The Rev. Kenny Lamm, senior consultant for worship and music for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, maintains a blog on worship and music. A fellow Facebooker shared one of Kenny’s recent posts, and I can’t let that pitch go by without taking a swing at it. I have known Kenny for many years, so I’m comfortable adding my own perspective and taking him to task here. So open your Bibles and your hymnals and Kenny’s blog in another window, and let’s get this service started:
Kenny says, “Worship leaders…are changing [the] church’s worship…into a spectator event, and people are not singing any more.” Well, YEAH, it’s a spectator sport and has been since the Ark of the Covenant and before. Walked into a Medieval European cathedral lately? There is so much to see in the architecture and appointments that you will always see something new each time. But in our modern churches that specialize in “contemporary” worship (hate that word, but history has not produced a better one yet), there is virtually no architecture to admire. And so our lights and graphics have become quite the visual feast (the only thing to look at, really) – so it's our own fault that people just look and don't participate, or at least look and not listen. Screens are hypnotic, and if the projector fails during a service, in some churches there won't be much left to take in. But being a spectator and not singing are two different phenomena. Looking at something is different from choosing not to sing along, and not singing along is a choice toward which many people are routinely driven today by worship teams. But when I attend church at, say, Esztergom Basilica or the Bavokerk in Haarlem, there is plenty to look at and there are plenty of kind and sincere people all around, and I can feel quite close to God without understanding a single word being said. Nothing wrong with worshipping with our eyes.
Kenny says about pre-Reformation worship, “The music was performed by professional musicians and sung in an unfamiliar language (Latin).” In many cases, the musicians were professional only insofar as they were professionally led and very well-rehearsed. Latin notwithstanding, presenting well-prepared church music is a good thing.
Kenny says, “The Reformation gave worship back to the people, including congregational singing which employed simple tavern tunes with solid, scriptural lyrics in the language of the people. Worship once again became participatory.” One must be careful not to “nutshell” the Reformation too much. It was about far more than any one issue, and it was brought about by far more than one person. And although Luther got tunes from wherever they needed to be gotten, many of them came from aristocratic soirées, not from drunken brawls. And the tunes were NOT simple; matter of fact, the watered down versions we have today (by Bach, of all people) are far simplified from the rather vigorous rhythms of the originals.
Kenny says, “What has occurred could be summed up as the re-professionalization of church music and the loss of a key goal of worship leading – enabling the people to sing their praises to God.” And there is his thesis. He blames the re-professionalization of church music for shutting out the congregation. I’ll disagree passionately by saying that if anything, worship music has deliberately shunned professionalization, to its detriment and that of the musical health of its congregations. We need professionals all around us, in all spheres. And it is possible to be a professional musician and a compassionate Christian.
Kenny says, “Worship is moving to its pre-Reformation mess.” Sounds kind of alarmist to me. We’re way ahead on the Reformation issue of the vernacular in worship. And it took hundreds of years for the Reformation to finally gain enough ground to get started. And here we are hundreds of years after THAT, and our current sudden silence in the congregations took only about 30 years to come about. So it’s imminently fixable.
Kenny continues with nine reasons he feels congregations aren't singing anymore:
1. “They don’t know the songs.” I believe more accurate would be that they are not being allowed time to learn the songs, and they are not being presented with enough information to do so. Worship songs are not hard to learn. Any song on earth consists of text and melody, but our screens offer text only, thereby leaving out around 65% of the information required to sing a song. That's an easy fix on the screens, but it will probably require a professional musician to do it.
2. “We are singing songs not suitable for congregational singing.” No argument there. Worship songs are notoriously solo-centered. It’s one of the most destructive forces against congregational singing today.
3. “We are singing in keys too high for the average singer.” True; see #2 above. But keys are easily fixed, preferably by a professional musician (there’s that word again) who knows how to transpose and to produce parts for the band. But we used to sing even higher in our hymnals, before worship songs came along. That is easy to explain: we got bigger. People were shorter and smaller in the 19th century and earlier – bodies and voices were smaller, therefore, higher pitched than today.
4. “The congregation can’t hear people around them singing. If our music is too loud for people to hear each other singing, it is too loud.” No argument there, but the loudness is less than half the problem. Next to #2 above, dead acoustics are a primary culprit to congregational silence today. There has always been a reason why people sing in the shower and not in the bedroom. And at Kenny’s previous church, the acoustics were lousy, and the sound system and music were oppressively loud. Speakers just shout at you; they don’t envelop you. Loud doesn’t work when the organ is too loud. Loud doesn’t work when the band is too loud. Loud doesn’t work when the lead singer’s mic is too loud. And despite their insistence to the contrary, choir members don’t “get” their part by sitting next to someone singing their part in their ear or by asking the pianist to “bang out” their part. Sound must be all around a person to lead him, not shouting out of a speaker to drag him.
5. “Excellence – yes. Highly professional performance – no.” I cannot imagine how you can have excellence without some know-how behind it. I am a professional musician. And so is Kenny. And when I “take the stage” to lead a crowd, I do it better than most. What’s wrong with getting the music as good as we possibly can? What’s wrong with hiring a professional musician to lead the flock? Give of our best. Get it right. Hire skilled musicians [I Chron 15:22, I Chron 25:1-8, Psalm 33:3]. In his excellent and punch-in-the-face kind of book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Harold Best asserts sternly on page 170 that “There is no hint anywhere in the scriptures that mediocrity is excused in the name of service and ministry.” He asserts over and over that God expects us to find the best people in order to offer the best product. "Professional" is required to educate, to produce, to move amateurs into a higher worship IQ bracket.
6. “The congregation feels they are not expected to sing.” I'm not sure this is verifiable. You’d have to ask the congregation. But they’re not professionals, so don’t expect them to be able to put their finger on it immediately.
7. “We fail to have a common body of hymnody.” Actually, the songs keep changing so fast that we can’t decide what’s in and what’s out. Worship songs are being churned out so fast that it’s impossible to determine which ones will stand the test of time. It's our own fault that few non-hymnal-based churches have a reliable repository of songs to use anymore.
8. “Worship leaders ad lib too much. Keep the melody clear and strong.” This is a sibling to Nos. 2 and 6 above. The fastest fix is to get the melody up on the screen. With that, you could even do away with most of the worship leaders, which could eventually pose the question, “Why did we require multiple worship leaders wielding microphones in the first place?"
9. “Worship leaders are not connecting with the congregation.” This one is tricky, in part because I'm not entirely sure what Kenny is saying. But the people are looking at a screen, so it’s impossible for worship leaders to connect fully with them. But ultimately, everyone is responsible for his own worship. A worshipper shouldn’t expect to be reached without reaching out himself, and a worship team should not be expected to take responsibility for anyone’s non-participation.
This post came about from some comments I made on a Facebook friend’s page in somewhat rawer language. I hope I have been more compassionate here, but this debate is important, and I have my suspicions that all this is an easy fix. Kenny has offered his summary of the problem in an over-professionalization of church music. I have offered mine in the mis-channeling of professionalization and in uninformative screens. We’re both close, but it remains for churches to embrace their own fixes.
I'm not advocating here for the removal of the screens and a return to using hymnals. That would be too drastic for the screen camp, but it would solve a host of problems being increasingly debated.