Corporate Worship: Blankschaen

Let’s talk about worship.

Worship is an issue so close to my heart–as a Believer, as a musician, as a struggling theologian, as a cultural observer. There’s so much overlap, yet so much disparity between these parts of my existence. But worship isn’t respective of our vying identities. It doesn’t require that we put on our “theology” hat only when we study Scripture, our “praxis” mittens only when we go to church, our “music” socks only when we learn a new song. In fact, worship almost demands that we don’t. Somehow, all of these pieces must come together and settle into congruence. If we’re honest about it, probably most of the struggles facing the modern Church on the matter of worship are birthed out of a lack of congruence on these matters–or a deference to one over another. And if you know anything about me, you know that I am a firm believer in that place where two opposing ideas overlap–the “middle ground,” if you will. A.W. Tozer deals with this far better than I, so I’ll encourage you to read The Knowledge of the Holy and move on.

This past week, two friends shared articles with me about the struggle of worship in the modern Church (and just so we’re all on the same track, I typically follow that little c means a specific church, like my church–Redeemer Lutheran; big C refers to the collective body of Believers, irrespective of the building where they gather on Sundays; also, that “modern” probably more accurately means “western,” as I’m pretty sure these matters aren’t quite so intense in some third world countries). The first article comes from FaithWalkers’ Bill Blankschaen, entitled Why I’m Still Struggling to Sing in Your Church–which is actually a followup to an article he’d written in 2012; the second article comes from fellow wordpress blogger Jamie Brown, who asks the question, Are We Headed for a Crash? Reflections on the Current State of Evangelical Worship. I want to address both of these articles, and will do so one at a time.  My hope is that we can move from knee-jerk reactions into something more like problem-solving, because–let’s face it–God didn’t have a Plan B for the world we live in. The Church is Christ’s Body on earth. If we’re getting it wrong, the results could be detrimental, both to the Body and to the world around us (and in some ways, I might argue, it already has been).

Let’s begin today with Bill Blankschaen’s article. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle Jamie Brown’s words. Then, dear friends, I do sincerely hope we can problem-solve together.

In full disclosure, I had read Blankschaen’s initial worship article in 2012. I struggled with the dialogue that followed in the comments, because there seemed to be a lot of remarks akin to “you don’t know how difficult it is to lead worship,” and “don’t blame the worship leader if you don’t like the musical style–they have to appeal to a wide variety of tastes.” Let’s just nip this right here: Worship has never been a matter of personal taste, nor has it even primarily been a matter of music. Let’s be clear: The words worship and music are not interchangeable, and we do the Body a great disservice by treating them as such. Therein, I believe, are the first two errors of modern worship. By not rightly understanding the true place and nature of worship (specifically, for this conversation, corporate worship), we risk the humbling and resultant edification that occurs in worship. We mistake our place, and we mistake God’s place. That, friends, is dangerous; that is why we need to dialogue about worship and music, and not about musical preferences.

Now, Blankschaen’s article (2016) strikes a chord with me for two reasons. First, it is apparent to me (and thus, I struggle to understand the comments from those who tell him he simply doesn’t like the style of music, etc) that–aside from a remark about a guitar solo–Blankschaen doesn’t make any claims about musicality or style or preference. This immediately tells us that we cannot answer his concerns by saying “find a church where you like the music.” There’s something more going on. Second, and perhaps more geeky interesting to me, is that Blankschaen says the same thing he said three-and-a-half years ago in the first article. His objections are the same. He’s still waiting for an answer, for address. How many Christians have left a church–not merely because of worship issues, but because of doctrine, because of character, because of disagreements with others that left them outcast, because of wounds that the church refused to acknowledge–and have never returned for lack of address? It’s time we stopped avoiding difficult conversations, folks. It’s time to be honest with one another about the struggles facing our churches. So let’s be honest. Let’s talk about the three things Blankschaen points to as the reason he’s struggling to sing corporately.

Blankschaen’s first complaint is that we have dumbed down worship. This is not an attack on choruses in favor of hymns. Worship does not require four part harmony, staff music, pipe organ, and Bach. Again, worship doesn’t primarily even require music. Read what Blankschaen says about this. You’ll see that he’s not even talking about the I-IV-V chord monotony; he is specifically addressing the lack of doctrinal and Biblical substance:

What most churches do is dumb down the lyrics to keep them accessible to everyone, thereby stripping the church of its deep doctrinal roots and preventing the people from understanding biblical truths they need to navigate the cultural storms ahead.

Gloria Gaither (one of my real-life heroes) once spoke about the need for memorization. I don’t have the quote offhand, but if anyone needs/wants it, I’ll gladly find it. In summary, she explains that we don’t expect children to understand the deep truths of scripture and hymns and literature–that’s not why we teach children great truths. We teach them great truths so that when they are in a moment of crisis, they have some hope to draw upon, things that are instilled in their hearts. For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a really ridiculous study of the Psalms (oh, I can’t wait to share it with you!), and one of the recurring forms I’ve noted is that psalmists (particularly David) don’t just cry out to God. There is this amazing moment where faith is professed–and then the psalmist cries out, and God hears. It works something like “The LORD is my strength, my shelter”–a somewhat general profession of what God is to the psalmist; and then a practical and specific cry “LORD, shelter me from the onslaught of my enemies.”

