For most of my childhood and adolescence, I attended St. John’s Lutheran church in Napa, CA. I also went to the attached school which provided me with a quality, private education, but this information doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with my point. Just some background information to indicate the level of church saturation I experienced on a weekly basis.
Every Sunday, St. John’s offered two worship services and one round of Sunday School/Adult Bible studies. The early ran from 8:00-9:15, Sunday School from 9:30-10:30, and the late service went from 10:45-12:00. This variety ensured that all manner of morning time risers could come and worship and fellowship.
The services were traditional, and to a kid traditional is the equivalent of boring. I think all kids are bored in church. There are too many complexities for a child’s brain to wrap around, and while the children’s message is a nice attempt to include the youth, it’s not much more than a drop in the bucket. It isn’t until later in life, when someone’s in their *coughs into hand* thirties that church begins to make any kind of sense. Because the services were traditional, most of the selected music came from the big, blue Lutheran hymnal, with a few, slightly more contemporary numbers culled from the thin, grey Spirit Touching Spirit. These of course were accompanied by an organ. As a kid, I didn’t like hymns. Felt they were boring, dry, and outdated. So when the church accepted a new associate pastor who brought with him designs for the creation of a worship time, I got excited.
A band was going to play in church? With guitar, bass, and drums? No way!
I had just started getting into music significantly, seduced by both Green Day and Weird Al alike. I wanted to get a guitar. I wanted to play in a band. I wanted to soak up as much music as possible, and now I could do that at church too. And to my pre/adolescent mind this band “rocked” in comparison to the hymns and organ.
The band played all the praise hits of the mid to late 90s: “Lord I Lift Your Name on High,” “Awesome God,” “Shout to the Lord,” etc. And at the time, I think I liked these songs for their simplicity. There weren’t a lot of words which meant I could easily memorize the lyrics, and the music was usually 3-5 chords, which meant I could learn the songs on my guitar at home.
But as I got older, these songs lost a bit of their charm. The shine had come off the veneer. This became exceedingly apparent as I began to distance myself from church. That’s not to say that the band didn’t put in the effort. Quite the opposite, actually. The pastor who lead the band continued to bring in new songs and new arrangements, even penning a few himself. Additionally, the band continued to grow. Multiple guitarists, auxiliary percussionists, back up singers. That too made sense. It probably wouldn’t have seemed right to turn anyone away who wanted to join the band and possessed the talent to contribute something.
But all of this soon became a bit of a spectacle. There were too many people at the front of the church and it began to feel more like a concert than a church service.
As I moved away and went to college, I distanced myself from church and Christianity even more. It no longer made much sense to me, and I began to explore other avenues. I knew that I believed in God, I just didn’t have a good grasp on who or what God was. It’s a big concept to reconcile and wrap your head around.
Now that I’ve gotten older, started a family, I’ve circled back around. We started attending a Methodist church last year and that church and its philosophies match our own. It’s a large congregation, with three different churches. Initially, we decided to go the church that had more traditional services. My wife and I wanted that classic church feel, complete with piano/organ and a book of hymns. Oddly enough, even though I griped and complained about hymns when I was younger, I grew to appreciate them. I suppose it’s that way with many things in life–it takes a few years and some experience before you can truly “get” or understand something.
This church worked for awhile, but I began delivering pizzas again part-time, and when I closed on Saturday nights, it became difficult to wake up in time for church. So we tried a different campus with a later start time, and that church offered a more contemporary service.
All the parts of the service were the same: Announcements/greetings, opening prayer, children’s message, old testament/epistles/gospel readings, and sermon. The music, however, was delivered via a worship band.
Instead of a simple piano/organ, the music was arranged for guitar, bass, drums, and four vocalists. They were/are good. The instrumentalists can play well and singers are all in the same key, but the songs fall flat, for me. They’re a bit too repetitive, with choruses sung four or five times throughout the song. The layman elder at the more traditional campus joked that these were 7-11 songs, with the same seven words sung eleven times. Rather astute assessment. And whereas hymns usually deliver a message of some kind, generally pertaining to the gospel, these modern praise songs read a bit like someone’s journal entries. Lots of self-flagellation and talk of unworthiness. Finally, the songs are in a high range, so it’s hard to sing along. What usually ends up happening is that I stand and try to sing but I end up just awkwardly watching the band. They seem really into it but I always feel like I’m watching someone else worship.
I feel bad about these criticisms. I really do. Like a heel. These people are giving it their all to worship God, so where do I get off throwing jabs? I don’t think there’s any recourse except to just kind of look past it. Maybe they could just do arrangements of hymns for the worship band. I think that might work. I should note that I don’t think this is specific to this church. I think this is the face of modern praise music, unfortunately. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there that like these songs, but it’s hard for me to get behind them.
Okay, gripe session done. All this to say that it’s interesting how tastes develop and refine the older you get. Am just an old man now shaking my cane at the kids? (in an old timey prospector voice) “You young punks with your rock n’ roll worship songs! Show some respect, dagnabbit!”
Let me hear your thoughts on praise music if you have them. Suggestions? How do you work past this sort of thing?
And with that, I leave you with a hymn. This was my grandma’s favorite and she’d sing it often.