Friday, September 15, 2006

Contemporary Christian Music

I hate my music director.

I came home from music team rehearsal last night and cried because the tension created by the fact that I hate him and the fact that I have to work with him to get what I need got overwhelming.

I think there were probably two things that struck those of you that know me about those first paragraphs. I would hope that the first thing you would notice is that I don’t really hate anyone. Not my ex-husband, not his new wife, not my old boss who fired me suddenly and without cause after promising for 8 months that he would never do something like that. Probably, I don’t hate my music director, either. Probably, I hate the way he treats me.

But it sure feels like I hate him.

The second odd thing about my opening salvo to those of you that know me is the revelation that I am on the music team at church.

I do hate contemporary Christian music. That’s a fact.

Lots of people my age don’t go to church any more because they had traumatic experiences there as kids. Most people I know were not abused there, although that is certainly the story of some people. Most people I know were angered by the hypocrisy of Church Adults telling them what to do while not obeying those rules themselves. That betrayal takes lots of forms and can be very severe. It’s like their childhood innocence saw God most clearly through the Church Adults in their lives. When those Church Adults displayed hypocrisy by divorcing their wives, swearing, being mean, being bigoted, being intolerant, not listening, not loving, being selfish, drinking too much, or demanding humility while dressing like a peacock for Sunday Services – when those Church Adults displayed that very human trait of hypocrisy and sometimes even denied it when the kids called them on their behavior, then those kids who saw God through the behavior of those adults felt like God was hypocritical.

Hypocrisy is the worst sin in the eyes of an adolescent and for God to have perpetrated that wrong is very traumatic. Many never get over the betrayal, preferring simply to avoid church altogether rather than to relive that hurt as adults. Those of us that can recognize that most of those adults weren’t betraying us intentionally still might fear becoming Church Adults ourselves and taking on that burden for a new generation and so also stay away from church.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the option of staying away from church. I tried it for a while when I was in college and when I was first married. I was so lonely. My husband had no faith background and so could not understand me at some very basic levels. I missed worship, which was a weekly reinforcement that there was something so much bigger than me out there. I am so comforted to know that I don’t have to struggle to see the big picture, that my impact on the world – good or bad – is actually inconsequential to the greater scheme of things. With that burden off my shoulders, the motivation for my choices becomes about what kind of person I will be after I make that decision. Music, liturgy and sermons remind me of that once a week. Participating in church activities gives me a sense that I am not the only one who sees the world through this lens of faith. So, about 4 years ago, I started going to church again. Mainline protestant churches. Very familiar, very safe, very easy to go and get a hit of worship and community, then head home without actually being a better person when I was done. About nine months ago, I started attending a church that doesn’t have the atmosphere as the other churches of my life. Its appeal is that I cannot stay in my personal bubble. I have to open up to the other people there and risk that they might betray me like some of the Christians of my youth did. I guess, actually, that I don’t “have to.” It’s not a cult or anything. But, I think God is telling me to. I think God wants me to start healing some of the pain that other Christians dealt out to me during my adolescence through this church that I am attending now. That has to be why God wants me to go here, because everything else is totally objectionable except the few other misfits that attend and the sermons.

My sense of betrayal from Church Adults came through music. In junior high and the first two years of high school, I had a phenomenal Youth Minister named Malcolm. In a conversation recently with the current Youth Leader at the church I grew up in, he told me that those years are sometimes referred as the Golden Years of youth ministry. Malcolm had the soul and voice of a very large Black woman fighting to get out of his wiry white man’s body. He would teach us songs about Jesus that we had never heard before and then teach us harmonies to create aural complexities that the musical illiteracy of the congregation could never pull from the traditional hymnal. I could feel that something-so-much-bigger-than-me with my whole body when I sang at youth group. We loved this music and these harmonies so much that a group of 3 and 4 of us girls sang whenever there was down-time in our social activities. We did not know then that this was the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music movement. We just knew that this music felt like ours in a way that camp songs and hymns on Sunday never had. In the mid-90s, there was Christian Rock but that had nothing to do with Sunday worship or with the music we were singing on Thursday nights and on retreats. (Sorry, Petra.) Ultimately, we began to wonder if this music wouldn’t be the solution to boring Sunday services and began working on a special service to introduce it to the Church Adults.

It was a smashing success. The youth led a special service and we threw our hearts into it. The Church Adults loved it. Plans were put in place to make one of the two Sunday services in a “Contemporary” service. And that’s when everything went downhill. Instead of the intimate harmonies of 15 kids before a Bible study, the entire congregation of 300 people took our songs and droned them out just like their heads were sunk into their hymnals. A totally square group of Church Adults stood in a cluster and made the altar into a stage with microphones and guitars and sang our songs with enthusiasm and boisterousness. Probably the same enthusiasm and boisterousness with which they had sung “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and “If I Had A Hammer” when they were adolescents. The formally trained Western choral director would clap his ridiculously long and skinny arms with straightened elbows in perfect 4/4 time to encourage the congregation to “sing along!”

All of the magic was gone. The grups had taken it from me.

I have had an antagonism towards “contemporary” Christian music in all of its ever-increasingly over-produced styles ever since.

So, when it came time to find a new church in Chicago, I expected that after looking around for a while, I would find the type of church that was like the other churches I attended as an adult: mainline protestant churches with traditional worship where almost everyone was older than me and even the folks my age were different because they had kids. But God had other plans for me.

