Here we are now – entertaineth us.

File this under Things I’m Trying Not To Let Piss Me Off.

So a couple weeks ago Peebs and I were at church, and one of the worship songs –

Okay, lemme stop right there. When, exactly, was it decided that “worship” and “music” were synonyms? I missed that memo, and I have to be honest, this is a trend that doesn’t sit well with me.

For those of you fortunate enough to have missed out on American evangelical culture for the past 20 years, let me tell you how a typical evangelical church service goes:

the “worship leader” (the person in charge of the choir, or, in a smaller church, one of a small rotating group of people with good voices and poor discernment – wow, I really shouldn’t blog after midnight with SNL Weekend Update going in the background) spends somewhere between twenty and (ugh) sixty minutes running the audience congregation through a series of musical numbers hymns pop songs musical numbers with the goal of entertaining them helping them get closer to God. Of course, there’s that whole “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst” thing, but let’s ignore that for now, because it’s not enough for Him to be there – what’s important is that we sense His presence. But that doesn’t mean the service is all about us, you know – it’s all about God. Really.

So 40 ± 20 minutes of singing. If you pay attention, you’ll notice a few things:

  • In a big enough church, there will be either a big choral number or a “special offering” by the band or some church member who likes the stage but isn’t willing to audition for American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance. Afterward, everyone will applaud. But no, this isn’t entertainment, it’s worship. Really. Trust us.
  • Those choral numbers will be big, even (dare I say it) glorious – but almost never in a minor key. No matter how talented your voices and orchestra are, no excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem will be performed.
  • The worship leader is just as likely to direct you, the congregation member, as (s)he is the choir.
  • A large part of the worship leader’s job appears to be making sure that you are sufficiently demonstrative of whatever feeling you are supposed to be feeling.
  • The worship leader, or someone else on the stage, will explain the obvious meaning of one of the songs to you. If this happens before the song, it’s either because he thinks you can’t comprehend what you read or likes to hear himself talk. If it happens after the song, see the previous bullet point. Here’s a favorite technique of mine: repeat a lyric, then ask, “Have you thought about what that means?” No, lady, don’t expect reading comprehension out of me – I’m still back on phonics.
  • There may be a hymnal near your seat, but you will almost certainly not use it – the words will be projected on a screen, a line or two at a time. I’ve been trying to determine why this approach has become so popular, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the worship leader wants your hands free – so you can raise one hand in the air during the song (cuz that’s how they know you’re praising!) or applaud when appropriate. Which is, in fact, never, because we’re not here to praise you, okay?
  • SAT-style analogy: Modern “praise and worship music” : classic hymns :: The da Vinci Code : Catch-22.

Anyway, Peebs and I were in church, and one of the songs was “Amazing Grace.” Cool! A classic! Hard to do better than “Amazing Grace.”

Except… about three years ago a guy named Chris Tomlin, a star of the Christian Contemporary Music scene, and/or of the worship music publishing scene, and there’s not much difference any more, which is my eventual point, recorded a version of “Amazing Grace” with a new bridge section. Use your favorite search engine to look for “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” and you’ll find the lyrics; I won’t perpetuate them here.

In all fairness, they’re not bad lyrics, as that sort of thing goes, and I’m all in favor of musicians putting their own spin on songs on their own recordings. Hey Chris! Good on ya. But a curious thing has happened: suddenly you don’t hear the classic version of “AG” in church any more. It’s always the Chris Tomlin version.

Think about this. The original “Amazing Grace” is in the public domain, so your church doesn’t have to pay for the rights to use it. (And everyone knows the song! Your typical American who’s never set foot in a church in his life can probably at least sing you the first verse.) In contrast, Tomlin’s extrapolation costs money. I have no idea how much, but it’s a number greater than zero. Why is it suddenly every church feels the need to pay for a free song?

It could be argued that the evangelical church and the music publishing industry are in bed together. That’s a subject for people much more in-the-know than I. The charitable answer (no pun intended) is that your worship leader has chosen this version because he or she knows it’s popular and wants to tap into affirm that. But no, This Is Not Entertainment. Really. Trust us.

So here’s a message to American Christians everywhere: Think about your church and its worship services for a moment. Are they the high point of your week? After a week of struggling through your job or whatever, does this worship time “nourish you?” Do you always feel better after the service is over? Are you encouraged, and maybe occasionally “challenged?”

Then your church might just suck. There, I said it.

See, if you really open up your Bible and read the words of Jesus for yourself (and the American evangelical church is big on Paul but not so much on Jesus), you’re going to discover something: you don’t measure up. Narrow is the Way, we read, and Jesus is the Way. If you’re going to church and not regularly confronted with your own failings, something’s missing. You probably have a church that’s oriented towards making you feel good, and the gospel isn’t supposed to make you feel good, it’s supposed to tear you open and show you your intestines.

Too many American Christians go to church and come out feeling “encouraged.” And in my opinion, American Christians need encouragement less than just about anybody. We’ve got entire industries to ourselves, as well as de facto recognition as the unofficial official religion of the world’s #1 kick-ass superpower.

I might even go so far as to say that we don’t deserve encouragement. But that’s a topic for another rant blog entry.


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