Music for the "Emerging Church"

A friend asked me recently what it would mean to do music for the emerging church. I thought a trite answer in passing would simply not do, and I have yet to write anything on the matter. Here it goes.

There is no simple “Look at what these artists” are doing for the emerging church. I don’t think there could be such a simple guide. But I think I can name a few trends that I have seen as relevant.

First, emerging church people like things that are old, but they don’t want them to seem old. There is a desire to connect with the historic church, especially the very early church. Of course, very little of the Second and Third centuries’ music is readily available. In absence of this, songs more than 100 years old will do. Remade hymns are very popular. They need to be “remade” because many emerging congregations are led in music by guitar-driven bands and the formerly organ-driven music doesn’t translate well. This is not only because the harmonization is hard to reproduce, but more importantly that the rhythms are wrong. I’m not a trained musician, but years of leading worship has told me that I can play the wrong chords in a modern worship song but I can’t mess up the syncopation. Rhythm drives modern music even more than melody or harmonization. The best of these remade hymns have been done by Passion Hymns: Ancient and Modern and The Odes Project. The first project consists of hymns which have been modified to work with guitar rhythms and often add a very singable and simple chorus/refrain between verses. A multitude of other projects are available with a little internet searching. (NOTE: DO NOT try to introduce these remade hymns into a church which loves to sing hymns and think that you will make your “traditional” church into a “contemporary” one. The differences will make the “hymns people” go crazy. This only works one direction because the guitar and rock rhythms are the uniting factor, not the lyrics or melodies. Contemporary churches can use these, traditional ones cannot. I have tried it in two different churches and it failed MISERABLY both times.) The Odes Project takes some first century worship songs and puts them to music. I haven’t used them, but I imagine they have great potential with emerging church types….just give them the history of what they are singing and they will love it.

Second, and this is related to the first, “emerging church” types are tired of shallow theology. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” and “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” just will not cut it with these folks. This is part of the reason they like the hymns projects, they have some theological depth. They don’t want to lose the singability of these earlier songs though. On a practical note, I have found that the best songs for this group are the ones with great theological depth in the verses and a very simple and singable chorus and, hopefully, a simple bridge also. While “emerging church” types do not want an overly simple sermon with trite answers to all of life’s questions, they similarly don’t want their music to express such a world either. The world is complex and mysterious, music and sermons should be too. I think much of the music by the Passion music label is going to take you in the right direction (especially David Crowder Band, Chris Tomlin, and Matt Redman).

Third, passion is more important than polish. Jeremy Camp and Rita Springer are cool, Hillsongs are not. The former artists sing their heart out in every moment. They are experiencing their own music, even in the studio. Hillsongs seems (though I don’t believe that this is their ministry hearts) to be more about strong harmony than connection with God. Four part harmony is cool once in a while, but don’t lose the total abandonment for the Good News of Christ. Worship leaders should be selected on the depth of their worship. Does their singing and playing come out of a deep desire to bring glory to God? This should come out in their worship in church too. Don’t choose the better vocalist, choose the more sold out worshiper. Don’t choose the song that sounds the prettiest, use the songs which make your worship leaders and your congregation want to sing their heart out.

I would suggest that the quintessential “emerging church” worship song is “Joyous Light” by Chris Tomlin. This song is a revision of the oldest hymn in continuous use in the church today. Some would suggest that “Phos Hilaron,” often translated in English as “Hail Gladdening Light,” was written in the late third century. The Orthodox churches of the East still sing the song daily at evening prayer. In Tomlin’s revisions, the song is infinitely singable, retains the basic lyric and structure of the original, and has a chorus that is best sung as if it is an anthem.

Here is his lyric:
Hail Gladdening Light, sun so bright
Jesus Christ, end of night, alleluia
Hail Gladdening Light, Eternal Bright
In evening time, ’round us shine, alleluia, alleluia
Hail Gladdening Light, such joyous Light
O Brilliant Star, forever shine, alleluia, alleluia

We hymn the Father, we hymn the Son
We hymn the Spirit, wholly Divine
No one more worthy of songs to be sung
To the Giver of Life, all glory is Thine

When I have shared the story of this song with young adults, I have rarely heard an ambivalent response. Young adults are desperate to be a part of something bigger than themselves, even when they sing.  Singing an ancient song with passion gets to the heart of that.

There is one other thing, music-related but not necessarily worship related. Emerging church types also really like the “protest songs gone Christian” of people like Derek Webb. (My personal favorite is one of his earlier albums “She Must and Shall Go Free.”) They aren’t really meant to be sung congregationally, but they work in other aspects of a worship service.

I hope some of that is helpful. If you have some comments or additional music selections, then please add them and lets start a conversation. What music are you doing for “emergents” that is working? Is there anything here that you just disagree with? Have I named too many main stream musicians to “really” be emerging church music?

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Emerging Church: Defined?

