Some days it doesn’t feel like all the effort you do amounts to anything more than a single drop in an empty bucket. You show up the next day – there’s another drop. Eventually, you have a spoonful. Then enough to fill up a shot glass. you keep at it – day after day. It’s enough to fill up a cup. Then the cup starts running over. Slowly and surely, that bucket starts to get fuller and fuller – a quarter of the way, a third, half-way, two-thirds, three quarters. Eventually you find that you filled up that bucket, a drop at a time. Hard work and persistence won’t always earn an award, you won’t always get a trophy or ribbon. But you do get a sense of personal satisfaction that you did your best. You didn’t quit when others would have thrown in the towel. You made a difference for the better. Maybe it’ll also inspire others to match your effort and contribute to filling up that bucket faster. The problem gets smaller and things get easier on everyone. Some days it doesn’t feel like all the effort you do amounts to anything more than a single drop in an empty bucket – and that’s a challenge worth tackling head-on.
“Hey, great news! I’m cancer-free!” A recent acquaintance of mine happily beamed. “I just wanted to thank you for being one of the ones who were there for me, praying for me, making sure my needs were heard up there.”
I was truly happy for her, beating cancer is the greatest of all victories. It’s just … I felt it wise to not mention that I had forgotten to actually pray for her. Don’t get me wrong, I wish her well, and hope that the blight that is cancer gets eradicated; I wouldn’t wish it to happen to anyone. But I haven’t really been on speaking terms with God lately.
I tend to be the sort of person that just falls through the cracks. I’m not that big of a troublemaker, so I attract very little attention. I’m really healthy, so I don’t need medical or divine intervention. I guess you could describe me as one of the random people you see in the background while somebody famous is giving a speech – I’m a nobody and if I weren’t there, you wouldn’t notice I was gone because you wouldn’t know to miss me. At least, that’s been the experience I’ve had from attending church for such a very long time.
Maybe God just likes being a miracle worker like Scottie; it’s not enough to do the job properly and without fanfare – maybe he just likes to estimate it’ll take twice as long so that he’ll be done in half the time. Perhaps he really shines in the big things – beating cancer, saving lives during natural disasters, and making sure the best team wins the game. It can be easy to feel that God doesn’t like to show up in the little things because then he would be something we could control and have him do our bidding.
It can be hard to find the faith when someone gets to celebrate their victory over cancer knowing that someone out there gets to mourn the loss of someone who lost that battle even though they prayed just as much. But its enough for me to know that I should celebrate with those who celebrate and morn with those who mourn. God’s going to do as he pleases with or without my input, no matter how much or how little I pray.
Every now and then, even King David would write: “Remember me” (Psalm 25:7, 106:4). Samson prayed: “Remember me” before his final act of strength (Judges 16:28). Hannah desperately prayed: “Remember me” because she just wanted a son (1 Samuel 1:11). Nehemiah also prayed: “Remember me” for all that he had done (Nehemiah 5:19, 13:14,22,31). Job also prayed: “Remember me” in frustration for all that he had been put through (Job 14:13). Jeremiah prayed: “Remember me” while asking God for vengeance (Jeremiah 15:15).
This prayer doesn’t show up much in the New Testament; the most notable example is the thief on the cross next to Jesus: “Remember me” (Luke 23:42). Perhaps that’s because the veil, the separation between us and God was supposed to be torn. With the Holy Spirit inside us, we aren’t supposed to feel so alone; but sometimes we just do and we can’t help it. Perhaps that old prayer still has some mileage in it: “Remember me, O God …”
I’ve been going through the top 40 hit lists from Kasey Kasem’s American Top 40 – each month there are either four or five lists of forty songs – multiply that by fifteen and you’ll find that there’s well over two thousand hits listed – thankfully quite a few are repetitive. One hit stood out for being from an unexpected genre: MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine“. This Christian song managed to be on the top forty list right up there with all those secular pop, rock, grunge, rap, and alternative rock hits of the day.
With all the vitriol and hatred against contemporary Christian music, many elder might not know that the odd song escapes from the Christian bubble and has an impact on others in a way that hymns just don’t. Sure, we all hear the odd hymn song – maybe on an episode of a t.v. show as a character is in a church or going through some emotional cross-roads. But they have a limited sphere of influence. For some, hymns are like classical music – a relic of a time gone by that other people like … but it’s not their cup of tea.
I’ve heard stories about how elderly people in nursing homes hold onto the songs of their youth, the tunes that they danced to, the hymns the worshiped God with, the melodies and jingle of commercials – if that’s so, then a song like “I Can Only Imagine” will be a good one to play when it’s this generation’s turn to be in nursing homes. Sure, some of us will respond to hymns – but not all.
