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Wednesday
Jun262013

Driving the Fear of Tradition out of Our Evangelical Psyche

My Story

I grew up in the free church tradition (some people say "free church tradition" is an oxymoron, buy it's only an apparent one).  This means I had a healthy skepticism, even fear, of anything that would subvert the raw, naked authority of Scripture...which means I had a special fear of and kept a healthy distance from anything related to "church tradition."  Perhaps the Apostles' Creed wasn't suspect, but reciting it in worship was.  

I carried the default perspective that the Church's talk and weaving in of any notion of "tradition" was one of the primary reasons it got off course, which means that the only Church of the past, prior to the Reformation, that I had any respect for was the absolute earliest church--the apostolic church of the first century.  Once the church fathers started their writing and processing in the post-apostolic era, that's when things started going downhill, I thought.  Tradition was the "leaven of the Pharisees" that Jesus so vehemently opposed, I believed. 

That this type of thinking is so prevalent among evangelicals was evidenced by the fact that my church history professor at Denver Seminary had to go to great lengths to validate the medieval period to us as a time period worth studying, knowing, and appreciating.  I remember him poking holes in precisely what I thought--namely that, after Augustine, the Church entered a "dark period" it did not emerge from until the Reformation.  The millenial span between roughly 500 AD and 1500 AD was a black hole, a void, in the growth and influence of Christianity...so we thought.

Beginning in college, largely through a study of Western music history (which is, for the first several centuries, a course in CHURCH history, interestingly enough), God started driving the wedge of tradition into my soul. What started as appreciation moved to fascination, which then led to experimentation, which then led to appropriation.  

For me, it started simply with the church's songs.  I began to dig into the hymns of the past and discovered that the type of Christianity expressed was one that I had longed to express but had no vocabulary for.  Examining these hymns shifted to jumping on the bandwagon of regifting these hymns to the local, modern, Western Church.  But hymnody was merely a gateway drug toward more intensely exploring the traditions and worship practices of the past.  I wanted the heavier stuff.  I began investigating "liturgy."  

My evangelical psyche told me to beware of tradition.  For me, however, the deeper I got, the more I realized that there didn't have to be a competition between tradition and Scripture; that the Reformers themselves, along with the biblical doctrines they re-emphasized for the Church (like sola scriptura), were not jeopardized.

Great Books Cast Out Fear 

I've been reading D. H. Williams' Evangelicals and Tradition.  Williams is a Baylor prof and stands within the free church tradition of Baptists (part of my own heritage).  If you find tradition a tough pill to swallow and have grave concerns for how any appreciation of tradition might creep into tainting fundamental doctrines of evangelicalism, look no further than this book.  It parses the issues well and speaks to the free church evangelical.  Its goal is to address the concerns of the skeptical evangelical and then encourage an appreciation and appropriation of historic, small-c "catholic" Christianity, largely through an engagement with the patristics (the church fathers who learned from and immediately followed the New Testament apostles).  It's heavy, relatively thorough, and, to me, convincing.  It honestly makes me want to buy the entire 38-volume set of the works of the Early Church Fathers, but I'll refrain because I'm already under enough investigation with my wife regarding my book-buying addiction.

I would commend it as a tool to guide pastors, worship leaders, and worshipers into greater depths of faith by re-training our ears to listen to Christians from the past that we've been subliminally told we shouldn't listen to.  The best part of Williams' book is that it doesn't require you to sell your doctrinal soul.  You can still hang on to all the powerful correctives that the Reformers championed (the Reformers, by the way--especially Calvin--were strong advocates and practitioners of listening to the voice of the early church). 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road for Worship Leaders

Evangelicals in the modern age do a lot of talk about being missional, which usually leads to conversations about contextualization--making the timeless truths of our faith apprehensible in a twenty-first-century context.  It is sometimes the case, though, that in our efforts to contextualize, we drop all reflection on and appropriation of precisely that which we're supposed to translate.  In other words, our quest toward hyper-relevance causes us to lose sight of tradition.  

