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”!
Not 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.]