But because contemporary Christian music can do what hymns cannot – reaching the airwaves of even the most secular stations, one would think that anyone who cares about introducing God to others would welcome the sort of music that does just that inside and outside of churches. And perhaps, we might find room for those secular songs that speak to something of God. A lot of David’s hymns were songs of angst and frustration: “Why me / How long / Don’t forget me” that sort of thing. Perhaps that’s a missing element, we have music that represents only the rainbows and sunshine side of life and the few songs that don’t (like “It is Well“) are only pulled out in immense tragedy. We don’t have a lot of music for being in-between or for the journey from the spiritual high to the spiritual low and finding our way back when we’re lost.
The more I try to create my playlist, the more I see that music is like a personal language, and the less we can write for others what their music is supposed to be or ought to be like. Looking at the variety of music from ages past to now – Gregorian chant, choir pieces, traditional hymns, bluegrass, gospel – the less it feels like God only wants one kind of music, one type of song, one particular hymn above all the rest. He has inspired music in all it’s form to praise him in his limitless capacity; perhaps we should see that music has limitless capacity to praise an infinite God.
Perhaps it was the fifth time I had heard “Walkin’ on Sunshine” or the sixth time that “It’s Rainin’ Men” blasted over the store speaker system that I realized how horrible other people’s music can be. Not in that “they have the worst taste in music” sense – but in the way that there are songs that are fine once in a blue moon become annoying when heard multiple times the very same day; songs that you barely tolerate once become much more difficult to stand as they’re continually repeated. The more I heard other people’s music, the more I longed for just one of my own played just once. But it also made me wonder if I really should share it, after all, what if other people don’t like my music any more than I don’t like theirs?
It makes me think of the worship wars and being the odd one out. Music is and can be it’s own personal language. For someone going through a tragedy, “It is Well” can help them cope, for one celebrating “It is Well” can be quite a bit of downer, particularly if you know it’s history. No two people take to the same song the same way. Even with contemporary music, “In Christ Alone” has it’s fans and it’s detractors. Ultimately, other people’s music really has no power over you. As much as I don’t like hearing the same songs over and over again in the course of a day, as much as I don’t like old-fashioned hymns – it ultimately falls flat. The thrill that others might get out of “Walkin’ on Sunshine” “It’s Raining Men” “It is Well” and other hymns is pretty much a “meh” for me.
Unless the Holy Spirit is a void entity in the world of contemporary Christian music, then the reality must be that God inspired both old-fashioned hymns and contemporary Christian music – and that both are ultimately God’s music. One would think that no matter which side each of us as people fell on, churches would be capable of celebrating both kinds of God’s music. But it doesn’t seem to be the case. Most churches are small and tend to pick just one – out on the rural areas such as this one, hymns tend to win hands down as the congregations are often older and haven’t much experience with contemporary music. It takes a spectacularly humble elder to set aside his or her own taste in order to accept their kids, grandchildren’s, and great-grandchildren’s preference in God’s music in order to facilitate the worship experience of the younger generation – and such elders seem to be a rarity indeed.
Being the odd one out is a special misery – where you realize that in certain churches you will never, ever get to sing your favorite song to honor God, in a chorus with the voices of those around you, lifting up your sacrifice of praise. You get to lift up other people’s songs though, ones that don’t resonate with you. You might, if you’re very lucky, get to do a special music of the song that you like – but you’d have to perform it alone with all eyes on you, and you’d have to sing it really well because no other voices will come to your aid. If you’re not a talented singer (I’m decidedly not) then you don’t even have that option.
Some days I really wish that the shoe was on the other foot, that the hymn-singing churches would have entire services with contemporary music where it’s done right. Where they get to miss out on their music and come to understand what it feels like to know that never again “In the Garden” or “Blessed Assurance” or “How Great Thou Art” will ever be sung again. Then I think twice and realize that I’ve gotten used to the misery of other people’s music and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I know that misery loves company and I just mostly wish I wasn’t so miserable – I just really, really miss my own music these days.
I actually went to church the other day. It’d been awhile and I was starting to think that it was time to just up and go. This church was one we had previously visited – a contemporary megachurch that usually has about three services a day. It’s also about an hour or so drive’s away – making it a chore to try to plug-in or get involved to any degree. The one advantage about this sort of church is that you can be just a face in the crowd. With so many people streaming in and out, nobody really knows anybody. You could attend there for a year and be just as much of a stranger as a stranger making their second visit. At least this time, we knew not to park the car in the western half of the parking lot – which was furthest from the main building’s entrance.
