Spiritual Worldview and Worship Music: America v. Uganda

Today I attended a worship service at a church which I believe is struggling to authentically enact and understand the radical communion (“common union”) of the Kingdom reality.  Its musical worship did not consistently feel like it measured up to this commitment, though.

Week after week, in this church and in others, I find myself passively mouthing the words to the common songs (when I actually do get out of bed on a Sunday morning): “I’M lost without you,” “He knows MY name,” “I’M coming back to the heart of worship,” “I’LL never know how much it cost,” “MY God is mighty to save,” “When I am alone, give ME Jesus.”

As the weekly list goes on and on, I feel us (both church and society) struggling to enter the epoch of the individual (which is impossible, as such an era cannot coexist with our world).  Western spirituality, particularly in the Protestant veins, has wrongly, and perhaps unconsciously, taught us that to be faithful is to have a deeply individualized piety.  This trend is evident in our worship music, but just because the top 40 Christian artists subscribe to an individualistic spiritual worldview does not mean there is no alternative:

Language

I have already referenced a few common American worship songs containing highly individualistic language.  They suggest that worship is about me, what I receive, and what I need.  To say this is always the case, even in Western songs and hymns, would be wrong.  But it is certainly a common trend.  The question is, is there an alternative?

There are many common songs with collectivist language sung in Uganda (and other parts of Africa), a region of the world where religion is historically anthropocentric and social.  Consider the stylistic differences in this lyrical excerpt of Jabulani (Zulu for “rejoice”):

Jesus, River of Life for our thirsty land. Savior, meeting our needs from your mighty hand. Sing for joy, O Africa. The Lord your God is risen upon you.

This song exemplifies well the vision of African worship language.  Songs give glory to the Divine, rather than assuming the divine exists for the sake of the self.  It presents God as active in “our” human experience, rather than an experience which is “mine.”  At the same time, “Africa” is replaced later with the word “you,” indicating a singularity of the human community (“common unity”).

A more peripheral, but equally important point: God is labeled with ecological terms (“River of Life”).  African identity is indeed “rooted” – it is inseparable from the land and environment in which the community resides (hence the importance of Solidarity Uganda‘s work in preventing mass land grabs).  This view is not only compatible with the richness of the Christian scriptures (which are a meta-narrative about homecoming), but is also birthed from the practical, present, and somewhat temporal quality of African Traditional Religions.

Musical Style

There is a scene in a Seinfeld episode where a Rabbi asks Jerry about a bad anti-Semitic joke.  “This offends you as a Jew?” he asks.  “No,” Jerry replies, “It offends me as a comedian.”

I have a similar response to church music as a musician (not so much as a Christian).  Most often, it’s just musically bad.  And churches pay good salaries to those who lead worship music.  That offends me as a musician!

It may be more important to note, however, that the Israelites had whole tribes dedicated to the leading of worship.  It’s not something to take lightly.  Just because a guy can play a piano or a guitar does not mean he is qualified to lead the congregation in song.  Now, I have to at least mention that in a given community, there are 25308259 independent congregation these days, and there are simply not enough musicians to go around….but you get my point.

The individualistic worldview presents itself not only in the lyrics of American worship songs, but also in the style of songs.  How many times have you heard an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, and saxophone simultaneously improvising over each other in the sanctuary with no thought about the total sound and not a single concern of timbre.  Oh, and don’t forget the two-beat drum fills every other measure.

The non-West has provided us with beautiful music at all ends of the spectrum, from the sparse and pensive Indian instrumentals to the nuanced vocal rhythms of the sub-Sahara.  I will speak about only what I know in this regard: at most churches I have attended in Uganda, music was not competitive.  Instruments, on the occasions where there was more than one, complemented each other in an attempt to provide the congregational whole with a backbone from which it could sing with one voice.  I am convinced this musical style is the product of a collectivist worldview that penetrates even the interactive arts.

Note: Complexity is important in creative worship, but not for its own sake.  The objective is a selective complexity which affects the whole.  Examples include unique African rhythms and tonal changes, which youths are able to internalize over years of participation, but I cannot understand despite my diverse experience as a musician and my formal understanding of composition and notation.

This brings me to my next point, which deals with participatory worship:

Performer-Audience Dichotomy

American worship is packaged and delivered as a product (much like everything else in its country).  A “special music” segment is reserved in worship services across America, and they often include a middle-aged lady singing really high notes over an instrumental CD track.  Don’t get me wrong: these performances can be emotionally moving.  But the fact is they further the divide between performer and audience.

