Seventeen years ago I began my ministry at a small church in Hampton, VA. I was the youth minister and during the summer I would take my youth to Centrifuge in South Carolina. For those of you who aren’t familiar with youth camps, let me refresh your memory. It is a great “mountain top” experience that puts students in a controlled and isolated environment that allows them to grow in their faith at a, most often, very rapid rate. The music, bible studies, and activities are all designed around this concept. And it works! It worked for me, and my first year as a youth minister I wanted my kids to have this experience.
So there I was, summer of 2000, five kids in tow and a youth mom on our way to North Greenville University (it was just a college back then). All five of those students had no idea what to expect, many of them didn’t want to go, but I kept pushing them along and telling them they would have a great time. Needless to say, three days into the camp they didn’t want to leave. On our way back to Virginia I heard the same thing over and over again. “Why can’t our Sunday morning worship service be like what we had at camp?” There it was-a phrase that I have heard over and over again for years, and it never stops.
Sure, the places that people want our service to look like change depending on whose making the statement. For teenagers and college students they want Sunday morning to look like what they see and experience at camps, conferences, and concerts. For older adults it’s what they see and experience at revivals, concerts, and Bill Gaither Homecoming videos. For the rest, it’s what they see and hear on the radio and TV.
First, let me say this: I have NOTHING against any of those things. I like concerts and I appreciate youth camps, conferences, and concerts for what they offer. Holly and I have sung and done many revivals over the years and I have even been known to view a Bill Gaither video for a few minutes. But, all of these things target a specific group. Worship on Sunday morning does not do that, nor is that its purpose. Corporate worship on Sunday is about God, and bringing the community of faith TOGETHER, and creating community within the family of faith and creating connections to a living God through a living faith. We cannot muddle or dumb down worship to fit a certain demographic. And, if you think that church is about reaching a certain demographic (i.e. young people) then you need to go back and read your Bible because the last time I checked, we were called to reach ALL PEOPLE!
DON’T DUMB IT DOWN
Worship is not a popularity contest-I said that in my last article and it’s still true.
Marva Dawn is one of my favorite worship theologians and in her book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down (1995 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing) she says this:
“Many churches who want desperately to attract people to Christ miss the point by offering worship so shallow that not enough of Christ is proclaimed to engender lasting belief…If people are introduced to Christianity composed only of happiness and good feelings, where will the staying power be when chronic illness, family instability, or long-term unemployment issues threaten? If worship is only fun, how will those attracted to such worship have enough commitment to work on the conflicts that inevitably develop because all of us in the church are sinful human beings?” (Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down; pg. 280; 1995, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing)
If our goal is to “make disciples” there needs to be genuine discipleship happening in the church, and worship should play a pivotal role. Leonard Sweet said that churches need an “MRI”. They need to be missional, relational, and incarnational; as opposed to being attractional. (Leonard Sweet, So Beautiful; 2009; David C. Cook Distribution)
If people are going to grow in their faith, their needs to be depth in what is taught. The same applies to music that is used in worship.
Holly and I this past weekend attended a reading session for church choral directors. As 125 choral directors gathered in that small Methodist Sanctuary from 9-1, there were pencils flying, people making notes, people trying to sing notes, and all enjoying the company and community of church musicians, but we all took note of one thing, every piece of music that we sang through had depth in theology as well as creative musical expressions.
THE "LITMUS" TEST
I asked the question previously, what is the yard stick that I use in selecting music for our worship at First Baptist? This is the first test, does the text say something and does it have theological depth? When did songwriters become lazy? This has been a burning question on my mind lately. It seems that all of the “and can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood” (Charles Wesley) has been replaced with “yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord,” (Darrell Evans; 1998 Integrity Hosanna Music) or a “your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me, your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me, your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me” (Brian Johnson, Jeremy Riddle, Christa Black Gifford; 2010 Bethel Music, Christajoy Music, Vineyard Publishing) It addition to mindless lyrics there is also an epidemic of "woahs", "ohs", and "yeahs."
If the text says nothing, then it’s not worth singing. If the song’s sole purpose is to get people “hyped up on Jesus” then it’s not worth singing. If the song repeats itself into a mindless void of repetition causing the listener to get swept away in some “trance-like” state, then it’s not worth singing. The song needs to say something!
The second test to pass musically is can the song be sung by a congregation that has never heard it before, have a melody that can be picked up easily, and be in a comfortable range for all to sing it. This is my biggest complaint with utilizing music from the radio for congregational singing. The songs were not meant to be sung by a congregation, they were meant to be sung by an individual or a group. Hymnody is full of music that was meant for a large group to sing-is was written for all people. I have no problem with letting a soloist or small ensemble sing something from the radio (as long as it has something to say), but if it’s not meant for a congregation to sing, then don’t have the congregation sing it. There are many great songs out there that I love that are new and fresh, but they don’t fit a congregational voice.
