Tag Archive | The United Methodist Hymnal

Considerations, Part 2

I long for us to argue better.  I long for us to seek holy ends by holy means.  How we go about this conversation matters; I do not believe coercion is a legitimate strategy for intra-church debate. We are not utilitarians, and “anything that works” is not Christian logic.

So let us argue as sisters and brothers in Christ, both in form and content.  By re-narrating this debate in terms of our views of divorce, binding and loosing, and holiness, we might find a more fruitful debate.  We might even find a surprising unanimity among otherwise disparate factions.

I yet hope that our decades-long fight can be over. I hope we can find a way to welcome our LGBTQ neighbors more fully into the life of the church.  I likewise hope that this can be done in a way that does not drive away folks who are evangelical or traditionalist. – Drew McIntyre, “3 Theological Reasons the UMC Should Reconsider Its Stance On Same-Gender Relationships”, Ploughsares Into Swords, May 2, 2016

Part of being a faithful church is always to live as a church in prayer.

Part of being a faithful church is always to live as a church in prayer.

This second offering of things to consider as we head into Portland, OR and General Conference, should, perhaps, have been written first. Before anything else, we are the Church, the Body of Christ, specifically the inheritors of those John Wesley called “the people called Methodist”.  As the Church, our first aim always and everywhere should be to remain faithful. Before we consider anything, we should reaffirm our faith, prayerfully considering how we have neglected this or that or the other part of our collective confession, asking for guidance and strength as we go forward.

Prayer is the practical side of our declaration of faith. St. Paul insisted we should pray without ceasing. To that end we should in all times and places where we gather together seek in and through prayer to remain faithful to the God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who creates us, saves us, and gives us life and new life. How would it be possible to deliberate as the Church if we did not pray and confess our faith together?

For a very long time there’s been a whole lot of talk about the place of confessing the faith within the life of the United Methodist Church. Ours is, after all, a non-creedal Body. There is no distinctive United Methodist Confession of Faith. Over 20 years ago, some people bemoaned this part of our life and formed The Confessing Movement, to the end that the programs and ministries of our Church be held accountable to the confession of Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord. While some, including me, have wondered at some of the things the Confessing Movement has written and said, their goal shouldn’t be all that controversial. After all, if there is no guidance and limit to what we as a corporate Body preach and teach and witness, why call ourselves as “Church” at all?

Doctrine, a word much misunderstood and abused, is an expression of our collective identity. Too often used synonymous with “theology”, Christian Doctrine is the collective profession of our identity as this Church, this particular living Body of Christ at work in the world. Much bandwidth and ink has been spilled over the status and role of Doctrine within the life of the Church. I sometimes think arguments like this, substitutes for our real grievances against one another, are more entertaining than anything else. That it, until some either dismiss our Doctrinal Statements completely or insist that Christian Doctrine is some unchanging “thing”, existing since time immemorial, vouchsafed to us only to defend and pass on, unmarked by time and circumstance. At these points, I think we’ve entered loony land.

Doctrine is now as it has always been, our collective expression of our identity. People what to know what it is to be a Christian, what that means, all we really need to do is point to our Doctrinal statements and say, “Read this.” The words, their interpretation, different emphases (for example, our particular Wesleyan emphases on grace and Christian Perfection, on mission and discipleship) are always changing because languages change, people change, history changes, circumstances dictate what should be shouted from the rooftops and what should be whispered in secret. This is neither interesting nor surprising.

Gathering in Portland our delegates have a duty to reaffirm our collective profession of faith. In so doing, they should also prayerfully ask that our Doctrinal Standards be their rule and rod, their guide and limit for all they deliberate and decide. Only thus, in an attitude of prayer and in full knowledge of that which marks us as distinct, can our deliberations and decisions be understood as the fruitful outcome of faithful living, prayerful deliberations, and mutual love.

While I still believe that at least some of the emphasis upon Doctrine has been either code for calling those with whom they disagree heretics thus outside the bounds of Christian fellowship or a distraction from other matters, it needs to be repeated and emphasized: We either stand together under our collective expression of identity as professed in our Doctrinal Standards or we shall always be divided by the winds of whatever controversy comes down the pike. We cannot forsake our profession of faith and remain the Body of Christ, regardless of the outcome of our deliberations.

In prayer and profession, only there are we truly The United Methodist Church.


Sing With All The Saints In Glory

This strange object was in much use during worship at Court Street UMC in Rockford yesterday.

This strange object was in much use during worship at Court Street UMC in Rockford yesterday.

Seeing as yesterday was Mother’s Day, after an enormous country breakfast at a local restaurant – they use Mason Jars for their large orange juice! – we attended a worship service that Lisa chose. So, we went to the early service at Court Street United Methodist here in Rockford. The pastor, Rev. Cal Culpepper, was Lisa’s Associate her first year at Cornerstone. The service itself was marvelous, the sermon both educational and thought-provoking, and the feeling of welcome and the church’s sense of itself being in vital ministry to the local community as well as to the world was both heart-warming and comforting. To be in such a place, to be welcomed, to hear members proclaim their participation in so many good works, is to be in Church.

The order of service is traditional, as were the musical offerings. Both the United Methodist Hymnal and The Faith We Sing songbook were used, accompanied by organ. A chancel choir sang, and the offertory was a beautiful piano-trumpet duet. Having been immersed in contemporary worship order and musical accompaniment the past five years, it felt a bit like coming home. The church itself is physically enormous, the sanctuary ornate, a huge balcony wrapping most the way around. The stained glass windows shone beautifully. the pipes of the organ looked grand behind the chancel. The pulpit, a gorgeous shining wooden structure, was raised above the lectern. It really was not so much an old-fashioned church service as it was something that reminded me, both in terms of the surroundings as well as the service itself, of going to church when I was a child and youth.