Even when the worship band or organist is on stage, the congregation is invited to “join in.”  A worship leader says something like, “Stand and sing with us,” implying “you” are not part of “us” until you are invited in, and even then, the worship team has the microphones and are consequently louder (which might actually be a good thing if the church music is not cheesy, as most is).

Spiritual life is done together in Uganda (not to the exclusion of personal piety, but worship is fundamentally a social activity).  People work, pray, sing, and dance together.

Music as a Physical Experience

Americans are generally still when singing and worshiping.  Those with their hands in the air and the few tapping their feet are generally the exception, and they typically hesitate to perform such motions until a most opportune time.  Song selections are often based on the theme of “be still and know I am God.”  If we want to get really wild, we clap our hands (most congregations can’t seem to learn to clap on the second and fourth beats with the snare drum and are still caught on the first and third off-beats).

I don’t want to exaggerated a stereotype of African worship: crazy people rolling on the floor yelling in weird tongues.  People fall asleep in their pews in Africa, too.  But African worship is much more bodily (as is a Muslim’s prayer).  God gave us the entire body.  Shake it, jump, make noise, stomp!

Again, we see a collectivist element in the physical movement of worshiping Africans.  There is, most often, a unison about it.  The congregation is focused together on the motion and projection of a given song.  Excitement and loud joy fills the overcrowded room.  Songs with hand motions are performed.  Curious children are permitted to wander, even onto the stage, grabbing the trousers of a singer.  Those who want to bring drums bring drums.  Those who understand the intricate finger patterns of the adungu bring their adungus.  If it is raucous, it is raucous in an intentional and exciting way.

“IN” and/or “OF” the World

Current popular Western worship is behind the times, still in the decades-old rock concert era with colored lights and fog machines, appealing to society at large with its expensive guitars.  Rather than mirroring the Early Church by creating culture, or subverting and speaking prophetically to mainstream culture, the American Church prefers the dark road of the submission to the World.  See what is cool and marketable, argue about it internally for a few years, then finally implement it when something else is already cooler and more marketable.

Perhaps these efforts are a succumbing to the worldly pattern of capitalist (neoliberal?) marketing.  They are an attempt to obtain parishioners, just as McDonald’s sells itself with juicy pictures of its burgers.  This has led the American Church not only to deprive itself of its theological and critical character in regards to worship, but has also resulted in the Church actively affirming the system of marketing and advertising.  The American Church would be more faithful to its Gospel if it learned from the African Church, which  says through its worship, “This is our community, as peculiar and ordinary as it may be, and we are content to glorify the Absolute from which we came.”  Instead, the American worship experience seems content to dilute its divine identity in order to maintain competitiveness with the current projection of history, which it treats as neutral at best and positive at worst.

Generational Gap

Many American churches these days have a “traditional” and a “contemporary” worship service on Sunday mornings.  This effectively means in one room (or at one hour) there will be an organist performing hymns and in another room (or at another hour) there will be a full band with some electronic instruments. Part of this is attributed to the aforementioned marketing scheme.  Another part of it is attributed to a terrified aversion to conflict or its resolution within a community, and the fear of entering a difficult discussion.  Largely, however, it is because certain music appeals to certain generations in a rapidly changing world.

American music is not cross-generational, usually.  Conversely, Ugandans worship together.  Old ladies hop around on crutches to the same songs that cause five-year-old boys to dance unashamedly.  There is excitement at all generational levels.

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I really don’t mean to write condescending posts about my country, particularly its spiritual state.  But the more I involve myself with certain religious institutions in the US, I begin to realize something fundamentally off-base about our theology and spirituality.  (That being said, I believe some of the most authentic embodiments of the Church in our present age are currently found in the US.)  Moreover, America produces some of the best innovative artists in the world, especially those steeped in the goals of dissent and multiculturalism.

Another disclaimer: Uganda has recently undergone, and continues to undergo, a period of imperialism and, via technology, cultural neo-colonialism.  Therefore, its pop music generally stinks.  It is people singing out of key, even with auto-tuner, and ripping off the already-bad American pop melodies.  This trickles into the religious sphere, including individualistic worship songs.  I have emphasized the extreme of both continents to prove a point, but I fervently believe the trends I have noted are very real trends, and that the American Church has much to learn from the Ugandan Church regarding musical worship and its influence on spiritual worldview.

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