Your Suburban Church Needed a Drum Kit the Way J.S. Bach Needed a Kazoo

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On a number of different occasions, for various reasons, I have visited the sanctuaries of numerous churches. Whether there for weddings or conferences, I have often found myself in an empty meeting hall for a moment, and there, up in front, is one lonesome drum kit. And a sentiment that might reasonably spring to mind is this one: “Well, at least they tried.”

But the fact that they tried doesn’t keep it from being lame.  

Two Distinct Issues:

There are two distinct things going on, and they usually get frightfully muddled up in our debates and discussions in the “worship wars.” There are, unfortunately, ecclesiastical music snobs who sneer at the drum kit being there because they regard it as a downgrade, as aiming too low. I think half the mistake is actually located in aiming too high . . . but doing so in the wrong genre.

The two issues are the quality of the music, evaluated according to the standards of the genre, and the nature of the music, evaluated according to its suitability to the occasion. In other words, if someone were to ask something like “what’s wrong with this music?” the answers might range from “nothing at all” to “a great deal.” But it could be entirely possible for someone to acknowledge that there was nothing wrong with the music at all, and to still have a huge problem with the propriety of its use in a worship service.

I admire Scott Joplin a great deal. But I still don’t want Maple Leaf Rag used in the meditation and preparation for worship. I can object to that piece being used without objecting to the piece. I can object to the piece being used while admiring the piece. But then, if someone compounds our difficulty by playing Maple Leaf Rag and making a hash of it, we have an additional criticism. One, you shouldn’t have played that song here. It doesn’t really go. Secondly, if you decided to do it, you shouldn’t have done it so poorly. And I say this knowing that to have done it well would actually increase some of the problems. You see this is complicated.

The musicianship displayed by a good drummer is really very high indeed. When a drummer is in the pocket, and doing well, he is not performing at a low level. He is performing at a high level—but if we are talking about the usual fare, and it is in church, it is in the wrong place, He is doing the wrong thing.

But then, throw this into the mix. If you have some poor church trying to fix declining attendance by getting a drum kit manned by some poor schlub who just can’t do it, you find yourself not knowing where to look. Church just shouldn’t be embarrassing like that.

Think of It This Way:

Imagine a congregation belting out five to seven common meter tunes through the course of a worship service. Nobody is singing harmony, and the texture of the whole thing is kind of homespun. The saints are on pitch, more or less, and the acoustics in the room are decent, and so God is glorified and the congregation is edified. Despite the homespun nature of it, they are doing what Christians ought to be doing in a worship service, which is singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

Now suppose they shift over to a contemporary service. And suppose further that they get a decent drummer, and a music leader who knows his onions. They shift to a different kind of music, and let us say that the quality of the accompaniment does go up.

This is to say that the quality of musicianship can go up, while the quality of worship can go down. The same thing can happen in the other direction—say if the church got a pipe organ instead of drum kit. This is just to say that the saints were buried under a different kind of acoustical rock pile, the pipe organ kind instead of the rock band kind. Either way, tomayto, tomahto.

Lurking Behind

Lurking behind this whole business is the widespread evangelical assumption that music, music apart from lyrics, is merely a neutral delivery platform for whatever the lyrics might decide to say. It is simply assumed that music is not a language, and that it doesn’t communicate any message of its own at all. If that were the case, it would be impossible for the music and the lyrics to be at odds with one another.

Now it is quite true that music is not a language in the sense of having verbs and direct objects, but it is false to say that music does not communicate its own independent message. For example, certain modes of music communicate mourning, and other modes of music communicate jubilation. “And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented” (Matt. 11:17). The music itself is not oblivious to the suitability of the occasion. The music itself should have something to say about where it should go.

Acceptable Worship:

So the problem is not so much the kind of music people like. The problem is what kind of occasion they think a worship service is.

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,” (Hebrews 12:28, ESV).

Because music communicates, and because we are commanded to offer God acceptable worship, and that acceptable worship is described as being offered in reverence and awe, what follows?

It follows that many congregations are offering unacceptable worship. They don’t care about reverence and awe. When it comes to music, they refuse even to make the attempt to inculcate an atmosphere of reverence and awe. They pick songs that fight against the very concept of reverence and awe. They labor to keep everything about the service acceptable to the guy coming in off the street, who would find an atmosphere of reverence and awe stifling and off-putting.

They were told to keep our worship acceptable to the one they were (purportedly) worshiping. They do what they do instead because they are actually worshiping the potential new members, and not worshiping God.

But, we wail, what matters is the state of the heart, not the objective nature of the sacrifice. Well, actually, both matter, as we might have learned from the example of Cain. His heart was wrong, and his sacrifice was wrong.

We still want to maintain that the heart is all that matters, that humility is all that matters. But how is it humility to refuse even to consider the possibility that you are offering up to God something that He considers unacceptable worship?  We don’t have to pray about it because it is plainly ludicrous. Us? Unacceptable worshipers? Preposterous.

But that’s not how humility rolls.

I Was Told There Would be Free Books:

The free book today is very much in line with the tenor of today’s post, and is entitled A Primer onWorship and Reformation. One of the reasons we struggle so much with what kind of music we will use on Sunday is that we have lost a preceding struggle over what kind of occasion a worship service is supposed to be. This small bookgets at that, and here it is—for free.