fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music

That’s what C.S. Lewis famously said most contemporary hymns were – fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music. In my circles it’s also known as “Jesus is my girlfriend” music.

If you’re a church-goer, particularly of the evangelical persuasion, you’ll know what I mean when I talk about “worship”. The word “worship” has become synonymous with contemporary  Christian music. I want to talk a bit about this idea of worship.

You’ll probably already know that worship is about “ascribing worth” to something or someone. Arguably all human beings are natural worshippers – we like to enter into the transcendent – be that at a gig, a football match or a church service. Most of us find something to worship – something to ascribe worth to and get lost in. It speaks to us; it somehow soothes.

And yet I find worship in a church context quite difficult. Not because God is difficult to worship, and not because I have specific liturgical tastes that don’t get met at my church. But, and I am only coming to this conclusion in the last year, it is because the very nature of the worship matters. We have forgotten that worship is a gift – one of the richest aspects of our humanity. It is a gift to God and a gift to each other. I’m not sure that this is always a lived reality on Sundays.

When we talk about worship as simply praise music (which incidentally is a tremendously deficient cultural perspective into which the evangelical church has, literally, bought, wholesale), I get irked by the reality of people being on “worship” teams. Firstly I think we should consider calling our worship teams simply music teams or musical groups. The idea that the worship should be left exclusively to the musicians is insane. A musician is no more or less of a worshipper than the person who makes the tea or cleans the toilet. Secondly, we need to talk about quality. I’m not talking about the music sounding good – I’m really not. I’m talking again in terms of gift. What are we likely to appreciate more – a gift that has been thoughtfully and lovingly prepared, or something that’s been thrown together or grabbed at the last moment? The actual sound quality or the skill of the musicians may make a difference to the quality of music, but it will not affect the quality of worship.

Of course there are many elements that affect my ability to enter into worship. Access to the transcendent experience gets hampered and even blocked by heartache or broken relationships or simply living a life of constant escape and distraction. I’m not exempt from any of those things. But I do find myself entering into worship with more fluidity when the music, readings and liturgy are lovingly and prayerfully prepared. Skill is a bonus but not a necessity. A perfectly performed set of standard songs delivered by a stressed and overworked person with fifteen minutes preparation beforehand leaves me cold, as does a smoothly-spoken sermon by a person who speaks at ease from the front who is not passionate about scripture or their ministry.

When we use or abuse our charisms (which Christians believe are spiritual gifts given from God for the glorification of him and the edification of the whole community) as tools to produce emotional responses, as something to reveal our own talent, as fulfillment of duty or as anything less than a gift of love to God and to one another, we are moving towards both a reliance on sentimentality in place of spirituality and simultaneously, burn-out. I’ve been to both of those places and I have no interest in going back.

If we do not have the time required to prepare what is considered to be the standard fare of an evangelical service, then we simply need to abstain. It would honestly be better for us to sit in silence waiting for the voice of God than to blare out discordant nonsense for the sake of those who come to worship the music. I think the Quakers might be on to something.


2 Responses to fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music

  1. If I abstain long enough do I become a “praise-celibate”?

  2. Only if you stop praising.

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