How Contemporary Christian Worship Music May Bring About Interfaith

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Posted on November 20th, 2012 | Filed under Community, Learning, Theology, Uncategorized
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I admit that I am a self-confessed church hopper. I wear this badge of life-long spiritual seeking with both courage and regret. When something becomes stale, when the community looks too comfortable for its own good, I eventually resume my nomadic journey, taking in tow my family, which at times meets with more resistance from my wife than others, depending on the situation, until we find firmer ground on which to pitch our tent posts.

Though raised as a Roman Catholic, in the past thirty years, I have darkened the doorsteps of Lutheran, Pentecostal, Stone-Campbell Christian Churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Episcopalian, and various non-denominational churches. In the course of my nomadic journeys, I rarely stay long enough to claim membership, but on occasion, where some balance can be struck, I have taken the time to spend a handful of years in one place, that is, until I find something wrong and resume planning my next destination. Yet currently, I have not been a regular church attendee for over six months.

One thing that has remained consistent in most of my evangelical church experiences is the institution of contemporary worship as one of, if not the most, dominating feature of the service. The contemporary worship service is highlighted by adult musicians exercising their talents in what has to be described as jam sessions for Jesus. String instruments are accompanied with percussion, while a song leader draws in and directs the emotional energy of the congregants.

Solos are often performed, and original music by the music team is performed at the expense of a dumbfounded congregation who at times must solemnly stand and listen to the new song or the saxophone soloist croon while the collection plate makes its rounds. Clapping is almost always a part of the service, though attitudes about the subject of this applause vary. The sounds can be described as rock blended with folk music, which, while some like myself might complain is often hopelessly folksy and generationally foreign, at the time when it was first introduced was a radical component of the counterculture from which it arose.

The entire model owes much of its existence to the Jesus Movement in the 1970s in which bands of hippies and surfers from the West Coast began to recreate their identities in Jesus and sought to personalize that experience in their own grassroots form of rebellion. Taking what they knew from the political protests of the day against the war in Vietnam and social equalities, they turned their ability to organize into an assault on the traditional worship structure of the church, offering a more dynamic approach interwoven with secular musical influence, all in the name of Jesus.

The musical influence on the hippie movement was already a well-known platform of protest, so it was only natural that music would also lead the charge into the church. In essence, the liberal counterculture made the conservative evangelical worship service what it is today.

But music alone was not the only contribution. In the early 80s, the charismatic roots of this movement penetrated some of the most unlikely of places. At my home church, Saint Pius X Parish in Baltimore, MD, I vividly recall my mother meeting with a group of women under the auspices of CHRP (Christ Renews His Parish) to take part in regular Bible studies. Emphasis was given to the work of the Holy Spirit, and the secret syncretism of these sessions was generally held off-site and away from the prying eyes of parish priests. The studies often ended in prayer circles that involved the spontaneous eruption of the charismatic doctrine of speaking in tongues.

Aging congregations suffering from membership attrition were some of the early benefactors of the Jesus Movement. Those in the movement looking to organize, and churches in dire straits were willing to listen or face oblivion. Don Finto’s experiment at Belmont Avenue Church of Christ was among the most famous, as he turned a church struggling for self-identity into a successful model of praise and worship, increasing membership in high volume.

If there is any doubt about the way in which the evidence may point to the reception of contemporary worship, one statistic offered by the Barna Group in 2008 states that of the 8% of the population claiming to be evangelical Christians, almost 49% claim to be charismatic, and nearly half of all adults in Protestant churches (46%) are charismatic.

But the phenomenon, as noted earlier, is not an entirely Protestant endeavor. Nativity, a Roman Catholic congregation in suburban Baltimore, serves as an example of the continued infiltration of an evangelical form of worship. Like many traditional churches, membership concerns--the practical measure of a church’s health--was a hot topic only a few decades ago. After an extended Sabbatical in which the senior pastor made friendly with mega church superstar Rick Warren, the result returned to the congregation was a new form of the Roman Catholic Mass injected with contemporary treatments.

