the liminal edge of worship

So my friend Greg Willson and I are contemplating a new worship album project. Here’s the concept:

The issue that I’m wrestling with is the balance between lyrical specificity and ambiguity. I feel as if much of what passes for congregational worship is boring. I use the word boring purposefully. This is not to say that these songs are not lyrically true, musically sound, or even great vehicles for worship. It is to say, however, that they are “uninteresting, tiresome; dull.” Many of the words, metaphors, chord changes, and melody/harmony lines are tired and worn out.

I’m not the only one to think this way. The problem is in execution. There are several directions this could go. The first is what I like to call the “add crunchy guitars” method. You see this a lot when people try to update older songs/hymns. The thought goes something like this: “The melody line is familiar so we don’t want to mess with it. What we’ll do is add some guitar distortion to make the song seem more modern.” Songs tend to follow traditional CCM worship trends. The second is what we’ll call the “lowest common denominator” approach. In this method the songwriter/worship leader panders to the hypothetical lowest common denominator. It’s the belief that the melody lines and instrumentation must be simple. Now simple is not entirely a bad thing. In fact, simple can be excellent. But this method errs in saying that the necessity is simplicity, therefore the melodies will be very repetative, the musical arrangments either paired down or repetative in chordal structure, and the lyrics simple and to the point.The third possibility is what we’ll call, for lack of a better term, “indie-kid worship” approach. In this approach the songwriter/worship leader seeks to make the worship more ‘modern’ by copying the latest music trend. Indie-kid worship is headed in the right direction, but whereas “add crunchy guitars” dressed standard songs with distortion, the indie-kid worship leader in trying to be creative crafts/plays songs which tend to be either overly personal or lyrically ambiguous.

So here’s the rub. How does one overcome these pitfalls? It’s possible, but difficult, which is why I think that I’m tempted to try (masochism anybody?). Though from a somewhat different genre, the song “Warrior”, out on the new Sojourn Music album “Over the Grave”, is a great example of a well crafted song. The lyrics are a tad straightforward, but the way they walk around the theme is catchy, to say the least.

While this example is moving in the right direction I think that our particular project is going beyond this. But to do so we’re going to have to be very careful. Congregational songs cannot be too vague or ambiguous lyrically, overly personal (by which I mean to say, the lyrics cannot be so specific to a situation that they are difficult to apply universally. I understand that some say the Psalms do this, but since I’m not Holy-Spirit-Inspired, I’m not sure how much we can transfer over. Though I’m willing to dialogue on it.), nor musically obtuse (that is, overly complex in either instrumentation or melody). Where does this leave us? I’m not sure, but we’ll see how this all plays out. There won’t be work on it for a bit, I’ve got to move and buy some gear first, but I just needed to get some ideas out of my mind and onto (digital) paper…

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6 thoughts on “the liminal edge of worship

  1. I’ll defend a variant of option 1 from a musicology perspective. Most of the better hymn tunes, especially hymn tunes from the British Isles, were originally folk songs and have been shoehorned into traditional 4-part Western harmony. As folk songs, the melodies are transferrable into many different genres without losing the fundamental character of the melody. See “Here Is Love”, a Welsh hymn, played by either crunchy guitars at Mars Hill Seattle or a soloist and orchestra in Cardiff (available on YouTube).

    Other than that minor quibble, I like where you’re going. I’ve got the new Sojourn album and, though I think it’s great, find less than half of it to be adaptable for congregational singing.

    Praying that your move goes well,
    Eric Priest

    1. Thanks for the thought Eric.

      I’d like to hear you more on folks songs. What is it, in your estimation, that makes folks songs “transferable into many genres without losing the fundamental character of the melody”? Do you think this a quality that folk songs have in distinction from others? I guess it would depend on what you mean by the term ‘folk songs’. What are the defining charateristics of the genre? More pointed, what is the fundamental character of which you speak?

      The reason I’m asking for this clarification is because I think that many different genres of music have this same transferable quality. I love doing old hymns. I love doing old hymns to newer arrangements. I think the point I was trying to make, which might not have been as clear as I would have liked, is not that these methods are bad or wrong, per se, rather that they are simply not taking congregational worship music in new directions. They are more like variations on a theme than they are new avenues to travel, if that makes any sense.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts, I respect them, and let’s keep this conversation going.

      1. No, I absolutely agree that they aren’t moving into new directions, especially lyrically.

        By folk songs, the best description that I can give you is tunes developed outside of the Western Classical Tradition. As such, you can strip away some of the harmonies based upon baroque progressions, etc. and the songs still stand up on their own. (As a quick example: Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing sounds better when sung in unison unaccompanied than Holy, Holy, Holy. Holy, Holy, Holy is more dependent on the harmonies in the tune.)

        Since the harmonies are less rigid, you can attach the tunes to chord progressions more idiomatic to other genres and it still works; you’re less confined to I-IV-vi-V-I.

      2. Ah, but aren’t all great songs based on I-IV-vi-V-I… 😉

        As for the definition of ‘folk songs’, I’ll buy that as far as it goes, but what happens when we look at it from a less Euro-centric viewpoint. This might be taking us farther afield than the original posting (into the wilds of music theory), but I’m going to go there. Or maybe I want to ask you this, which, if either, takes musical preeminence? That is, are ‘folk songs’ as a genre musically superior because of their transferability, or are ‘classical’ songs because of their technicality and complexity? I know were dipping our toes into the river of ‘taste’, but I’d be interested to hear your ideas.

        For the record, I love both styles. If I have a home, it would be in the folk genre, but I love listening to classical music as well (of all sorts, large orchestras, smaller trio, quartets, etc, and even opera). I know you don’t think this, but I’m sure you rub shoulders more than I with people who think that classical is better because complexity and technicality, from a ‘Christian’ perspective, better displays the richness and complexity of God.

        Anyway, let’s keep it going.

      3. I do rub shoulders with classical-is-better folks and it frustrates me to no end. I’ll even buy the argument that “traditional” music is better for congregational singing from the standpoint of it being written for congregations, not individuals, and the character of the organ as an instrument for accompaniment. Because the organ is a sustaining instrument (like a wind instrument, not a piano or guitar) and because it has bass notes octaves below what the voice can sing, it is a fantastic instrument for congregational singing because it supports the voices. (I’m actually hopeful that more folks will begin seeing the electric guitar as that type of instrument – one that can provide full sounds that support singing.) What I can’t buy is the “classical is inherently more Godly because of the complexity/technical skill required, etc.” argument. That’s just an argument based in culture-centrism. Some Jazz is just as complex and technical, bluegrass can be extremely technical, even experimental metal can be complex and technical.

        You’re right, I’m looking at the folk song issue from a completely Euro-centric viewpoint, thanks for pointing that out (no sarcasm intended). I have no idea how to adapt non-Western music in a way that Westerners can appreciate without a background in music of other cultures. (I’m specifically thinking here of music from cultures that don’t use the 12 notes of our scale.)

        I wouldn’t say that either folk or classical is superior, even for church music, but I would say that folk songs are more transferrable between styles, which makes them more versatile. One of the great things about classical music, though, is the fact that it’s *not* versatile. Great composers ask for exact orchestrations to yield exactly the timbre that they’re looking for. To strip all of that out, strips some of the essence of the piece and makes it a new composition. If I reharmonized Bach’s “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”, it would lose a ton of its power. Western folk songs, not so much.

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