The value of artists for the church

This thought struck me today:  Do the “worship wars” exist in our churches (and I’m thinking of conservative Evangelicals mostly) because we lack a deep and meaningful theology of art?

Do we devalue certain kinds of music or performance because, generally speaking, we devalue the artists among us?

I realize that I’m generalizing here based on mostly my own experience, the echo chamber that is my Facebook feed and my friend groups, and articles I tend to see on the Internet. But hear me out — let me know if you think there’s something here.

Worship music exists on a settled continuum at this point in American church history. Since the 1970s, rock and pop (and country) sounds have become more and more mainstream as part of the Sunday service. What began as “praise choruses” (thanks, Keith Green!) grew into a huge Christian music industry by the 80s (who hasn’t heard of Amy Grant) and a juggernaut of Christian media, praise and worship music, and performance styles. But it’s not been a smooth ride. New forms alienate traditional worshipers. And I think we can agree that a lot of Christian music – like secular music – is at best mediocre, from a musician’s point of view.

It seems like the worship wars have cooled to an uneasy detente: traditionalists scoff at “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music that repeats the same line 25 times. Contemporary worship leaders value traditional hymnody but want to get away from the funeral dirge of organ/piano/face in hymnal that they probably grew up with.

I think the two positions can be summed up easily thus:

And if you need a third example, find the Eddie Izzard clip (from his stand-up routine) about Anglicans singing in church …. (it always goes through my head when I’m singing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” not my favorite tune).

Thing is, both approaches to music, traditional and contemporary, can serve up skill and artistry. And both can fall into the traps of mind-numbing boredom or lack intentionality.

And – with a gentle nudge to my hymn-loving / repetition-hating friends – repetition is a valid song-writing technique. To say otherwise is to deny the artistry of the psalms – and not just the famous ones like 150 or  136 (which repeats “for his mercy endures forever 36x…. just saying…..).

So I’m wondering.  Do we war over music (or simmer silently when the worship leader picks a song we hate) because we lack a cohesive theology of art?

Think about your church. Aside from the main platform musicians who are playing for worship regularly, how many artists and musicians get the chance to integrate their skill set into the ministry of your church?

How much art hangs in your worship space?  If you’re from a Reformed denomination like I am, perhaps not much. Maybe word art of some kind, cloth banners with verses on them, or perhaps a long-established symbol of something non-controversial like the Trinity.

Any art that isn’t totally unambiguous?

Any music that speaks to the more difficult passages of Scripture, like the prophets or Revelation? Any music that doesn’t always resolve to a happy ending?

Any physical movement? Any dance? Any theater?

Many churches are working to incorporate art, music, dance, and other aesthetics into the worship and life of the congregation. For those churches, I am deeply thankful and hope they lead the way for the rest of us. 

This morning at church, teens from our congregation led us with tambourine and dance. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually just one song, but there’s so much joy sparking out of their hands and feet. It nudges even our congregation to move, to smile, to reflect the God Who rejoices over us with singing. 

If we put 90% of our worship energy into making or listening to propositional statements, I think we lose the power of space, time, sound, and sight to shape our understanding of God-given beauty. And then we end up throwing shade at the people who don’t worship like us. “They have a band.” “The drums are too loud.” “It feels like a concert instead of a church.” “The music is old and boring.” “I hate the organ. It sounds like death.”

We must learn to worship. Learning to appreciate different types of music, song construction, liturgies takes time and intentionality.

And one of the best resources for that work often lies untapped among our congregations – the artists among us, those who are honed to see a more complex beauty, those who are wired to feel truth as much as know it.  Let’s value the artists among us for the gift that they are.

*****
I recommend James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to explore further the ways in which the incarnated practices of liturgy train our hearts at a pre-conscious level. Here’s a condensed lecture version.

 

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