what is worship, where is worship, how is worship?

I guess in some ways, I’m an iconoclast, in that I advocate dumping some aspects of UU worship that I think have drifted into meaningless rote, or that preserve “traditions” that do not carry forward our core beliefs.

But I don’t think I’m a bomb-throwing radical — quite the opposite. I have come to realize that, deep down, I am deeply conservative, at least regarding some aspects of worship. In particular, the role of music in worship services.

“Wait!” I hear you cry, “weren’t you the one who was suggesting we look to James Brown or the Monkees for inspiration?”

Yep. But what I was talking about was style, not content. And while I appreciate the style of __________ (fill in the blank with Josquin, Debussy, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, the Beatles, Moby, or whomever), the content of much of that music has no direct connection to worship, to the effort to connect to the holy in the presence of a like-minded community.

This was brought home to me several times recently, as I found myself getting hot under the collar about music (played during a “traditional” worship service) that I would have loved listening to in other circumstances. The problem was not that it was not good music, or that the performance was lacking, but that it just didn’t belong there, then.

Some months ago, one of those musicians approached me after playing at the traditional service and offered to come play some great Duke Ellington pieces they had been working on, at the contemporary service. I replied that, while I am a big Ellington fan, I couldn’t think of anything he wrote that would work in the worship I lead. I added that all the music we use in the contemporary service relates to the sermon, or reinforces UU principles, and that we sing all of it together.

He looked perplexed. As a member of the congregation and a professional musician, he was used to regarding a worship service as a place for his group to showcase their music, without regard to how it fit into worship. And, for many of the congregants he played for, that was fine.

I don’t have time to give ten minutes of an hour of worship to Duke Ellington. There’s too much to do. We only get this short time together to build our community and move our hearts and minds into a sacred space. Being interrupted by “I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues” is a waste of the minutes of its performance, as well as the previous time spent getting to that sacred space, which was evaporated by the irrelevant musical choices.

I know that many UUs feel like hearing a wide variety of outside musicians adds to the experience — culturally, if not necessarily spiritually. Some even feel that listening to good music is a form of worship. I’m inclined to agree with that, to a certain extent. But I also know when I hear atonal, polyrhythmic jazz that I am not worshiping. I am in a different space, enjoyable and edifying, but not worshipful.

So, I count myself a conservative on the question of music in worship. Not because I don’t like the use of Macy Gray or the Doobie Brothers in worship (I do), but because I don’t advocate the use of any music that doesn’t advance the purpose of the hour we set aside for our spiritual practice. And, I say without hesitation, the Doobie Brothers have done that for us, while Ellington never will.

Discussion question: should Unitarian Universalists live in their heads or their hearts, spiritually? How do the musical styles above interact with each?

About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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9 Responses to what is worship, where is worship, how is worship?

  1. Paul Oakley says:

    Wonderful post! Thanks! I 100% agree that not all good music belongs in worship services!

  2. David says:

    I don’t know, Lance. “Never” is a big word.

    I could very easily write a sermon entitled “I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues,” and speak about how that genre of music was created to affirm individuals’ and communities’ entirely justified negative feelings about discrimination, poverty, and other “symptoms” of being a minority American in the mid-20th century.

    And it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that UU’s today often allow a sense of overwhelming to keep them from acting on their beliefs.

    Why not acknowledge the same truths that Ellington acknowledges, as part of a worshipful experience that emerges triumphant into community service?

    • Quite right, David. I was only thinking of the cases where musicians are booked on a random basis, with no regard for the sermon topic. That’s the way it usually happens with outside musicians (and often with members). You take what you get, which hardly ever contributes in a direct way to the act of worship.

      But, never say “never”.

  3. Kaye M. says:

    I’m curious what you think about the inclusion of Ellington’s “Come Sunday” in Singing the Living Tradition.

    • I didn’t remember it was in there! And I’ve never heard it sung in worship (like a lot of what’s in SLT, it’s better in theory than in practice, IMO).

      What I think about it is that it’s cool that Ellington wrote it and that it’s in there. So, using Ellington as a generalization was a bad example, though that doesn’t change my feelings about using (99% of) his music is worship.

      This is not one of the songs the musician in question mentioned. I wonder if he knows it’s in SLT?

  4. Pingback: Music and dress in worship, serving others, and other UU blogging « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

  5. Frank says:

    We should definitely live and worship in our hearts. A few years ago at a music workshop for ministers, a UCC music minister said “The reason for music in worship is to help people open their hearts.” That works for me. As a preacher I’m regularly reminded that the power of words pales beside the power music has to move people. I’m so grateful for musicians who understand that they are serving something much larger than themselves and their art when they play in worship. That’s when it gets powerful–when the liturgy, all of it, is crafted and offered in the hope of creating an experience of the holy.

    • I admire your ideal, Lance, of ensuring that “all the music we use . . . relates to the sermon, or reinforces UU principles, and that we sing all of it together.” However, not every service has to be that tight. Music with words has to be chosen as carefully as the day’s readings. Music without words can be chosen for tone, and well chosen, it will “open our hearts.”

      Music–including lots by Ellington, though sans lyrics, please–is one of the most powerful tools we have for “mov[ing] our hearts and minds into a sacred space.” I do think that listening to good music performed well can get me there faster than anything else short of being outside in a storm. Since I can’t open up the roof and let the rain in, music will do.

      And there is NO place in any worship for music that’s about musicians “showcas[ing] their music, without regard to how it fit into worship.” If people don’t want to be church-musicians-for-a-day, they should pick a different venue.

  6. Excellent point about instrumental music!

    And there is NO place in any worship for music that’s about musicians “showcas[ing] their music, without regard to how it fit into worship.” If people don’t want to be church-musicians-for-a-day, they should pick a different venue.

    Obviously, I feel the same way. But it seems there are UU music directors who feel that listening to well-performed music is an act of meditation itself. While I agree with that in principle, the cognitive dissonance of listening to (a well-played instrumental version of) “Chicago Chicago” before worship is what got under my skin and prompted this rant post.

    So, I think even instrumental music has to be carefully chosen, because it may have hidden associations. It may have remembered words that jar the mind, or may have been used in a TV commercial or a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or may have been “tainted” in some other way that makes it ill-suited to worship.

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