The three-phase outline of my life with congregational instrumental music, using a boomerang metaphor:
Phase One: Boomerang in hand — completely sure of my stance, my grip, “knowing” that instrumental music was an unauthorized “addition” (see more in the prior essays)
Phase Two: Boomerang flung — completely sure that I had been completely wrong, often worshipping privately and publicly while aided by instruments (see more in the prior essays)
Phase Three: Boomerang on a sort-of altered, return-arc trajectory — still sure that my initial hold on the boomerang was not particularly smart, yet acknowledging, with a quizzical-dog tilt of the head, that the launching of my particular, weirdly shaped boomerang hadn’t been very intelligent, either . . . and seeing, now, that the boomerang is not returning to the point from which it was winged (yet I think it’s heading for a landing that can be seen from the point of origin, if you look hard enough)
In this third autobiographical essay, I’m dealing with Phase Three, where I currently find myself.
Explanation of Phase Three. These days, I am unlikely to spend time going into the depths of this matter. (More could be, and has been, said by people more devoted than I.) I don’t relish spending time becoming enmeshed in extravagantly long discussions on matters I’m no longer very interested in.
Flatly put, I simply don’t think the use or non-use of instruments in corporate worship is, in itself, of any real import. Certain background and surrounding issues are of some interest, but I’m persuaded that, if God really were concerned with the use of mechanical instruments, He would have provided clarity and force through scripture. As it is, the question is open, the debate is tenuous, and the arguments made by many of my CofC forebears are leaky, although for the most part well-intended.
If you long ago tired of all this material, you can simply cut to the chase by reading this one sentence: I hold that instruments can be fine tools to use in worship, but I am not drawn to a large cadre of instruments because of what I often experience as
- sonic overload
- glitz and hype
- (most important) detracting from congregational engagement and involvement
Recently, I had a three-church Sunday. By that I mean I re-visited a Church of Christ, where we have been taken in warmly, but also visited two other, nondenominational churches in town. Once again — just as in dozens of other church visits in CO, KS, MO, NY, TX, MD, AR, PA, etc. — I felt great ambivalence about the corporate worship experience. (I never seem to recall, as I swoop in for a church visit, that this post-visit feeling is pretty much the same every time. Nothing is new under the sun.) It was the same as church visit #2, # 22, # 42, and most of the others:
- the same words-only PowerPoint slides (with the same punctuation errors), leaving me unable to participate much
- the same BGVs (background vocals), often lost in the mid, presumably improvised, and sometimes expressive
- the same pastor’s wife as lead vocalist (about 20 years past her prime, and more suited to small-town musical theater or light opera than to pop vocals in contemporary worship) — presumably there because of “gift” and desire and not simply so the pair can control more of the congregation
- the same female band members, looking expressive but wearing clothing that’s too tight or too eye-catching
- the same, erstwhile rock guitarist trying to fit a ridiculous “fuzz” or distortion sound into the mix because he thinks it’s cool and the “worship pastor” didn’t want to squelch his spirit since he was a new convert and everyone likes guitar players
- the same belches and stutters and minor embarrassments when one or two people didn’t get the cut and tried to repeat the chorus once more or append one more tag ending
- the same not-quite-good-enough sound mix that obscures the words and tires the ears
Yes, the experience of music in churches is a fairly constant one (and, mind you, the a cappella churches have their own issues), but there are exceptions. A few come to mind, mostly in non-churchy-church settings:
Some sessions I planned and led in the late 1990s in Delaware were effective in their use of (mostly) recorded instrumental tracks — more because of the worship-filled hearts and free spirits of those participating with me than because of my use of technology or the specific music.
A wonderful small group in Leavenworth, Kansas, in which singing was participatory, and only one guitar aided. The guitarist-leader was as sincere as they come, and humble. He wasn’t aware that his sense of meter was frequently off, although his pulse was good: we would have measures of 5/4, 6/4, and 7/4 in a standard 4/4 song, because his strumming would just keep going. But we did worship.
At he now-defunct River of Life Church in North Kansas City, a gentleman by the name of Wes was the leader. Wes not only had a pleasing, controlled, yet powerful voice, but he and those around him knew how to mix sound. It didn’t hurt that Wes was a keyboardist, not a guitarist. For the uninitiated: it is infrequent in contemporary worship bands that anyone other than a guitarist leads. (Of every 100 worship bands, I’d say 80 are led by guitarists who sing; 10, by pianists/keyboardists; and the other 10, by a mix of bassists and non-instrumentalists.)
In our home in rural NY state, a group would sing almost every Sunday night, in conjunction with the most serious, sustained scriptural digging one can imagine. Often, this was a cappella simply because it was simpler. But when we had electronic piano or guitar or ukulele or flute or viola, the instruments typically were effective aids to the worship springing from the hearts. We sang “I Will Praise Him Still” and “Brethren, We Have Met To Worship” and — oh, yes — “Ancient Words,” because we were so devoted to the ancient scripture that we were understanding better than ever.
Of course, instruments have limitations; they are, after all, mechanical. However, I daresay, in further response to Phil from years ago, that voices don’t often teach or admonish or even speak, any more than instruments do those things. CofCers: when was the last time you really intentionally taught someone, or a group of someones, through a song? Did you look at him or her when you were speaking? When was the last time you felt personally admonished via a song sung in church?
Individuals certainly worship while sitting in pews, but I’d even assert here that it’s relatively infrequent that the corporate aspect of worship makes much difference. In other words, the individuals are using their voices and their minds and their hearts in worship while everyone’s gathered, but the spiritual reality isn’t all that much different from what it would be if that same person were alone in her living room. We have wooly eye coverings if we think that we, by simple virtue of the the so-called “pure voice” and by the lack of instruments, are fulfilling the verbs of Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3.
I affirm that instrumentalists do have something to offer churches. But we shouldn’t feel that that something is necessary in all the meetings and activities of the gathered congregation.
Thus ends this autobiographical look at instruments in corporate worship.
If you look hard enough, you can see that my weird boomerang has landed, at least for now, within a stone’s throw of its original fling-point. Where that stick-y boomerang now lies is in a lush, green meadow where united Christian voices sing all types of songs — sometimes, aided by well-executed instrumental sounds, but often, not.