Nous -'knack' in scouse? Nous: Greek 'mind' some use? Nous: we -French- oui? Oooh. Life -don't talk to me about life: me with this pain down the diodes in my left side ... Here's not-nearly-random-enough loggings of what feeds my promiscuous curiosity. Your pay-off is some useful[?] links and provocative thoughts but also more insight than you may care on my thought-processes.

04 May 2013

Have people stopped singing in church?

Now this is USAmerican by context, but relates to a phenomemon that 'New Churches' in GBlighty probably share; certainly I can see the like in churches I've been visiting in the last year or so. The blog post linked to is also one focussing on men in church so the issue presented is Why men have stopped singing in church: but it is probably wider than men, and in fact the matter is framed first in terms of 'people'.

It starts from an informal observation that people, including men, have stopped singing. It offers a few possible reasons, the most important being this:
 Songs get switched out so frequently today that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?
 The follow-on point is that this reduces participation and that this is a bad thing.
I think that the lack of participation is a point of concern, and agree that this might be so especially in relation to men. However, I think also that the un-learnt-ness of the songs may not be quite as big an issue as suggested. 

In my experience of a few band-led services in different churches over the last year or so, I have been exposed to a variety of songs that were new to me. I didn't find them hard to learn on the fly, for the most part: first of all they were often repeated enough for me to get the hang of the main features, but then (secondly) I could in any case easily predict most of the turns of musical phrase since they were written in a very predictable MOR rock style with common chord sequences. Heck, I could even harmonise lines on the spot without having heard them before!

So, I'd have to say that I don't think that learning new songs is really at issue here if people aren't singing. So what might be? I have a couple of hypotheses. One is to do with the style and sentimentality of the music and lyrics and the other is to do with the presentational format.

I have tended to come away from services like this feeling that I've spent a lot of time in a MOR, soft-rock zone with a penchant for Disney-esque big numbers. I've also felt that the lyricisation was on the whole rather restricted, general, cliche'd and rarely poetic. It all felt overall as if the music and lyrics could have been written by a modestly sophisticated computer algorithm. And I think that this saccharinity could be one reason why some people (maybe proportionally more men) don't sing along: it feels too bland, it puts sentiments into their mouths that they are not sure about.

However, I don't think that hypothesis is so strong: I think for the sake of community many people will sing along even if they aren't with the programme in their hearts. Although if you get a critical mass of non-singers then it's more likely that others will feel they don't have to join in or even that joining in is bad form. In fact this latter point may point to a stronger reason: cultural priming.

The whole set up of putting a band on a stage, up front, and using contemporary instruments and styles says, culturally, "concert". And so a whole set of associations, connotations and expectations are cued up. Among these is that it is largely a spectator event where occasionally people might join in if they felt like it.

There are two more theological issues involved here. One is about the nature of leadership and participation. The semiotic value of the band approach is in effect, I would suggest, the priestification of the band, especially the leader/s. And this raises all the usual issues about every-member ministry, parity of esteem and so on. The band puts a bunch of people on a pedastal and magnifies their ministry. A worrying subtext of this could be to devalue other ministries by comparison, and my concern here is not only for teaching and learning but also for ministries 'in the world': worship becomes a very restricted concept which doesn't take in service in the world (for more on this, see the argument in God Against Religion) restricting worship not only to what goes on in church but, even more, to what the band leads.

The other matter is to do with what should be at the liturgical heart of worship. Singing/music has become, it seems to me, another sacrament. And one without scriptural support. Yes there are a couple of Pauline passages that encourage singing, but this hardly weighs equally with 'do this in remembrance of me'. I fear that in experiential terms, despite what might be said, the Lord's Supper has been almost totally eclipsed by singing 'worship songs'. As a side-bar to this point I observe the very pared down and often individualistic celebrations of Eucharist which don't even have a proper fourfold structure* related closely to the bread and the wine.

I think we should be seeking to decentre the 'worship band' visually, address the balance of content in worship and encouraging a wider variety of participation methods for congregants. 

I'm also concerned at the ethics of worship of this kind. Now that we know that serotonin releases and brain-alteration take place in band-led 'worship', we have a duty of care to congregants not to simply take them for emotional/hormonal rides and simply and isomorphically equate this with the work of the Holy Spirit, implicitly or explicitly. I'm not saying that the Spirit isn't at work or that the work of the Spirit wouldn't show up in such ways, but I am saying that more things than the Spirit can produce the feelings most associate with such worship sessions and that we are in danger of substituting well-crafted musical-emotional dynamics for encounter with God and have people addicted to this process rather than relying on the Holy Spirit.

At the level of personal anecdote, I'm constantly surprised that people whom I would expect to be able to enter into praise of God in informal, simple verbal prayer are not apparently. It seems that their ability to do this is dependent on music of a particular style and emotional strain. And I have to wonder if this isn't an indication that something has gone awry with their Christian formation and whether their 'spirit-led'ness has less to do with the Spirit than with the musical genre they worship by.

PS Stephen Garner helpfully drew our attention to this article
*The fourfold structure is what Jesus told us to do in remembrance: 1. Take bread and wine; 2. Bless/give thanks (by implication God is thanked for acting in favour of our salvation); 3. Break the bread; 4. share/consume the elements. Thanks to Gregory Dix for helping us to appreciate this.

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