Sunday, January 15, 2012

Martin Luther King Jr.: The "Vast Unity" of Worship

It is Martin Luther King Day here in the United States; it is also the start of a new semester. As I was preparing to teach my course Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, I ran into a sermon King preached early in his ministry at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Here is an excerpt:
Although private worship is significant and uplifting it must not be a stopping point. A worship period on the radio cannot be a substitute for a worship period in a church Worship at its best is a social experience where people of all levels of  life come together and communicate with a common father Here the employer and the employee, the rich and the poor, the white collar worker and the common laborer all come together in a vast unity Here we come to see that although we have different callings in life we are all the children of a common father, who is the father of both the rich and the poor. This fellowship and sense of oneness that we get in public worship cannot be surpassed.
King preached this sermon in the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycot during the early days of the civil rights movement. Dexter Avenue was a society church and it is reasonable to assume that King's insights came more from his recent experiences of the mass meetings in churches like Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist than from his own congregation. It was from the maids and college professors, the lawyers and laborers rubbing shoulders and singing hymns together at the mass meetings that King glimpsed the "vast unity" created and celebrated in Christian worship.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What is your personal 'worship style'?

I don't often rant on this blog -- but today is an exception.
I was looking at the website of a United Methodist Church in Ohio (it will remain nameless) and I saw its list of Sunday morning services:

Worship at [Big Methodist Church] is offered in a variety of formats knowing that we all experience God in different ways.  
  • The 8:15am worship is a quiet & reflective experience with communion offered weekly.
  • The 10am worship is a classic service with organ, choirs and favorite hymns.
  • The 11:21am is a high energy worship experience designed to take the message of God's hope, mercy & forgiveness deep into your life to impact the world.

Then comes the invitation that blows my little theological mind:

Regardless of the style, all our services are rooted in the Biblical lectionary and offer encouraging words for your life. . . Stop by for a visit to see which one best fits your worship style.
This is rampant consumerism matched with an ultra-Protestant notion of church. Clearly for the author of this website, all the elements of a worship service (other than the sermon) are a matter of personal preference not a corporate practice. Clearly behind the suggestion "see which [service] best fits your worship style" is the idea that a church design multiple services to cater to the preexisting personal preferences of its members and anyone who might wander in.
Why? Because "we all experience God in different ways."
What ever happened to the idea that the worship of the Church shapes us? That from our different experiences of life and God we come together to worship God who has made us one in Christ Jesus?
When we gather together we are shaped by corporate prayer, hymnody, the Eucharist, Baptism and, yes, the reading and preaching of God's Word. 
To be the Church of Christ--the community of dissimilar people, the gathering of reconciled sinners--we are going to have to do a whole lot better than internally segregating our congregations based on the paltry and ultimately spurious categories of "worship style." After all. . .
Who we are is who we love NOT what music we like to listen to.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A subcategory of folk music

We are heading into a new year of congregational singing at Ashland First. The end of 2011 has been a busy and wonderful month -- this is the fifth Sunday in a row we have been leading singing at church.

A good number of good people showed up on Christmas morning for a communion service and carols. We led the singing with a guitar and accordion (Joy to the World, Love Came Down at Christmas, Go Tell it on the Mountain, What Child is This). For a couple of the great carols we ditched the instruments and relied on the voices of the 50+ people present. I introduced Hark the Herald Angels Sing with these words, "We are going to sing this carol the way our forbears sang it. We will use the sacred harp--our voices."  The work from the carol singing school really paid off: we heard four-part harmonies coming from the congregation.  For the closing carol we had the two sides of the sanctuary stand and face each other as we sang O Come All Ye Faithful.

It seemed that no sooner was Christmas over than we were preparing music for New Year's day which fell on the following Sunday. As usual we chose music which spoke to the theme of the service, was singable for the congregation and was playable for the musicians. Red Team's lineup changes frequently -- this Sunday we had two guitars, two fiddles and piano/accordion.

This question of "singabilty" is at the heart of a recent (somewhat grumpy) reaction to the poor state of congregational singing by Grove City professor T. David Gordon.   Gordon summarizes his book Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns (P&R Publishing, 2010):
I attempt to locate some of the cultural forces that have caused hymns to sound so foreign to this generation that they feel they need to replace them with something contemporary. I also express misgivings about this circumstance.
Gordon argues that our immersion in pop muzak means that the average person doesn't recognize other forms of music as good music. I am not sure I agree with this thesis. In an article in Christianity Today, composer Lawrence R. Mumford points out that "the simple truth is that our culture has not eliminated all other styles. . . the pop song genre is certainly not the only music that any churchgoer hears, absorbs, or even enjoys between weekend services." Mumford points to symphonic film scores and even computer game soundtracks as one counter example.