With contemporary churches – it doesn’t take a very long absence before the music goes from the sort of songs you do know to ones you haven’t really heard of. At least when we lived in the same town as our last non-denominational contemporary church, they also had this extremely popular Christian radio station. On the drive to church, you could listen to one of the songs that would soon be sung together. In this area, the radio stations are far less capable – so we have no idea what’s popular or being sung – no way to prepare ourselves for the new music. I did manage to write down the first line of each song that they displayed, but aside from that – there’s no real way to identify which songs were sung or who wrote / sang them originally.
Sermon theme: “Sacrifice”
Main points: “A Christ-follower understands the value of the Kingdom of Heaven.” “A Christ-follower is willing to sacrifice everything for the Kingdom of God.” “A Christ-follower knows the truth.”
The sermon was a fairly standard message – basically it was about giving up everything to follow Jesus. Which is something no church really wants it’s regulars to do. Churches need tithes to operate, tithes come from a steady paycheck, employment, housing, transportation. Sure, technically you could give up hobbies and leisure activities – but even Jesus was known to retreat from the world and rest. It felt a lot like preaching to the choir about needing to sing for the Lord. People don’t go to church because they aren’t saved – they go because they are and they have already given up the rights to their souls. They go for encouragement, being uplifted, being comforted, for a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.
There was a moment I looked around and realized just how much of an outsider I always seem to be. I’m too contemporary for the traditional churches, and too out of the loop for the contemporary churches and in both cases not really belonging to any group at all. If Christians are trying to make it hard to leave – they’re not doing a very good job of it. They’re not really making it easy to stay, come to think of it. Churches have taken this “If you build it, they will come” approach to getting people to show up – but it’s like they don’t know what to do with them when they get there. How friendly should they be? How helpful should they be? Should they be left up to their own devices? Should room be allowed for them to approach the appropriate channels when they’re ready for more?
I have a confession to make. I’ve been skipping church for weeks now. I know … I’m a terrible Christian, an unbiblical Christian, a heretic of a Christian who just doesn’t take God at his word. I’ve heard it before. I read it over and over again online. Today I happened to notice that my customers at work all came in wearing unusually nice clothes. I thought, “Must be Sunday.”
I keep on thinking about the Worship Wars – the epic conflict between old and new, stoicism and emotion, tradition and contemporary, etc. The thing is – it just boils down to not belonging; as in, “if you’re not like us, you can go somewhere else.” A church community might as well be a school cafeteria or playground. You have your various groups of close-knit friends; the good old boys, the grandmothers that keep everything running, the mothers keeping their kids from chaos, the young couples, the college kids, the high school kids, the middle school kids, the elementary kids, and so on. The ones that always sit together, always talk together, always have some inside joke or a conversation that isn’t the sort you can just barge into. To become included, you have to be like them in a way that they’re comfortable with. In all of the churches I’ve attended, that’s always been really difficult. It’s like everyone else has these circles – complete with all the right people in the right places – and then you show up out of nowhere asking for a seat at the table. You’ve upset the perfect balance that was just fine before you came along by suggesting that you were missing all along and they just didn’t know it.
Take conversations about hymns, everybody seems to know one that was their parent’s favorite or was played at their grandparent’s funeral. Hymns just aren’t my cup of tea. I could rock a conversation about contemporary music … but most everyone out here doesn’t consider it worshipful music. Or maybe last week’s pot-luck will come up and we just have to take Paul’s word that Judy’s fried chicken was better than KFC or Sarah’s Pineapple Upside-Down Cake was the highlight of the desert menu as we weren’t there because we didn’t want people to fuss about food that was safe for all of us or spend half of the evening explaining why we can’t eat what.
Bible studies have become exercises in futility, particularly when the Bible isn’t what’s being studied … but some best-selling material from the latest authors from Lifeway. I’m tired of wading in the shallow end of the pink pool … I want to dive into the depths of the ocean and ponder the layers of the mystery that’s down there.
But it’s so hard to feel like I belong when I’m just different from what’s the normal around here. Dressing up isn’t all that fun. I don’t get hymns. I’m not really where everyone else is at / was at when they were my age – so there’s not a lot of commonality. It sucks even more when I know that we’ve got some serious skills and talents that are getting rusty because there’s no use for them. I’m so amazed when I hear this wonderful music … contemporary songs, from the resident musician and she misses out every Sunday on speaking to God through her music. On praising God in harmony, on the same page with our brothers and sisters in Christ because we’re just not into the same music and not interested in performing a special as if we were a spectacle on display.
