#lazychurches; or, The Devolution of Worship Music - Part Two

Chris finishes his series on the state of Worship Music and the Church by asking things like:

"What happens when we start writing songs only to package them in a friendly wrapper and secure a marketing deal to sell records, book shows, and score some radio play? We commoditize worship. Selling our "Praise and Worship" should raise some questions about what, exactly, we are praising and worshiping."

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To Church Musicians from a Church Musician

Defining Terms It's interesting that the term "Church Musician" is a thing, because two words together have rarely carried such enormous weight as these.

Church: - could refer to something generally "religious," - something established as a tax write-off, - to the body of Christ, - to a sect of cultish crazies, - or really any number of things in between.

Musician: - Someone with a penchant for understanding melody, harmony, and expression of feeling through tonal quality, - a person connected to some abstract muse or well of inspiration, - or (in some people's minds) simply someone possessing the skill of playing an instrument.

Church Musician: - Someone who plays music exclusively in churches - Someone who plays music, and church happens to be one of the places he plays - Someone who learned 4 chords and finds it acceptable to consider himself qualified to lead people before the Creator of music with no discernable passion, no evident display of intentionally honed musical skill, and the acceptance of a complete lack of innovation for the sake of perpetuating an increasingly stale "genre" of musical expression.

Music in Church

"The Church" remains today one of the most misunderstood things around, especially in a society completely saturated with it. A church is a place you go, a building to have a wedding in, redemption for Saturday night, the place that houses a man who does exorcisms, a brick-faced structure with a steeple, a clever source for punch lines on boards out front trying to convince you to venture inside, etc. Church is an event to invite your "lost" friends to. An alternative for teenagers to hanging out downtown in parking garages.

Church is safe.

I'm not going to build the case for "the church is not a building, it's the people" here, because it has been done a thousand times before far more eloquently than I would, and frankly I just don't feel like getting into it (because I'm trying to make this week's post shorter than last week's 2100 word colossus).

But I will come out and say that I believe that the church, even in a somewhat dumbed-down context, is extremely important. We have a luxury that is unprecedented and not by any means universal. Especially in the South, we have incredibly nice buildings where we are free to gather, teach, worship, and pray as we please, whenever we want. In this context, as has been standard since the formation of the church, it is important to note the importance and place of musical worship (I think of Paul and Barnabas singing in jail). Music is used because it offers connections that words cannot muster to the Divine, and has been proven to be so for ages. Worship is not Music, though Music can be used to worship. Again, I've talked about this before, and often, so I shan't do it again here.

Musicians

This it the age of Youtube, where you can learn literally anything in the amount of time it takes a video to buffer. Guitar, piano, calculus formulas, bombmaking, DIY robotics, film editing, sound recording, etc. You name it, there's someone there to teach it to you for free. It is a seriously wonderful thing (which I say without even a taste of irony), the age of knowledge and information, because nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

What IS a problem, however, is the idea injected into the collective consciousness that knowledge = expertise. Or even proficiency. "Master modal scales in ten days!" boasts one video on Youtube. "Learn how to play Lead Blues Electric guitar!" "Understanding Jazz theory." We operate under the assumption that knowledge a musician makes.

Further than that, we classify music (correctly) as art, and art (incorrectly) as un-critiquable. I'm not getting into Aesthetic discussions of art vs. craft, because I believe that each requires portions of each other to be true - and music is certainly a shining example. The assumption is that music can't be "better" or "worse," simply "different" or "more approachable" or "prettier sounding." It's untactful to say "that sounds terrible," for it will be countered with, "well, you just don't understand."

It's easy to fall to this relativistic trap with something as objective as music because there's not a commonly accepted standard for "goodness" or "badness." For example, one can judge how good or bad an archer is by how many times he can hit a target from a certain distance. A mathematician by if his solution checks out with the equation. A basketball team by if they beat other somewhat equally matched basketball teams.

