Listening for the Lex Orandi: The Constructed Theology of Contemporary Worship Events’, Scottish Journal of Theology 66:2 (2013), pp. 192–208
It’s not unusual to hear people complaining about the banality of many contemporary worship songs. I’ve complained about a few myself, with my current preferred target being The Splendour of the King. But in ‘Listening for the Lex Orandi’, Stephen Holmes offers a spirited defence of contemporary worship songs in so far as these, like any other element in worship, can be fitted, and be made sense of, within a wider liturgical framework. Holmes writes, ‘Many songs which appear trite in their expression … are nonetheless able to become part of a rich liturgical event through their careful deployment in a particular context.’ (p. 195). To elucidate his point, Holmes analyses Matt Redman’s Facedown and Tim Hughes’s Happy Day DVDs, showing how each of the songs within the recorded times of worship in fact contribute to a wider liturgical movement, and all without falling victim to that other commonplace criticism, that modern-day worship often assumes a performance/rock star mind-set. The paper ends with Holmes first recognising the efforts of many theologically untrained lead worshippers, and, secondly, expressing his desire that more scholarly attention be paid to contemporary worship.
Personally, I find that Holmes is more convincing on Redman than on Hughes. At one point, when discussing Hughes’s Happy Day DVD, Holmes comments, ‘The song [‘Give us your courage’; I don’t know if the link I’ve provided is actually from the Happy Day DVD, but it seems to show the same kind of thing that Holmes is describing] opens with a repeated yodel-like call which I can best represent as “Weh-Oh”; this inarticulate lyric is repeated many times at the end, and seems to have become a meaningful expression of worship for those present.’ (p. 205). Perhaps; but my cynical side would simply query how or why such a ‘yodel-like call’ could become ‘a meaningful expression of worship’. Also, while I accept wholeheartedly his point that the potentially hackneyed contemporary worship song could find new life when placed sensibly within a liturgical framework, I still have a number of questions – well, three questions – that for me arise legitimately from Holmes’s paper.
First, the two DVDs that Holmes discusses are ‘worship events’. Holmes’s presentation of the DVDs’ contents suggests that these are services where the liturgy is substantially formed of songs. However, in many churches, there are no ‘worship events’. Instead, there are ‘times of worship’, often a 15–20 minute period of songs enveloped by other liturgical elements. So, in a typical evangelical service, what is the purpose of this 15–20 minute period of songs? How do these 15–20 minutes function liturgically within the wider ninety minutes (say) of the whole service?
This leads to my second question. Holmes’s helpful comments notwithstanding, I’m not sure why the worship events were captured and then sold as the Facedown and Happy Day DVDs. Is there an attempt here to market worship, with the added ‘danger’ (if that’s not too severe a word) that local congregations will then try to copy or reproduce the event, and all to the detriment of encouraging the congregation’s own creativity? And, given my opening question, is there a sense in which the 15–20 minute ‘time of worship’ is thought to be about generating a particular experience?
And finally, I have a question about musical style. I think Holmes does a good job of defending contemporary worship events against charges of mere performance. But so much of contemporary worship seems to assume that the most appropriate forms of music for worship include soft rock, singer-songwriter acoustic stuff, whatever kind of style Hillsong is, and even alt-folk. Personally, none of these fit my own musical tastes at all, really; so why must I sing praise in these ‘tongues’? Now it could be argued that because all our worship is made in response to God in Christ and by the Spirit, the precise musical style doesn’t matter. But I dare say that The Prodigy, Cannibal Corpse, Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk aren’t likely to be influencing Redman, Hughes or Hillsong any time soon. I suppose if I concentrated all this into a one-sentence question, it would be this: Is there a musical style, or a set of musical styles, which is more conducive to (corporate) worship than others? I suspect a musicologist would really need to answer this one!
For anyone interested in contemporary worship, I thoroughly recommended Holmes’s essay. Also of interest may be this forthcoming book: Monique Ingalls, Carolyn Landau and Tom Wagner (eds.), Christian Congregational Music: Performance, Identity and Experience (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). And just for the heck of it, here’s a fun YouTube video: