urban worship…my philosophy goes out the window

Zac HicksWorship Style6 Comments

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):

Positive Feedback

  • 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….

6 Comments on “urban worship…my philosophy goes out the window”

  1. Zac,

    I appreciated your reflections here!

    I think you’re exactly right when you say, “All I can think is that there’s a liberality of God’s Spirit based on context.”

    Worship is God-centered–that should be at the heart of all of our philosophies of worship. Nevertheless, it is always rooted in a specific context. I believe God is delighted when he is the focus of worship in any and every cultural context in all the diversity that this requires. The alternative is to have an Islamic philosophy of worship: i.e., there is only ONE God-honoring culture, and every culture that the faith spreads to must accommodate itself to this single (and foreign!) culture. Christianity is very different. Every culture lives within the tension of (1) expressing praise to God in ways that are “at home” in its culture–giving praise to God in a vasty variety of “voices” and styles, and (2) finding ways to connect to the global and historic Body of Christ so that their voice is recognizable to their brothers and sisters in Christ. One thing we have to be aware of with the latter, of course, is that much of the “historic” (by no means all!) that we think of is white and northern European.

    You say, “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.” That’s part of the picture, but the other part of the picture may be that you need to broaden your ideals. Your ideals may need to account for the appropriate, contextual aspects of a global, cross-cultural philosophy of ministry.

    That does not mean that other styles or cultures cannot be critiqued by you (nor yours by them), but it does mean that you must stretch to understand them on their own terms and be open to insights that they bring into your own cultural setting, as well as to celebrate God-honoring diversity wherever you find it. This approach can lead to a dialogue with those from the other culture in which together you share your experiences, understanding of Scripture, insights into the nature of God and our experience of the gospel… all in a way that entail mutual encounter, dialogue, and enrichment (to quote David Bosch in his book, Transforming Mission).

  2. Zac,
    Good thoughts. I don’t think you’re throwing your “philosophy out the window.” I think you’ve tempered it a little to fit the style. God-centered, culturally sensitive– those are always the broad ideas.

    If I may say a word or two about black gospel (I’m not an expert here), being a southern boy who always cared about racial reconciliation, I do want to say a word about the music.

    Jazz was essentially created by African-Americans. From Scott Joplin and the “Entertainer” all the way up to modern hip-hop, the black expression has always been more free. My experience in music through college taught me that the best instrumentalists, pound for pound, were in jazz. It didn’t matter the instrument either- trombone, piano, guitar, trumpet, sax, clarinet, etc. To know jazz, to improvise, requires the most intricate AND intimate knowledge of one’s own instrument and music theory.

    A theory of mine: the lyrics might be simple because the emotion and theology is expressed musically. We can feel, know, and respond to God with solid content even if only musically. Jazz, vis a vis black gospel, is an expression of freedom and excellence to the Lord.

    In many ways, then, I think black gospel is a “higher” form of church music than most what most evangelical churches exhibit today. Were it not for the lyrical profundity of many ancient and modern hymns, I would almost say that black gospel is the highest church music of all.

    One comment: watch for how you use “urban” and “black” as the terms aren’t interchangeable anymore. In this decade, poverty has moved to the suburbs and riches have moved to the city. Likewise, African-Americans aren’t always “poor” and white peole aren’t always “rich” or “suburban.” For instance, “urban rock” is typically characteristic of white artists.

    Enjoy Michigan.

    Dave Strunk

  3. Addendum:
    Could you tell how I really like jazz and gospel? You really need to listen to miles davis and other be boppers. And you really really need to get the Songs in the Key of Life album by Stevie Wonder.


  4. Great thoughts, Dave! I like your theory. I’ve had similar thoughts. Someone once said something to the effect of (how’s that for a quote preface?), “Music begins where words end” in the conversation between humans and God.

    I’ll re-read my post, but I don’t believe I was conflating “urban” and “black,” for I understand what you’re saying. Perhaps my title is what you are commenting on. Understandable. My title was intended to be short and to draw people to read the article. So please forgive it if it sounded like I was slipping into interchangeable terminology between “urban” and “black.”

    And I DEFINITELY never said anything that would lend to the conclusion that African-Americans are always “poor” and white people are always “rich” or “suburban.” What made you think that? Maybe you were just saying that to point it out. I certainly hope my post didn’t convey that error.

  5. Sorry Zac,
    I didn’t think you exhibited either error at all! I was just saying it for future reference. Perhaps it was better left unsaid. My mistake for even mentioning it.

    But in other similar musical conversations, I have heard those erroneous assumptions and so I was really trying to head something off that didn’t need heading off.

    Again, my apologies!


  6. Hmm… I wonder if the ambivalence was there because you saw genuine faith arising despite simple theology.

    Your reference to simple theology reminded me of what someone once shared about Rahab's simple faith. Based on the OT text, Rahab merely heard reports about God through others (and probably in the unwholesome context of a brothel). Though she had no sophisticated knowledge of God, she was counted righteous because she heard that the God of Israel is real and she chose to put her faith in Him. Of course, deeper theology would surely deepen her relationship with, and appreciation of, the eteranl, Triune God, but it seems consonant with the gospel truth that God always looks for the size of our faith and not the size of our knowledge of Him to bless us and make us vessel of His glory. 'This actually makes me happy, because it proves that God is not an intellectual elitist. At the same time, faith and theology are not opposites of each other because the Bible seems to evince that when God finds someone with true heart of worship, he gives them deeper knowledge of Himself as well (i.e. Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch, Martha, Paul). He also never seems to condemn lack of theology, but clearly condemns lack of faith!

    This brings me back to our discussion last week about primitive faith of global Christianity and the more refined (this is my take on it) faith of Western Christianity and how they both can be authentic. All that to say, I think a healthy dialogue of the primitive and the refined is in want 🙂

    p.s. Zhicks, I'm having fun reading your blog posts in chronological order. I'm like 3 years behind, but I'll catch up eventually!! I also think reading this way will reveal how your thoughts were shaped over time 🙂

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