It reminded me, again, that the carrying on about worship styles and musical styles in our worship is so misguided, carried on far too often by people who, having some kind of personal stake in the game or bias, demand that choices be made in just how we worship, and how our songs are lifted to God. It is more than OK to gather together, well-dressed and at least semi-formal, in a beautifully appointed old sanctuary, and have our combined voices raised to God with the sound of an organ to lift our songs even higher. indeed, I have come to the conclusion that, how we worship doesn’t matter nearly as much as that we worship. That we gather together as this particular incarnation of the Body of Christ, using the tools with which we are most comfortable (and occasionally being challenged by those with which we are not), to hear the Word that we are saved, to offer our confession, and to be challenged by the Good News preached and received, to go out to the world and live it. Whether it’s a pipe organ, or a piano and other instruments, or an electric band; whether we choose to sing traditional hymns with all the gravitas they carry or raise our voices in a contemporary idiom; that we do so is enough. That we are open to the Spirit’s movement is enough. That our lives are refreshed and renewed is enough.

We should, clergy, church musician, and lay, set to one side the whole idea of “worship wars” (as I’ve written before, several times) and learn the many merits of the variety of ways we human beings can worship our God. Shedding our prejudices and sense of vested interest, we might actually learn things. We might discover that what God wants – as the Old Testament prophets said over and over again – isn’t empty ritual done a particular way. What God wants from us in our worship is that our worship is honest; that we come to God with open and contrite hearts. We can have follow a rigid order of service. We can allow the service to move forward under the power of the Spirit. We can use Hymnals accompanied by organs. We can read words off a screen while a band of electronic and electric instruments plays. What matters is that we confess our sins with honesty. What matters is that we hear the Word proclaimed and feel ourselves moved. What matters is noticing the presence of the Holy Spirit moving among the congregation, that presence of the Risen Christ promised to any group, small or large, who gather in his name.

Perhaps we should be praying that our worship, however we do it, is acceptable to God. It might well be, however we structure it, that our sacrifices, our incense, our songs of praise, are not acceptable because we aren’t living out our calling to be church because we’re so caught up in doing church. I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Instead of finding another reason to argue and fight and divide, we should be coming together as the worshiping Body of Christ, let the worship order and music be what it will be, and leave room for the Spirit to move among us.

This Was Written By Theologians

The beliefs that the church has handed on to us, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, the power of sin, the atoning work of Christ, and the resurrection of the body, are simply sensitive instruments and effective prescriptions in God’s medical kit, just as the Eucharist, baptism and the Bible are. When we engage one another with these canonical means of grace, we are acting as the nurses in God’s hospital, going about the work of our divine physician. – David F. Watson and William J. Abraham, “Creedal Faith”, Ministrymatters.com, November 30, 2014


Come down off the cross, we can use the wood. – Tom Waits, “Come On Up To The House”



I saw the above-quoted article earlier today on Facebook, and seeing who one of the authors was, I knew I had to go read it.  I cannot speak to what is in his heart, but the constant beating of the drum around Doctrine in the United Methodist Church smacks just a bit too much both of trying to steer the conversation away from where it needs to be as well as on what he thinks is safer ground but is in fact where he slips and falls far too often.  For instance, that two United Methodist clergy-scholars, one in New Testament studies the other in Evangelism and Theology, could publish just the above-cited bit and consider it theologically sound makes me wonder just how seriously I should consider their work.  To place Doctrine of any sort on the same plane as the means of grace; to suppose that an individual’s salvation is determined by getting particular words and phrases just so, rather than Doctrine being the collective expression of the faith of the gathered people of God; to offer the ridiculous “analogy” with which the authors begin this article and pretend is has anything to do with anything the church does . . . I don’t know.  I just . . .

Let’s start with that “analogy”, shall we?  I mean, like all straw arguments, it seems impressive, until some big bad wolf comes along and blows the house down:

Imagine you went to the doctor and the doctor walked into your room and said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad

news.”“Okay,” you respond. “Let’s have the bad news.”

“The bad news is that you have an illness that will eventually kill you if left untreated.”

“Wow . . .” you respond. “That is bad news. What’s the good news?”

“The good news is there’s a cure.”

“Great! Let’s have it.”

The shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “No, I’m afraid that if I were simply to give you the cure, I would infringe upon your personhood. You are an individual. You should be able to decide which cures are right for you, which you like, and which you don’t. In trying to heal you, I might unintentionally or carelessly impose some treatment upon you that you find offensive. I’m afraid I just can’t take that risk.”

“Doc!” you shout. “I’m dying!”

“Indeed you are,” says the. “But I do have this large stack of medical books that I’ll loan you. The cure to your illness is somewhere in these volumes. You are going to have to read carefully, synthesize ideas, and learn information that I could give to you much more quickly, but if you do find the cure before you die, you’ll be a better person for it.”

Now, we would never accept this kind of answer from a doctor, but too often this is exactly the kind of “medicine” that we have practiced in mainline Protestantism.

I’m not even sure where to begin.  I suppose I’ll begin with the more-than-a-tad-snarky bit – No, I’m afraid that if I were simply to give you the cure, I would infringe upon your personhood. You are an individual. You should be able to decide which cures are right for you, which you like, and which you don’t. In trying to heal you, I might unintentionally or carelessly impose some treatment upon you that you find offensive. I’m afraid I just can’t take that risk – because this reads like a parody of some conservative’s understanding of “liberal” approaches to ministry, doctrine, and the Christian life.  I say “reads like a parody” because there is no way any of this bears any resemblance to any church of which I’ve been a part; any teaching of any pastor, teacher, or church leader; certainly not the United Methodist Church and its approach to doctrine, our theological task, and our expression of faith as the people called Methodist.  The authors say “this is exactly the kind of ‘medicine’ we have practiced in mainline Protestantism.”  I would ask: One example, please.  Just cite a denominational statement, a theological work,  a statement from any mainline Protestant body that says anything like this.

