Thursday, August 6, 2009

Church lite vs. artistic and spiritual depth

Yesterday I mentioned that during his time at Liberty University Kevin Roose joined the choir of Thomas Road church in order to understand Jerry Falwell and his theology. He often wrote of the novelty and uplifting nature of those services he attended. However, he also noted a certain level of ambivalence about the experience:

"...there's almost too much stimulation. The stage lights, the one hundred-decibel praise songs, the bright purple choir robes, the tempestuous bellowing of Dr. Falwell - it's an hour-long assult on the senses...It's Church Lite - entertaining but unsubstantial...And once the novelty wears off, once the music becomes familiar and the motions of praise become pro forma and mechanized, you start to relaize that all the technological glitz and material extravagance doesn't necessarily add up to a spiritual experience."

This excerpt points out, as I've often argued, that much contemporary church music lacks the depth of meaning and purpose that can be found in our best hymns. Too much Christian rock is like a musical sugar rush - a simple lyric repeated over and over that can get stuck in the listener's mind, but ultimately conveys little meaning.

Contrast that with some lines from the ELW. The well-known hymn "Holy God, We Praise Your Name" (ELW 414) gives an introduction the doctrine of the trinity:

Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, three we name you,
Though in essence only one;
Undivided God we claim you
And, adoring, bend the knee
While we own the mystery.

Many Lutheran hymns also quote or paraphrase key passages of scripture. For instance, the great Easter hymn "Christ the Lord is Risen Today!" (ELW 373) refers to 1 Corinthians 15:55 in its fourth verse:

Lives again our glorious king!
Where, O death, is now your sting?
Once he died our souls to save;
Where your victory, O grave?

These texts and tunes are both simple and profound, easily learnable but worthy of reflection. They can enliven our spirit during the service, and also sustain our faith for a lifetime.


  1. This is very interesting-- comparing kinds of music with a nutritional value. The greater the nutritional value, the more it sustains. I think that with contemporary Christian music ( the kind you're talking about ) has such an immediacy. The message is short and pleasing, and the music is familiar and in the current popular style. Though, sugar is immediately pleasing, but after a while causes me to crash. A big bowl of chicken soup may not give me the serotonin boost I crave, but sustains me in the long run.

    I tried to go to CCM's website recently just to check things out, and it immediately gave me this pop-up to sign up for their magazine. The scary thing about it was that I couldn't find a way to close it! This made me think, "how much is money involved?" in the persistence of Church-Lite?

  2. Rev. Robert FerroAugust 7, 2009 at 5:55 PM

    I think that the desire for things to be "lite" and easy is symptomatic of our society. Look at the popularity of Twitter. If something can't be said in 140 characters, then it won't keep peoples' attention. Our political debates are made up of short "sound bites", so complex issues get reduced to simplistic slogans and cliches. Even television advertising is being reduced in length from the 1 minute commerical (which used to be standard) to 30 second and 15 second commercials.

    In the church we face it all the time. In singing hymns, the pressure is to reduce all hymns to only 2 or 3 verses because people just aren't interested in (or unable to handle) any more than that. My mother-in-law calls contemporary "praise" songs seven-eleven music - seven words sung eleven times. Sermons shouldn't be over 10 minutes long (about the typical length between commercial breaks on t.v. programs.)

    While the length and the depth of many things are being decreased, the intesity and volume are being increased. It is next to impossible in our society to have any kind of civil and prolonged discussion on any topic because the constant pressure is to reduce the time and expand the stimulation. It is unfortunate that when many people call for the church to be more "relevant", what they are really asking for is the type of experience that you describe in your post.

    Because Christian faith and worship based upon experiences of shorter and shorter length and of greater and greater intesity are not sustainable, I think the ongoing expansion of Church "lite" will ultimately "burn out" the Church.

  3. I agree that it is easy to complain about the pace and superficiality of modern life styles. Too many of us aren't willing to let things happen when the time is "right." We are too far removed from nature, and even want to control those rhythms as much as possible. On the other hand, we need to communicate with those for whom this has become normal. Somehow, we need to find a middle ground. This is true in churches, schools, and fmailies.

  4. I understand what you mean and admire your belief in the via media, Alan. Especially when you're dealing with a generation or more that has not been exposed to much sacrificial-sorts of living. I speak very generally, there are exceptions, but I agree that baby steps are key. Just as you wouldn't suddenly overhaul your diet or lifestyle, increasing people's spiritual depths by paths of sacred music or otherwise is not a "lite" matter to be considered.

    I realize that I tend to be a bit overzealous when it comes to sacred music. It's good for church musicians to be passionate- to believe in a "right" - but we also must learn to accept where the state of sacred music floats at the moment, yes, find a middle ground, and then, I feel (most importantly) aim for growth... no matter how small that is.