So many worship leaders out there have no grounding.  Experience drives their practice, and theology and tradition are appropriated in a very tertiary way.  But one day, nearly all of them (so I've experienced) come to a "What in the world am I doing?" moment.  Many respond to that moment by thinking they've "aged out" of usefulness in our youth-obsessed culture.  Others go through a full-blown existential crisis, doubting the very faith that they once led others in.

I can't tell you how beneficial it's been for me, when those waves come, to be grounded in my traditional, small-c catholic Christian heritage.  I can't tell you how much the historic worship practices of the Church (even as I seek to contextualize them to my city, region, and time period) speak and minister to me.  I can't tell you how much the objective faith of and in Christ as it is embodied in the rooted, trans-denominational elements of truly Christian worship (outlined well by Bryan Chapell in Christ-Centered Worship...see my review  summary) has ministered to me in my time of need.

If we really do believe, as the Apostles' Creed states, in the "holy catholic church [and] the communion of saints" we should begin to cultivate in our souls a respect, appreciation, and deference for what the Church of the past has to teach us now.  And, once again, the beauty of all this (as argued by Williams) is that it doesn't have to come at the expense of how highly we view the authority of Scripture.  

Wednesday
Dec122012

Hail to a Great New Album: Indelible Grace VI

"My heart is stirred by a noble theme" is my best one-shot phrase to describe the experience of hearing (and hearing again) Indelible Grace's latest offering to the Church, Joy Beyond the Sorrow: Indelible Grace VI.  The impressive production choices and continued growth of the artists in the IG coalition alongside unapologetically gospel-drenched hymn lyrics make this album a feast for the ears, mind, heart, and soul.  As a worship leader in a local context, I can say that, per capita, I imagine more songs on this album being sung by my congregation than any of the previous albums.  In other words, I find more songs on this record transferrable to my local context, and I can't wait for us to sing these new, old songs.

Summary

Musically, the album is filled with singable melodies, enclosed in an artistic, elegant, country-folk-tinged rock sound.  The production is top notch--it's a beautiful album to hear with a nice set of headphones.  It shimmers with professionalism but doesn't sound plastic.  In other words, it is a human album, and the molecular base of its polish is an organic, not synthetic, compound.  

Theologically, it hits the nail on the head.  It emphasizes what the Bible does--salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone--and it beats that drum continually, fourteen songs strong.

The songs I would most likely employ in my context are: 

Musicality

This album is not over-arranged.  It is not dense and multi-layered.  You won't find a forty-track "wall of sound" anywhere.  The album breathes with a lot of restful "white space," exemplified in songs like "Thy Will Be Done" and "For the Bread Which You Have Broken."  It feels more mainstream, straight-up rock than their previous, more overtly folk-Americana records--straight beats, acoustic downstrums, epic, bluesy electric solos, plenty of B3 and other tasteful keyboards.  Here and there are touches of strings and country styles and instrumentation (e.g. pedal steel, banjo).

There are no real driving, up-tempo numbers, but there are a few mid-tempo anthems, like "Pensive, Doubting, Fearful Heart," with its paced bluegrass backbeat, "Until the Daybreak," with its hammered Celtic-style turnarounds, and "Hail to the Lord's Anointed," with its four-on-the-floor feel.  There are some very exciting, soulful, bluesy electric guitar solos with great tone and musical fingering.  I'm thinking, in particular, about the epic moment a little over two minutes into "Did Christ Over Sinners Weep"  and the tucked wah-solo about four minutes into "Until the Daybreak."  The album's goal was obviously not to break new ground, musically, but the styles they worked in provide some very fresh, creative touches, like the left-and-right-panned, nearly contrapuntal banjo lines that bookend "From the Depths of Woe."

