Sunday, November 23, 2008

Culture and Church Music

I often hear people express the idea that if you think you need a certain style of worship, you're being selfish. They say that if you choose a church based on the style of worship, you're sinning. They tell you that church isn't about you; it's about the Lord...and then they proceed to assume that their own church offers a kind of worship that you should support.

Imagine for a moment that a whole bunch of new people move into your area. They are all Japanese. Over the years, your church gains a significant minority of Japanese people. You thank God. The worship services start to include some phrases in Japanese. You don't mind; you slowly learn some Japanese. Then imagine that you get to church one week and the entire service is in Japanese. The sermon is preached haltingly. A couple of days later, you ask the pastor what's going on. He explains that we need to encourage our Japanese people, so everything is going to be in Japanese for now. He tells you that worship isn't about you; it's about the Lord. Over the next few weeks, some of the others whose first language is English complain or leave or ask about putting some English back into the worship. They are told that things are going to stay as they are; that the church doesn't have anyone who can speak good enough English to lead part of the worship in English. When someone volunteers to help start an alternative worship service in his native English, he's told that the church doesn't have enough people to have two worship services. Now, what do you do? You can speak just enough Japanese to get by. You love your Japanese brothers and sisters, but find that you cannot whole-heartedly worship the Lord in Japanese, no matter how hard you try. Is it OK for you to look for another church?

Music is a language of the heart, just as words are. Over the years, I've learned more different cultures in music. I can worship the Lord in several of them, but not in all of them. I'm glad that my church uses some styles of music that I merely tolerate, since those styles speak to others, but I'd find it very difficult if we never used a style that hit my heart.

The Bible tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It tells us to make disciples of all nations. Paul said, "I have become all things to all men, that by all means I might save some." If we really love others as ourselves, in planning church music let's try to include styles that speak to those whom the Lord is sending our way. Let's also humbly admit that the styles we most love don't speak deeply to everyone, and that the styles we most dislike may be exactly what's needed to meet the heart-needs of others.

1 comment:

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Brother, this post has really struck a chord with me, not merely punning. I am still honestly not sure what is right in this situation. Music, that is, singing, in church services is and always has been for me the main thing. Now isn't that strange?! Not the preaching, not the prayer, not the bible reading, but the singing! And I think that's how it is for a lot of people, whether they admit it or not.

Actually, even more important than the singing, I'll have to admit, is the church's right belief about God's Word, and the practices that spring from that right belief. It was because of this, the apostasy of the denomination in which I started out my adult Christian life, that we migrated to the last holdout of bible believing in that denomination. But the Lord wouldn't let us stay there, but moved us completely out of danger to the Greek church, where we've been these last 20 years. Now, apostasy has begun showing up there too. Where will God lead us next?

But as for singing, it is the soul's way of releasing all at the feet of Jesus, together with the brethren who like oneself are living lives of struggle in a hostile world. God teaches us the songs and they become part of us, and knowing we're human, He understands that we need some unchanging things, and for those like us who value church singing most, it's important that the music doesn't change. That's part of the current problem at my church. The new pastor has not only changed the music a great deal, substituting his favorites from his old church (Antiochian), but he has hired an ex-Disney Studios professional conductor as the choirmaster (because now our parish has been raised to cathedral status and so needs a more world class music program) and this man has turned Orthodox service music into a work of art that the congregation cannot join in and sing with (which is what should be happening, so most of us just stand there quietly). This on top of the announcement that finally our church is getting hymnbooks in the pews, so we can finally sing along with the choir!

Christ have mercy on us! We WERE singing along with the choir before the new pastor swiped our music and upgraded our choir into a professional performing troupe! We didn't need hymnbooks, because Orthodox people memorize everything!

In Orthodoxy, we actually do change the music, but not the style, which is a capella congregational singing and chanting. It's from ancient times. Our services were never supposed to be turned into performances of religious music. Now we have an organ that accompanies the choir, so there is no longer a need for the "eson" (the humming that goes on behind the singing, like the drone on a bagpipe), and the melodies are no longer the ancient Greek melodies that were once sung by shepherds on the mountainous pastures of Greece and Anatolia, that anyone can sing, but very fancy and wide-ranging pieces that may be loosely related to the originals, but often something completely different. He also has introduced new, different "politically correct" English translations of the hymns, so only when we are singing them in the original Greek are we really confessing the truth.

The example, by the way, of different languages, well, we're used to it. As different nationalities come in we just sing different parts of the service in their languages, so everyone has at least something in their mother tongue. That's why I can go into almost any Orthodox church of any nationality and worship with understanding. I know the pattern of the songs and prayers, and it's always interesting to hear the languages I don't quite understand yet, but still to know exactly what they're singing.

Sorry for this long comment. I probably shouldn't get so carried away. But I do think that if singing in church is important to one's spiritual life, they should not feel it to be wrong to find a church where they are comfortable (in the true sense, "strengthened") by the music content or style.

Thanks for letting me vent a bit, my brother, and offer up a prayer for me too. I need it.