So does it make a guitarist a good guitarist if he can match a guitar solo with 100% accuracy? Does it make a song good if it gets caught in your head? Or is music judged based upon what it is designed to be: communication? Do we connect with music because of the technicality of its performance or because of the emotion it conveys?

And could it be said that the better musician is the more "natural" one, that isn't stuffed with theory and filled with scales and surrounded by black dots and stems on staved paper? Or does it require a bit of effort and attempt to supplement the talent that already existed? As a music major in college, I averaged 3-5 hours a day in a room with a metronome, a guitar, and a piece of music. While I do not ever pretend to even be close to the best in the room, I do feel as though considerable effort merits considerable respect, much to the dismay of current hipster art culture. It is not merely enough to be good - you must be consistently good and demonstrably innovative... and innovation only comes with knowing what has been, which only comes through practice and study.

Church Musicians

So we have arrived at last. The point of the verbose lecture.

I have perhaps mentioned it before, but something a few years spoke volumes about the state of church musicians (or at least those involved). The Black Eyed Peas were delivering a remarkably underwhelming halftime performance during a Super Bowl and one of my friends tweeted: "It sounds like the Black Eyed Peas hired the church sound guy with a 'great heart.'" I enthusiastically chuckled and gladly retweeted it, because it says something about the expectations and the skill level of church musicians. That kind of thing can be said and not be untrue because we have lowered our expectations in order to allow those who want to help out a shot at doing so.

Do not misread this: I am incredibly grateful for volunteers - without them, next to nothing in the church would get accomplished. But I think that there is a compromise to be made and an expectation to be raised. Simply because somebody is not being paid for something does not mean that they are to be excused from professionality and criticism. We dont' know how to say "no" to people because we are afraid of hurting their feelings. Because we feel as though we can't infringe upon that "uncritiquable" strata of art creation. After all, that is elitism and elitism is bad.

But if I were taking volunteers for a medical clinic and found somebody who was inept at even drawing blood, I would have no problem saying he is not a suitable candidate to remove an appendix.

Similarly, if I were approached with two guitarists to play one Sunday morning, one a veritable virtuoso from birth, who can play a piece of music after simply listening to it once who hadn't so much as hit "play" on that week's set and another who sat and struggled through that set hour after hour until it was a part of him, I would take the latter every single time. Struggle produces beauty and competence, encourages humility, and mirrors the kind of professional attitude expected in every other walk of life.

Just because someone's a great carpenter doesn't mean that I'll give him credit for a house he didn't work on. Just because someone is a naturally great walker doesn't mean he deserves praise for walking well.

Especially in the church, for the reason that you should do ANYTHING in the church, excellence in all fronts should be expected. In the "Christian" music industry, infamous for its sub-par quality lyric and song content, we should have extra motivation to produce the best possible product, spiritually AND physically. Don't pretend that there's not a difference between a good band and a good "Christian" band (though this playing field is quickly leveling out and is not nearly as universal an assumption as it used to be). Don't pretend that there's not a difference between a good movie and a good "Christian" movie. And don't let anybody tell you that you can't be the one to raise these expectations.

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.

Knowledge

I swear I can be the most long-winded person ever. I really need to quit being so wordy. Eh. Perhaps next week. If there's anything Americans love, it is handouts.

(Have no fear, I am not about to get political. There will be a point somewhere below this)

There is this very strange psychological condition that goes into the system of consumption that is so engrained in our American culture - that price = quality. I was talking with my friend John about a business venture he's trying to start where he's building custom, incredible quality, fantastic sounding (I've played one) guitar amps to try to get his foot in the door of the boutique guitar gear world. We were talking about how to price them, and we had two thoughts: one, completely drop the bottom off it and sell them as cheap as costs and labor can allow so that whoever wants one can afford one. It could spread with Walmart fervor as soon as people realize how cheaply they are getting a product of immense quality.