One note about "From the Depths of Woe."  This song has been around a long time in producer Kevin Twit's Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) circles, and it has made its rounds in many (mainly Presbyterian) churches.  I've always struggled with the song musically, because its syncopation and chord choices made Psalm 130's confessional lamentation feel too unfittingly happy for me.  This album goes to show that tasteful re-arranging and gentle massaging of tempo, singing style, and chord structure can make all the difference.  The slower tempo softens its melody's syncopated punchiness, and the opening two verses which ride around the relative minor of the key (as opposed to the tonic chord) "fix" the song for me.  And then, when in the third verse, the beat comes up and major chord hits, it explodes in glory, perfectly complementing the text for me.  Bravo, Kevin and the gang, for reminding me what good arranging does to tastefully frame a given text.  This is my favorite song on the album.

Theological Content

Seriously, how can you go wrong when your song-texts draw from the wells of Psalm-versification and dead English Calvinist pastors?  :)  As with every other Indelible Grace record, there is a fidelity to the Gospel here, in every second of every track.  Many moments draw me to tears, such as "Upon a Life I Did Not Live":

Upon a life I have not lived
Upon a death I did not die
Another's life, another's death
I stake my whole eternity

Not on the tears which I have shed
Not on the sorrows I have known
Another's tears, another's griefs
On these I rest, on these alone

How can one improve on the direct, simple truth here?  If the Holy Spirit resides within you, how can you not be moved by the "same old story" of Jesus Christ, for us?  Thank you, Horatius Bonar.  One of my favorite texts on the album is "Did Christ Over Sinners Weep," which functions as a "preach the gospel to yourself" kind of song: 

Did Christ over sinners weep, and shall our cheeks be dry?
Let floods of penitential grief burst forth from every eye.

Behold the Son of God in tears the angels wondering see!
Hast thou no wonder, O my soul? He shed those tears for thee! 

He wept that we might weep, might weep for sin and shame;
He wept to show His love for us and bid us love the same. 

Then tender be our hearts, our eyes in sorrow dim;
Till every tear from every eye be wiped away by Him.

People who accuse traditional hymnody of being cold, stoic, and emotionless haven't really experienced the best of the hymn tradition.  This song is doused in the fullness of human emotion.  It exposes that the best meeting place of head and heart is where the Gospel's "high theology" strangles your heart in a death-grip (well, actually, a "life-grip.").  

I could go on and on, but the reality is that if you get this album, you're in for more than a treat.  You're bound to be encouraged for a long time with its life-giving texts, artfully framed by fitting, beautiful music.  Go get it

Monday
Oct012012

New Liturgy Site a Sign of the Times for Evangelical Worship

Over the years, I've attempted to catalogue and explore the shifts that we're observing taking place in mainstream evangelical worship.  Many of these shifts, in my opinion, are in the right direction, and encouraging them has been one of the chief aims of this blog since its inception in 2009.  Those of us who have been in the contemporary worship biz for a while are probably aware of one of the leading sites to provide music and resources for worship leaders and churches, praisecharts.com.  Praisecharts, in many ways, is even more robust than CCLI in providing relatively inexpensive options for procuring chord charts, lead sheets, harmony sheets, and orchestrations of a LOT of music for worship.  

Interestingly, the makers of praisecharts began working on a site recently launched called liturgies.com.  This is fascinating on so many levels.  I and many others, including my friends over at Liturgy Fellowship, were in preliminary conversations with the great folks at praisecharts many months ago.  They explained that they were observing a growing number of (predominantly evangelical) churches, many of whom in the contemporary camp, who were re-engaging "liturgy" but desiring resources and not knowing where to go.  

