation to joyous, musical worship.

  3. Kim Hampton says:

    As someone who has spent the last 2 1/2 years with Quakers of all stripes, I second Paul Oakley’s comment.

    I also take issue with your statement “music and worship styles have no inherent link to theology.” As someone who is looking back at her roots, I am coming to realize that nothing could be further from the truth….music and worship styles are intimately connected to theology. And the longer I hang around UUs, the more I see why they are that intimate.

    This isn’t about emotionalism or intellect. This is about joy…and believing that you have a message that is worthy of beautiful, reverent and exciting worship. That message should be able to fit any and every type of worship style.

    Unfortunately I hear something else in both your statement and the statement of the active young adult. It is the fear (yes I said fear) of being looked down on as lower class; that really good contemporary worship is of the lower classes and is beneath us.

  4. This is about joy…and believing that you have a message that is worthy of beautiful, reverent and exciting worship. That message should be able to fit any and every type of worship style.

    I’m not sure what we disagree about. This is exactly my feeling, too. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have joyous, exciting music to go along with our joyous, exciting message. I do not fear this kind of worship – it’s what I do every week, and am promoting on the blog. Did I misread your comment?

  5. Paul Oakley says:

    I posted my own reflections on the survey comment you responded to. For whatever it is worth, you’ll find it here.


  6. Hey liberalreligiongetsloud – I get what you’re saying and I like it! Thanks for the post. You may want to check out UUCA’s Rev. Anthony David’s sermon expanding on this topic: “On Repelling Fewer People: Reflections on Muliculturalism and More” http://anthonyuu.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/on-repelling-fewer-people-reflections-on-multiculturalism-and-more/

    A great quote from his sermon, “I can’t tell you how many times I was “pecked to death” by people who came to us from other Unitarian Universalist congregations—people whose sense of what is proper for UU culture was mortally offended by what they were experiencing in our pews. They smelled white trash, and they sneered. “

  7. Paul Oakley says:

    What Goes Into Worship? and some self-evaluation re why I’m feeling uneasy about it…

    • For some reason, I’m unable to post a reply on your blog, so I’ll have to put it here.

      Great comments! I am with you, totally. We thought long and hard about how to eliminate the “sermon sandwich” effect, and came up short for a number of practical and procedural reasons. In addition to the minister’s workload, there’s rearranging the sanctuary in a half hour and similar things. My son insisted that “square worship” would never work, but for now, we’re stuck with it.

      And so, what we have is more or less another sandwich. This time on rye instead of whole wheat, and with green chiles instead of pickles, but a sandwich nonetheless. So, we agree on most things about how the “contemporary” style works as worship. Until we have a separate building for it, it’s going to be largely a repackaging of the traditional service.

      There were some specific points in your musings I wanted to respond to, though. First, the notion that the frame is not important, only the picture. Modern artists often treat the frame as part of the work, rather than a gilded trifle with no stylistic relationship to the painting. That analogy works well for me.

      As a music AND worship leader, the part of the service I am charged with consists not only of music, but also meditation, readings, greeting visitors, opening and closing words, etc. And while I’m putting all that together, I am constantly mindful that every second spent in worship should contribute to the experience of the holy. Certainly, music is the thing most people notice first as different, but it’s not the only thing. During the course of a typical service, the mood goes from loud and joyous gradually down to meditative and, often, silent, and then gradually back up to a loud and joyous conclusion. Similarly, the focus starts off horizontal, then (usually) changes to vertical during the meditation, then goes back to horizontal for the closing.

      Some of that is no different in principle than what happens in our traditional services, but we don’t have, for example, an “interlude” where a guest musician interrupts the flow of worship to present perform something (possibly unrelated to anything else in the service) to a passive “live audience”. All the music except the offertory is sung by the whole congregation, and I regularly mention the role of communal singing as an act of communal worship. Similarly, our meditation always concludes with the congregation calling out the names of those in their hearts (no “joys and concerns” announcement period) to bring us back together after silent contemplation.

      Like you said, “the entire worship service should be an expression of a congregation’s experience of grace.” Whether or not we always achieve it, that is our goal, too. The purpose of the frame, in my view, is not to fill the part of the hour when the preacher is sitting down. It is to engage the congregation from the get-go in communal worship, keep them there the whole hour, and send them out feeling not only full of grace, but full of the love of their faith community. Not just integration with the sermon, then, but an hour-long act of worship.

      This is all still very experimental. Our worship team met just a couple of weeks ago to change the order of service to enhance the flow of mood and emotion. As we find our way, no doubt more will change, I’m sure. My goal, though, is not to merely change the frame, but to make the frame an integral and stylistic part of the artwork.

      • Paul Oakley says:

        Actually, your reply posted to my blog just fine. But others have had a similar difficulty. Don’t know what causes it.

        Thanks for your reply! I like your rye and chillies sandwich analogy! Thanks too for laying out specific ways you have to accommodate the physical reality of your facility. That’s very important to keep in mind.

        Oh, and one reason I chose “Sailors and Floozies” – besides the fact that it is luscious – is the fact that the frame is integral to the work, even though none of the online jpegs that I can find of it show the frame. I has faux graffiti on it, including, right below the recumbent sailor with the woman leaning over him, the scrawled words “Hey Evelyn, mind your own goddamn business!”

        And frames always make me think of Sam Shepard’s play Fool for Love, in which Eddie and Mae’s father’s trailer has, in place of family photos, an empty frame on the wall, which he *says* holds the picture of Barbara Mandrell, his imaginary wife.

        Thank you very much for clarifying your position in the reflection of my perceptions of your post!

  8. Pingback: it’s not all about music | Liberal Religion Gets Loud

  9. Pingback: Teen suicide, praying, and other UU blogging concerns « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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