In a Christianity full of insiders, I don’t know how to be anything other than an outsider. In a Christianity where everybody else just fits together, I don’t know where I belong. If we’re all pieces in a puzzle – then it feels like I’m a piece that should have been a part of another box but ended up in this one by mistake. I guess it sort of helps to know that somebody somewhere would be missing me … but these churches aren’t that church.
You ever read about these guys who are glad to see the churches being empty … the millennials and members of other generations not showing up? I saw one that said that “As dross is removed from silver, the church is being refined, made more pure.” I guess I’d be that dross … the impurity that ruined the perfection of the silver church. They say it’s the cultural Christians who are nominal Christians – not really true believers, who are leaving the churches in droves to find whatever floats their boat or tickles their ears. It’s the authentic, genuine Christians who remain in church no matter what. Without the riff-raff like me gumming up the works, they can finally focus on teaching the true believers the true faith that results in true salvation. So I guess I really don’t belong in church, to them, I belong anywhere but church.
I guess Christianity these days is a culture to itself, different from cultural Christianity, but one with it’s own language, music, and traditions that have no place for me. I don’t belong in the real, true church because it’s culture is foreign to me. Odd. It demands that I change, I assimilate into it’s collective. It has no interest in changing for my sake. I’d have to give up a lot of what makes me … well, me … so that I’d belong to it. It seems to me that it doesn’t really want me just as I am and that is why I don’t belong. I’d stop being me … I’d stop being the person who Jesus loved so much that he died to save.
On top of that, this extremely frustrating writer’s block (seriously – it’s been months!) and lack of source material just leaves everything up in the air for now – particularly where blogging is concerned. Today was a Sunday and not one person suggested I try out their church. Not one person told me what I missed out on. Not one person said that I was missed. Not one person asked what I missed about church. Typical Sunday.
So many times, people tell me how amazing and wonderful worship is. Oftentimes, I wonder if they’d be as enthusiastic about the worship in my church. The sanctuary was built a few years ago, it’s a fairly standard and simple design, like most churches I’ve attended, there are two rows of pews arranged in two vertical rectangles that are longer than they are wide. The rows themselves are on a diagonal. The walls are a clean white with the occasional large window, there is light-colored stained wood for the pews (with pink or purple cushions that match the carpet, I forget which), for the pulpit, for the rail along the stairs, for the altar. That’s a pretty thorough description of the location. The atmosphere is generally one of family, friends, and neighbors catching up with each other. They certainly do talk to each other.
When it comes time for the music to start, things change. Like on Sunday; while the lyrics for the hymn were being displayed on the screen, I couldn’t help but notice that there was quite a few disinterested parties in the building. Perhaps it was the conversations in the midst of the music or playing with their hair, it seemed like people were finding other things to do than to sing along with the worship music.Singing ceases to be the priority.
I think that’s something that people aren’t always anxious to talk about. How no matter what you do and no matter what you don’t do, there will always be disinterested parties. I think that for a lot of young people in this area, going to church is expected of them and so they show up, but they don’t have to like it. The disinterested parties just check out and don’t bother to sing at all. Sometimes I’m one of them – I just do a better job of hiding it by lip-syncing. I can only imagine how churches in regions with better internet might have a number of youth texting each other, oblivious to what’s going on, be it music or preaching. Is that the case? I don’t know. As to the older ones who are disinterested, it can be for a variety of reasons: the stale routine has gotten old, they passionately dislike the music, they have a lot on their minds, anything really.
They’re not the only ones though. Every time the choir is tasked with a contemporary song, they don’t do it justice. It’s not that they don’t sing the sheet music flawlessly, they do, but they sing contemporary music in a different way than they sing hymns. It’s the difference between having to sing a song you can’t stand and getting to sing a song you absolutely love.
Next Sunday, take a look around. Whatever worship ‘does’ for you, it doesn’t do for the disinterested. And there’s no guarantee that changing worship so that it ‘does’ something for others won’t turn you into a disinterested party in the process. It’s like worship these days is a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other, but never really able to stay in that sweet spot. For those of you whose worship “works” and “does” for you, it’s probably difficult to imagine what it is to be in a church with uninteresting worship that doesn’t work and doesn’t do anything for you. It’s a lot like having to watch that movie you can’t stand because somebody you love adores it. It’s a lot like having to read that book you despise because somebody you love admires it. It’s a lot like having to do that dance you hate because somebody you love enjoys it.