The other thought was the complete opposite: load it with all of the premium parts money can buy and shoot the price through the roof to put it in the hands of a select portion of the market while at the same time creating a brand image of finest quality tubes, transistors, body, tone, and therefore the finest quality amplifier. The jacked up price would put it in a price bracket along with BadCat, Matchless, Dr. Z, and a whole slew of long-established, globally-recognized, top-of-the-line guitar amplifiers. All because of the price.

Why was this second option even considered, much less favored? Because as Capitalists we associate price with quality, especially in the guitar world. And the car world. And the breakfast cereal world. In the America world.

(This is not my point either. Stay with me.)

It has been proven in countless case studies that I have read in various advertising and economics classes that brand loyalty and the price = quality association that this is how our brains have been wired in our ingenious Capitalist system. So it is interesting, then, how obsessed with "free" we are. Pulses quicken, hands become hungry and whet with the desire to obtain whatever it is that will be given to us at absolutely no monetary or physical charge, regardless of the quality of the item. Really, regardless of the item. I'm guilty of it too! It is embarrassing how many books I will never read I have taken out of the "free" bin at McKay's until I realize that I have no need for them and reluctantly resist the urge to take what is given to me and eventually place it back in the basket. When something is free, we disregard quality almost immediately and snatch up whatever is being given away, knowing we can at least stash it on a shelf in the basement.

The Information Age So if the above is true, and my experience has told me that it is, what does this say about us who are consumed in the Information Age, more importantly, the Free Information Age? A large group of people bent on acquiring knowledge through whatever means necessary. They'll listen to whichever voice gives it to them at the least cost to them: whoever is funniest (requiring less effort to remain alert), most interesting (requiring less energy to get excited), and most accessible (requiring less energy to search out truth) is the one who gets the audience. They are the tap to the dried sponges of the masses. We are by nature looking for something to believe in and so when the most eloquent and the most captivating come along with a viable option with enthusiasm and incredible intelligence to back it, before you know it you have the Third Reich and an army of passionate robots ready to follow their leader.

Knowledge is the most dangerous word in our language, simply because it has become incredibly unstable. Its roots get all tangled and people get confused about what is real. Pretty soon the point of knowledge is winning arguments or making it look like you deserve those Buddy Holly glasses and ripped jeans and the tattered copy of "On The Road" that you keep in your back pocket. Enough people start flexing what they call knowledge about what they call truth and pretty soon everybody's twisted versions of what truth actually is don't add up. So then they start believing that there is no truth, because everyone's ideas are all floating around in the most vast of wastelands supported by nothing but their assurances of "Trust me: I'm right."

It surrounds us. I did a case study in a class on Propaganda (which was far less conspiracy-theorist than you may think) on the way that news is reported by mass media. I took examples of news stories covered by international corporations and used only the largest names in the industry: Fox, CNN, MSNBC, BBC and Al-Jazeera, and found that it is next to impossible to just get what happened. Everybody decided to spin the story their own subtle way using emotional language, sly omission of details, selective inclusion of interviews, etc. It reflects our culture which is more interested in hearsay than in truth.

Knowledge is often associated with opinion, which it is not. Knowledge is often associated with emotion, which it is not. Knowledge is often associated with wisdom, which it is not. "Knowledge," writes Foucault, "is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting."

We must not be receivers of it, we must be searchers of it. I don't know how it became acceptable to take something as you hear it and recite it again in the future as if it were fact or to assume credibility. How often have librarians been pounding it in our heads to check our sources and how often have we been too lazy to even FIND sources for what we say? For crying out loud, there is an entire site devoted to people who have taken stories from The Onion and become outraged that PETA is now murdering meat-eaters or whatever.

Finally: The Point Paul tells us to do do this exact same thing in 1 John 4: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world." He is talking about matters of Spiritual things (where it is infinitely more crucial to not accept at face value a single thing that you hear), but a more broad application still fits: we must test everything that we hear, read, see, learn, discover.

