Monday, June 22, 2009


I used to plan, prepare, and lead contemporary worship. I am at my current post because I became disenchanted with it. I told my interviewers, 13 years ago this month, "if you are looking for someone who is 'death' on contemporary music, I'm not your guy." I was (and largely remain) opposed to contemporary worship music as the only diet in a worshipers life.

Contemporary worship music has broadened in the past decade. It is no longer difficult to find thoughtful texts. Some fine melodies are being written. Accompaniments seem more varied. Some old lyrics are being re-discovered and put to new tunes. Some classic hymns and gospel songs are re-cast in engaging idioms. This would not be my metier or choice if I had to find a church to attend. But the scene has broadened for the better.

Which makes my experience in another church yesterday all the more disappointing. It was dreadful. 4 of the 5 congregational songs were known to me, each of them being from the gospel or bluegrass traditions. They were led by the standard worship band - guitar, bass guitar, drummer behind his plexiglass shield, and two singers. You know, I can't even remember if there was a keyboard, but I think not. How could this group alienate - worse, annoy - me with songs I already know?

1. They played with no variety or even any particularly interesting ideas. Chunka chunka chunka.
2. They had no particular regard for apt tempos, generally too fast.
3. In one set of 3 songs, they moved from one to the next, without key change, without interlude or introduction, with hardly a tempo change. By verse 2 of song 3, I just stopped singing; I was all worn out.
4. Curiously, the melodies of these familiar old songs were "simplified" - or somehow altered so that the little interesting bits you get in old gospel songs were removed. That had the effect of making the tunes, well, slightly foreign. I can't imagine the point of it.
5. The final song before the sermon was a contemporary song that I do not know. I think it might actually be a decent song. The band apparently knows it from some recording, because they changed up the way they played for this song, and it sounded more "produced." But it still had no variety or interest in it. Chunka chunka chunka. It was dreadful.

I won't get into how I had to repent of the bad attitude that developed towards the worship leader. I cannot know his motivation or his heart. He may not have been the musical director of the service. Maybe he couldn't help adding the little licks that brought attention to his singing once in a while. Maybe this was the B-team on a rough day. I just don't know. I don't go to services to find fault; I go to worship. I pray for charity.

I was glad for the preaching of my friend; it was to hear him, and to conveniently meet two of my grown kids for Fathers Day, that we chose this church and its contemporary service. Unfortunately, the bulletin put in our hands had the complete service plan for the traditional service earlier in the morning - that just made this unfortunate experience all the worse.

I will grant a place for contemporary worship music. And with the range of materials available now - which I do not think were quite as abundant as they were in 1996 when I left that scene - I can even imagine a viable decision to only have a contemporary service. (OK, it is a stretch, but I can imagine it.) But if it can't be done musically, unplug it, dude, and let the people call out their favorites.



SLT said...

Ineresting you did NOT mention deafening volume. I'm curious about why everything has to be soooo loud. Maybe the intended audience, younger people, can't hear normal music levels! But for us older folks, who may be losing our hearing, the softer music is still discernable to us at something less than jet engine levels. I suppose I should bring ear plugs with so that I don't lose my hearing prematurely.

Chuck King said...

Interestingly, volume was NOT an issue on this particular morning. So, thanks for the reminder. There is always something positive to look for, and something to be thankful for!

Claire said...

I know I'm a bit late to this post, but I only discovered this side of your blog life today! Ironically, I can't imagine NOT worshipping in a contemporary setting anymore. Of course, I know how hard it is to sit through a bad service. I also know that all too frequently, many of the foibles you mentioned here (including the elevated volume) have reared their ugly heads in our services. Now that we are looking for a new church after our recent move, we have been subjected to some truly terrible contemporary services. On the other hand, there are some truly dreadful traditional worship settings, as well. I won't go into all of it, but suffice it to say, truly, just because one CAN sing soprano obbligato parts does not mean one SHOULD!


Chuck King said...

True, Claire. Bad taste knows no bounds. And I get to contemporary services almost any week I'm away from College Church ... by default, if nothing else! I'm just saying - and now I'm just repeating myself - that there's no excuse for doing ANY worship poorly. There's the old saying, "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly" ... Which, I'm not entirely in agreement with!