Why is there a resurgence of interest in liturgy among evangelicals?  One theory I have is that the emerging generation of worship leaders and new church leaders (folks especially in their 20s and 30s), are potentially the first to have grown up in the purely contemporary church.  Let's recall when the traditional-to-contemporary shifts took place en masse--the 80s and 90s.  Evangelicals who were kids in that time frame, who grew up in the church, were perhaps the first generation to only know contemporary/modern worship songs and the standard block-of-songs-and-a-sermon worship service structure.  Just as many of us, who have found ourselves in a rootless, fragmented, relativistic, postmodern millieu, were finding solace in old hymns (hence the rehymn movement), so we were finding our corporate faith enlivened by re-engaging the liturgy that many of our forefathers and mothers had purposefully chosen to forget.  That the makers of praisecharts, an engine which has risen to the top in service of evangelical mainstream worship, are interested in servicing the liturgical renewal among evangelicals is a huge sign of the times and one more large piece of evidence that a shift is taking place.  

The most telling thing about liturgies.com is that it's not attempting to only be a "traditional worship" site.  The liturgies they have put together tie in more modern-styled songs.  For instance, this Lent service has a more modern arrangement of the Kyrie by High Street Hymns.  They've also included our version of "Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending" as an option for one of their Advent services.  I'm digging it.

So, what other signs of the times have you observed about modern worship moving in a direction toward more theological depth, biblical reflection, and historical rootedness?

Tuesday
May292012

New Albums Worth Checking Out - Spring / Summer 2012

The number of quality albums from independent artists continues to be on the rise.  These latest few continue to show that a growing number of young church musicians are embracing different values as compared to the industry (speaking both musically and theologically, and perhaps even financially) for the songs they write and produce.  Many of these albums expand the sonic and geographic reach of the rehymn movement.


Todd Hoover, The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs
Tasteful, musical, liturgically-oriented, congregation-friendly songs, thoughtfully wedding old worship forms and songs with new settings.  Folk-indie, while more classically-oriented in singing and some instrumentation.

 

The Sing Team, Oh! Great Is Our God! 
Mars Hill music gives us a singable, happy, uppity, and communal EP.  Small on our effort, big on the gospel.  Explicitly and implicitly connected to the Psalms in themes and content.  Folk-indie with a smattering of Motown and "Brady Bunch era" goodness.

 

Citizens, Already / Not Yet 
Another Mars Hill music band puts out a musically fresh EP of reimagined hymns and new songs.  Great production and original musical flare.  Indie rock.

 

 

Edbrooke Collective, Rewritten
A young downtown Denver church does some hymn rewrites and new songs, all through the grid of the objectivity of God and Christ as opposed to the subjectivity of our experience.  (Read my review.)  Indie/ambient/rock.

 

Cardiphonia, Hymns for the Ascension
A compilation of old ascension hymns set to new music by songwriting worship leaders across the US (and now UK!).  With each successive album, Cardiphonia's production- and song-quality improves. (Read my review.) Indie/folk/electronica. 

 

Kristen Gilles, The Whole Big Story
Sojourn music continues to expand its reach with side projects from its artists.  This one from Kristen Gilles is an EP focusing on the “big story” of Christ from the beginning to the end of Scripture.  (Read my review.)  Bluesy alternative rock.

 

Rain for Roots, Big Stories for Little Ones
Kids' songs put together by artists connected with the Indelible Grace brand of the rehymn movement (Sandra McCracken, Ellie Holcomb, Flo Paris, Katy Bowser).  Perfect for families, but loaded with great, accessible theology!  Folk.

 

Daniel Zott, Hymns
Great experiment in wedding hymns with original music.  Very fun listening.  Indie/electronica.

Thursday
May242012

Newest FREE Cardiphonia Record Resets Old Ascension Hymns

Those of us that are part of the retuned hymn movement speak in our more internal discussions about the various "waves" of the movement, and Bruce Benedict at Cardiphonia certainly has continued to be one of the leading forces in the second or third wave.  Cardiphonia has now established a pattern of "flash mob" compilation recordings, gathering various artists from various parts of the country with various stylistic bents.  Their latest album, out this week, is Hymns for the Ascension, centering on that important but under-appreciated event of Jesus' departure from earth to His rightful seat of power and advocacy in heaven (check out my post about why the Ascension is really, really important).  In my opinion, the songwriting and production quality of the Cardiphonia compilations continues to get better and better.  

