Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Worship, Songwriting and Context

I recently listened to the audiobook How Music Works by David Byrne (former lead singer of Talking Heads). He offered an interesting insight into an aspect of songwriting that most folks don’t pay much attention to on a conscious level - context. He noted that for hundreds of years music in the west was confined to major types of scales because the music was predominately played in the context of Cathedrals with reverb times of 4+ seconds. Major scales would ensure that there would be no dissonance, no clashing notes. As a result we in the west have come to associate certain types of music that follow that type of approach as sounding “spiritual”, though for those in Africa or Asia “spiritual” sounding music would sound very different (there would be no sentimentality towards major scales with reverb). Byrne notes how when the Talking Heads first started making music in the mid seventies their regular gig was at CBGB’s, New York City. The club had a much tighter acoustics which in turn influenced how the band both played and wrote songs (early Talking Heads music was very tight and uncluttered sonically).   

I think David Byrne is on to something here. As I reflect on my own journey of songwriting I can see how I have both written songs from and for a certain context and how I have also written songs for an imagined context. The first Delirious album that really moved me in a powerful way was Live and In the Can. I remember watching videos of the band from that era playing in front of thousands in Wimbly Stadium, London. It was like a full on stadium rock concert but it was worship! I remember how that influenced the way I had been writing songs a bit, though at the time I was unaware on a conscious level. I began writing songs with more driving beats and bigger choruses (the kinds that thousands could sing in unison like at a U2 concert). I could imagine thousands of people singing these choruses in unison and it was glorious (at least in my mind). I think what I was experiencing was actually pretty common among worship leaders and songwriters at the time.

Though I have only been a part of the Vineyard (at least attending Vineyard churches) since 2002 I can see how context has been a part of the songwriting process since the beginning. I suspect that one of the reasons Vineyard was on the forefront of worship led on acoustic guitars had to do with the contexts of home groups, coffee houses, and small churches in the mid to late 70s. Then as Wimber began doing many more conferences the sound of Vineyard worship music began to get bigger to match the venues. The rise of megachurches and huge conferences across the country has had a major influence on the types of songs written and sung in churches for the last 20 years. I figure that most of the top worship songs today are probably written for a context of thousands singing in a large venue. While there is nothing wrong with writing songs with large venues in mind, I have, on occasion, experienced the frustration of doing anthemic rock worship songs in an early morning service of 20 people and seen them go over like a turd in a punch bowl. 

The church I pastor recently began having two Sunday gatherings which meant that our crowd of 100-140 adults has been roughly split in half (actually we have had a drop in overall attendance since we went to 2 services). The energy in the room has been noticeably lower which effects not only crowd participation but even the energy of the band a bit. So in thinking through these concepts a bit I emailed the worship team the other day saying that for the next month (at least) we will try and lead worship that takes our current context into consideration a bit more. For the next month we will be doing songs on mainly acoustic instruments (no electric guitars, keyboards or drum sets). This will force us towards simpler arrangements and less dynamics in the sound but will also connect in what I envision as a more intimate way of worship for our more intimate context. I think this could be a way of incarnation ministry, stepping into the community to serve folks where they are rather than imposing something that doesn’t quite fit. I am looking forward to how we can sing and write songs with our new context in mind so as to engage the community in a fresher way. I will update everyone on how this goes in a few weeks.

A couple of questions:
How have you experienced leading songs that didn’t fit the context of the space/community you were leading in worship?

For those who are songwriters, how do you think context has influenced the songs you have written?

Monday, October 12, 2015

I Feel Indignation Therefore I Am

Ranting about political issues feels good.  It almost feels like actually doing something about said issues. The truth is that most of us only have a very small realm in this world where we can make a difference. Let not our feelings about issues distract us from the ways that we can truly live out goodness in our everyday lives. I can’t change the world but just maybe I can live out a different sort of life in my small place in this world today.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Trouble in Mind, Dealing With Laments in Scripture

As one who has had the opportunity to preach/teach most weekends for almost 6 years now I decided to shake things up in the material we dig into on the weekends by using the Revised Common Lectionary for the passages in our Sunday services.  The Revised Common Lectionary is basically a collection of scripture readings that follow the church calendar and covers much of the Bible in a 3 year period. Why this shakes things up a bit for me is that it causes me to deal with passages that I would not normally choose if I was simply doing a topical series or teaching through a book of the Bible of my choice. Two of the passages for this weekend - Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-5 are definitely passages I’d rather not try to teach mainly because they seem so utterly hopeless.  As I wrestle through these laments I am reminded of a couple of things.

  1. The Psalms as a place of intercession - In Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God, The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, he notes that the practice of praying the Psalms will often move us into passages that do not speak to us as individuals at all. This is no doubt a byproduct of our way of reading the Bible which only values the way it speaks to us in our own personal relationship with God. But Peterson sees these passages as a great place to enter into the suffering of others through prayer. So, for instance, the passages I mentioned above don’t really speak to the realities in my life at the moment but they do speak to the realities of friends of mine who are facing terminal illness, unemployment, and loss of loved ones.  So one approach to these types of passages is that they can create a space for intercession when they don’t speak directly to us. So for this Sunday I may set aside a time for folks to write down prayers for others who are going through very difficult times.  
  2. Singing the blues so the blues don’t get on you - I heard an interview with an old bluesman recently where he talked about the function of blues music. He basically said that you sing the blues so that the blues don’t get on you and take you down. I think that blues music is the closest thing that we have in the modern world to the laments of the Psalms (and Job). Blues songs rarely end with any type of resolve and yet they oddly don’t seem without hope. There is something about vocalizing and naming the pain, the frustration, the sadness that actually works to push back the clouds a bit. There’s an old blues song called Trouble in Mind that has been covered countless times by the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Snooks Eaglin to Nina Simone and Sam Cooke. It very much reminds me of the types of sentiments in the passages for this week:
Trouble in mind, I'm blue
But I won't be blue always,
'cause the sun's gonna shine
In my backdoor some day.

I'm all alone at midnight
And my lamp is burnin' low
Ain't never had so much
Trouble in my life before.

Trouble in mind, that's true
I have almost lost my mind,
Life ain't worth livin,
Sometimes I feel like dyin’.

Goin' down to the river
Gonna take my ol' rockin' chair
And if the blues don't leave me
I'll rock away from there.

I'm gonna lay my head down
On some lonesome railroad line
And let the two nineteen
Pacify my mind.

Well it's trouble, oh trouble
Trouble on my worried mind,
When you see me laughin'
I'm laughin' just to keep from cryin’.

3. Laments give us permission to be honest with our feelings - For so many years of my Christian journey I would hide negative feelings and try to push past pain, grief and sadness. This was partly due to the types of churches I initially attended as a new Christian. I remember looking around at folks on Sundays and feeling like a complete failure because it seemed everybody had it all together. It wasn’t until I attended my first Vineyard Worship Leader Retreat back in 2003 (I think) that I really began to hear folks being honest about their struggles and hardships. And what that did for me was give me permission to be honest about my struggles, failures and disappointments. The passages for this weekend allow us a great place to communicate to people that “you are not alone” and it is okay to feel frustrated with your circumstances and with God right now because you stand in line of a tradition going back thousands of years of people who have felt and expressed the same feelings.