Illiteracy in Worship

In my work as a music director at a Protestant church here in Santa Barbara, congregants or choir members will every now and again forward me articles or blog posts that they think I might find interesting. The other day I was sent 15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals. The title pretty much says it all. The author, a chap named Jonathan, describes himself as "bothered by the pervasiveness of commercial contemporary music and the arrogance with which tradition is discarded and ignored." I read it. Then I read A Response to "15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals", a rebuttal by a guy named Brad who heads his post with a smokey black and white photo of circling birds with the words "Worship Wars" written across it. I read that one too.

I don't usually engage in online debates. But these articles got me thinking about what I see as the central idea of Christian worship, which neither of these authors get to the heart of. Read them first if you care to know where I'm starting from.

The Rejection of Illiteracy in the Context of Worship

Let me give two examples of what I mean by illiteracy in the context of worship. The first is pro-hymnal and the second pro-screen.

1. Perhaps there's a person used to the safety and familiarity of hymnals is put in the position of having to aurally pick up an unknown praise song that they find rhythmically challenging (lots of syncopation), formally ambiguous (verse, chorus, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge... huh?), and devoid of any of the visual/aural cues that hymnals provide (those open-ended I-IV-I-IV vamping intros). Add to that the idea that this person's ears may be unused to amplified instruments, their eyes unused to following words on screens and catching cues from the lead singers, and their bodies unused to dancing and hand raising even as everyone around them starts jumping and clapping. They stand there silent and overwhelmed. "This is not worship!" they say to themselves. They are, in this context, illiterate. And they reject it as worship.

2. Perhaps there's a person who is used to the suggestiveness and abandon of praise songs and screen-projected lyrics who is put in a position of having to look up a song in a hymnal (the red one, not the blue one!) and to quickly get to the right number as the organ (an instrument they only associate with horror movies) starts bellowing. They finally find the hymn, only to be faced with an accusatory page filled with staff notation that they have little idea of how to read ("Let's see... Every Good Boy Does Fine..."). Everyone around them is plowing on (it's verse 2 now, so keep up!), and this person settles down to silently reading the words or checking the bulletin to cue up the next hymn so they aren't behind next time. "This is not worship!" they say to themselves. They are also, in this context, illiterate. And they too reject it as worship.

Both of these people are out of their elements. The unfamiliar contexts in which they find themselves feel foreign, and as foreigners they become confused, lost, and embarrassed.

And that's ok.

The Acceptance of Illiteracy in the Context of Worship

It's ok because illiteracy and worship are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary. Instead of signaling the failure of worship and the rejection of discomfort, these uncomfortable experiences offer worshipers an opportunity to get to the heart of who they are, who God is, and how worship is the language that binds the two together. Maybe it goes something like this:

"This is not worship! Everything is unfamiliar! I feel like I don't belong with these people! I feel like an idiot! It hurts that I can't do it with the ease, confidence, and joy that usually accompanies my weekly acts of corporate worship!


"And God is here.

"He loves me when I am strong and when I am weak, comfortable and in distress, smart and stupid, happy and sad. His loving presence through the Holy Spirit is not contingent upon any earthly context. He loves me even in this strange and imperfect place. And this discomfort I feel is an opportunity, not to reject this experience, but to recognize that the desire, even the frustrated desire, that I have in my heart to give my best self to the God who made me is proof of my longing for Him, a longing he planted in my heart and has tended all my life.

"God is indeed here... 

"I will make a choice and worship! Perhaps I will rest quietly in the thought that His presence is ever present and ever calling out. Perhaps I will gaze in detached wonder at those around me who are fluent in this style of worship and rejoice in their joy. Or I will redouble my efforts and focus my ears to grab hold of the slippery melody or I will ask my neighbor for help in following the notation. Or I will kneel. Or cover my face with my hands. Or dance. Or clap. Or cry. Or laugh. Or breathe.

"God is here.

"And his presence is all that is needful for worship. Indeed, my own discomfort works to make me all the more aware of him."

Issues at Stake

This seems right to me. It seems more productive and profound than a surface-level battle over the relative worshipfullness of PowerPoint. But it also reveals why these debates over music-making are so volatile and why they have torn churches apart. Here are three issues that I believe emerge from this discussion on illiteracy in the context of worship.

Worship is an active and individual choice. In the end, it is not about hymnals or screens, old songs or new, pipe organ or cajón, choir director or music leader, technology working or technology failing (by "technology" I mean everything from projector screens to microphones to organs to paved roads to writing systems to mental signification—think about it)... In the end, I say, it's about nothing more or less than the question God has been putting to us all from the beginning: "Where are you? Are you hiding from me, thinking that uncomfortable circumstances or unintended failures separate us? Or are you searching for me just as much amidst the rubble as you do amidst security? Because I will never rest until we are together." Don't blame the hymnals and don't blame the screens. Be present and choose.

Churches should be places to learn together. Going back to my two uncomfortable and fictional examples, if familiarity does not eventually come and the barrage of newness in unremitting, they are liable to become overwhelmed. Familiarity is a process of learning. Learning is about coming to grips with our limitations, trying, failing, trying again, and failing. It comes down to the teachers (the leaders, both musical and otherwise) and the peers (the literate congregation) creating an environment of acceptance and patience. (In my experience, churches can be notoriously bad at this.) I would go so far as to say that this bumpy road toward learning is holy. Jesus came to earth as an illiterate and helpless infant (from the Latin "infans" = "the voiceless one") and went through all the ups and downs of learning throughout his time on Earth. His entire life was a life of worship. So to are ours.

Maybe Western Christianity would not be so afraid of the discomfort of illiteracy if we dealt with our unhealthy issues with emotion, particularly negative emotion. For all the hymns and praise songs that are based on the Psalms (a perdurable argument for both sides of the fence), there is a definite paucity when it comes to themes of rage, despair, or grief. These are raw expressions of a worshiping soul that is in the midst of struggling with what one could call an illiteracy with human existence. Few churches dare to allow these thoughts into their hallowed doors. The Man of Sorrows (a frightfully passionate person who felt the entire gamut of human feelings) might be frustrated by our emotionally narrow view of "praise". (On the other hand, depression and self-abnegation are not Christian virtues. This is a very easy path for religion to take, but it ends up, in my opinion, replacing looking for God and being honest with our present state of being with ignoring Him in favor of licking old wounds and focusing on failure, both ours and that of everyone around us.)