"I don't care if the church will sing it in 2065": Questions From Jeremiah Gibbs

Ha ha! This comic is SO funny! Even if it is basically an ignorant and unfair stereotype
Last week I published an article calling for a discussion on what it would take to form a "Canon of Contemporary Worship Music." A canon is a measurement, a ruler, of what is best in any given field of knowledge. Within the realm of church music hymnals have traditionally functioned as their "canon". They contain a set amount of songs a committee has thought about, prayed about, sung, and eventually voted on. But it would be very difficult to create a comprehensive and fair modern day hymnal, especially one that would incorporate what is known as "contemporary" worship music. The first difficulty is our music (and even lyrics) tends to be disposable and the second difficulty is there is just too much of it out there to sift through.

My friend, Dr. Jeremiah Gibbs, had some push back for me in my search for the contemporary canon. His questions were thought provoking enough that I thought they deserved worthy answers. Jeremiah is University Chaplain and Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Indianapolis. He blogs at: https://jeremiahgibbs.com/ Next month I will be featuring an interview with him on the PostConsumer Reports Podcast about his book Apologetics After Lindbeck. 

Jeremiah Gibbs: First, why does "standing the test of time" matter? Yes. We should write better music, but I can think of only three reasons to sing a song: 1.) my congregation needs to sing it, 2.) they need to hear it, or 3.) people encounter God as they sing it. Beautiful music will enchant them (and they need to hear it) but we don't care if the church will sing it in 2065. 

I can think of several reasons why "standing the test of time" matters.

First let me say though, that I basically agree with your three principles. All I care about is what the Church "needs" to sing. Allow me to explain more with lots and lots of words.

1.) As far a church music goes, we are living in the Wild West right now. For years and years the situation was relatively simple with church music. Sure, there were Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, Pentecostal, Reformed, Catholic, and a slew of Non-denominational hymnals out there, and sure there were always hymnal supplements, but at least there was an editing process where a denomination said to its people "These are the songs we recommend singing. They are all in one book. In 30 years (or so) we'll give you an updated book and you can throw the old book away or keep it around for reference." If you were a Presbyterian you only needed your denomination's hymnal. Whatever the Lutheran's had in their book was fine but it did not affect you much. Your own denomination was good enough.

Hymnals are good because they represent the Church (or a church group) in counsel with itself, seeking discernment as to what is fitting and proper for the Church to sing when it gathers to worship. On one hand hymnals are very limiting as something worthy will always be left out, and yet ultimately it is good to trust our leaders, those theologians, church musicians, composers, and pastors who discern for us what is the best of the best.

But as I said, we are in Wild West land now. There is just SO MUCH MUSIC for a song/worship leader to have to digest we are somewhat at the opposite end of the spectrum from before. There is music coming at us from several angles at once. It's like being attacked by a hoard of worship music zombies (sorry to mix metaphors). In the Wild West there are no regulations. It's every man for himself and pretty much anything goes. Well, you can consider me the Marshall and I've been sent out here to restore order. 

Actually, I know that's utterly ridiculous. Because the internet blew everything up and because decent recording equipment is available to pretty much anyone with a moderate budget, it is like we're dealing with several Wild Wests at once. No one person or committee or organization could "regulate" it all. Last week I put forward the idea of some kind of online hymnal with a set amount of songs that song leaders and pastors across the denominations could join and include their choices. It would be democracy with discernment and the list would be revisited every year or whenever we thought was wise. I have no idea is such an idea is even possible and I am sure I sound naive for even mentioning it. Nonetheless, I think it is essential we find a way to discern together what exactly the Church should be singing out of the monumental mass of songs that have been written over the past 50 or so years.

2. At the risk of using circular reasoning, anything worth saving is worth saving. Perhaps I have too high a view of music, but I am constantly on the look out for whatever is the best of the best. My whole life's pursuit is about cultural and artistic preservation. On a personal level I want to build things to last, and then more generally I want to discover what has already been built to last, learn from it, and then work to ensure it lives on in the future.

As soon as my sons were old enough to be cognitively aware we started listening to The Beatles. Without them knowing it I was sending them a message: This is important. Listen to this carefully. I am gifting this music to you. When you are old enough give it to your own children. May it live on throughout the ages. I am so not joking about this.

I started with The Beatles and we have since moved on to many other things not only relegated to music, including Bach, Beethoven, The White Stripes, the books of Roald Dahl, and Star Wars. This process will go on and on between me and my children. I desperately want them to know the most important and meaningful works of art our civilization has produced. I cannot wait to tell them about Stanley Kubrick and Mark Twain and Stravinsky and Van Gogh and Watership Down

And so it goes with church music. To me, if a melody and text are worth singing at all, they should be worth singing numerous times over an extended amount of time. They should be something we want to continually come back to (even if we take a break from them from time to time), otherwise why were they there to begin with? I understand the argument that a song might only exist for a certain time and with a certain group of people. I think it is great that a song be localized, that it spring up from the local church and have a special place with a particular people. In that sense you might say I am both/and on the issue of church music. At the same time, I am of the opinion that if something is good enough and true enough and beautiful enough to be sung now then it should be good enough to be sung later. 