Of course, they won’t because they can’t.  Let me back up just a moment and say that much of the problem I have with this piece is that it’s unspoken assumption – that any individual’s adherence to any particular doctrine is determinant and necessary both for their salvation as well as their being considered a part of the church – is blatantly, laughably, ahistorically false.  Doctrine is teaching, the understanding of the church’s encounter through Christ in the Spirit with the Father.  Both the body we call doctrine and our understanding of it are a wholly human creation; unlike the Sacraments, which we declare in faith were instituted by Jesus Christ to be means of grace for the uplifting of believers, their salvation, and their connection together in the Body of Christ, Doctrine is an ever-evolving understanding of our understanding of who God is, what God is doing, and what we, in the Church, are to be about.  Unlike the Scriptures, which we profess in our teaching to be wholly sufficient guides for faith and action, doctrine is not inspired.  It is, alas, as broken and liable to error any other solely human creation (like individual attempts at living the Christian faith apart from the Body of Christ, say).  That’s why we Protestants no longer have a Doctrine of Purgatory.  We do not have a Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Up through the 17th Century, many bodies, Catholic and Protestant, had a Doctrine of Death.  None do now, at least of which I’m aware.

Doctrine is our collective profession of faith.  When people say, “What do United Methodists believe?”, we point to our Articles of Religion, our Doctrinal Standards, and our Theological Task.  That is why they exist.  Individuals can and do vary in their understanding, adherence, and acceptance of various teachings; that’s a given in a Church body of 9 million adherents across the world, in a variety of countries, languages, socio-economic contexts, political and legal contexts, and other factors that create human diversity and difference.  What any particular individual expresses about doctrine is neither interesting nor important, certainly not for their salvation.  That is wholly the act of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit; it is the supreme expression of the Divine Life, freedom in love expressed in gratuitous acts of mercy.  When we understand ourselves grasped by this Love that never gives up on us, that is always behind, around, and before us, we begin the real journey of the Christian Life – moving on to perfection in love in this lifetime.  This Doctrine, uniquely that of the followers of John Wesley, is an expression of our collective experience of the efficacy and workings of grace in our life as the Body of Christ.  Some move along this path; some do not.  Some move further along than other.  Some get stuck, while others dedicate their lives to this life of entire sanctification.  This is an experience; the Doctrine merely puts in words – contingent, time-and-history bound lines on a page or computer screen that represent sounds we make, sounds that change over time – our understanding of the experience, which is primary.

There are at least two ways of looking at Christian orthodoxy. On the one hand, orthodoxy could involve a set of claims that can be used as a litmus test to see who is in and who is out. Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function. A much healthier way of thinking about the orthodox claims of the church is as life-giving resources. These claims are critical not because we need some minimal set of admission requirements, and not simply because these claims delineate our tribe from other tribes, but because knowing the truth about God can lead us more fully into the life of God, and it is within the life of God that true life is to be found.

So much of the game is given up in this paragraph, I have to wonder why they bothered writing anything else.  Consider the whole bit here: Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function.  Is it a secondary use or a misuse of doctrine to use it in such a way?  A secondary use would imply it is still legitimate.  To then add, “if not a misuse” seems more than little disingenuous.  The truth of the matter is the authors do believe it to be a legitimate use, doctrine as definer of who’s in and who’s out.  This is so because the rest of the paragraph, for all intents and purposes, accepts this as a given.  Indeed, the notion that Doctrine is “the truth about God” – which I cannot find in Scripture, which actually insists that Jesus Christ is the Truth of God – is contradicted by Biblical teaching itself.  Ours is not a faith in human words, or human understanding of our experience.  Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  All doctrine does is make clear the Church’s collective understanding of this living faith.  Whether or not we get the words right or wrong, well, that’s a project that keeps the Church going, because how would it be possible to have the Truth about God, whose Eternal Life is the fullness of gratuitous love and interpenetrating mutuality that is most fully expressed in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus?  While it is true enough that life within God is our true life, we do not find this through adherence to Doctrine.  We find this through our collective life of confession and profession and living out our Living Faith in our Living God.  It is never that we know the Truth of God.  Rather, it is that the Truth of God known and takes hold of us and never lets us go.

Wesley knew what so many of us have forgotten today: The set of claims that we make about God will shape the ways in which we view the world around us and will come to bear significantly upon the way we live. We all have a way of looking at the world, but not all ways of looking at the world are equally virtuous or healthy. Not all ways of looking at the world are equally true. The witness of the church through the centuries is that the most virtuous and truest way of looking at the world is through the lens of our creedal faith.

The final sentence is missing a key feature of the the church’s witness: That these claims of virtue and truth are claims of faith, to be considered even while confessed, to know how they hold us rather than being held by us, and are at best an expression of what the Church could be if it lived wholly in the Spirit of the Risen Christ to the glory of the Father.  All the same, they are part of our profession of faith – profession being distinct from confession – which is precisely that: a profession of faith, not a witness to any human Truth.  It can only be understood, even dimly, when we grasp that we are in the hand of our loving God.  As for the rest of the paragraph, I’m not even sure who has forgotten that our claims about God shape how we live.  After all, even atheists insist their denial of God shapes their lives.  Those who profess other religious faiths certainly understand their lives shaped by their beliefs about God, Allah, the pantheon, or the dream that is life from which we need to awaken.  It’s silly to pretend that folks have “forgotten” this; it’s even sillier to insist that such forgetting is, or could be, relevant to a discussion of Doctrine, in particular a discussion of Doctrine that somehow insists it is no less a means of grace than Baptism of the Lord’s Supper.  If Doctrine really were a means of grace, such a forgetting on the part of the Church would be impossible; as it is, no one of whom I’m aware has “forgotten” such a thing, i.e., that our beliefs shape how we live.

For United Methodists, these are given in the Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church and the Confessions of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Holy Trinity brought all things into being, created humankind, mourned our rebellion, became incarnate in Jesus Christ, taught us how to live, bore the sins of the world on the cross, rose bodily from the dead and will come again in glory. That narrative—if you internalize it—will shape the way you view everything. And so, as we say at the very beginning of “Key United Methodist Beliefs,” “Belief matters.” It matters a great deal.

