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Inflexible Worship

"Let's sing number 319 instead of the one in your bulletin."

In 1970, the phrase would hardly have raised an eyebrow.  In an era when less planning and work went into the music portion of worship than went into mowing the church's grass, it was not unusual for song leaders to make on-the-spot changes.

There's a lot about those good old days that weren't so good.   Mediocre was perfectly fine.  An exceptionally well-planned song service meant the music might, if you thought about it long enough, actually be on the same theme as the sermon.  It really was all rather stale, at least on most Sundays.

Still, that sentence, "Let's sing number 319 instead of..." is worth remembering.  And not just because it reveals churches used hymnals.  What is really shocking is that anybody could make that big a last-minute change in the worship music.  
Something as minor as not knowing if we're going to sing two or three or four verses of a hymn may not have left people on the edge of their seats with breathless anticipation, but it did reflect a level of flexibility that is now as extinct of those old blue hymnals.

On the surface, our current worship is vastly more exciting, better planned, and better performed than the old days of an upright piano (often not quite in tune) and a Hammond organ.  Not only do we use more music, we make use of more musicians.  The whole thing is pulled together in a twenty to thirty minute worship set that is painstakingly planned and thoroughly rehearsed.  Add to that our visual media, and you've got something that I believe (in spite of the opinion of some of my peers) is undeniably better.

But, a price we all pay for the great step forward is an almost complete loss of flexibility.  This is more than just not suddenly changing what hymn is next.  It also leaves virtually no room for genuine spontaneity.  If a microphone quits working, people become anxious.  If the monitor-speakers are too soft, members of the band become genuinely upset.  If the primary computer undergoes the BSOD, and all the screens suddenly go blank, we are just one short step from pulling the plug and having everyone come back next next week.

Unseen by the congregation, everyone leading worship on stage knows they have to follow a carefully scripted timeline.  While the church sees them on stage leading worship, what they see are screens aimed at the stage with a countdown clock ticking ominously away, waiting to change colors or start flashing if they venture off script.  No matter how spontaneous something sounds, the truth is the worship leader rarely is able to even to skip a song or to go back and do a bridge into the chorus one more time because, now that we're in the middle of worship, it just feels right.

The musicians on stage, the technicians running the visuals and stage lighting, and the demands of smooth flowing excellence bind worship leaders in constraints that are robbing worship of some of its freshness, even as they insure it's musical and visual excellence.  The modern worship leader, in short, lives with a lack of flexibility.

I like a lot of what I hear, even if I am old enough to wish it were just not quite as loud.  But, in spite of the freedom to stand, to lift hands, to dance, to applaud, and all the rest we've seen evolve in the last few decades, we have accepted worship rigidly controlled by timelines and scripts.

"But," you might be thinking, "You just can't have dynamic contemporary worship that is anything other than carefully and completely planned in advance."

Then, my friend, you have obviously never been to the worship service of a dynamic contemporary African-American church.  Here the whole church senses it's not quite so perfectly planned.  How much of that song will we sing?  What song are we suddenly adding?  And, look, sister Dorothy's daughter from Chicago is visiting.  That girl can sing.  I'd love to hear here right now.  So, come on up here, little sister, and show us how they'd sing this song up in the Windy City.

Exploring how the issue of flexibility is handled so differently in most Black churches from most White churches, even when both would be labeled contemporary, would be a good topic for some future post.  For now, just think about it.

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