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Recently my friend Bruce Reyes-Chow suggested I blog “How does music touch your soul?” He left it pretty broad so I’ll have some fun with this. I’m going to unpack the use of music in worship and take it from a systems approach rather than a “everyone should sing because the bible includes songs and faith traditions invite people to sing” approach. Not that I care to disprove the later, just that the former is more interesting to me.
Here are three thoughts on music/soul/worship:
- Beauty saves us
- When we sing we vibrate together
- Our selves are all we have
So First of all, how does beauty save us? I know I’ll get some push back on this but before you do I want you to think of times that a favorite movie, a song, a concert, a painting, an elaborate meal, or the sun’s setting took your breath away. Narrow it down to one example. Can you recreate that moment? Think of the time of day, the season of the year, those who were with you, the smells, the colors, the sounds. What comes to mind? In what ways did your encounter with beauty take your breath away, reorient you, bring you in touch with or help you overcome your fears or anxieties? Did you or those with you try to describe it in the moment, or just let it ring true? If you did give it words, did they measure up to the experience?
Elaine Scarry describes beauty as (among many things) a “quickening” encounter, “it is as though one has suddenly been washed up onto a merciful beach: all unease, aggression, indifference suddenly drop back behind one, like a surf that has for a moment lost its capacity to harm.”(On Beauty and Being Just, pg25). Instead of the mind successfully searching for precedents or names it is too filled with the present, “It is the very way the beautiful thing fills the mind and breaks all frames that gives the ‘never before in the history of the world’ feeling” (OBBJ, 23). Like Isaiah’s response to five chapters of wonder and glory, all of the mind is full and we respond, “Woe is me!” (Is 5.5). Like the woman healed of hemorrhages who told Jesus her whole story, all our reservations are freed up (Mk 5.33). Like the audience of new perceivers at the Church’s first Pentecost, when “Awe came upon everyone” because of signs and wonders, old “frames” are broken and new structures are suddenly created for living in the way of Christ (Ac 2.42-47).
I’m not arguing to replace the “Word made flesh, crucified and risen” notion of salvation. I’m simply suggesting that we see more deeply how God’s accomplishes salvation in the way that beauty does, by drawing us into the new, awakening us to creation’s oldest song.
So music, uniquely pulls us into a place of appreciation, of awe, of love, of health.
Second, when we sing we are moving in a unified field. Music (and most notably music that we can feel coming from our own diaphragm sending air though our busy little larynx) is the travelling of waves. Like we’re learning from quantum physics and theories like string theory, at the subatomic level all material things share properties. We are less separate than we suppose. Concerts of people singing together share a harmonic space. And when a bass drum is beating it is obvious, we’re shaken together as one material field through which the rhythm can travel. Like a rock falling in the pond makes ripples, the music is the rock and the congregation is the pond.
Augustine is credited with saying that “when we sing we pray twice.” Who knows all that he meant by that. But in conventional circles, Christians site this quote to emphasize that the whole self—the whole body joins in the prayer. Similarly to Yoga and other healing arts, song is something that involves more than the recitation of words or the intellectual concept.
When I coach bands and vocalists in leading worship I ask them to imagine an open tuned guitar and an oscillating fan blowing over the strings until they ring in harmony. The musician’s job, and the leader of corporate prayer, is to bring the members of the gathering into harmony with each other, to ring together. Like the spirit of God hovering over the waters, musicians have the responsibility to prepare space, to listen, to watch, and then to stir the winds.
Third, our material selves are all we have. My friend Pete Rollins articulates this as well as any when he says “Christianity is nothing less than a material faith i.e. a mode of being that transforms ones material actuality”. The longer I make music and work with people in community organizing capacities I am coming to believe that the so called “spiritual” world is not somewhere “out there”, but is instead known through the everyday, the here and now, the stuff of life. Walter Brueggemann has written a prayer in which he invites us to be “rooted to earth, and awed by heaven.” By this I think he’s pointing to the deeply integrated Hebrew tradition in which the God of the heavens is in our midst.
God is known, tasted, heard, in this world via material things of this world. At the neurological level, everything ranging from the secret vision of a word from the Lord, to reading a paragraph of scripture, to appreciating a sunrise involves chemicals and electrical impulses travelling through your brain. ‘Not to mention physical eardrums or retinas. Just this morning on Morning Edition, I heard an interview with a neuroscientist whose research concluded that “music has some kind of privileged access to the motor system.” Songs uniquely utilize the senses and material world. And like a familiar smell brings back an old memory, a song is capable of releasing endorphins and serotonins triggering inspiration, grief, or anger, or all these simultaneously.
