At the ladies’ retreat this weekend, which I did enjoy, the music of choice was contemporary praise music. And before I get into this post, I want to say that I know contemporary praise music is precious and worshipful to many people. Many churches use and enjoy it. And not all contemporary praise music is the same, of course. As with any batch of music written during any time period, some of it is excellent and some is very poor. It takes times, sometimes decades, for humans to weed out the excellent from the mediocre, discovering the truly valuable and discarding music whose only real appeal was dated to the years around its creation. My goal here is not to disparage all contemporary praise music, although I freely confess that my personal preference is for traditional music in worship. I love many hymns. I particularly love singing Scripture, especially the psalms, which were written for this use. And I’m thrilled when I find well-composed praise music whose text is Scripture itself. I hope those will last for generations.
This weekend, I finally discovered part of what bothers me about how contemporary praise music is “done” in the church. I had to come home, describe the singing to my husband, and then realize as I spoke, what had annoyed me. And it’s this: a musical form that prides itself in being spontaneously emotional, is actually (and obviously) very studied, very prepared, very choreographed.
Choreographed emotion. I think that’s what bothered me.
Let me describe. A pretty young woman led us in singing. Her voice was lovely (if a little pitchy), and the keyboard player didn’t blast us away. We began each time with a short song that went like this:
Oh, draw me, Lord,
Oh, draw me, Lord,
Oh, draw me, Lord.
And I’ll run to you.
We sang this ditty about 10 times, with increasing volume, harmonizing and extemporaneous improvisations on everyone’s part. That means we sang that one line about 30 times. I do appreciate the wonderful concept of desiring God to draw me to Him, and that my response should be to run toward Him. But I really, really, don’t need to sing it 30 times to understand. There’s no point in it. And as I found myself bound to do this (well, I did drop out after a bit), I felt frustrated and a bit put out. This was supposed to be worship, wasn’t it? Not “vain repetition”?
After this, we proceeded to sing a couple more praise songs, some of which I didn’t know. One was called “Amazing God,” which seems to rotate its tune on three descending notes over and over (and over and over). Why the mind-boggling simplicity? To help people sing it? But if this is true, why the incredibly difficult rhythms, which make it virtually impossible for a group of 30 women to sing anything remotely “together,” as in, let’s sing our words and notes at the same TIME. And, of course, there’s not a bar of actual music to be found in the place, just in case anyone wanted to offer music that might be done well. For the God of the universe. We sing that He is indescribable and amazing and awesome, and then we offer the most mediocre musical production imaginable.
(Calm down, MK. Get back on track.)
Okay. So, finally we sang a song that I do love, “In Christ Alone.” Our church choir has a choral arrangement of this, and it’s fantastic. Even the piano part is a thrill to play!! I love it. At the retreat, it was blended with “The Solid Rock” in the middle, which was awkward, but I’ll not address the badly-done key changes or the timid entrances. Nor the truly horrible typos. (It’s one thing to misspell a word. It’s quite another to turn it into a cuss word in the process. In a praise song. Whatever happened to editing?) In the final stanza, we sang about Christ’s victory in resurrection, and our victory in Him.
And the song leader signaled for all of us to stand as we sang these powerful words of rising and victory. Which was nice, but I got the impression we were supposed to do it as an emotional response to the text and the music. But aren’t emotional responses like that supposed to be spontaneous, particularly in contemporary praise music? Rather like raising one’s hands in the air? What if she had signaled for all of us to raise our hands instead of standing? How bizarre would that have been? Is there an assumption that all of our emotions are uniform? That they would all be expressed in exactly the same way?
And when the song finished, there was a hush, and then the keyboard player tried to give us the right note to sing just ONE LITTLE LINE of “Oh, draw me, Lord.” But the song leader couldn’t get the note right, and came in too low, and those who followed her were at odds with the piano, and those who followed the piano were clashy with her. Sigh. After a moment, we all found each other. And ended the musical experience with that one, single, plaintive cry.
Very emotional. Very choreographed. Studied spontaneity.
And this is what I ask of the contemporary praise crowd: Be consistent. Be real. If you claim to be spontaneous and emotional, then don’t, PLEASE DON’T, plan it out ahead of time and feed it to your audience, so they’ll do all that spontaneity at the same time. Or, if you want to plan and study and choreograph, I’m cool with that too. I believe in prepping for worship. I do it every week. But don’t then deceive yourselves or anyone else that the performance is suddenly leaping from the heart. The choreographed emotion rings so hollow to me, and makes me feel as if the whole thing is fake. It makes me want to sit on the back row, cross my arms, and write a blog post.