Why worship leaders should maybe stop listening to worship music

All right, despite my Lenten intentions, it’s been a few days since the last time I had a chance to post, and I’m not sure this week will be any better. It also remains to be seen what’ll happen once Lent ends, but maybe I’ll figure that out by then. But I’m here tonight, anyhow, so here’s a post.

A few of my recent posts have centered on music, so here’s one more. And this one will probably hold true for you regardless of what kind of worship music you prefer in your church services, regardless of what kind you connect with or what kind helps you connect with God.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine posted a link to this article by Zac Hicks about how choirs in the middle ages and worship bands today too easily and too often slide from leading the congregation in worship to worshiping on behalf of the congregation. Sometimes that happens because, gradually and (one would hope) unconsciously, those entrusted with leading musical worship become enamored of ever more complex and interesting music–or of their own talents–and the congregation either can’t keep up or doesn’t see the point. Sometimes it happens because, gradually and (one would hope) unconsciously, the congregation takes an ever more passive role in musical worship, content to watch and listen to what happens up front rather than to participate themselves, and the worship leader eventually tires of cajoling them and stops trying. Sometimes these leader-side and congregation-side problems happen in tandem.

Thing is, despite Hicks’ focus on worship bands, worship bands aren’t the only ones subject to this problem. Sure, I’ve seen pop-star wannabes and rock-band theatrics that proved plenty of worship bands were more interested in their own music-making than the congregation’s. But I’ve also heard overwrought flourishes and awkward instrumental breaks that proved plenty of organists were more interested in their own music-making than the congregation’s. At their root, the instruments they’re using and the style of music they’re making don’t end up mattering that much.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending services at the Duke University Chapel a few times. The impressive space and aesthetics of the building and the majestic sound of the organ complemented each other brilliantly. But the organist (whose name I no longer remember) insisted on adding more and more layers of harmony to the successive verses of every single hymn, bringing the sound to the brink of horrific discord by the end and making even singing the melody difficult. The music ended up being one of the reasons I didn’t worship there more often. (Admittedly, the lack of community in the large and anonymous crowd was another, but it was still worth going once or twice.)

A few years before that, I regularly attended a Presbyterian church (PCUSA, if you were curious) that had both “traditional” and “contemporary” services every week, though I generally opted for the “traditional” service. The organist in those days was plenty talented at playing the organ, but not so talented at leading a congregation in worship. Between the second-to-last and last verses of every hymn he insisted on inserting a few bars’ worth of instrumental solo. And every week at least a few people, especially if they were new, would start singing the last verse too early and get embarrassed. Every. Single. Time. I liked enough other things about the church that I stuck around, but the organist was horribly off-putting. (I should note that he’s stopped doing those instrumental solos since then and just plays the hymns straight.)

Now, the offertory, the music played while Communion is being served, or any of those other parts with which the congregation isn’t expected to sing along anyway, those are all fine. And there’s nothing wrong with a recital or a concert either, whether by an organist or choir or worship band or anything else. I’m just saying that soloing, like anything else that smacks of showing off, has no place in the leading of what should be participatory musical worship. And that’s true no matter what musical styles or instruments are involved.

It does seem, though, that worship bands are vulnerable to the temptation to inappropriately solo in a way that organs and choirs may not be. That’s because much modern praise music is modeled after pop music, which often includes instrumental solos, usually before the last verse or refrain. And worship bands learn much of their repertoire by listening to CDs (What? I still own CDs.) recorded by Christian bands of one kind or another, and since the recording is usually just a band playing in a studio rather than a band leading a congregation, they leave the solo in. The worship leaders who listen to the recording think the solo sounds like a natural, normal part of the song, so when they’re rehearsing the song, they leave the solo in. And when they’re leading the congregation in singing the song, they leave the solo in.

Maybe organists and choir directors have a similar problem. I’ve heard a lot more recordings of modern praise music than of organ music or choir music, though, so I don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s dangerous for people entrusted with leading a congregation in musical worship to listen to recordings of worship music. It can be done, of course, if due care is given to preserve the participatory nature of congregational worship. But for far too many worship leaders, it’s too tempting to try to imitate the recording–the instrumentation, the structure of the song, and all other elements of it–too closely. For many worship leaders, the best course of action may be to sell, give away, throw out, burn, or otherwise get rid of their worship music CDs.

They’d be doing a great service to the congregations they lead.

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