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not promoting a “name it, claim it” sort of theology or anything of the sort. What I’m suggesting is that when we find ourselves in trouble, our crying out to God must come from an intellectual and spiritual belief–some truth that we’ve already hidden in our heart, in our mind. That is certainly not to say that God cannot or does not answer those who cry out to Him in a sudden need, or a sudden realization of who He is. But the occurrence in the Psalms is one of professing, reminding the self of truth–and then crying out in hope and need, trusting it to be true. It’s the congruence and dissonance of believing a truth with the inner man and then also believing a truth in practice. Those are the moments–when the world is falling apart and we need to remember what our spirit accepts as true so we aren’t tossed about by emotions and immediate circumstances–when we draw upon the songs, the verses, and the doctrines of our faith. What I read in Blankschaen’s words are a concern that we have stripped our worship (our songs, in this case) to something so devoid of intellect that it won’t be of use to us when struggle finds us. And struggle will find us. It always does. I don’t want to disparage any songwriter by quoting any song here–because, as a songwriter, I know how difficult (and how easy) it can be to write something that works, something that is usable, something that is catchy enough to leave people wanting to sing it again (and I don’t mean that as ridicule).

But let’s be honest: This is happening in our churches. We are dumbed down for a lack of loving our own history. In the course of my lifetime, the words “tradition” and “ritual” and “religion” have become dirty words of judgment; they are our generation’s version of calling someone a Pharisee or a Sadducee. And yes–there is a danger in the mindless repetition, in the trusting of the intellect and the ritual over the spirit of God. But no–that does not negate the importance of ritual.

I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth and his words about corporate worship. He is speaking specifically about tongues and prophecy, and he says,

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:14-15, ESV)

The point I always come to with this passage is (again–congruence) one of accepting both sides of a truth: Our faith is a matter both of the spirit and of the intellect. No man can live (and die) for a “faith” he doesn’t intellectually accept as true. But that is where we are. We have focused so heavily on one that we’ve neglected the other. The point isn’t that we must be theologians or trained in exegesis or masters of Christian apologetics–nothing like that. The point, quite simply, is that our spirit and our mind must be in agreement about truth, or one will eventually undermine the other. The danger in relying solely upon our mind is that we never move from professing the truth to trusting that truth in our circumstances, as the psalmist did. And conversely, the danger in relying upon our spirit without our mind is that when we desperately need a truth to trust in, we won’t be able to draw upon one–because we won’t have one. The modern Church is a battleground of souls who’ve fallen apart time and time again because they’ve been taught to rely solely upon their spirit.

And what happens when your spirit is broken?

What happens when you are consumed with grief or despair?

What happens when there is no relief from your physical or emotional pain?

Do we have a truth to remind ourselves of? Do we have words of hope and life to cry out, or do we drown in an ocean of Christian music jargon?

It’s time to employ both our minds and our spirits in worship again–in teaching, in breaking bread, in song, in giving.

Blankschaen’s second struggle with singing in church is repetition. This is important, simply for irony’s sake. Bill says,

There is a place for repetition…once you go beyond that place, it just gets annoying and becomes a barrier to worship.

The irony is what I shared a few moments ago: Religion and ritual and tradition are frowned upon by much of this worship movement. The “vain repetition” that many traditional churches are accused of (and frankly, looked down upon for) is no different than the “vain repetition” of the newest three-chord song–yet one is disdained and the other is lauded as “of the Spirit.” I submit to you, friends, that this is an amazing hypocrisy within the Church.

As Blankschaen aptly points out, there is a place for repetition. There is a purpose for repetition. And I honestly don’t believe that there is anything wrong with private repetition in worship, as long as it, too, is done in the right place and purpose. There are times when I will be alone in worship, and I will play the same chord on my guitar over and over. And I’ll gladly share sometime why I do that. But I also know that there’s a particular danger in musical repetition in the setting of corporate worship. Music, if you didn’t know, is incredibly tied to emotion. Heaven forbid we mistake the emotional pull of the music for a moving of God’s Spirit. Heaven forbid we use the emotional pull of music to simulate a moving of God’s Spirit!

The purpose, I believe, of repetition (whether in music or speech, etc) is memorization. We repeat things we want to remember. We lead our children to repeat things we want to teach them. If our children are learning to repeat songs that (as pointed out previously) lack intellectual truth, then exactly what are we wanting them to learn? And what exactly will they draw on when they are older and face crises of faith?

Finally, Blankschaen’s third objection is that we’ve exchanged singing for performing. I will say that I don’t believe (and I sincerely hope I’m right) that this isn’t as big of an issue as it seems. What I mean is, there are definitely churches where this has happened; but I think of my own church, where the musicians during the contemporary service are set up in front of the congregation, and it has never once felt to me like they were performing for us or that we expected a performance of them. Frankly, our worship has never been about the talents of the men and women who play their instruments; it has never been about the voice of those who lead us in singing. It has always been about joining together in common faith and common love for Christ. So I suspect there are a lot of churches in the middle of discussions like that who need to not be lumped into either camp.

Here is what Bill says:

Performing, not singing…instead of singing together with one voice.

There is such a muddy ground between singing and performing. I daresay, many singers don’t realize they’re doing it. As a musician, it is important to me that music in the church is done well. That in itself is an act of worship (we give God our best, humbly and obediently–whether it is music, theology, science, literature, painting fences, digging ditches).

I want to urge you back to 1 Corinthians 14. At least a half dozen times in that chapter, Paul mentions “building up” the church. If there’s a theme to the chapter, to me, this is it. That’s why we gather. That’s why we worship. That’s the point of having a body. We come together as one and edify the Body. The gathering of Christians for worship is not the time or the place for an exhibition of skill or talent. Church is not a concert. We don’t go there to hear the songs we love. We don’t go there to hear the sermons that tell us how right and good we are. We don’t go there to edify our own self, our own desires, our own interests. We are there for the mutual edification of the Body of Christ.

If the mutual edification of the Body isn’t the purpose of corporate worship, friends, what is? Maybe that, in particular, is more to the point of the problem. Maybe instead of talking about the symptoms (ie: repetition, performance, and dumbing down of lyrics), we need to ask a new and pointed question:

What is the purpose of corporate worship?

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