Music went from droning pipe organs to strumming guitar strings. And while there are certainly elements of the Catholic mass that remain part of the worship experience, the hip and sexy new look and feel have created a fusion that offers a fresh feel to a new wave of young Catholics looking to reconnect with a God they may have abandoned during their teenage and college years.

This is not to say that contemporary worship forms have been received with open arms. Complaints vary, but among some of the more critical deal with the almost disproportionate to equal emphasis on music as opposed to the sermon. The repetitive creedal formulas remembered by older church goers have been replaced by repetitive themes of love and forgiveness arranged in superficial presentations of music. Theological, creedal, and even denominational specificity have become the most pronounced victims. And some pastors seem to have worked hard to avoid talking about doctrine in an effort to create a non-threatening environment to fill their pews and chairs.

One pastor who headed a church I used to attend asserted how he looked forward to the day when he could remove the word “Baptist” from the church’s marquee outside, since the title itself often called to mind so many negative images in popular culture. The problem of course was those older members who were in no position to budge.

While it is not scientific the way in which the worship model contributes to the overall presentation of the service (at least at Nativity, the Mass is still very much the Roman Catholic Mass), the continued modernization of many brands of Christianity has made it extremely difficult to make identifications based upon historical points of doctrine that have separated the denominations and given them their unique expression. Peruse the web for “what we believe” statements and it seems that churches are simply avoiding talking about doctrine altogether. In the ten years I spent between three different denominations, I can only note one single sermon on doctrine dedicated to millennialism, and even then it was cautiously presented as an historical overview.

The founder of McDonald’s, Ray Crock, wanted to create a hamburger experience for the consumer that would always be consistent whether she found herself in Anchorage, Alaska or Bangor, Maine. We are experiencing the consumerism of the church on a scale we’ve never seen before. While this all may be about head counts, tithe offerings, and saving jobs, I am cautiously optimistic that we may be heading towards a paradigm shift that not even the churches fully understand.

The non-threatening environments are not only presented in the coin of contemporary music but in most churches are reactions to the heavy-handed preaching that used to split congregations and denominations down the middle, and indeed still do. The free range of social intercourse going from a Baptist congregation where a patriarchal model still exists and a believer’s baptism is taught to a Presbyterian congregation where a woman celebrates the service and infant baptism remains integral is all eclipsed by the communal experience of the contemporary worship service where the songs being sung in one church are heard in another and then heard once again on the Christian radio station on the drive home. This familiarity has actually done more for the breaking down of barriers than what keeps them standing. It is an unconscious move to uniformity.

One thing has been true. As my family and I have moved from church to church, that non-threatening environment, the McDonald’s awareness of knowing just what’s on the menu when we step through the doors, hear the first strum of a guitar, and see a familiar name come up on the projection screen have kept us from running too soon. It helped us to stick around, humanize the individuals around us, and even build relationships that we’ve taken with us.

Whether we know it or not, I feel like all of us are being primed for the next big paradigm shift. Whether this looks like churches where different denominations can gather together rather than simply rent out space one to another, or whether this will spread beyond Christian walls, the subcurrents pushing through are increasing growing in a positive direction. And as we sometimes hear about friends leaving churches we’ve left and inquire into the reasons, much of the time, the issues brought up are not at the center of a propositional debate on the merit of free will versus predestination, but how much Christian love are we seeing working in the midst of those places. And while this love may be articulated differently, it is a love that expresses humanity at its core.

Despite this, I am not sure that respect for doctrinal, creedal, and dogmatic differences is what is at stake here since most people no longer care for doctrinal propriety as a badge of faith except the people in the interfaith movement. Yet, I would argue that the journey is beginning for many without their consent or knowledge.