Let’s consider “The Holy Trinity brought all things into being,” etc.  This “shorthand” is as unorthodox as the too-often-heard claim, “Jesus is God”.  An understanding of the Trinity includes understanding that the Three work as One, and the One works as Three.  Thus, for example, Creation is the work of the Father with the Son through the Spirit.  “The Trinity” didn’t bring all things into being; Creation, which is an ongoing, love-and-grace-filled act of God, is a specific action of the Persons in specific ways.  The Trinity did not “become incarnate” in Jesus of Nazareth.  The fullness of God in the Person of the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of the Father, was Jesus of Nazareth.  To say that “Belief matters”, without recognizing the errors of doctrine expressed in their defense of doctrine; without admitting their adherence to an individualistic understanding of the role of Doctrine rather than its existence as the historical expression of the teaching of the Church about its encounter with the Living God, in the Son, through the Spirit, for the glory of the Father; well, to do these things is to demonstrate precisely why any individual’s understanding of “belief”, while certainly a matter of importance, is neither here nor there.

Finally, I just have to wonder who in the United Methodist Church would deny the importance of Creedal Faith as an expression of our collective faith.  Considering the number of creeds in our United Methodist Hymnal, their similarities and differences, their differences in emphases, and how they are used in various ways by congregations, the collective profession of our confession of faith is certainly important in the life of the Church.  What this has to do with doctors denying treatment, or Doctrine erroneously treated as a means of grace, or whatever the point of this article was, I don’t know.  Which leaves me, as always, wondering how it is possible pastor-scholars could write this and present it to readers.

Unless the matter isn’t doctrine at all, of course.  Which has been my contention all along.  This is yet another part of the sideshow, the attempt to drag the Church away from our conversation about living the Gospel with integrity by insisting that other things are both more primary and more important.  Naming what the game is all about, especially when theologically educated professionals write such doctrinally suspect things as this apologia for doctrine, is important.

Hymnody As Social Practice

“Heavy metal” now denotes a variety of musical discourses,  social practices, and cultural meaning, all of which revolve around concepts, images, and experiences of power.  The loudness and intensity of heavy metal music visibly empower fans, whose shouting and headbanging testify to the circulation of energy at concerts.  Metal energizes the body, transforming space and social relations.  The visual language of the metal album covers and the spectacular stage shows offer larger-than-life images tied to fantasies of social power, just as in the more prestigious musical spectacles of opera.  The clothing and hairstyle of metal fans, as much as the music itself, mark social spaces from concert halls to bedroom to streets, claiming them in the name of a heavy metal community.  And all of these aspects of power provoke strong reactions from those outside heavy metal, including fear and censorship. – Robert Walser, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, p.2


The social interpretation of light and, in the final analysis, of all music is faced  by the one central question: what method is it to employ to avoid, still further presumption in methodology of the ambiguity of the static state of nature – in the components of drives – and of dynamic historical quality – in its social function.  If music, as it has done up to the present, is to escape the schematism of individual psychology, if the most elementary of its effects presupposes a concrete social condition of which it offers a tendentious indication, and if nature itself does not appear in music other than in historic images, then the material character of music might offer an indication that dialectical materialism might not answer the “question” about the relation of nature and history, but that it might rather contribute to the elimination of this question both in theory and praxis. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Social Situation of Music,” in Richard Leppert, ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p. 433

I suppose I’m backtracking a bit.  After a day spent wondering where to take my reflections from my experience on Sunday at Christ The Carpenter UMC, I’ve also been struggling with what probably shouldn’t be a struggle: What should I read?  While I suppose I should continue with Taylor’s A Secular Age, the truth is the “story” he is telling is one with which I’m overtly familiar; he tells it in much the way I would tell it, first breaking the constituent parts then reassembling them to give the reader a picture of the historical movement.  For me, this is well-worn territory, and in all honesty, I’m bored with yet another presentation of something that is as familiar to me as as the clothes I wear.  So, I wonder: What next?

I picked up Robert Walser’s ground-breaking study of Heavy Metal music and was skimming the early pages when the paragraph quoted above leaped out at me.  In a moment, while I hadn’t resolved what I wanted to read next – for all its importance as the first serious musicological study of Heavy Metal; for the way Walser incorporates both social and cultural theory in his analysis both of the music and what another musicologist, writing about British Progressive Rock, Edward Macan, calls the music’s “taste public” (a term I find far more satisfying than “fan”), it is now over 20 years old, dated in its references, and doesn’t include the way the “unity” of the style shattered in the 1990’s even as it morphed in its public presentation – I knew that I had to go back and talk a bit about what music is.  All the important texts I have read over the past several years have wrestled with this most basic question.  Some have been totally absorbed by it, such as This Is Your Brain On Music, which looks at the neurophysiology of music production and reception (as well as the distinctions between those parts of music that exist “out there” in the real world and those parts of music that are wholly produced by how our brain interprets particular types of physical stimuli).  It became clear to me, reading that paragraph from Walser that I  had to discuss the function of music in Church, precisely because our diverse preferences for styles of church music, hymnody, and gospel music are less reflective of reductionist descriptions of the sounds themselves (although these are important and can never be ignored).  Indeed, the distinctions and preferences of individuals and congregations are far more easily, and interestingly, explained by the social function particular musical style play for those who prefer them.  Any attempt to introduce theologically interesting music from outside what is acceptable as “church music” is as much a matter of confronting changing social functions (sometimes radically) as it is personal or congregational preferences for one style over another.