It is a dark time for belief in anything; one where a lot of people like to believe that there is no such thing as Truth, where it takes less effort to say "I do not believe" than it does to say "I believe" because it means you'd have to think and tremble and spend nights awake in cold sweats. Belief in God comes after knowledge of God, which we will not be ready for as long as we are accepting our hearsay handouts. It is common knowledge that most of the secular world sees Christians as shallow-minded incompetents incapable of thinking for themselves, and in a lot of cases they are right. We fall into the trap of listening to words from books and pulpits and immediately accepting the ethos of the speaker and taking the words as truth.

I am so happy that my pastor constantly tells us "Please do not take my word for it. Take what I say home, check it against Scripture and determine that it is truth that way." He meets with teams of people after preaching to make sure that every little thing he says is accurate. He encourages an environment of searching, for he knows without struggle for the knowledge of important things, you will never retain it and therefore never apply it.

True belief cannot come from blind acceptance just like victory cannot come without struggle. How then can we be content with mediocrity?

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.

>Drunks, Lovers, Sinners, and Saints

>

A lady stepped in while I was working at the desk at the church today and mentioned that there was a man sprawled out on the concrete next to the door, and asked if I knew anything about that. I told her I didn't, but I would check it out. So, I sauntered around the corner, opened the door to the outside world, out of the air conditioning and into the beginnings of a sticky Chattanooga summer. I couldn't see the top half of his body, as it was blocked by a section of the wall, but his legs were rather contorted and glistened from the humid air around them. I stepped around the wall and first noticed that he was fairly well-dressed: Yellow polo shirt tucked into his nice khaki shorts with a brown belt to match the brown boat shoes on his feet, with sunglasses shielding what I could tell were closed eyes.

The lifeguard inside of me snapped to attention as I squatted down to tap him on his shoulder. Step one: survey the scene. Step two: check for signs of life (read here: consciousness). His eyelids fluttered to life and as he smacked his lips, and I could tell by the foam around the edges of where they met that this man was parched. "Sir, my name is Hamilton, is there something that I can do for you?" I said. His lips moved, his vocal chords shuttered, but it was not words that escaped from his mouth. "I'm going to help you up," I said. "Are you ok with that?" He nodded his approval, but recoiled immediately with the slight change in altitude, burying his face in his hands. I sat down next to him.

He didn't even have to talk, because I could smell the alcohol radiating from his pores in the hot sun. I asked him to scoot back against the building with my help and wait there while I went inside to get some water for him. I returned in about thirty seconds with a cold bottle of water, only to find him dozing again. I asked him if he wanted me to help him inside so that he could sit in a chair in the air conditioning. He then explained to me through words rear-ending each other how he was here for a function being put on inside of the church, but he had "messed up big time." The people in charge of the dinner kicked him out for being drunk and left him outside the front door because they were going to miss their dinner inside the air conditioning. 

I kept talking with him, and he kept on asking me something kinda puzzling. "What are you trying to get at?" The first time I didn't really know what to say, so I repeated the statement I had said before, something about asking if he wanted to come inside. But by about the fourth time he asked it, I simply said "I'm just trying to talk to you, man." He turned away for a second and his voice got shakier, rather than slurrier. "You're the first person going in and out of this g--d--- building who's said anything to me." He didn't say thank you, he didn't start crying, he didn't even look at me, but I knew he didn't need to to get his point across. It made me a little bit sick, knowing that it wasn't a traditional, shirt-and-tie affair we're talking about, it was a recovery program. They weren't people going into and out of a strip club, they were entering a church building. 

Two people stepped out of the room right about then and lit cigarettes as soon as they tasted the hot air. "Come on, Mike, let's go. We're taking you home," they said. I helped him get on his feet and find his balance. They walked side by side in front of him as they strode with resolution towards the sea of cars in front of them. Some people coming to work out walked right by them and tossed their glances backwards as they passed. I went back inside, whatever relief coming from being out of the heat evaporating as soon as I saw the big room full of successfully "transformed" people talking jovially amongst themselves and tossing their leftover barbecue, potatoes and broccoli into trash cans at the doors.  

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.