Church Worship Jesus

Exit: The heart must sing | Music in the Evangelical church

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here


You want to know a secret?

Although I eye-roll rather hard at pretty much all “Christian” media for its moralism and general cheesiness, sometimes when I’m in the car alone I’ll crank up the local praise & worship station and – if I actually recognize anything – sing along.

*gasp* I know right? lol


Music: Let the people sing

People who know me know that I’m really into music. I sing, I play the piano, I pretend to want to put in the work to learn to play the guitar, I listen to music from all genres all the time. But if you ask me what category of musician I am, I have to answer “church musician.” It’s been the heart and soul of my musical career.

Since I was a kid, one of my primary acts of service has been music for worship. As a little fundamentalist, I banged out (too loud) piano solos as offertories or “special music.” I started playing the piano for chapel singing in middle school and never really stopped. I learned to sing in school choirs and sang in church choirs from age 13 until my adult church stopped having choirs when I was in my 30s. (Casualty of the worship wars.)

For over 10 years I was a primary musician at my church, usually at the piano and – if it was the “contemporary worship service,” singing a strong alto line at the same time.  I can reconstruct nearly anything from a string of lyrics and a set of chords.

And this is perhaps the thing I miss most about leaving church.


Nobody sings like Christians

There’s something powerful about corporate worship, something no other sector of Western culture can even begin to approach.

Think about it: Aside from screaming lyrics at a live concert or singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the 7th inning stretch, when do Americans sing together?

I’ll wait.

The art of corporate singing is dead in our culture, aside from formal civic chorales. Our folk culture no longer prioritizes singing together a set of common songs that might unite us across our differences.  Well, aside from Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne.  Even then, people mumble and laugh nervously and get it over with (unless they’re New Years Eve drunk enough not to care).

I’m not saying music is irrelevant — clearly, the American music industry is huge and thriving. (Whether the current pop stuff is good is a totally different argument, but I’ll abstain.)

A lot of the “belt it out with a bunch of other people who know the same song” is gone from American life, and we’re the poorer for it. The people who come together to SING are, primarily, Christians.  And they do it weekly.

Granted, the hard Right within Christianity hates the modern worship music for replacing the complex beauty of hymn text with what they deem to be inferior, repetitive mush.  And the modern worship folks find a lot of hymn tunes to be pretty terrible and hard to sing using amplified instruments (which are almost a requirement in a large hall).  Honestly, I think both sides are right to an extent. And I enjoyed the way my PCA church blended old and new.

I’m afraid I’ll never experience anything like this again.


Did you know you can sing “Softly and Tenderly” to the tune of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”?    You can also sing “Angels We Have Heard On High” to “Yellow Submarine,” but it’s such an earworm that I’d never suggest it to anyone lest you hate me forever.


Leading worship: It’s a dance

What’s it like to lead worship rather than participating in it? I can speak only to my own experiences.

Significantly, there was a weight, a deep sense of responsibility about playing well because the music itself was an offering to God. Worship leaders are simultaneously proud of and protective of and touchy about their place in the pecking order of ministers.

Music ministers grab onto that passage in Chronicles where musicians are labeled as part of the priesthood. They cling to the passage in Psalms about singing a new song to the Lord; the Nehemiah passage about God rejoicing over us with singing; the Ephesians 5 verses the command believers to sing to one another.  Good musicians hate bad musicianship (for good reasons), so it’s natural to elevate the role of music in worship, and speak about it in weighty terms.

Looking back, I honor the earnestness of this and recognize the value of taking leadership seriously.  Yet I hesitate to laud the feelings of guilt and responsibility that seemed to drive many worship leaders into constantly doubting their own motives or quality of work. Christianity can be a very guilt-driven place. Who gets to be on stage? Who determines when the worship leaders are spiritual enough?

Those who bear the worst of this guilt are the souls who question their motives at every turn, blazing a hot light into every corner of their heart to find any hidden sin or dirt or ambition or pride. It’s hard to be a church musician in a milieu where acknowledging your talent is seen as sinful and thankless.  It’s even harder when you’ve been trained by the church to feel guilty if you ever do anything but “give God the glory.”

By raising worship to the level of preaching – and I’m not saying this is wrong; I think the exegesis may support it – we force worship leaders into the same toxic patterns that plague Evangelical pastors in general. We made so much of leaders. They had to be “special” (otherwise, why pay a pastor if anyone could do his job?). By definition this comes with a lot of pressure and expectations.