Thus it is that I drag Adorno along to remind us both of the social reality and function of music, as well as the limitations not only of his own particular vantage point, but the limitations of a solely social understanding of music.  For music is many things: it is, at its simplest definition, “organized sound”; it is a particular type of organized sound, emerging from an individual or group of individuals at different points in time; it is both the reflection of and answer to the social contradictions with which all societies live, often seeking to resolve them through a social dynamism in which social distinctions are submerged for the good of the whole.  In the West, particularly the White West, we have lived far too long under the spell of an aesthetic that insists the “highest” art is functionless, existing solely for itself.  Not only those who wrote about music, but those who composed it, on occasion accepted this inhuman, unhistorical, and impossible view of music.  Far too many of those who are current patrons of what is far too narrowly (and ignorantly) called “classical” music – including opera, the ballet, and chamber music – accept not only this understanding; their social practice of listening as a group demonstrates an insufficient understanding of the social function such music played in the past, and how audiences were lively, sometimes rowdy, and that it was for such audiences the music was originally produced.

Yet Adorno nevertheless is important precisely because he forces us to consider not only the historical and socioeconomic embeddedness of all music; he understood that precisely because music is historical to its core, it is thus functional to its core.  It is only when music ceases to be a part of a particular historical moment it becomes what Adorno calls “museum pieces”, his derisive term for much of the music-going public in the mid-20th century, who preferred music from previous centuries than the ongoing, living orchestral tradition that, Adorno continued to argue throughout his life, was ignored precisely because its major function: reflecting the absurdity and contradictions of emerging monopoly capitalism, the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and those who followed in their wake offered a vision of the current age that was far too threatening to be acceptable by the patrons of the arts, who also tend to be among the upper reaches of the bourgeoisie.

If there is any music that exists precisely because it is functional, it is church music.  Removed from the context of worship services, church music becomes less meaningful, even if its presentation is aesthetically pleasing, such as Beyonce’s performance of “Precious Lord”.  When music meant for a particular group of people at a particular time and place to perform particular social functions becomes yet another performance piece, its meaning necessarily changes.  For example, Joan Baez singing “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at Woodstock means something completely different than if she were to sing them along with a congregation worshiping on a Sunday morning.

Hymnody, then – as a way of encapsulating all the varieties of church musics, past and present – is a social practice that includes not only the sounds themselves; it includes where they are performed, by whom, under what conditions (solo performance, choral performance, congregational performance), the histories both of the song as well as its reception by the particular congregation performing it.  The well-known backstory to the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”, for example, can make such a song not only a hymn, but a performance piece for solo or groups, without any reference to any religious context.  Indeed, it can be a song of personal strength in the face of a life tragedy that, while specifically dated (we in the West don’t lose too many to passenger ships sinking) is nevertheless an experience to which all can relate.  On the other hand, a hymn such as “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, cannot be removed from its particular religious setting without becoming meaningless, a performance piece to showcase either vocal virtuosity, or perhaps rearranged to demonstrate technical musical skill.  The particularity of the song, however, is lost.

It is for these reasons – set out only in sketch-like form here – that there is always resistance to changes in music in worship.  We become both familiar and comfortable with particular hymns that have brought solace, comfort, or some other meaning to our lives at particular times; they have become part and parcel of the life-history of a congregation; particular musical styles, including instrumentation and therefore timbres and tone colors, are part and parcel of this identity-forming social function.  Attempts to mix and match musical styles – to bring in “traditional” hymnody, “contemporary” praise music, and perhaps musics from other worshiping traditions, cultures, languages, or even confessional traditions – run up against the social practices of the particular congregation in question, resulting in conflicts rather than a more harmonious (pun intended) acceptance of a wider variety of musical possibilities open to more people.  I believe this is why, for example, in the mid-1980’s when the United Methodist Church last revised their hymnal, the acquiesced to pressure to include the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” despite its questionable theology, and the fact that fewer and fewer congregations actually sing it.  Just the thought of not offering the possibility to congregations who had sung it in the past was perceived as an attack upon their social identity, and the practices including musical practices that make up their identity.

While it might be profitable to become more inclusive in our musical choices both as congregations and as the Church as a whole, we must recognize the very real social barriers that exist in making even incremental changes in our musical practices.  This should give me pause as I try to work out the possibility of including secular musical styles in to our worship.  It might be beneficial to have classes, courses, discussion groups and whatnot in local congregations on hymnody, its history and function, the way musical styles have changed not only with technology (the invention of musical notation; the setting out of the well-tempered chord; the distinctions among musical modes and how they function; the rise of the organ, the piano, and resistance to their use, etc.) but as part of larger social processes rooted in particular histories.  Such an approach, making congregations more self-aware, might offer opportunities for growth, for self-reflection, and for a willingness for at least incremental experimentation with a larger diversity, first of musical style intended for church use.  Only then, perhaps, can we bring our congregations to hear the Word and feel the Spirit in all sorts of musical styles.

Time, Song, & The Church: Trying To Answer A Question

When, exactly, would you like me to teach the congregation about singing, Geoff? Which minutes of my 20 hour work-week (in addition to my 40 hour secular job) should I steal for this? When, for that matter, would you like the congregation to take the time to learn to sing? When I have them captive, on Sunday morning, I, the choir, and the musician, do our parts to make it possible that those who are willing to learn songs, do so. But frankly, we are moving toward music as performance out of necessity. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, because there are other ways to include music in worship without asking the congregation itself to be the primary makers of the music – which, by the way, they suck at. – Facebook Comment On “Working With What We Have”

When I was in Seminary, a professor of mine told the following story from his very first appointment, some time in the mid-1950’s, in rural Florida.  He was a University student, working part time at a tiny church with an elderly congregation.  He said they only had about a dozen or so faithful attendees at worship each week.  The congregation did not have a musician, not even someone who could play the piano.  They sang the four – and he was very specific with the number – hymns they knew on a rotating basis, all a capella.  After a while, my professor said, this began to grate on him, even though he had been told “this is the way it’s been for a long time”, both by previous pastors as well as church members.  One week, from the pulpit, he said, “I’ll tell you what.  If I lead you on the piano, can I teach you a new hymn, one a month?”  He said they all looked at one another, kind of shrugged, and agreed.  Sure enough, by the time he left, their repertoir of hymns had increased, and their worship attendance was over 20 a week.  Not an enormous win for the Kingdom, perhaps, but one I’d put in the plus column.

