This post is a second attempt on this topic. The first was pushback on the cartoon above that a friend had posted on Facebook. It was lacking in grace. I regret that but remain committed to my point.
I have a good sense of humor. I enjoy the satirical website, Lark News, and even my own copy of A Field Guide toEvangelicals and Their Habitat. I can laugh at myself and my evangelical tradition. But I don’t find jokes about worship music very funny.
Most of the time, it is contemporary praise and worship songs that are the target of the jokes and cartoons I’ve seen and heard. There was a variation of Cows in theCorn several years ago that poked fun at hymns. Nevertheless, the repetition found in praise and worship is the usual target. It is my experience that people who don’t like the genre think the jokes are really funny.
I don’t. I never have. Here’s why:
Praise and worship songs are different than hymns. That seems obvious, but the difference lies much deeper than music and text. Generally speaking, hymns – especially the classic, timeless hymns (e.g. Holy, Holy, Holy; Immortal, Invisible; For All the Saints, etc…) – contain beautiful theology densely expressed in poetry. Frankly, it’s good that we have hymnals. The words go by too fast on the screen. It would be good to pause and just read them. The poetry in our best hymns withstands the deepest contemplation. They are rich in content and meaning. Such hymns typically challenge and speak to our intellect. While the text and singing of hymns may spark intense emotion at times, the experience is generally cognitive because the texts are so rich.
Gospel hymns, which hold a significant part of the repertoire for many evangelicals (especially older ones) are typically less dense in their theology. These are the hymns with refrains and, as a rule, grew out of the revivalist tradition. They are generally testimonial in nature, that is, they relate the experience of a Christian. In the revivalist tradition, hymns and songs were sung in preparation to hear the sermon or in response to it (the invitation hymn). They may be deeply emotional in their joy or devotion but their function was utilitarian. They served as preparation or response to the Word.
The praise and worship genre, however, is meant to be a different sort of experience. It is essential to understand that P/W comes from the Charismatic Movement. While the strength of hymns is their cognitive richness and the gospel hymns are good expressions of testimony, P/W is best understood as an affective experience. Affect, of course, means the emotional part of us. While modern people are suspicious of emotion, affect is an essential way of knowing, just like cognitive knowing. Imagine a marriage without emotion. It wouldn’t last long. Emotion is vitally important in the relationship that we have with God expressed in worship. It helps us to engage spiritually beyond the black and white of doctrinal truth. A.W. Tozer once defined worship as “to feel in your heart.”
Most P/W songs seek to primarily engage the affect of celebration or contemplation. That is why you will find frequent repetition in these songs. They are not meant to engage our intellect as much as our emotion. This is an essential difference between P/W songs and hymns.
We have problems and misunderstandings when we unconsciously equate P/W songs with hymns or gospel hymns. If your worship language has primarily been hymns or gospel hymns, the repetition of P/W songs will be confusing and off-putting to you. The lack of textual depth in comparison to hymns may easily cultivate disrespect in your mind for the genre. That’s why the jokes seem funny. You cannot sing a P/W song the same way that you sing a hymn. You cannot compare P/W to hymns on the same criteria. Depending on which genre you prefer, the other one will always lose. (There are, of course, a large number of people who don’t like or disrespect hymns for the same reason: they don’t appreciate their value.)
For the value of a P/W song to be fully understood it has to be experienced. The worshipper has to risk releasing themselves emotionally into the song. The experience of P/W often includes the lifting of hands, dance, or of even prostrating oneself. The risk of embarrassment by engaging the body is symbolic of the emotional engagement of the worshipper in the song. When the worshipper is engaged emotionally in the song, repetition is a help rather than a hindrance. But if the worshipper is unengaged emotionally, the repetition is like nails on a chalkboard. (BTW, repetition in worship is biblically endorsed. Check out Psalm 136 or the practice of the four living beings in Revelation 4:8 who do not cease to cry, “Holy, holy, holy…) I strongly suspect that those who do not like P/W and are averse to the repetition have never really released themselves into a song. They sing P/W songs just like they sing hymns and are generally disappointed.
There is, of course, a great danger to emotional worship. Like Eros in C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves, emotion “needs to be ruled.” We worship in spirit and truth. P/W songwriters have an obligation to be true to Scripture in their lyrics. While problems remain, I have observed much greater depth and richness in P/W texts in the last ten years. Worship leaders, too, have an obligation to avoid emotional manipulation. With worshippers released into emotional engagement, it would be very easy to turn up the heat with musical effects that are intrinsically known to musicians. Worship leaders must be mature and discerning.
Nevertheless, I believe P/W is a great gift given to the church in the last 40 years. As a worship pastor, I have tried to introduce the songs and the experience to the congregations that I have served for over thirty years. In the same way, I have also held up the richness and necessity of our hymn tradition in the same churches. It hasn’t been easy. I am very passionate about having the church experience the fullest spectrum of worship that they can. Not surprisingly, people are reluctant to grow beyond their own comfort zone and experience. Hymn lovers have constantly harangued me about repetition and the loudness of the band – even when I’ve measured the decibel levels equal to or less than piano and organ. Contemporary P/W aficionados suggest that I’m over-the-hill and irrelevant if I don’t constantly give them the playlist from KLOVE.
This has been my calling – my vocation for the last 30 years – to broaden the experience and understanding of worship in the congregations that I have served. Frankly, the wounds I’ve suffered from people who are unwilling to grow run deep in my soul. I am war-weary. That is why I do not find these jokes to be funny. For the person who does not like P/W, it expresses their ignorance of and lack of true experience in the genre through condescension. It isn’t funny. It’s divisive. Still, the jokes get a lot of laughs and traction with a certain set. Though I carry battle scars, my calling remains the same. I want the church to grow and embrace the fullest and richest worship experience they can. I will, from now on, push back whenever I encounter these condescending jokes.