Since music incorporates the material world, it befits congregations who seek to engage, bless, and transform the material world at their doorsteps. And the breadth of musical tone, genres, and palates your congregation uses, the wider the range of applicability in the missional lives of the congregants.
When Bruce asked me about music and soul, the thought came to mind, “music is a window into soulfulness.” Like the exiled Hebrews who loathed singing the wrong song in the wrong place, music has the unique ability to expose dissonance in any a context. When bands play popular covers at bars that don’t sound like soul-felt words or tones, it leaves the experience wanting. All to often worship music, seeking to “reach out,” to “be relevant” or to “validate” an underrepresented population group can do the same. I think this has to do with the misunderstanding of the physical and somatic connections made with music.
With many of my African American friends, after a great concert someone leaves saying they just "had church." I think this is due to the deep connections our bodies make between song and participation in worshiping God.
So, what do you think? When have you "had church"? And what are some of the best and worst uses of music you’ve seen in faith communities?
Their tagline, "reshaping worship together" sums up what I think they/we were after. But they also needed to figure out how the reshapers or users of "pre-shaped" worship were going to access the designs... and in the world of Planning Center Online and various denominational worship resource companies, Clayfire never figured out how to break into the industry.
About two years ago at Christianity21 event in Minneapolis I met Linda Parriot and got reacquainted with Sally Morganthaler, they were beginning a project around worship that would combine resourcing churches as well as catalyzing artists who design worship and art experiences. The project would be both an affiliate of Augsburg Fortress Press' new imprint, Sparkhouse, and a sort of online resource store.
I joined up with the team as they were commissioning original content for the online resources. Sally and a few others moved on around the same time because they were more committed to the catalyzing and collaboration than to an online resource site. I enjoyed working on a fresh collection called "God's Grand Work of Art" with friends like Tim Omara, Aaron Strumple, Todd Fadel, Josey Stone, Margaret Ellsworth and my brother, designer Jonathan Bronsink. The collection was one of dozens designed by artist who not only lead worship music, paint, or preach, but who design worship as formational practice of missional life. Influenced by the work of Mark Pierson, Clayfire coined this practice as "curation."
Then last summer I met up with Jodi-Renee Adams, Eric Heron and Lilly Lewin to plan a worship gathering at the Wild Goose Festival. Eric had been leading a blog discussion on this for quite some time, and many of us had worked together before. But working at the goose was a chance to welcome other artists into the conversation and introduce this line of worship design thinking to pastors and missional leaders. Here's a picture of an experience curated that included the use of yarn passed between participants as a symbol of shared prayers.
Then, this fall I had the chance to work with Mark, Jodi, Shawna Bowman (in the pic above) and ephemeral artist and Methodist campus minister, Ted Hatten. We co-facilitated a seminar in Chicago called The Art of Curating Worship (after Mark's book by the same name). In that space I really grew to trust the vision and focus of the Clayfire organization. While they did need to make the business start up work (and the actual online subscription program had to roll back to beta because of so many quirks) they had carefully connected the success of the business and the online resources to the re-imagining of worship. Not enough could be said about the courage to try that!
So, this Monday, when I learned that Clayfire would be unplugged I was sad but not surprised. It was at once a struggling business venture and a burgeoning group of theologically nuanced creatives who could (and still might) reshape the practices of church. For sure, these theological-artist and others were doing this before Clayfire, but nevertheless this was a rallying point and I met great people because of it.
In the art of throwing pottery, the potter often discovers that the clay just doesn't want to become what she had in mind. If, in the middle she forces it one way or another the entire vessel collapses and throws slag and bits of unfired clay over the potter, the wheel, and the room. Sometimes potters luck out and an unexpected work of art emerges. And then sometimes the pot seems to be done but it just doesn't feel right... it ends up sold at a discount because it never fits... Sometimes its not until they are fired in the kiln that pots fail, because the slip and scoring weren't strong enough for the handle to hold or because the glaze bled.
So the question is what do we make of Clayfire? A failed business idea, or an early iteration in a host of ways forward in congregational formation and worship arts? I'm sure that there remains more to be seen from the world of worship curation and I hope that Clayfire's legacy will play a significant role in whats to come.
What do you hope for the future of worship shaping, and what organizations, groups or networks have you found most supportive of this kind of work?
Check out this online course we will be teaching through the Center for Progressive Renewal. This course is open for anyone to register. Course is postponed until January, shoot Troy or Josh an email if you have interest in the shape of the curriculum or other workshops we lead.