For churches that don't follow the liturgical year, is this album of any value?  Are any of these songs usable?  Certainly.  For folks in those contexts, I'd encourage you to think about how the ascension highlights aspects of the gospel we tend to talk about less.  When we sing the gospel, we most often talk about the cross, atonement, forgiveness, and sacrifice.  But the beauty of the gospel goes deeper.  The ascension highlights these aspects:

  • Jesus as our priestly mediator
  • Jesus as our advocate, "pleading the merit of His blood" before the Judge
  • Jesus as Ruler and King

 The second point is especially gripping to me.  Jesus prays for us!  He goes to bat for us before the Father.  Imagine the kind of ministry that would take place among our people if we sung about that more often!  So, you don't need to be "liturgical" to make use of this album; we don't need an ascension-themed Sunday to get mileage out of singing about the ascension.  

I will also say that the quality, artistry, and even quirks of this album (my song included) shouldn't take away our ability as worship leaders and planners, to do the job of "listening through" the songs to hear their basic melodic and chord structure.  Sometimes, we get so caught up in the production that quite singable songs sound unsingable.  That's the perennial tension of the "recorded product."  Nevertheless, many of these songs are congregationally friendly in a surprisingly diverse amount of worship contexts.  I will hopefully be incorporating at least one of these even in our traditional service (Majorins' beautiful "God Ascended").

Best yet, it's FREE, and any donations go to Jobs for Life.  Check it out!  (I'll post on my song and behind-the-scenes composition choices soon.)

Friday
Mar022012

A Couple of Lent Albums Worth Sharing

Just in case you all haven't heard of these great albums, they will provide you with thoughtful songs for connecting with God in the season of Lent.  New York Hymns and Redeemer Knoxville are two groups of artists part of the next generation of the ever-growing retuned hymns movement.

New York Hymns, Songs for Lent


 

Redeemer Knoxville, Rise O Buried Lord


Wednesday
Feb012012

Recent Discussions on the State of Christian Music in the West

As of late, there have been some very important reflections on the state of Christian music (whatever you think of the phrase, I'm using it as shorthand).  Two weeks ago, I had a face-to-face discussion with a man who's been in the industry for quite some time, working for some pretty influential major labels.  For an industry-insider, he was surprisingly blunt about the industry, sharing a lot of critique centering around basically two realities (which many people have pointed out): (1) for much of the industry, the bottom line is the dollar; (2) the industry is unfortunately interested in celebrity-making and therefore have certain criteria for how they select artists.

Several industry insiders and outsiders have been talking in the last few months with some very important observations.  I'll highlight three.

Bobby Gilles - My Song in the Night
"Can We Trust the Contemporary Worship Industry"
Thorough and balanced reflections on the state of the industry, ultimately concluding that it is neither completely guilty nor totally innocent. 

Michael Gungor
"Zombies, Wine, and Christian Music"
A successful artist from within the industry (signed with Integrity) prophetically rails against the industry in a post laced with cynicism.    

Bruce Benedict - Cardiphonia
"Observations on the New Hymns Movement"
 ( Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 )
In preparation for a discussion at the Calvin Symposium, Benedict put together some thoughts about the emergence of the rediscovery of hymns and the retuning of them among emerging adult generations.  Among other things, his reflections emphasize how the movement emerged as a reaction to the mainstream industry.  Part 3 is the most intriguing in this respect, because he highlights, ultimately, that this reaction cannot, in and of itself, solve the problem, because the retuned hymns movement needs to be complemented with other aspects of church music.  

Thursday
Jan192012

Worship Leader Magazine's 20 Most Influential Worship Albums - Reflections

Worship Leader Magazine - January 2012 IssueThe most recent issue of Worship Leader Magazine released their list of the top twenty most influential worship albums of the last twenty years.  Many of the album-mentions include articles of reflection and appreciation written by other worship leaders and songwriters in the mainstream worship music industry.  The list is interesting and worth some analysis.

Click to read more ...