When Lisa took her first appointment, at a small-town church in Virginia, the congregation had yet to purchase the 1988 United Methodist Hymnal.  Lisa was told in no uncertain terms the whole issue was a non-starter.  Not only that, but any attempt to use the newer communion liturgy would be met with resistance, perhaps even hostility.  By the end of her second year, the congregation had the new Hymnals, and Lisa was using both the older, Cranmer-based communion liturgy as well as the liturgies provided by the Hymnal.  There was a member of the congregation who wasn’t happy with the change, but for the rest, it seemed not only a welcome change, but it seemed to lift the congregation’s spirits.

I tell these stories as a way to begin answering the challenge with which I was presented on Facebook to my earlier post.  Titling it “Working With What We Have” was intentional; the original reference point was as a way of challenging notions of some kind of return to something called “traditional” worship.  All the same, the title is all-encompassing.  Clergy and congregations always meet one another with expectations, fears, questions, hopes, and a mixture of reverence and a refusal to accept authority without reason.  Each can frustrate, anger, surprise, bore, and hopefully love the other, perhaps in various combinations, throughout their time together.  A potent weapon in the arsenal in the relationship is the ability of each, as I wrote earlier today, to listen. What St. Paul called discern the Spirit; that is part of the Christian life together.  We test the Spirits of one another, and perhaps the gap between clergy and congregation can shrink as each comes to understand the other.

The response I received on Facebook is a genuine, and honest, alternate view point.  There are only so many hours in the week, and congregations are well-known for asking for more and more from those who wear various titles in the church, from “Pastor” through “Administrative Assistant” to “Music Director”.  Perhaps the church musician is a paid professional instrumentalist, whose sole job is to work with the clergy to select music appropriate both for the Liturgical season, the particular Scriptural passages, and if the clergy are thematic, that fit in with the overall worship “theme” for that Sunday.  Perhaps that same professional instrumentalist is also tasked with being choir director, which requires another whole different level, not only of understanding, but more hours choosing and selecting possible musical selections, learning them, then teaching the choir.  Whether that church musician is a full-time or part-time staff person, there are only so many hours to do these important tasks, including non-office hours, either an evening during the week or Sunday morning before worship, for choir rehearsals.  Then there are the hours of practice that are necessary to keep up one’s ability with any instrument.  If the church musician is part-time, perhaps he or she works another part-time, or even full-time, job.  Perhaps he or she has a family.  What we are left with is a situation in which the bare minimums are met even as the church musician struggles to do the best job possible.

I would still say that it is more than possible, even under a scenario in which the church musician’s time is limited by multiple outside responsibilities, nevertheless to lead a congregation that is willing enough, through all sorts of musical changes.  It’s possible, however, if the clergy, the church musician, and the congregation are together not only in the need for change – perhaps expansion of the music musical repertoire; perhaps the beginning of the use of alternate instrumentation, or contemporary songs – but in the best way to reach the goals all have expressed an interest in reaching.  Working with what we have includes the talents, abilities, hours available, and enthusiasm and understanding of the congregation and clergy together.  Even in a situation in which a church musician, a paid professional, is stretched thin for time due to duties outside the church, a job description as well as help from clergy and the congregation alike can result in positive changes, musically.

As for the move to a more performative musical style as necessary, this isn’t the first time it’s happened in the life of the church.  As the Mass was sung in muttered Latin, the priest’s back to the congregation, the best one could usually hope for is the congregation responding when the altar boy rang the bell.  As musical notation, and therefore the ability for homophomy and polyphony to be experimented with, the Mass moved even further in the direction of performance rather than worship.  The masses of Palestrina, say, or Thomas Tallis, are gorgeous.  They are also impossible even for the clergy of the time to perform properly; thus the original introduction of choirs into worship – to aid the priest in the Mass.

That the Christian Churches are those who sing our faith is a given.  How that’s done has been under dispute since the beginning.  To say that congregations suck at singing, however, is a bit much.  I think this is as much a holdover – or perhaps carryover? – from the secular separation of music from the people as it is a reflection on the musical abilities of a given congregation.  As noted previously, music has become a profession, something those with “the talent” or “gift” of music should do, while others should leave it be.  In Daniel Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music, he tells the story of a friend of his doing research among communities in Lesotho, in southern Africa.  He was invited to sing with them during a community festival, and demurred, insisting he couldn’t sing.  By the parameters we in the West understand things, Levitin agrees; his friend couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  The people in the community in Lesotho, however, were literally unable to understand this person’s answer.  Not singing was no different than not breathing.  Song was as much a part of their understanding of what it was to be human as the flowing of blood.

In some way, we in the West need  to rid ourselves of the ridiculous idea that there is a division between those who do particular tasks well and are therefore deserving of recompense both for their abilities and for performing their social tasks well, and the rest of us who might enjoy such things – say carpentry, or painting – as a pastime without giving thought to receiving pay for it.  This division of labor, particularly when it comes to something with such social salience as music, leaves us in the odd position that there are millions of people who enjoy music, yet insist they cannot perform it in some way or another.  That the ability to read a notated score, for example, is something that separates real musicians from the rest is belied by the past century of popular music; and that’s just one example of how we have created a kind of musical hermeticism that is actually belied by reality.  Much of Dan Levitin’s book discusses how the vast majority of people have various musical abilities, up to and including the ability to recall pitches, keys, and individual notes even without the ability necessarily to name them – something called “perfect pitch”.  Indeed, much of Levitin’s work has led him to an evolutionary theory of musical creation in humans – and in other creatures, too – in which music is, as it were, hard-wired in to our brains.