So I have called myself Emergent in this blog for some time now. I dare say that anyone who has been around the church and is under 50 years old (and some who are older) has probably heard the terms “emergent” and “emerging church” without much explanation. Sometimes it refers to a way of worship that includes candles, eclectic music, and some alternative to a traditional sermon, just to name a few key features.

Now, I do kinda like music performed by those with dreadlocks. But that isn’t what I mean when I call myself emergent. Part of the reason there is so much confusion and complexity around the term goes back to the very definition of the term to begin with.

First of all, emergence is a term that comes out of systems thinking and some philosophers of science. I don’t know much about how this works in natural systems, but I can understand the concept. Emergence is a complex of interactions between simpler things which causes the appearance of something(s) which is greater than the sum or difference of the parts. Not knowing much about the other philosophies, I will just go straight to the church discussion.

Emergent, at least in one form of the definition, would describe people who believe that the truth of the Christian gospel and the Church comes out of the interaction of a multitude of traditions, not simply one tradition expounded well. Emergents generally do not want to believe that either Roman Catholicism nor Reformed Presbyterianism nor Tibetan Buddhism is a full and complete system of thought without error. Neither is Keynesian economics nor philosophical naturalism.

The natural outworking of this theory is a kind of Christian pluralism which is steeped in the various Christian traditions. Because I am not convinced that my pentecostal heritage is without error, I also intentionally worship with and engage the thought of Roman Catholics and Methodists and Lutherans. This is a new kind of ecumenism, but on somewhat different grounds than the previous versions of ecumenism. The previous ecumenical movement which is now represented by the World Council of Churches and similar bodies imagined that Christianity would be better represented by the various churches’ lowest common denominator. This new brand of emergent ecumenism encourages each Christian or church to fully embrace the complexities of their own system of thought, but to do so in dialogue with other Christians and even those outside of confessing Christian faith. Most of this comes from the disillusionment with the previous generation of leaders’ theological arrogance. This move is perceived to be an act of intellectual and spiritual humility, I think.

I think this humility is a good thing. But for me, the reason for such an approach comes directly out of my pentecostal heritage. Pentecostals embrace a “prophethood of all believers” perspective which considers every Christian to potentially speak the very words of God to the church. The church is then charged with a discernment process whereby the community will determine whether what they have heard are the words of God. Usually this discernment is an informal process and even occurs simultaneously in worship as the pastor, elders, and congregation lift their hands and hearts approvingly after the prophetic word and thank God for speaking. On one or two occasions in my pentecostal life, I have had a leader come to the front of the congregation and explain that they did not believe God had spoken through such a word. For me, being emergent is embracing this process throughout the Christian dialogue, even with voices that rub us the wrong way. The theory of emergence would tell us that the words of God which come from others have the potential to communicate truth to us.

Now this can go in two directions that I think are problematic. The first is a Christian pluralism that becomes little more than pluralism from a Christian perspective. I do not happen to think that Christians can learn as much from Buddhists or Muslims as they can from other Christians. There may be things we can learn from other faiths, but I would prefer to say that we are listening for the lost voice of earlier forgotten Christians among our brothers and sisters of other faiths. There are certainly some emergent-types who are ready to embrace everyone as if all truth is relative. I happen to think Christianity is the one true religion, I am just not sure that my interpretation of Christianity is completely true. I do think there is “absolute truth”, for whatever that term is worth, I just don’t think I have it. I do happen to think I am pretty close to it, or I would change my opinion to something closer to what I think is true. That is the reason for the dialogue.

While some emergents are ready to chuck the idea of truth beyond some subjective “true for you” concept, I think that is pretty ridiculous. Only a very small segment of philosophers and a great deal more literature academics ever really bought this concept, but someone forgets to tell that to every class of freshman undergraduates. People like Derrida and Foucault really buy it. At least if I understand Derrida, he buys it. But I don’t think even Derridians live that way. It is non-sensical. But the theories keep getting repeated in discussions by non-philosophical types over and over until people think it actually has some logical weight. I don’t think it does.

The other direction which is problematic is what I would call a spiritual consumerism. Here the problem is that emergent types think that they can just pick and choose which elements of the Church’s tradition that they want to select out for recovery. Labyrinths and cathedrals and deification are cool. Original sin and substitutionary atonement and conservative sexual practices are not cool. Now, I think we should only adopt that of the Christian tradition which we find to be truthful and life-giving and we should reject what should be rejected. And I don’t think that the whole tradition is without error or messiness. Honestly, I don’t have any good criteria by which we should engage the tradition critically and not become consumers who simply choose what is bright and shiny and reject our spiritual peas and carrots. I just know that I get nervous when I hear emergent types talking about Lectio Divina, but not talking about hell and evangelism.

So, that is my take on emergent and emerging church. Maybe I will write a follow-up post on the practical implications for the church. For now, this will do.

But, of course, if emergent is really a conversation which produces truthful dialogue, then you all need to comment and tell me what you think I have said truthfully and what I have said that is not quite there.