Should we be expecting worship leaders to earn a masters or D.Min. in worship ministry? Should musicians be church-grown instead? I’m honestly asking.  The church runs like a business more than anything else in America, and capitalist theories of management aren’t necessarily congruous with biblical norms.

worship music piano


How the music gets made

The responsibility of worship leading aside, (speaking now of myself) I was always running a series of parallel processes in my brain when I joined the worship band each week for rehearsal and then service. As an ensemble musician, you’re constantly listening for how your sound fits or clashes with the group. (Or you should be.) This ‘meta’ is what differentiates an outstanding worship band from a mediocre one. And at NCC, when we were all “on,” we were REALLY good.  I’m proud of that.

I’m afraid I’ll never find anything like this camaraderie again.

At any given moment on stage, I’d say 50% of my brain was occupied with the physical and mental work of producing the right notes at the right time in the right places. The other 50% was spit between paying attention to the group sound and paying attention to everything else about the experience: the congregation’s response (or lack of it), my own emotions, the joy or passion or beauty of the music itself.

Occasionally, everything just clicked and I floated out of my own body on the waves of sound, on the waves of emotion and joy and Jesus and feels and ….

Was this the Holy Spirit? Was this spiritual ecstasy? Does Lady Gaga feel the same way in the middle of a concert when suddenly every note is right in a way it wasn’t 10 minutes ago?  If I feel a shade of the same tingle when Coldplay’s “Something Like This” comes on the radio, does that mean God inhabits the joy of all music, or that the elusive moment of ecstasy I experienced on stage from time to time is merely an outcome of playing music live?

I don’t know. I just know that I really miss it. With my whole heart.


The CCM elephant

Look, I fully acknowledge that Christian music has a serious problem. Well, several.  For one, many of the CCM tunes are just shit. They really are.  Four chords, that’s it. Teach someone D A G Bm on a guitar and they can immediately play pretty much anything on the radio right now.   Simplest cadences in the world.  Too much of that in one service, and I’d have to bang my head on the piano lid till the pain gave me something to keep me interested.

Despite all that simplicity, many of the worship song melodies are nearly unsingable by the average person. The verse (so-called) wanders around using a few notes in a dull chant-like way, or leaps like a frightened rabbit around the scale. The songs always follow the same damn form: Intro / Verse 1 /  Chorus / Verse 2 / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus / Outro.  You hear it on the radio every day, in any pop music genre. I get it, the format works. But let’s be honest: at best, people might learn to sing the chorus. The verse is always a mumble-fest.

My guilty pleasure might be scanning our 3 CCM stations for tunes when I’m driving alone, but that doesn’t mean I find things I want to sing along with very often. When I had a 30 minute commute, I used to put in an earbud and play some of my favorites off my iPhone so I could sing along.

Christianity is keeping corporate singing alive, and at times they’re doing it with heart and soul and skill.  Depending on your personal music tastes, you can find something to sing with.  But there’s also a sea of mediocrity out there — of knock-off pop boy bands, of wanna-be Demi Levatos crooning while wearing more modest blouses to avoid alienating their audience, of 30-somethings trying desperately to be hip, of indie musicians squeezing so much earnest belief into their songs that it makes my teeth hurt.

Sing a new song

To prove that I’m not just an ass, here’s a short list of recent worship songs I think nearly anyone can get behind. They’re good arrangements that sing well, tunes that anyone can learn to sing.

Look, the music  you listen to in the car or at your picnic probably isn’t the same music that’s going to work for a worship service. At NCC we built these songs out with a full band and gave them a lot of energy without being obnoxious. But they’re also good with a single piano or guitar. The tunes themselves are very singable and I can lift my voice and sing happily anytime I hear them.

If you’re hip and cool with the CCM charts, you’ll laugh at how old these are. But I believe most songs ned a few years under their belts before we’ll know for sure they can stick.

I hate that one’s hymnody is an outgrowth of one’s tribe. If you’re from a different tribe than me, chances are we’ll have only a very few songs in common: Amazing Grace, the doxology.  Maybe Heaven has huge singalongs and everyone somehow loves all the songs chosen. Or maybe in heaven, with sinless hearts, we will enjoy music as the simple offering that it is, instead of some deep theological / political statement about Big Important Things. We’ll simply love it for the beauty that it provides, a channel for worship.


