Thursday, August 12, 2010

Simple Songs, Simple Melodies…

Last week, I wrote about my beliefs regarding the point of worship. Is it to make the pastor feel better by boosting numbers? Sure, but only in part. Shortly put- I believe worship is training for living better, perhaps the best there is. When worship works, you should experience a ‘laying down’ of all your heart, soul, mind and strength before God’s loving presence, which according to Jesus, is the first and best commandment for living well. But how can worship teach that, practically speaking? Glad you asked! The Worship Team has given it some thought, and identified possible answers, which we wanted to pass along. And that’s what I’ll do for the next couple letters.

It begins with brains. And a conversation I had with an old organ player. I’ve mentioned this story before, but I beg your indulgence, because this man changed my thinking about worship. As a former big church Music Minister, he’d spent a career helping large groups get more out of worship. In retirement, though, he became a consultant and interim musician for small churches, places that often, he said, “Had difficulty mustering the energy for vibrant congregational singing.” This was a problem, he claimed, but also offered a solution. He made every church member memorize 25 hymns. He passed out tapes and lyrics, and literally gave worshippers homework, promising them that their worship would improve when they’d memorized this music.

Odd? Perhaps not… According to his research, one major problem many old-line churches like ours (still use hymnals, organs, etc.) experience is that we leave too much of ourselves out of worship. According to his theory, as we stare at the notes in our hymnals, straining to link five densely written verses with complex music, we rely too much on our ‘thinking brain.’ But this leaves the ‘emotional/creative brain’ on the sidelines. Until, that is, we sing songs we know and love, i.e. ones we don’t have to work hard to follow. Then, we experience our thinking and emotional brains integrating with our creative passions and memories, in effect bringing our entire ‘self’ together through worship.

You ever notice how most big evangelical churches use worship bands that play repetitive, simple songs? In part, they’re intentionally reaching out to young families via rock music, but it goes deeper. These worship bands specialize in simple songs with simple melodies- music that’s easy-to-sing and remember. Alas, the theology of their lyrics is often feather-light, sometimes even woefully misguided. But the experience of singing this music is more important than the content. It takes a worshiper out of her head, into her heart, and directs all that energy to the Lord through song. When the lyrics are good, the song combines the head with the heart, all to the glory of God. And notice the main point: The music facilitates that process; it doesn’t get in the way. So there’s a reason people keep worshiping in these churches more than just, “I like Christian Soft Rock.” They experience the fullness of God’s love through worship, even if taught to understand that love in overly restrictive ways.

But what about churches who don’t like that music, or think more inclusively about God’s love? My church musician friend tried the “memorize the music” approach, and claimed it worked. So at Plymouth Creek, we’ve tried limiting our music selections over the last year to increase our collective familiarity with certain songs. Let me know if it’s helped! We might also try using “contemporary music” sources that are more contemplative than Evangelical Soft Rock, but also utilize simple, easy-to-sing melodies. For instance, we now sing songs- Eat This Bread, Live In Charity, Jesus, Remember Me- from the Taize tradition. They’re easy to learn, very repetitive, tranquil, such that within two verses, we’ve stopped ‘learning the song,’ and have begun actually to sing it; contemplating all the vast meanings a lyric like, “Trust in me and you will not thirst,” could hold.

So, “How can worship train us for better living?” One answer- Integrate your whole self by experiencing God’s Love. And simple songs with simple melodies is one way to learn that. Others?

Grace and Peace,


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