Worship Styles: Principles of Participation

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I would like to share my opinions and observations of what has changed in church music services and what has come of those changes. I’d like to apply the principles introduced in my last post, What’s The Point, to the topic of songs in church.

What is the point of a church worship service? Everyone involved in a service in any way should know what their goal is. The way I see it, my goal as a musician involved in the service, (besides personally worshiping my Lord and Savior, which is the most important goal of all) is to facilitate and contribute to others worshiping of our Lord Jesus Christ. The music department is most successful when its contribution leads the congregation into a place of worship where the music is no longer necessary and the focus is totally on the Lord. If I do my job well, the congregation will hardly notice I’m there, and at the end of the process I will no longer be needed. I am not THE worship service; I am simply an usher arranging a meeting between the people in the congregation and God.

Something happened again a few Sundays ago that has happened many times before. We had some visitors from out-of-town, and following church they said what many of our out-of-town visitors say: “We enjoyed your songs SOOOO MUCH!” and “We felt comfortable singing the words, and everyone else was singing!” and “The words of those songs are so POWERFUL!” and “It was so refreshing to hear an ORGAN again.”

We have not set out to be old-fashioned. We’re not trying to be different. We have just kept doing what was effective in leading the congregation to a place of worship. We didn’t change just for the sake of changing. I regularly introduce different songs into our worship services. Some are old hymns we haven’t sung before. Some are new choruses written within the past few years. Some are choruses, but are very old. The ones that work, I keep in the rotation; songs that aren’t effective to meet our goals, I nix after a few tries.

On the Sunday morning that was so splendid for our visitors, 3 of the 5 songs we sang came from the hymnal. We projected the words, but they were exactly the same as we have been singing for years, yea even decades. We also sang an old chorus written a very long time ago, and a newer chorus that I have introduced within the past year. Of the 5 songs, the one that was most strained and least effective was the newest one. It probably won’t last too long.

Now let’s move to a completely different format. Every time I attend the Philadelphia Orchestra, I look over the program ahead of time and hope against hope that the classics are on the program. Give me some Bach, some Schubert, some Beethoven. Please, oh please, let it not be the world premiere of a piece newly commissioned by the orchestra. No Schoenberg please, or something written in 7/4 time using the 12 tone scale. Yes, I understand that it’s legitimate music, but I don’t like it. I’ve tried; I just can’t. I don’t have anything against NEW music. During 1999 and 2000 I had season tickets to the Philly Orchestra as they did an entire season of music written in the 1900’s, and I enjoyed most of it: composers like Ravel, Copland, and Sibelius. I just can’t get a handle on the more abstract stuff. I can’t find any pattern in the melody; the rhythm seems forced. When I hear one of these pieces I feel like standing up like the little boy in the Hans Christian Anderson tale and saying, “The Emperor Has No Clothes!” Except I would be standing up and saying, “That sounds awful!”

I have been in modern worship services time and time again that lead me to know why these people from out-of-town were so thirsty for our type of music. I have wanted so many times to stand up and say, “This is not effective!” so that’s what I’m doing right here, right now.

In this newer format, there are somewhere between 6-10 singers on the platform, each with a microphone, singing in harmony. One of these singers is the leader, singing solo parts, adding extra ad-lib words and notes. The leader is not really leading the congregation, but leading the praise singers in the role of a soloist. If you watch the congregation, very few of the people are singing. Those who are attempting to do so frequently lose track of the music and words. There is no need for the congregation. They are welcome to join in, but they certainly aren’t contributing anything, and all but the best singers feel they are interfering with the good music.

Many, if not most, of the songs in these services were originally written to be sung in mega-churches meeting in arenas. A congregation of 30 or even 100 in a small sanctuary can not sound the same as a congregation of 10,000 in an arena, so the songs often sound out-of-place and awkward.

The words are projected, but the structure of the songs is so complicated that the A/V people often have trouble knowing what to project and they put up the wrong words. The rhythm of the words is relaxed to the point where it’s hard to know what is to be said when. The words are formatted like poetry and there are no actual notes to help show (even if you don’t read music) that some words are held longer than others. This also makes it more difficult to know what word should be said when. The accented words are often not in the typical pattern of beats one and three for 2/4 or 4/4 time or beat one for 3/4, etc. The accent may very well be on the 2nd half of the 1st and 3rd beats. Because of this rhythm, many of the songs require skilled bass and drum players to get anywhere near the intended effect.