If we can pray to God, we can sing to God

I don’t know how many Protestants realize that we owe much to John Calvin for making sure that hymnody stayed in the hands of the congregation. As debates raged about what God does or doesn’t permit in worship, church leaders in the nascent Protestant movement were taking a pretty hard line (at least in Calvin’s circles; Luther was waaaay more chill about some of these things) about not allowing anything into worship that God Himself hadn’t expressly commanded.

Calvin famously derived that the Scripture celebrates believers praying to God in their own words. To him, singing to God fell into the same category. Thus, if prayers were ok, congregational singing had to be ok too.  *whew*  I can’t even imagine how much I would’ve hated church if there had been no corporate singing.  I’m going to give Calvin a huge hug in heaven if I see him. I’m not sure how that works. Can I get a punch list or something?

Calvin even hired a guy to write some fantastic, fun, syncopated tunes for his psalter (hymn texts drawn from the psalms). He wasn’t so much into letting people sing just anything, mind you, but he wanted the psalms sung with joy and beauty.  If you think hymn tunes are boring, don’t blame Calvin or Luther (who happily took pop tunes for his poetry, having none of Calvin’s qualms about any of this).  Blame the English Protestants, who had to make sure no one was having any fun ever. Who ironed out all the great syncopation in the Geneva tunes? The English. *sigh*   Would you believe the “doxology” (tune: Old Hundreth) was originally gloriously bouncy and happy?  Yup.  All the way back to the 16th century…. until the English church got hold of it, stripped it down, and then shipped it to America with the Puritans or Pilgrims.

I’m simplifying here, so don’t come at me if you’re a hymnologist. But my Church Hymnody course in undergrad was one of the best in my program, and I’ve thanked Calvin ever since for helping me get through every church service ever.

church music women
Photo by FOTOGRAFIA .GES on Unsplash

Confession:  I just can’t do a church with poor music. I don’t mean “small church, zero talent, so Martha plays on Sundays and we’re thankful for her.”  You go, Martha. I don’t want to attend your church, honestly, but I appreciate your service.

No, I’m talking big churches with the means to do music well, but it’s boring. Or badly skilled. But mostly just….dull.  Trying too hard to be either hip or traditional.  *sighs*  That goes for the megachurch concert approach too. Dude. If I wanted someone to blast my ears with big power chords and soaring tunes, I’d follow U2 around for their world tours and throw in a few shows from every other famous band ever.

Maybe that’s unfair. I don’t know.

It’s my curse. I know it’s possible to do joyful, energetic, interesting worship services that invites everyone to sing, and I’ve got zero interest in doing church without it.

But honestly, one of the things that’s kept me from heading out on a scouting expedition to find a new church is that I can’t bring myself to mumble through a pile of songs I’ve never heard accompanied by a wailing guitar, an earnest 25-year-old on an acoustic, or a somber organ.

The music thing hits really close to home for me, and I’m going to be a recovering church musician for a long, long time.


Confessions of a recovering church musician

  • I stayed at my Evangelical church way longer than I “fit” there because I truly enjoyed the fellowship of my fellow musicians. We played well together. They were my band peeps, and I loved them for it. Genuinely.  I miss them right now, and writing this post makes me sad.  Giving my music to the church week after week helped keep me connected to the community of faith.
  • I’m also sad because, when the end came, it came because I wasn’t welcome back to their stage.  I don’t blame them, since I think by that point everyone could tell I wasn’t in that camp anymore. But it’s a painfully Evangelical thing to rob someone of a gift they love to give because the Evangelical no longer agrees with the gift-giver.
  • When I can’t handle the suffocating blanket of organized religion, I can sing to God. I can give Him my songs.  I can play for Him. I can play TO Him.
  • America really ought to get back into the corporate music thing. I guess we’re going to need something newer than Stephen Foster songs. Are the Beatles enough?
  • I haven’t touched a piano since July 2016, the last time I played for corporate worship at NCC. Not even to play for weddings. Like everything else in Evangelicalism, that too is tribal. When you’re out, you’re really and fully out.
  • I sense how this is deeply and personally tragic, like someone knocked me out and amputated a limb without asking first. But now that it’s gone, I cannot drum up any interest in going back to the grind of rehearsals and early Sunday mornings. I have zero desire to hire on as an underpaid musician at a church of any flavor.  And believe me, they are ALL underpaid.
  • If you’re in a church somewhere, and you’re reading this, and your church musician(s) are good at what they do, please make sure they get compensated somehow. Please. Give them a Christmas bonus. Argue for them to get a monthly stipend or a quarterly perk. Church musicians are hardworking people, and music is expensive.

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here

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