Hymns allow us to commune with God and they teach us about the faith. Just as we preserve the Church's greatest theological ideas, so also we should be intentional about preserving our greatest songs.

3. Universal or local? Timeless or immediate? Ancient or present day? How about the convergence of the two?
I think in general people are drawn to the poles. We want cut and dried easy answers to our problems. We go for the black and white solutions and pretend the gray does not exist. When it comes to church music the pole I naturally gravitate to is a concern for the universal. That is, what is most accessible to everyone everywhere? What is the best of the best of church song? What should everyone be singing? What songs would a church basically be fools for not singing? For me, hanging out on the "universal" side of the argument, my biggest blindspot is that I am more than a bit obsessed with "what the church will be singing in 100 years." I am obsessed with The Comprehensive List of Worship Music. I want to know the songs that have been accepted so I can forget about what has been rejected.

Let's say, for the sake of argument you are on the "sing a new and local expression"side of the church music argument, which your question above might lead us to believe. Your blind spot comes in the form of always seeking out what is new and novel. You are only in the present moment and whatever suits you in the moment is "what the church needs to sing." Unwittingly you might be propagating a mass cultural amnesia, where you do not intentionally forget the past, it is just that you are always moving on to something else, to the song for This Moment.

I would truly like to see a convergence of the two. You and I both know the Church Fathers could say things about God and Christ in a way that we just could not today. They had a context and a language that sounds so fresh and challenging to our ears, even though their writing is very very old. The best hymns do the very same thing. "Of the Father's Love Begotten" says something about the incarnation of Christ in a way that people today would not be able to write. There is something about the almost archaic language that offers a deeper and wider bedrock of meaning. Also, the plainchant melody the hymn is typically sung to feels equally foreign and mysterious. There is something about the text and tune that draws you into a different world. We need this ancient hymn coming to us from the distant past. We need the medieval church to speak to us today and teach us what they know. And to address a concern in your question below, I believe that if we familiarize ourselves with their song, internalizing it fully, it will become our song.

At the same time we need hymn writers writing today in the musical and lyrical language of today. We need the in-the-moment word-for-God's-people-today kind of songwriters. We need prophetic voices who can challenge today's idolatries. Sacramentally in the Eucharist the past and future are always converging in the present. Christ's death and resurrection converge with Christ's coming reign on the Church in the here and now where they are called to live out the Gospel and the Kingdom. I am bold enough to believe our hymnody can strive for a similar convergence. 

All of this takes great discernment and much study, requiring a worship or song leader to know past hymnody well enough and current culture well enough to be able to decide what their congregation "needs to sing."

4. Full disclosure: 1.) By default I favor older hymns and 2.) I think our current situation is an unhealthy one.
When it comes to what the Church (or our churches) "needs to sing" I tend to make a baseline assumption: older hymns have been time-tested and thus have earned a place at the table. I approach older hymns with humility and an open mind because I reason that if they have found a way to reach me in the present they have gone through some kind of vetting process. I assume they must be more excellent and worthy of being sung. I am primarily speaking of lyrics here, although I do tend to like to pair older lyrics with older tunes. Anything that can be adapted into a good folk melody works for me. But when it comes to newer songs I by default tend to take a more skeptical approach these days. Sure, I am drawn to their newness and freshness, but at the same time they have to prove themselves to me. They have to show themselves worthy. Of course, I am constantly swinging back and forth between favoring the old or favoring the new. Currently I am in the process of listening to lots of new songs, so I guess I am on the new side of the spectrum for now. Still, I believe it is wise to take a more discerning and regulative approach to singing new music.

However, I really do think we are in an unhealthy situation at present. It is a mixed blessing—we have so much of a good thing, so much total music, that it puts us in a dangerous spot. I was talking with someone recently who happened to be listening to "Mighty to Save." I asked "Does your church sing that song anymore?" She replied "No." I proceeded to ask why and her response was basically "We've moved on, there's always something new to sing, we're supposed to sing a new song, right? We just don't really have a use for that song anymore and people have gotten sick of it anyway." I am afraid we have created this endless ravenous hunger for new worship songs. We are now ONLY about the new, jumping from song to song, devouring a present beloved song until we grow to despise it, its use value now expended. Song to song to song we go only looking to what is ahead. I believe the Church's ancient hymnody has provided us with a bedrock of truth, beauty, and goodness and we are in a dangerous spot if we intentionally forget the past in favor of the novel.

Jeremiah Gibbs: It seems to me that it's inevitable that we will eclipse even the best songs with a style that is indigenous to contemporary culture. Many of the songs [based on previous conversations we have had] you say are excellent, and I'm sure they are, I hate to sing in a congregation. Even when they are done well, they "feel" like someone's else's music because they are. When those lyrics (and semblance of the melody) are done with a contemporary style then great—even if contemporary music is constantly changing to something else. I suppose my students think that Rend Collective is just as revolutionary as I thought Delirious was (and they were). When teaching worship I suggest that style (songs, prayer style, preaching style, the way leaders carry themselves) should always be indigenous. Otherwise leaders are very inauthentic. 

