So I’m sitting here at General Assembly (our denomination’s national meeting…our largest gathering of churches), and I’ve chosen to sing in the ad hoc choir gathered to help lead worship. The thematic focus of GA this year is urban ministry…God’s love for the city, justice, etc. I’ve met a wonderful worship pastor, Russell Thompson, who leads music at City of Refuge Church in Houston, TX. He’s directing our choir, and doing a fabulous job guiding us in God-honoring, modern black gospel style worship (think Israel Houghton). The dude has a fabulous voice and is a humble, more-than-able worship leader. I hope he and I stay connected over the years. I need his gifts and perspective informing me, my calling, and context.
I’m an analytical person, so even as I participate and dive in head first to rousing gospel singing, American Idol-style vocal licks, and pop-style, straight toned, belty singing, I’m sifting all of this through my worship philosophy grid.
My findings (and I’m broad-brushing gospel-style worship based on this and a few other similar experiences…so there will be some holes):
- the music of the modern black gospel genre is more sophisticated than typical mainstream modern evangelical pop/rock worship–melodic and harmonic structures are more complex (more chord inversions, more quick passing chords, more added tones to chords, expansion beyond major and minor into half-diminished and diminished chords, trills and grace notes built into the main melody)
- the rhythm of the genre requires a greater skill level than typical mainstream evangelical pop/rock worship–I’ve played with enough pianists to know that to do what the pianist did today requires a totally different skill-set from typical pop or classical training
- the expression is unabashed…”worship with abandon”
Constructive Criticism (through my grid)=
- you complain about 7-11 songs…these are more like 70-111 songs
- many classically oriented singers will find these songs not just temporarily unsingable (until they learn them), but permanently unsingable (the syncopation is too perpetual, too demanding; the vocal style is too free, not dictated enough)
- the theology is very simple (I prefer to use “simple” rather than “shallow,” though I know some of my cohorts would call it that)–it’s gospel-based, experience-based, immediate, not terribly profound
- strong committal, triumphalistic texts (“I can do this, I will do [such and such a righteous act], I’m going to live [in such and such a pious way]”; this is the very notion I criticized in verse two of “Mighty to Save” [read about it])
So here’s the issue. Why is it that I am strangely ambivalent about my constructive criticisms in this instance? Why is it that I feel my worship grid doesn’t (and shouldn’t) apply here? Why is my philosophy going out the window?
All I can think is that there’s a liberality of God’s Spirit based on context. I have to think that if I came into City of Refuge Church in Houston and led a worship service transplanted directly from my suburban Denver church, the people would not engage with God but feel quite hindered in their worship of Him. I may be leading out of my philosophical ideals (and some would applaud me for such “integrity”), but I’m losing the people. Now (the voice of the idealist pops up), should we be people-driven? Of course not. Worship is God-centered and God-directed (that’s the center of my Philosophy Statement). But I also spent a good portion of my previous position in a church leading worship almost totally out of my ideals, and the result was a decaying of the general spirit of worship (an observable “hardening” among some) and a pharisaical attitude about worship among our worshiping community (this wasn’t total, but I witnessed it as a growing force). The lesson I learned there was that a good worship leader stands in that gray area between ideals and reality. I’m sure that has something to do with a little thing called original sin and its effects on both the world/society globally and the person individually.
I don’t think everyone’s going to agree with me on this. But if you’re going to be totally on the ideals-driven side, I wonder if you’ve had a consistent worship-leading position in a church. If so, I wonder how long. I also wonder what the overall aura, “vibe,” or spirit is of your worshiping community.
But my reflection here is really unfinished, because it seems odd to me (it itches) that I’m comfortable throwing out (really, ignoring) some of my ideals so readily when worship happens in the urban context. However, though I’m relatively young, I’ve been around the block and talked to enough wise people to have realized that unresolved tension is that place where truth abides. Hmm….