It was so freaking cold last December that I got grumpy just thinking about walking to churches that may or may not end up being a new and slightly uncomfortable experience, which was my usual modus operendi. I had tried once and, although it was entertaining, I was in no mood for further adventure. I had fought against a particular church down the street for a number of reasons: chiefly that they were all young and beautiful people looking for their Christian mates, my family didn't like the service they went to and my Dad was so over-the-top in trying to get me to go. However, I went because I knew it would be on my list eventually and I lacked the gumption to do research to find any other church. This was the Sunday before Christmas. So I went with my heart's fists up and many of my misgivings were confirmed. However, as I sat there, the Contemporary Christian Music inexplicably relaxed my metaphorical hands and calmed my heart. The music team is led by an African American man who leads it gospel-style, which is a sound that will always pierce me. So, as my heart quieted from its defensive state, a thought bubbled up that this was the type of music that I'd like to make next. Maybe. So, I went back on New Year's and was charmed into a state of worship again. The third week, however, the worst type of Amy-Grant-impersonator music was being made and my defenses went up immediately. But, I'd been offered by the assistant pastor to sit down and talk about my responses to the church, whether I intended to join or not. So, I called and had dinner with him.

I began the conversation asking what direction the church intended to take its music and he assured me that the past Sunday had been an exception. Then, I attempted to hold him hostage a little and told him that I would not join the church unless I could be on the music team. He laughed and arranged a meeting with the music director the next day. What I was most impressed with at both of these meetings with the leadership of the church was their willingness to be candid about their own frustrations with the church (which is only two years old) and then also with their reasons why they stay. I think that if they had presented me with a smiling, shiny image of this “great church that everybody should join!” I would have known them for fake and looked elsewhere. Instead, they were human and vulnerable and real and that's a relationship that I can really be a part of.

Since I've started attending regularly, I've found a few more people that are willing to be awkward and uncomfortable sometimes in order to achieve a greater spiritual goal, in addition to being reasonably enjoyable and personable. However, the early days when the music director was honest with me and appreciated my support are long gone. I cannot tell you where the change occurred, but I know that I began feeling that he was acting like a Church Adult when he would cancel rehearsals because no other vocalists but me showed up. Also, he is pretty unprofessional in how he actually conducts rehearsal. He took my feisty disappointment as a lack of support and it all went downhill from there. He is a jerk to me and I’ve been told that I just have to submit by the two head pastors and so I agreed and I do submit and I still get treated like a recalcitrant troublemaker.

I would quit the music team except that during the 20 minutes that we sing on Sunday morning, I can feel something-so-much-bigger-than-me with my whole body again for the first time since I was 16. I also know that without the responsibility of leading worship most Sundays, I would lose the impetus to engage people on anything more than a surface level and would ultimately stop going.

So, last night, he did not start rehearsal for half an hour, while he waited for the rest of the vocalists to show up, saying repeatedly, “Where is everyone?” as if I and the other woman who had come on time were no one. The bewilderment was also odd since no one else ever arrives before 8:00, despite the stated 7:30 tee time. Without having made this commitment to submit, I would not arrive before 8:00 because he always makes us sit around and wait for the band to finish up anyway and then spends at least the first 15 minutes of rehearsal talking before we ever start singing. Although for once he had planned which songs that we would sing on Sunday before rehearsal actually started, 3 of the 4 songs were not part of the regular repertoire. When he realized that he could not teach even 2 new songs to the vocalists in less than an hour for Sunday’s service, he simply canceled our participation on Sunday morning and spent the time polishing a song that we already knew. He’ll sing by himself on Sunday. I’ll have to stand in the congregation with my heart’s fists up again on Sunday. I pray to ask God to help me worship regardless of the style that is presented to me, but I’m just not there yet. The betrayal of the Church Adults is still too fresh in my heart. Leading worship helps break down those walls that I built to protect myself from Contemporary Christian Music and the betrayal that is associated with it, but when I don’t get to do that, I am stuck standing behind them again. Standing behind walls is lonely.

I guess I just have to come home some nights and cry to let out the tension of working with someone who seems to feel threatened by me despite the fact that the only thing I have ever complained about was the fact that he canceled so many rehearsals, which meant that I couldn’t sing on Sunday mornings. I know that I must contribute to the tension because, despite the fact that all of actions are impeccably correct, my defeated attitude must color the atmosphere. But I don’t know what else to do.

1 comment:

PrincessMax said...

This morning I sent this email to my music director becuase he expressed discouragement after rehearsal on Thursday that I had worn Converse on Sunday, despite the fact that the only requirement that he had asked of us was to wear closed-toed shoes and despite the fact that I have often worn those shoes to church to lead worship.

Dear ______,

As I understand it, many people of our "post-Christian" generation struggle to make the choice to go back to church as adults because of some negative experience that they had as children growing up the church. I have always understood the phrase "seeker-friendly" to mean that a church who assumed that label tried to make it as easy as possible for people to overcome the negative associations that folks have with church so that they will want to live a life with Christ.

One of my brothers stays away from church because Christian people rejected him when he would not dress up on Sundays. He believed (and still believes) that the tradition of dressing up for church is perpetuated out of human vanity rather than godly piety. He will allow for exceptions in individual people, but the judgement that he felt as a kid was so widespread that no church community feels safe to him, including River City. Without a church community around him, his relationship with Christ is practically non-existent.

Out of a desire that my brother will one day find a church that does not have an atmosphere that requires him to dress up in order to be loved, I have made the choice to dress down on Sundays, especially when I lead worship. Since everyone else up front is dressed up, I believe that there should be someone in visible leadership who helps create a safe worship environment for seekers like my brother, because I know that there are other folks like him out there.

I know that you have valid reasons for the uniform for the vocalists. I have had no problem with the uniform and have made no objection it either publically or privately, to you or to anyone else. However, I would like you to consider the ministry that I am trying to carry out as you get specific with the requirements for what we will wear, as per our conversation after rehearsal on Thursday.


I'll take bets on whether or not he even responds, but I get to take the side that he just ignores me completely, since that's what he been doing for the last couple of months.