Again I would like to take a "both/and" perspective on this. I am not sure how much this has to do with personality but everywhere I go if there is a work of art that impacts me I assimilate it, adapt it, and make it my own. So when it comes to church music if there is a song I like well enough that I think we could sing in my congregation but is still foreign enough that it does not quite fit, I immediately begin reshaping it so that it fits my sensibilities and our church context. I never adapt something to the point that it is unrecognizable. I am talking small stylistic shifts. In this way, what was once Not My Music has become My Music. I am hoping it is the same for the people in my congregation, but again, I wonder how this might work when it comes to different personalities. 

It's interesting: I have listened to Rend Collective a few times now and have not found anything compelling enough to do in my church. The lyrics are just ho-hum, their melodies blah, and it seems like they are perpetually trying to rip-off Mumford & Sons' first album. So it's strange: I have no idea why anyone would think they are revolutionary or why their music is interesting enough to sing in church. How's that for a subjective perspective?

I am in full agreement with you that the music of a congregation should be indigenous. What I would argue though is that as a civilization we have a shared musical language that is still firmly connected to the past. We have not drifted so far culturally that ALL of the music of the past should seem foreign to us. Also, I would say that if the music of the past does seem foreign then we should take a posture of humility toward the past and we should be willing to adapt to it. If past art can come to live in the present and not be a dead museum piece, then there can be a mutual exchange. This happens with art at all levels and is why people are still connecting with the works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Rembrandt, ancient Greece, and dare I say Mr. St. Augustine himself to this very day. Even though all these works contain much that is foreign and strange to our modern world, there is a spark in them that inspires us and changes us. Art changes us and we change art. Again, anything worth saving is worth saving.

So, my hope, when it comes to church music, is that we can know the older songs well enough so we can discern what we can best preserve, adapt, and help live in the present of the Church's worship of God.

Jeremiah Gibbs: I think we sing "radio songs" because our congregation already has them in their heads. That only works if you come from a church that listens to CCM radio. But if you do, singing a well known song meets the third criteria, people encounter God when they sing it. Mystical experiences rarely happen when people are reading lyrics from a screen, book, etc. Mystical encounters happen when people throw their heads back and sing viscerally. Sing a familiar song and they can more easily enter that mystical space. 

I am in full agreement here and you can call me out on one of my greatest sins: always wanting to teach new songs. I know so many songs that I struggle trying to fit every one of them in. I want everyone to know and love every song that I know and love. But yes, the more people know the lyrics and melody the more likely they will be to shut off the part of their brain worrying about whether or not they're "doing it right" and just abandon themselves to God. What more could we hope for when it comes to our times of worship? In this sense having to hold a hymnal or look up to a projected lyric is an unwanted distraction. Whatever we do, we need to get people to know the songs we sing by heart, so they can fully be open to God moving in their lives.

This actually, over an extended time, might be where hymnals are the greatest help, in that a person can learn a song so well by looking at it over and over (probably during the sermon!) and come to know it by heart. In this way a hymnal can be similar to the song on CCM radio. The music becomes internalized and thus second nature.

I am sure we have more to discuss Dr. Gibbs...
________________________________________________________________________________ Previous Article: Will it Endure? The Search For a Canon of Contemporary Worship Music

Other Articles in the Worship in Full Spectrum Series
Worship in Full Spectrum: An Introduction
Hymnals = Vinyl: The Case For and Against Hymnals in Worship 

Confession: I Am An Irrelevant Worship Pastor
Worship Music Should Be Radically Contemporary
The Multiverse of a Worship Song: Matt Redman's "This Beating Heart"
Why I've Never Sung Matt Redman's "10,000 Reasons" At My Church


Unknown said...

This is a good conversation to have. Thanks for putting it out there. I'm interested in exploring how music reflects the culture and what is possible when the multitude of "voices" in the world - in terms of global neighbors - our brothers and sisters in Christ if you will - are intentionally incorporated into to how we understand our expression of faith through worship and how we understand ourselves as people who are interconnected through relationship with God to one another. What does that mean for the songs we choose?

How do we embody the way God enters our world and bears with us sin and burden? Does our worship music style perpetuate cultural privilege or are there ways we might become more oriented toward our neighbor as we receive God's gifts and become aligned with God and God's mission?

PostConsumer Reports said...

Thanks Patrick.
Great questions.
Are you asking me to write ANOTHER article?!
Is this a THREAT?!

Unknown said...

ha! just what I've been wrestling with these days. how could this possibly be a threat : ) and you are the wild mustang of blogs...you write as free as the mustang runs...I won't be the ranch hand to fence your literary instincts! bound away my dear mustang.

PostConsumer Reports said...

Ah! Freedom!
Come run with me young stag!