As someone with near-perfect pitch, I will tell you that listening to people who cannot sing on key can be painful.  All the same, as “John Wesley’s Notes On Singing” insist, we are to sing, and sing lustily, without bawling, but certainly with faith, attentive to volume and pitch, doing the best we can with the abilities we have, joining the congregation’s voice in one harmonious – or as close to harmonious – song that rises to God in praise.  My interest is far less in whether or not the congregation should sing as what it should sing, and why.  These are, I believe, separate matters in some sense.  That we are moving more towards a performative stance in our music in worship is as much necessitated by changes that seem to be happening rapidly with little to no communication between clergy, church musicians, and congregations, as it is the growth and expansion of Contemporary Christian Music as a commercial product, too often sold to congregations with little notice to the banality both of the music as well as the lyrics.  Which is why my personal focus is on teaching people to listen to contemporary popular music with at least one ear open to the possibility not only that there might well be something holy in such a profane vessel, but that such music has a place in our corporate worship.

You may be right, however, that the pendulum swing toward performative liturgies rather than participatory is part and parcel of our times.  Whatever is necessitating the change, it is something that I think goes against one of the earliest injunctions of St. Paul to the first Christian churches – that we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  We aren’t to have them performed for us.  We aren’t to hand over the reigns of musical decision making either to clerical, theological, or musical elites, but rather the congregation’s song should be, in the words of church music historian Paul Westermeyer, the people’s song.

Maybe this addresses the countervailing view quoted above.  Perhaps not.  It is, nevertheless, the position from which I begin.

Give Them Good News

Up With People, The Model For Contemporary Worship Styles

Up With People, The Model For Contemporary Worship Styles

I wrote yesterday the matter is not how we argue, or who gets to speak or not to speak on the floor of General Conference.  The matter is the future of the United Methodist Church.  How do we present our distinct voice so it is heard in the cacophony of noise in our society?  How do we offer Good News to our fellow Americans who, in increasing numbers, no longer understand a need for Good News?  How do we offer the possibility of transforming our world – without power, without the presence of media stars, with only the sweat and toil and callouses and blisters on our hands and feet, our willingness to embrace the unembraceable – to a generation that no longer believes it possible to alter the fundamental balance among the powers of this age?

The first thing we do is we offer them the opportunity to come and worship with us.  More than that, we have to have a reason to make such an offer.  While the so-called “worship wars” of the previous couple decades seem to have resulted in bifurcated worship – traditional versus contemporary – it has not altered the basic reality that Christian worship is, or at least should be, the place to start to build together a relationship with God.

My current congregation, Christ United Methodist in Rockford, IL, offers three opportunities to worship on Sundays (four, if you count the separate worship center in another part of the city).  The earliest service is what I would call “casual-traditional” – no praise band, but the offer is there for more casual dress, a more relaxed atmosphere, and the sacrament is celebrated each and every Sunday.  Then there’s the “traditional” service: organ playing, choir singing, handbell choir performs, hymns from The United Methodist Hymnal, and there’s communion the first Sunday of each month.  Finally, there’s the “contemporary” service.  Again, dress is casual, there’s a praise band of midling quality, the congregation sings lyrics projected on to a screen, and the Lord’s Supper is offered every Sunday.  I attend the last, contemporary, service, because it is later in the morning, and because that’s when my daughters go.

Yet, I cannot offer a reason to others to attend worship, in particular the “contemporary” service, at Christ as opposed to any similar service at other large churches in Rockford.  “Contemporary” worship, as indicated above, looks an awful lot like that 1970’s peppy group Up With People.  Most of the music, as I’ve found with many contemporary style services, becomes limited to a handful of favorites, most of which written by Chris Tomlin, the performer in the video above.  Our Contemporary Worship is as generic as soft-serve vanilla ice cream, and as lively as calisthenics at a nursing home.  As much as I love my church and the people in it, we offer nothing, no hint, no liturgical distinction, little theological finery, to let people know that attending worship here, at this church, offers an opportunity to begin a journey that can transform lives, bring peace and health where there is now war and sickness.  While some argue over how polite we should be with one another on the Internet, we are ignoring the fact that our churches are cookie-cutter; interchangeable worship styles; sermons heavy on the personal, psychological battles of a stressed white middle class; and music so bland, and songs played so frequently, as to become Muzak.

We have two thousand years of liturgical resources from so many traditions.  I once attended a high mass at a Greek Orthodox Church.  They used an order of service and mass written by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Fourth Century.   I see no reason why we people called United Methodists, with Wesley’s love for the Eastern Church and the Eastern Fathers, could not utilize such things.  Then there is the hymnody from the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of Methodist Holiness, of declarations of the distinctiveness of our proclamation of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, individually and collectively, to bring about the Kingdom of God.  Finally, there is the hymn-writing explosion, first, in the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council as well as in Protestant circles, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  These hymns use contemporary idioms, contemporary images, and a wider variety of ways of speaking and singing praise to God.  There are hymns from other countries.  And, my bugaboo, there are “non-Christian” songs that can still work in a worship setting in particular circumstances.

Our worship should center on God, not the congregation.  One way to make our invitations have an impact is to offer people the opportunity actually to worship God.  People who have never been to church, who do not understand the vocabulary of worship or are unfamiliar with the message of grace of the Bible will, I believe, nevertheless be impacted by worship that offers a vision of the people gathered to praise God, mixing and matching musics and liturgical elements to suit the specifics of the Sunday, of the message, of the season.  When the Word is proclaimed and the sacrament offered, a first-time visitor, one wholly unfamiliar with the practice and language of worship should nevertheless come away not with a sense that “this church offers me something”.  Their impression should be “this church offers God something”.  We cannot do that if we copy what every other church is doing; we cannot do that if we do what we’ve always done; we cannot do that if we forget our distinctive Wesleyan heritage of grace, of holiness of heart and life, and the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The future of the United Methodist Church lies in a willingness of local churches to be daring, to be bold, not to have “open doors”, but to get people to be willing to invite others to come and worship and find out what it is to be a United Methodist Christian.  If all we do is offer them Up With People with songs by Chris Tomlin, the offer of psychological solace in an age of discomfort, and no challenge to invite someone to come and worship who has never done so before, we are entertaining an ever-older congregation.  This isn’t a matter of “relevance”.  On the contrary, I see no reason not to use our whole Christian history and multiple heritages as resources for each and every worship service.  “Relevance”, I believe, has resulted in our current bland mediocre worship services that offend no one, challenge no  one, and may well be no more uplifting for God than they are for us.  We must offer our ever larger number of Americans who have no religious up-bringing, familiarity with the practice of worship or the vocabulary of faith reasons to come and worship God.  We must trust in God’s grace to lead them through the experience, to have the scales fall from their eyes, to unstop their ears, and soften their hardened hearts to the possibility that being a Christian, being this type of Christian is meaningful, is purposeful, maybe even revolutionary.  We cannot do that if we are no different from everyone else.  We cannot do that if we aren’t willing to offer worship, the first stop for any non-believer, that praises God without bowing to fashion.