Moving into new territory, and perhaps for the first time, many in their traditional expressions of the Christian faith are beginning to see humanity expressed through Christianity, rather than Christianity as a particular human response, the latter of which bears on the historical point of a particular revelation of God filtering into humanity. To understand this appropriately, we must say that Christianity expresses humanity, not in a way that supposes a claim to superiority, but rather that the fundamental expression of life is a religious one. We must be willing to proclaim that divinity meets me here, rather than how I am met. The familiarity we share in common through symbols, signs, and worship practices are only reminders of that humanity, a shared existential horizon that meets us in the moment where our common humanity is no longer common but uniquely gifted to the community in which it operates.

Could it be that many outside the interfaith movement are learning some of the most elementary steps in ecumenism that make possible a wider dialogue and ingress into interfaith? It is worth considering. It is worth considering when a presidential candidate who was scorned for his faith just four years ago was a frontrunner among his previous evangelical opposition in this past election. It is worth considering when lacking congregation numbers help me to consider a new format of worship borne in a counterculture movement I would have considered heretical just fifty years ago.

Community is created in many ways, and in many ways, it is birth in opposition. Perhaps in some paradoxical way, the theological language of miracles is not about supernatural phenomena but about carving out paths through the very thing that seems to oppose them.

Photo by Tim Wilson, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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4 Responses to “How Contemporary Christian Worship Music May Bring About Interfaith”

  1. Caitlin Michelle Desjardins says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece! Coming from a congregation where a capella hymn singing is the norm, it was helpful for me to step back and consider the possible merits of contemporary music! You framed your subject so well in terms of the larger paradigm shift in churches and hope for ecumenism. I was really struck by your closing sentence about miracles! What a beautiful way to consider miraculous happenings…
    Peace and Grace to you!
    -Caitlin

  2. Hi Trey, great article!

    Your page first caught my eye when I noticed in your bio a lot of familiar titles that I haven’t seen in a long time….Towson, Carver, St. Mary’s, Baltimore Sun. I grew up in the northwest Baltimore County area, and it was really nice to see all those fond markers of the area pop back into my mind again for a brief moment. :)

    So, things I’m curious about after reading your article:
    (1) Even though your spiritual journey is constantly in a state of process, where is your denominational “resting spot” right now, and what do you like or dislike that place?
    (2) You write that Christianity is a fundamentally human experience because “Christianity expresses humanity, not in a way that supposes a claim to superiority, but rather that the fundamental expression of life is a religious one.” Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean by that? What qualities about life make it fundamentally religious? What should we make of a nontheistic lifestyle in response to this worldview?
    (3) What is it about contemporary worship music that makes it more amenable to the kind of unity that you seek for, compared to traditional worship music styles? Why can’t humanity join in around a traditional hymn played on an organ?

    On that last point, I do also have a comment. I guess I personally feel more partial to traditional music styles. I guess it helps me set church apart as a place separate from the rhythms and scenes of everyday life. At the same time, I am also very sensitive to perhaps other people’s desire to express their own cultural backgrounds and zones of comfort in church.

    I just read an article this morning about Mary Lou Williams, an African-American Catholic convert and 20th century jazz musician who struggled unsuccessfully to get her jazz version of the Mass performed in the Vatican. (http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/jazz-mass)

    The LDS Church leans more traditional in its worship music. In the divine between hymns and praise songs, we definitely lean toward praise songs. I think I heard someone mention last Sunday that guitars are not permitted during the Church service. Given the choice, I would pick an organ or a violin over a guitar, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

    I recently wrote a SoF post about my experiences in an LDS musical setting, and although I was treating the music as a symbol for other themes rather than dealing directly with the music itself, I think you still might find it interesting. (http://www.stateofformation.org/2012/11/theology-of-the-body-episode-2-the-gendering-of-voices-in-a-mormon-sunday-choir/)

    Best,
    Kufre

  3. This is a really cool article, Trey!

  4. Trey says:

    Kufre,

    Thanks for reading and your questions. I’ve tried my best to answer you below. I included your original questions as well.

    God bless,

    Trey

    Even though your spiritual journey is constantly in a state of process, where is your denominational “resting spot” right now, and what do you like or dislike that place?