Here’s my final point. For me, there is a large hurdle that songs have to jump for me to use them with the congregation. I am not going to be a music minister that chooses songs based on their popularity (I think I’ve made that point very clear), but I will be a music minister that chooses to create an environment of worship so that ALL can participate and respond and express their praise to God.
There is a story of two men coming out of a Sunday morning worship service. One man looks at the other as they walk out of the church and says, “I really didn’t like that service this morning.” Unmoved by the man’s comment, the other man says, “That’s fine. We weren’t worshiping you anyway.” Which led me to ask the question, “Has worship become a popularity contest?”.
On my social media account I subscribe to a blog called Patheos, which is a stream of authors from varying viewpoints of faith (Christian, evangelical, Catholic, Muslim, conservative, and progressive) and many authors who are practicing atheists and agnostics. This blog is a great host of conversations about faith and what it means to live a life of faith. Recently, I read an article by a Christian theologian and worship leader about the “popularity contest” that worship has become. He began his article with a simple statement: “worship is not about making you happy, it’s not about making me happy, and it’s not about what makes the world happy-it’s about God!”
As I read on, I was struck by an example he gave of a church that had passed out a survey to the congregation on their worship service-you heard me a survey! This survey was given to rate how satisfied they were with the worship on Sunday morning. They were to say if they were very satisfied, just satisfied, or not satisfied with the service, then to write any comments they had that could improve or would improve their experience. I was appalled! First, it has been my experience that if you pass out a survey in church, you are only asking for trouble, and second, the first question we should be asking is “is God satisfied with our worship?”. Thankfully, the “worship wars” are over (this was fought in churches in the 80's and 90’s when contemporary praise and worship music was beginning to thrive) and unfortunately for music ministers populism has won out.
When I was in seminary, my conducting professor and mentor used to tell us to do a variety of music to show the breadth and depth of worship possible in the church-and jokingly he added offend as many people as possible! What this allows is for the music minister to pick the best of the best music out there, and the freedom to do so, without being tied down to a certain style demanded by the congregation or staff. This is what I have done for the past 17 years in my music ministry and what I will continue to do until the day I retire.
So, what is the criteria for congregational music? How about choral music for children, youth, and adults? What about handbells and instrumentalists? What is the yardstick that I’m using to shape the worship and music ministry at First Baptist? This has become more and more of a question that I have been hearing through the grapevine of our church, so I am taking some time to answer those questions in order to educate people about worship and church music. Hopefully the answers to these questions will invite dialogue and conversation about worship and enhance our overall experience as a family of faith on Sunday morning.
Before I dive into specifics about the corporate worship of the church, let me pull back the curtain on what goes into planning a service. There are four main components of worship that I think about in my planning; first, there needs to be congregational singing. I’ll get into music specifics later, but this is a must. Worship is not a concert, it’s not a time when the congregation sits and only listens to pretty music, there must be congregational singing. Singing stirs the soul, it focuses us on the message of Christ and his redemption and resurrection. Congregational singing allows for freedom of expression of a great God and it creates community within the family of faith.
Second, worship must be responsive. In other words, the congregation needs to be involved. This comes in the form of singing, responsive prayers and readings, scripture, giving an offering, and most of all, communion. Third, worship must have a flow. Our worship here is thematic, meaning that music, scriptures, readings, prayers, and sermons are all based on a theme. Right now, we are working our way through The Story which is lectionary based-meaning we are working our way through the whole Bible. Thankfully, nowadays we have an abundant amount of resources for worship planning. There has been a flood of new songs and hymns out there that congregations can use. Unfortunately, this has also invited a lot of poorly written music too which has penetrated our churches. Because we are moving through the Bible in a lectionary fashion, I have had to use a lectionary based hymnal which contains MANY new hymns that will fit our service. This has allowed for more variety in the songs we sing and given me an opportunity to stretch myself, our musicians, and the congregation musically.
Finally, and most importantly, worship must honor God. It’s not about what hymns or songs you like to sing, it’s not about whether or not a song or style gets you to raise your hands. It’s not about whether or not we sing with drums, a praise team, an organ or choir. It’s not about what you grew up with or sang at your “mama’s knee”; it’s about honoring God. If there is one thing that I can say for certain about our worship at Clemmons First Baptist is that it honors God and I will always strive to make sure that it does.