Using the projector has allowed worship leaders to introduce a constant flow of new music. Since we are no longer tied to a printed hymn book, we can put in new music on a consistent basis. Because of this, the songs are often foreign to the congregation.

The topic of these songs is often very shallow and ambiguous. “How wonderful it is for us to worship Him” is the focus. The older songs, as a general rule, deal more with experiences and how good God is to us throughout them. The template for many of them is a verse about where He brought us from, a couple of verses about how He brings us through our current struggles, and a last verse about how He’s taking us to heaven. The contemporary songs are primarily emotional: an escape from the life we live outside of the church. Songs focusing on the blood of Jesus are few and far between, and a mention of heaven is extremely rare. Any acknowledgement of changes-for-the-better He makes in our lives are also scarce. The words are usually not doctrinally deep. Rarely is any difficulty in life acknowledged.

The difference between a performance and a worship service is participation. Concerts are fine in a concert context, but I have found them to be much less effective in ushering me to a place of concentration on God than a context where I’m speaking the words, singing the notes, and being a part of the process.

So if the topic of the songs is shallow, the beat is hard to follow, the projection isn’t reliably the right words, the structure is complicated, and the congregation isn’t needed, it’s no wonder the congregation feels unneeded and left behind. How is this the best environment for worship? The goal is compromised. After all, “What’s the Point?”


13 thoughts on “Worship Styles: Principles of Participation

  1. This is exactly how I feel. We don’t want to be of the world in baptism, dress appropriateness or any other worldly habit so why have we left our hymnals? I’ll tell you, we want worship like the non-denominations, that’s why. HQ must think it takes this for our churches to grow. We need the power of God. People, this world is crazy, completely mad. People are hungry for wholesomeness, what’s wrong with us?

  2. Thank you for clearly defining the usefulness of music as it applies to a worship service. Worship, being a much broader process than what can be accomplished with a microphone in hand or a musical instrument, is our whole life – lived in honor to The King. Our worship services should merely be to help direct the mental focus of the congregants on The One with whom they are to be connecting. Thank you for eloquently stating what I’ve wanted to say for years!

  3. I am a doctor of music, an orchestral musician, and a UPCI worship leader. On the subject of classical orchestra concerts I would just like to point out that until about the last 50 years all (or at least the vast majority of) orchestra concerts were comprised of newly composed music. Some was good, some was not. At the premier of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” there were actually RIOTS because people were so shocked, but it is now considered one of the greatest ballets ever written. I also want to point out that in the 300 years prior to the recent movement of reviving the “classics” there were orchestras in every town; now, however, we are lucky to have a handfull of good orchestras in each state and 90% of those are folding or on the verge of bankruptcy. One large reason for this is that more and more people are considering classical music elitist and unrelateable. The orchestras are alienating future patrons and I know that is something none of us want for church music.
    Furthermore, I think this discussion has been erroneously labeled old vs new (which translates to them vs us). I agree that there is absolutely new classical music that is unaccessible to the average concert-goer, BUT there has also been some FANTASTIC classical music written within the last 25 years by composers such as John Mackey, David Maslanka, and even John Williams. On the flip side not all old classical music is good. Composers like Salieri, Kuhlau, and yes…..even a lot of Bach’s works are nothing to boast about. The point is not old vs new, it’s good vs bad, and it is the same case with worship music. It is our job as worship leaders to sift through the new music to find what is good because, weather we like it or not, they will be the next generation’s classics.

    • We also have to find what works for our individual congregations; what works for mine may not work for yours. However, I have seen many do things because it was the popular thing to do, even though it obviously wasn’t reaching the congregation. Thank you for your feedback.

  4. Awesome! Something I tried to say for several decades, but failed. I finally gave up. I hope you don’t give up. You’re needed greatly in this generation.

  5. Bravo! Very well written. My favorite songs are the songs from the “red book” that have been put to new music. Jars of Clay has an album called “Redemption Songs” full of old songs to new music.

  6. Sis. Beardsley, I would like to have a copy of this to share with our worship leaders. Can you email me a copy? I didn’t see a way to print it out from this website. It is a great article and so true. We were overseas missionaries for 19 years and have been back here for 11 years. We have seen a drastic change in the style of music and the worship. We feel there should be a balance of new and old, and definitely need more congregation participation. God bless you!

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