Not really much praise

One evening last month, we had a relatively good congregational singing experience (operative word:  relatively).  There were a few high-quality songs sung, and folks around us were participating.  However . . .

A prayer-leader did that trite thing of thanking God for these “beautiful songs of praise we’ve been singing.”  This is an often-heard phrase, trite to some ears, and frequently perfunctory.  I sometimes hear meaning where people might not intend for there to be any, and the expression always sets me off.  In this case, I would characterize the first four songs that had been sung like this:

The first song:  A pretty good, if over-sung, song of praise, not really marked by “beauty” but more by gusto, and sung with considerable laxity of pulse and no visual connection whatsoever to the song leader’s arm

The next one:  A slightly less effective, even more over-sung, song of indirect praise, sung with all the rhythmic momentum of a whale in the process of being beached over a period of 3 minutes

Next:  A ridiculous song that borders on the blasphemous, making musical fun of Jesus’ atonement (no praise in that one for me, at least)

And fourth:  A heaven song that had no praise component at all and plodded along as a sort of dirge for weary travelers who might rather be spelunkers or earthworms than heaven-bound rejoicers

Those “beautiful songs of praise,” then, had very little beauty except for the resonant sound of a large group . . . and only about half of the content was really praise.  The point is not that non-praise songs shouldn’t be sung (of course they may be sung); the point is that we ought at least to know what we’re singing and manifest some intentional care in our verbal descriptions.

Later, a young leader tried to foist on this mostly older church a contemporary song they didn’t know.  This one had significant syncopation, wasn’t arranged all that well . . . and then wasn’t sung (by anyone — the leader, anyone around me, or even myself, because I gave up on the bad arrangement since no one else was using it) according to the notation.  This song actually had far better worship content than the four mentioned above, but it fell flat for musical reasons.

“In these things I have no praise for you”!
soup naziNot to be an “assembly nazi” who grunts, “No praise for you” like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but other aspects of that night demonstrated some practices to avoid in the Christian assembly.  In these things I offer neither comfort-soup nor praise for the leaders and planners.  They really  . . .

. . . should not have put their preacher in charge of a night of singing just because . . . well, because he’s on salary . . . and after all, he’s supposed to be in charge (isn’t he?)

. . . should not have made a point of announcing or displaying leader names, as though they were “performing artists” coming on stage to nab some attention instead of pointing to God (I don’t need to see the guy’s name in lights if I know him already; if on the other hand I don’t know him, seeing his name is in lights is probably pointless for another reason.)

. . . should not have used a token leader (you know what I mean—a teenager or young boy, a person with a different skin color, etc.) merely because of the token factor

. . . should not have tried to use heavily syncopated, contemporary songs in an a cappella setting (for many are the available songs, and few there be who know how to select the ones that work well enough in a cappella congregations)

. . . should not have changed a few PowerPoint slides so late that most people couldn’t sing the first word or two on the next slide

. . . should not have left the mic up turned up loud for the loud-voiced leaders (Dear Sound Guy, you have to realize that the reason you can’t hear the problem is that you’re in a different, closed-off room when you’re running the sound board . . . and if you did happen somehow to be monitoring the ambient sound that evening, please have your ears checked!)


The day after I wrote this post, I happened to surf to a site on which someone had posted this:

“We need more models and less critics.”

And I thought, “Hmm . . . the models don’t seem to be working very well, actually, so I’d have to say we need more thoughtful criticism, not less . . . combining it with the willingness to make changes.”

What if John Wycliffe or Martin Luther or Menno Simons had decided not to criticize because, well, “I don’t want anyone to think I’m being critical”?  (No, I don’t think what I say is on that level.  Rarely even close.  I do think, though, that anyone with valid, critical observations ought to speak.)

Oh, and that should have been “fewer critics,” not “less critics.”

[My criticism of whatever—questionable grammar & punctuation, stupid church tricks, inept Bible study, bad road signs, etc.—is always intended to cause people to take notice of problems, making some changes where they can.]

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2 thoughts on “Not really much praise

  1. Diane Emmons 01/16/2016 / 6:58 am

    Dear Brian,

    Thank you for including the last bracketed statement.

    As a player under your baton I felt so encouraged to improve my playing. Your constructive criticism was gently administered with “vocal kindness” so that I felt safe and pleased to try your suggestions. (Personally, I wish you were still here for that very reason.)

    It is harder for me to respond enthusiastically to printed criticism because I often can’t determine the tone of voice or facial expression of the writer. Your writing often seems harsh to me unless I remember how you always lead musical groups in person. My intellect isn’t naturally as strong as my emotional sensibility. I appreciate your friendship and your desire to obey what the Spirit tells you to share for the building up of the Body.

    To God be the glory!

    Diane

    ________________________________

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    • Brian Casey 01/16/2016 / 9:41 am

      Dear Diane,

      Well, I indicated I didn’t want to be the “Assembly Nazi,” but sometimes I am, I know. Many experiences of my life lead to taking more of a prophetic stance than exhibiting a shepherd’s comfort. There was a time in my life that I scored high on the “empathy” scale on one of those spiritual gifts inventories. I don’t think that trait has entirely gone away, but what I see virtually requires me to speak out critically. I imagine that your and my experiences and “takes” on things are pretty polar-opposite in this context. You can see the good in pretty much anything, and that gains you a lot of friends and admirers.

      It might also help to put the harshness in perspective if you knew that probably 1/3 to 1/2 of my readers come from the a cappella Church of Christ heritage. This is a group of churches far larger than the Wesleyan branch of Methodism, but only barely better known. (The relative obscurity is in part because of what I’ll call an exclusive and sometimes arrogant mentality — a mentality that can lead to putting heads in the sand. The inability to examine within may come from an originally good goal that crystallized and nearly ceased — the aim of restoring first-century-church principles and dynamics, based on biblical text.) Of the CofC members that read this post, virtually all of them would have been able to make similar observations, and most of what I said about that assembly, the songs, the leadership, etc., might have been heard more as an extended version of what many people thing. It wasn’t as jarring, in other words, to someone from “within.” Also, I fully grant that most people are more patient and enduring in the face of institutional problems.

      You have always struck me as a person whose good qualities include patience and grace at the top of heap, so anytime my critiques seem to sting in a way that your good spirit doesn’t “get,” you could just delete them and realize that our particular contexts (both personal and church) are somewhat different. 🙂

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