Our worship is not based on a style or what’s on the radio-worship never should be. Our worship is not based upon the 50 hymns that everyone knows and has sung since the Hoover administration-worship never should be. Our worship is based upon what honors God, what fits the theme of the service and what creates a moment in time when we as a people of God can open our mouths and give him praise. That is what our at First Baptist worship does. If you are seeking something that is more popular and driven by what people want, then you will not find that here on Sunday morning, and I can give you churches that do just that. However, if you are looking for worship that honors a living God, then I’ll see you at 10:30 Sunday morning in the Sanctuary.
We have entered a new year which means more changes on the horizon. The other day I was sitting in my grandparent’s house in Manning, SC. For those of you who don’t know where that it is, picture a town of about 5,000 off of I-95 that has barely been touched by the hands of time for at least 30 years. With the exception of a new Walmart, Manning has virtually not changed at all. The other night I went to get a few groceries for dinner at the same Piggly Wiggly that Grandmamma frequented for as long as I can remember. Walking through the store, I was flooded with memories of me and her going along buying groceries for the family meal. I can still see her in my mind picking up every cantaloupe and thumping it to see if it was ripe, looking at every package of meat in the case and selecting only the very best for her family.
While the outside of Manning hasn’t changed much, neither has the outside of my grandparent’s home. The same trees that I used to play under and climb are still there, although a bit larger than from when I was a child, the same barn that my Papa built by himself and nailed every board and plank with his own hands still stands facing the empty pasture behind their property.
As I drove up the other morning and stepped out of the car I was hit by the smells and sounds of a place that I have known my entire life. As I closed my eyes, in my memory, I could see my Grandmamma and Papa coming out of the door greeting me with hugs and smiles excited about the time that we were going to have at their house. But, this particular day that I drove up, that was not the scene I saw. I entered the house that day and stepped into their den. Looking around at the pictures and furniture, I recognized a place that shaped my childhood. A place that for any child would be magical and wonderful, a place of love and joy, laughter and stories, filled with family and excitement. I walked through the den into the dining room and saw the same round table that my grandmamma filled with food, where we sat for hours (and I mean hours) and traded stories and jokes, memories and dreams. It was a table that expanded with the coming of children, the marriage of grandchildren, and shrunk with the passing of those who have gone on before. This table also was the host of many a game of Risk, Scrabble and cards, where competition was fierce, loud, and often went on into the wee hours of the morning.
I strolled into the kitchen and I looked around and saw a place where my grandmother spent much of her time. Cooking, cleaning, and preparing what would be meals that my family would remember for a lifetime. And to my left, I saw her kitchen table. Small with three chairs around it.
This table never hosted a feast, never played a role in family game time, but this table was the place where I would sit and watch her and talk to her while she cooked, and as I gazed at her, I learned the basics of cooking essentials. I treasured this time with her, and as I stood there and looked at the table that played a role in my childhood I began to feel the change that has come upon this house.
Lost in a mirage of feelings, memories, and tears, I saw my Papa coming from the back bedroom greeting me with a smile and hug, excited to see me as always. But he was alone. Grandmamma is in Florence at a nursing home with Alzheimer’s Disease. She has difficulty remembering things in the short term and is unable to live at home now. Life has changed. It is something that I resist and wish would never come, but it does. Nowadays I find myself holding onto memories tighter than I used to because I feel like the life I knew is slipping away from my fingers like sand blowing in the wind at the beach. But, it’s not, it’s just change, and it’s natural and inevitable.
As much as I want to resist change, I can’t; as much as we as a people want to fight change, we can’t.
Our faith, much like life should change and grow. Why? Because we have a living faith through a living God. We sit at God’s “kitchen table” and we learn the basics and begin the long journey of discipleship. But it doesn’t stop there. We are to get up from the table and go out of the house and live. As much as I love my grandmother, and as much as I long to once again see her in the kitchen and hear her while I sit at her table, I know that particular moment in my life has passed; but I am excited because I have my own kitchen table where new memories are being made and where my children will sit and watch and listen.
As we enter this new year, coming from the expectation of Advent, the joy of Christmas into the waiting arms of Epiphany and Lent, let us not be afraid of change. Fear is powerful, and it can hold us back, but if we strive to reach our changing world we must first be open to change. And, as we think about those special moments at the table we take those lessons learned and apply them to our lives; because our faith is shaped by our experiences, our joys and sorrows, our gains and losses, our laughter and tears.
May we never forget the “table” experiences, but use them as we grow in our faith and as we bear witness to the love and power of Christ.
I pray that God would continue to bless us our church, our community of faith, and continue to bless our families through this new year!
The views in this blog do not necesarily reflect the views of Clemmons First Baptist Church.
Living a Life Like Christ
Jeremy Poplin is the Minister of Music at Clemmons First Baptist Church. He lives in Mocksville with his wife Holly. He loves music, books, and learning more about what it means to live a life like Christ. Jeremy has a passion for worship and ministry that sees people transformed by the love and grace of Christ.