I know – I’ve been told, if you can’t stand the church go somewhere else. That only works then there is somewhere else to go. Virtual worship, watching sermons and worship sets over the internet is just somehow not the same. It certainly wouldn’t be for our traditional church – just imagine it!
“Welcome brothers and sisters, and everyone else watching us over the internet! First, let’s take a moment to meet’n’greet one another, be sure to make everyone feel welcome. Then we’ll sing hymn 724, verses 1 and 4.”
The person at home has no one to meet and greet, no one to ask about their health or family, and no one to ask them how their day has been. When it comes time to sing, the echo of a lone voice from four nearby walls serves as a reminder of what isn’t there – dozens of other voices that fill up the air, altogether rising and falling in unison. The feel of worship just isn’t there when it doesn’t feel like worship or even remotely resemble it. That’s why it doesn’t work – traditional or contemporary – over the television, over the computer, over the radio.
All it really does is turn the watcher / listener into a spectator who can see and/or hear what others are doing, but cannot interact with the others that are doing whatever they’re doing. Like my church, it broadcasts it’s services over the radio – somebody at home can listen in, but they cannot become part of the broadcast itself, singing for everyone to hear, meeting and greeting one another. Worshiping at home very much becomes like being the person who worships outside of the church doors, but can bring himself or herself to join everyone else – knowing that ‘where two or three are gathered, I am there” it’s basically a church service of one.
I just can’t think of any good solutions – what works for you is what works for you, and what works for another might not be something that works for you. I think when it comes down to it, you just can’t make somebody else interested in something that interests you because they aren’t you. The problem with church worship service is that they’re pretty unchanging. It’s all about doing things they way they’ve always been done, in the order they’ve always been done, and not deviating from that as much as humanly possible. But if you aren’t going to be able to make changes happen, then you shouldn’t be surprised when one by one, disinterested parties begin to disappear. If there’s nothing for them in the church service, there’s nothing for them to stick around for and no reason for them to show up at all.
And it’s not enough to do an occasional contemporary song if it sounds like you’d rather be anywhere else doing anything else – but at least the shoe would be on the other foot for a little while and it would give you a context as to how others feel. It just makes me wonder if there was the same tug-of-war worship experience decades ago and centuries ago, as people became polarized over the subject. I know that when I read about the Great Awakening, part of the conflict was that the New Lights were getting into more emotional worship and had stepped away from the more stoic worship favored by the Old Lights. Even Martin Luther felt that music should be emotionally moving. And yet for all these swings toward allowing emotion, tradition swings back to the other extreme …
“You can’t rely on you what you feel!” “If you don’t feel God, does that mean that God has forsaken you?” “God wants you to worship him whether you feel like it or not!” “How can you be sure that Satan isn’t the one playing on your emotions right now and not God?” “What you’re really worshiping is emotions, not God.” … I’ve heard it all, and then some.
It’s worthwhile to not that some people believe that feeling any hint of emotion during worship cheapens it, so the disinterested attendees are actually offering true worship in that they are not emotional, not sentimental, and not swept up by the music (or at least, they would be if they were singing along with the rest) – at least, according to some. Whereas those who participate and are emotional, sentimental, and caught up by the music are actually worshiping their own feelings. Fortunately, the idea that “emotion cheapens the experience” didn’t really catch on. Because to anybody else, having a conversation with somebody else or playing with one’s hair when you’re supposed to be singing really wouldn’t be worshiping, it would be boredom.
Another consideration is that in this region, churches in the same denomination are just like the one down the street from it. Our church is actually two, the same people sing the same songs, one at ten at location a, the other at eleven at location b. If one person felt that the o’clock church was the right denomination but wasn’t their cup of tea, they could go to the o’clock that’s pretty much exactly like it. Why is it that churches in the same denomination do not offer a variety of services particularly when they’re in the same area?
But when you say that your worship is great and excellent, is that an empirical fact or a statement of emotion? If every ounce of joy, every drop of delight, every gram of happiness and all other emotions were zapped out of existence for the duration of worship music – what do you get? Songs with no resonance or bounce, just words sung to a tune as correctly and as unemotionally as possible. That just doesn’t sound like worship to me. I just can’t help but wonder – if some of the regulars are disinterested now, then what will worship become in the years to come? It probably won’t be much different, just as empty with just as many people not interested in what’s going on. The former solution – separate and form different services for different people works only as long as the congregation can support it (both put up with it and finance it.) But to do that, they would have to be interested in it in the first place.