Scatter-shooting Thoughts on Worship Music

The joys of worshipping through Mozart.

“It is a great consolation for me to remember that the Lord, to whom I had drawn near in humble and child-like faith, has suffered and died for me, and that He will look on me in love and compassion.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A common conversation starter used to be inquiring about where someone worshipped. The common answer offered in response would refer the inquirer to one of the larger denominations. Today, with international populations increasing, with denominational migration for marriage, and with multitude of persons with no affiliation to a faith in our neighborhoods, that isn’t always the simplest course of interaction and invitation to connect with the Holy.

Moreover, once we get them to church, how do we musically connect with this wide and varied population? How, then do we plan good music that fosters connection with the Holy?

(Note: I don’t like the current day labels or worship — contemporary, traditional, blended, convergent. I think, like using a metaphor, they fall apart at some point of description. So, I’ll refrain from using here and stick to music descriptions.)

For starters, let’s label what we use . . .

A few years back, the praise chorus was the focus of all things current and trendy in worship. There are many examples of this — Alleluia, Something Beautiful, Spirit of the Living God. My friend Marcia McFee has labeled these songs “cyclical,” meaning that they use repetition and focus on the “adoration” part of praise. These certainly have a role and function in worship but alone, aren’t the most complete method of musical connection with the Holy. In current worship planning, those songs are used to tag the end of another worship song or hymn. Or, they are used to thematically move a worshippers prayers to the next worship act — bridge the action, if you will. And, since they are easy to sing and repeat a great deal, music reading isn’t essential.

Hymns in traditional worship function as a solid theological thematic connection to the worship action. They are poetry, crafted for the importance of the right word and the best turning of a phrase. Hymns from our historic traditions are spiced with some challenging words and long phrases to sing, pray, and even preach. As Marcia would say, they are “linear” in song. They can struggle to stay simple — either in word or phrase. If you read music, it certainly makes it much easier to see where the notes go. If you don’t — they can make you a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Next, there is the worship song. Believe it or not, this isn’t too recent of an invention. Handel advanced the creation of oratorio for use in the church when interest in opera waned. To this day, many a moment from oratorio has been used in worship. Music that artists like Nicole Nordeman, Chris Tomlin, Keith and Kristen Getty, while not similar in style to Handel, can and do fall into this category. These songs are usually tied thematically to worship or that action (praise, prayer, adoration.) They can be theologically sound as a hymn but can have complex rhythms but simplistic melodic elements. They can be for the virtuoso player or singer but have text and music that will repeat.

There are songs from other lands. These are songs that may come from varied Christian paths. Normally, they are varied in style and rhythm but rely a lot on the vocal tradition. Taize songs fall here but so do a wealth of others. This is one of the fastest growing areas of worship music. And, as our congregations diversify, this area will only continue to grow . . . and how fun that will be!

Finally, we get to the spiritual and gospel song. They fall into several of these categories. They are a hybrid — using the vocal tradition, can be simple or highly complex, and can require virtuoso skill akin to any singer of oratorio. But, they can also be sung as simply as a single line . There is a Balm in Gilead or Order My Steps are good examples here.

I challenge worship planners to find space for all of the above. For example, last night, my choir connected with Holy in our work on the Mozart Te Deum. Prior to that, we worked on a simple arrangement of a Getty song. Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer. We consistently use hymns with organ as well as smaller choruses as responses. We use guitar on some sections of the liturgy, when appropriate. If our congregations are now diverse, why shouldn’t our music be as well.

While Mozart may be a disjointed connection if placed next to a worship band in a service, consider that most of these same people who attend also seek out a harpist, choir, or string quartet to play at their wedding. At times, we all connect to tradition. And, many of the people who connect to Mozart in some way, sing at the red lights to their favorite singer of their day. At times, we all connect to the music of the day, too.

If this is the case, then why not execute worship with some scatter-shooting. Let the scripture and theme of the day guide you. But, if you never hear Mozart, you never hear the beauty of God’s complex, compassionate voice crying out to be heard. By the same token, if you never hear Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone), you never connect with the Holy through the blend of hymn, song and chorus.

Keep in diverse.

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