Inventing Intentionally Transformational Emerging Worship, a five-week course led by Troy Bronsink, an artist and pastor seeking the way of Jesus, and blogger, podcaster and activist Joshua Case, is designed to help you look at worship from a new perspective and to set the foundations for change. Not all healthy worship gatherings are organized as “emerging churches,” but the emerging design values of intention, transformation and participation are shared across the board. This course in designing worship keeps those values in mind. Whether you are starting a church or a new service, or you are ready to build these missional values into traditional worship gatherings, this course is for you. Students will utilize skills from community organizing and design thinking to articulate their congregation’s hermeneutic and mission, and then design a four-week worship series in teams comprised of other students or artists in their congregation. Weekly written reflections will be based on assigned readings from ecclesiology, aesthetics, liturgical theology and contemplation. To model transformational worship, the course will be structured as a journey of spiritual formation for all participants. Like a mini-study leave, space will be created for participants to re-imagine/deconstruct/construct congregational and personal worship. In other words, it will be an interactive prayer.
The course begins Tuesday, November 16 at 7 p.m. EASTERN time with a conference call for all participants. Tuition is $249. For more information, please contact Rev. Gregg Carlson, CPR’s Director of Online Learning at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My friend Josh Case asked me to write what I think about "Hermeneutics" for this age
My operating hermeneutic is to encounter texts through communal practices that break our guessing machines and place us in postures of listening.”- me
Here are the four cats who've blown up this idea for me:
- Daniel Pink suggests that we are in a conceptual age where pattern recognition, play, story, and empathy are the new sought after leadership skills. He admonished us to cultivate "high touch" "high concept" aptitudes. I think that churches can be overflowing with these skills if they trade out old “stand and deliver” practices for real life rehearsals, practices, drills, postures, that ask us to interpret with these emerging skills.
- Walter Bruggemann writes in Text Under negotiation:
"Our task is not to construct a full alternative world, but rather to fund-to provide the pieces, materials, and resources out of which a new world (from origin to completion) can be imagined. The place of liturgy and proclamation is "a place where people come to receive new materials, or old materials freshly voiced, which will fund, feed, nurture, nourish, legitimate, and authorize a counter imagination of the world."
3. And Jonny Baker writes:
“The goal of ritualilization is the creation of a ritualized agent, an actor with a form of ritual mastery, who embodies flexible sets of cultural schemes and can deploy them effectively in multiple situations so as to restructure those situations in practical ways”
These three thoughts make me want, not to write better sermons, but rather, to create ritualizing situations that feed fund and nourish a person’s participation in the new creation… Such a church places textual authority ahead of herself, in the “yet to be determined” space of a promised future. Churches that design themselves for something shorter-sited than that have become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy– clanging cymbals, lost symbols, siloed on hills or under bushels. Leslie Newbigin wrote,
“The congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel.”
I think he nailed it. And since first reading that I’ve found this to be true in encouraging and discouraging ways:
- A congregation’s method (its polis) is the “news” it spreads: Have you ever tried to explain Google or Wordpress without referencing internet or open sourcing… These companies organize differently because the world in which they live acts differently. When we believe that gospel is physical and relational, in a “conceptual age,” in its affect and its MO, then we too start to organize differently. Recently a good friend came to a worship gathering of Neighbors Abbey and she was not allowed to be a spectator, not allowed to “church shop.” She was placed in a position of reflecting through prayer and discussion. This moved her in an incredible way. Moved her past what she expected for a church visit. This was the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ penetrating her defenses for the first time in years. A speech, no matter how well prepared, would have never made it past her guard.
- A congregation’s way of being with its neighbors determines the most about its being “good or bad news” to its neighboring host culture. An innercity church in determined that building a large elder-care complex would be best for their ministry to the poor and best for their community. They did not, however, listen for the community’s desires. They came into community meetings demanding to be heard, and demanding quick action. This posture hurt their ability to show/share/be gospel with their neighbors. It’s unfortunate, but they were the hermeneutic of the gospel- few, if any, voiced arguments against “what” this church proclaimed, or how this community views scripture or revelation. Their actions speak loudest at alienating themselves from the good news that is breaking into their neighborhood.
- A congregation that engages its local issues makes room, again, in people’s imaginations for the possibility of a God that has something good in store for the world. Recently at a party a person pointed to a local church leader and said, “he’ll makes you believe there is a God.” Now this leader is not an apologist. As best we could tell, he’s never tried to convince her or others “about” anything. Instead this Jesus follower lives real life with the others in the community. This person is not a “seeker” for the church leader to attract. This person is already receptive and listening for the revelation of God, ears ready for goodnews. It just takes people being that good news around her. The Post-Denominational Willow-Burberry hermeneutic is not a faith statement or a preaching style, it is the the courage to practice in real time, out there.
For a few centuries, at least, hermeneutics questions have allowed people to stand on their shoulders and argue “about” revelation. I say, lets spend a few centuries joining creation as humble incarnation people, open and listening together for God’s revelation.