Here’s your challenge for the day:  Listen to both of what follow, and hear – really hear – the similarities despite all the glaring differences:

Rethinking An Institution

1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.

3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven. – John Wesley’s Rules For Singing, 1761
Since 1739, when Charles Wesley published Hymns and Sacred Poems, it has been clear that we people called Methodist would be those who sing our faith.  Over the centuries, through schism and reunion and union, one thing has remained steadfast – our denomination produces a book of sacred songs and hymns, that usually include liturgies for special occasions including the sacraments, weddings,  funerals, and the Psalter.  The last United Methodist Hymnal was ordered in 1984 and published four years later, after much controversy.  Because many African-American United Methodists felt the Hymnal did not fully reflect their musical heritage or worship style, this was supplemented by Songs of Zion.  More recently, in 2001, reflecting a surge in hymnody, as well as recognizing the rising tide of Praise Music and its place in United Methodist Worship, the United Methodist Publishing House released The Faith We Sing.  Resources for us to sing our faith are not lacking.
They are, however, outdated, in more ways than one.  A plan to put together a new committee to create a new hymnal was canceled due to lack of funds thanks to the Great Recession.  So our current main hymnal is a quarter century old.  Even the latest supplement is over a decade old, and hymns, sacred songs, spirituals, gospel, praise music, and music in general has changed so drastically, including how we present it – on a printed page or projected on a screen; organ and piano, or “praise band” using contemporary instrumentation – that I think we are long past time not only to create a new “hymnal”, but to start from scratch, rethinking how we collect songs we people called Methodists sing together.
When I say, “start from scratch”, I do not mean tabula rasa.  Rather, we begin with the proposition that the songs, hymns, and other music will lyrically reflect our unique United Methodist theological perspective and heritage.  Beginning with “O! For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”, as has been traditional, would certainly not be out of place.  We could, however, include not only the staved traditional tune “Azmon”. written in 1839.  There could be an arrangement for a band consisting of electronic keyboard, bass, electric and/or acoustic guitar, and drums, using a song in which the lyrics would fit.  Not every hymn or tune need be so arranged, but again there is no reason why they couldn’t be.
When Charles Wesley first published his book of hymns, there were no hymn tunes included.  For years after, Methodist Episcopal hymnals were printed without music.  First, this was so because none of the hymn-tunes had been set.  One congregation might sing “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” to one tune; another to a completely different tune, perhaps even in a different inflection, using perhaps a minor key to reflect the mournful longing for salvation that can certainly be read in to Wesley’s verse.  Second, the use of instruments in Methodist churches was frowned upon.  Organs were expensive, and usually associated with Roman Catholic churches.  Pianos had associations with bars and saloons, so were seriously frowned upon.  No, through most of our long history, our hymns were sung a capella, very often with the preacher lining the hymns – singing the first verse, with the congregation repeating – unless the tune was well known.
There is a well-told tale that Charles Wesley wrote his hymns to “fit” common drinking songs, the thinking being these would be tunes that the people singing them would know, considering the lives they were leaving as they joined the Methodist Societies.  Whether or not this is true, it is certainly the case that Wesley constructed his hymns and poems in such a way they would fit tunes and songs known well-enough to the people that would make singing them easier.  With the introduction of staved tunes on a printed page, what was once a contingent practice to fit a need has become a fossilized tradition.  It is long past time we discard many of the hymn tunes, especially those not composed specifically for the hymns (an exception here would be those of Fanny Crosby, whose hymns were written with several piano-playing collaborators; although, again, it should be stressed that there is no rule or law here; should a different tune be found that works on multiple levels with the beautiful lyrics of Ms. Crosby, then by all means, experimentation is warranted).  Including hymns from around the world, as was done in 1988, is important.  Also important would be including the original arrangements if they do not include western instrumentation.  Why not get our churches learning how differently those thousand tongues sing God’s praise?
Finally, we should not only rely upon the Nashville song mills of the “Praise Music” industry (which is, after all, only a subsidiary of the Country Music establishment).  While there are many such songs popular both with clergy and congregations that flow from this more recent tradition, we should, as I wrote above, make sure we are singing our faith, that our words reflect who we are and what we profess as people called Methodists.  I would also insist that we look beyond the confines of “praise music”.  There are so many songs from various popular music styles, from contemporary country and western, to hip-hop, to rock that could be included, offering people of different ages, races, and traditions an opportunity to learn and grow, to hear the whispering of the Spirit through the back beats, dropped bass, and power chords.  We should, as John Wesley instructed, sing spiritually, whether the author of the words is Isaac Watts or Tupac Shakur.
I do hope the 2016 General Conference authorizes a new hymnal committee.  I do hope they are bold enough, imaginative enough, and strong enough to withstand the slings and arrows of outrage to offer the Church a bold new Hymnal (or whatever name we might choose to give it) that reflects both our heritage and the promise of our future.  We say we want to work to attract younger worshipers.  To do this, we need to show that we are not stuck in the mid-20th century in our view of what is acceptable as a song in praise of God, and how it’s presented.  We can even do this presenting old hymns in new ways that are exciting, fresh, and might offer a different understanding of the meaning of the words we sing.