    I’ve recently taken up with an Episcopalian Church in the Towson area.

    You write that Christianity is a fundamentally human experience because “Christianity expresses humanity, not in a way that supposes a claim to superiority, but rather that the fundamental expression of life is a religious one.” Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean by that? What qualities about life make it fundamentally religious? What should we make of a nontheistic lifestyle in response to this worldview?

    The way I approach and understand this question is confessedly the way that theologians like Tillich and Heschel approached the question: Namely, to be religious is to be human. I certainly don’t extrapolate from this a formal notion of religion as in a ritual notion but as one of man’s guiding impulses. For Tillich the questions posed by philosophy could be answered in theology. For someone like Heschel, there was no distinction between Judaism and the experience of being human. To have a religious voice was to have a human voice. Rather than express exclusivism, he simply meant to assert that Judaism has in itself everything sufficient to my emerging self-awareness as a human. A lot of this kind of thinking had to do with the advances made in Existential thought over the past century that re-trained the gaze from formulaic expressions of faith to experiential and ontological expressions. I also like the way Bonhoeffer viewed the question of man, namely that in asking the question “what is man” one cannot remain within in himself to find the answer. There is a boundary condition to life. And the individual is ill-equipped because to ask where man begins or ends assumes that we have already intuited or violated the very boundary in order to posit its existence. Existential thinkers saw the notion of God as Transcendence with regard to a response-position in humanity not only to himself but to all that is. Like, Bonhoeffer, the problem is not non-theism but rather an a-theism that refuses to acknowledge the lack of humanity’s own revelation that stands by what we can and cannot know ontologically.

    What is it about contemporary worship music that makes it more amenable to the kind of unity that you seek for, compared to traditional worship music styles? Why can’t humanity join in around a traditional hymn played on an organ?

    I’m hoping I didn’t make this point. I certainly think responsorials, antiphonal, and traditional hymns have their place. I am in one of those traditional congregations now. I think my point was I have seen a move in recent years to a format style of worship whose main thrust is inclusive lyricism that focuses on the broader “realities” of faith that can be affirmed without too much strain or doctrinal stress bearing down. What is interesting is that when taken in tandem with the kind of self-help messages coming across the podiums, a visible lack of doctrinal or creedal preaching going on in pulpits where contemporary formats of worship are most robust, we are seeing a paradigm emerge where congregations who were split along denominational lines are finding that when they meet under different circumstances and talk about their common experiences are really finding that they are sharing many of the same experiences. I see this as the unintentional priming of conservative churches for ecumenical and possibly interfaith experiences. While I do not think this means whole congregations will adopt a broader view of the religious experience that is common to all, I agree that the lack of rigid stimulus, like creedal confessions and lyrical songs meant to express uniqueness will ultimately “lower the defenses” that many people have put up based largely on indoctrinations that have often been grafted into one’s psyche unreflectively.

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Trey Palmisano was a 2012 participant in the State of Formation National Seminar on Narrative & Interreligious Cooperation. He holds a B.S. in English with a concentration in Writing from Towson University and an M.A. in Theology with a concentration in Systematic Theology from the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, MD. He received the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theological Studies in 2012. His M.A. thesis work defended a methodological approach in the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer with particular attention to the concepts of peace and violence. He is a member of the International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society, the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, and the Evangelical Theological Society. A writer by trade, his work has appeared in such diverse publications as the Anglican Theological Review, Sojourners, The Baltimore Sun, and he served for a period of time as a faith columnist for the Baltimore Examiner. His past experience as an educator includes Carver Center for the Arts & Technology, a secondary education magnet school in Towson, MD, where he taught poetics and world literature, and Towson University, where he worked as an adjunct professor of English. He has worked as a curriculum developer creating original lessons and testing material for major educational publishers. He currently works as a process and procedures analyst in the Baltimore-Washington area. Trey is currently pursuing a second M.A. in Jewish Studies at Towson University, and his forthcoming book based on his thesis work is scheduled to be published through Wipf & Stock in 2013.


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