Going Viral: What's Your Song?
If you’ve been anywhere near a computer in the last decade, you’re familiar with the phenomenon called “going viral.” It’s what happens when email inboxes, websites, and social networks light up like postmodern switchboards at the discovery of something new: the video of the cat doing that thing, the unexpected hit single, or that new author nobody’s ever heard of before who’s written something incredible. Suddenly, with unprecedented speed, everybody knows about it.
That’s how I came across a collection of songs written and recorded by folks at a little Lutheran community called Church of the Beloved. Blending ancient liturgies and original lyrics with beautiful instrumentation, Hope for a Tree Cut Down is a contemplative album that appeals to the growing desire to push beyond the standard contemporary worship model.
Perhaps even more striking than the originality of the album, or even its unexpected popularity, is the fact that as soon as you press “play,” it’s clear that this music was written for a community by that community. The themes that are threaded through the mellow yet passionate vocal arrangements reflect what that church is going through as a unique community, what they need to be reminded of, and what they seek to affirm as the body of Christ in a particular context.
I get the “hymnal thing,” the timeless truths of the God we worship that unite the church universal across geographic boundaries and the borders of time itself. And I get the craze and crises surrounding contemporary songs of worship, with the need to reinterpret our praise in the language of each successive generation. But there is something to be said for creating expressions of worship as a community, for your community, rather than continually hitting the “import” button, regardless of which century’s shelf you’re pulling material from.
Our experiences of God and the expressions of worship that follow come from unique places and take unique forms. (I have yet to hear a song about being “hotly pursued by enemies” sung in any service I’ve been in, but that, for the psalmist was a very real part of worshiping God from his unique situation.)
What issues are you dealing with as a church? Has the economy got congregants hoarding and giving up the trust in which they were once rooted? Is the community reeling from the news of cancer or an unexpected death? Is there guilt, confusion, fear, navel-gazing, disunity? As a community, what are the things to which there is a collective desire to give voice? A hunger for deeper passion? A desire to see spiritual growth? Excitement about mission?
By asking ourselves these questions, we communicate that the realities of our triune God and God’s message of good news, which lie at the very heart of every expression of worship, are relevant to our situation. Here. Now. Today.
I stand up front on Sunday mornings from time to time, usually with a guitar slung over my shoulder. A few weeks back, I wrote a liturgy for Advent with all of this in mind. And so I wrote about cancer, I wrote about student loans, and I wrote about the unexpected renovation expenses we are facing. Because if we do not believe that the reality of the good news speaks to these real-life, earthy, everyday things we are wrestling with, things we carry through the doors to the sanctuary each week, we aren’t really living out the gospel. Instead we are worshiping in a way that divorces God from the other six days of our lives. I received more comments from people who were moved by the worship than I had ever before, and I honestly don't think it was because I worded things especially well. I think it is because we are sick of borrowed spirituality and need to believe in our worship that God is alive and at work wherever we are.
The pastor shouldn’t be the only one involved in creating elements of worship that are specific to the spiritual situation of the local church. Challenge the musicians, authors, poets, dancers, or visual artists among you to create something new, something that is rooted in the current reality of the church.
What they come up with won’t be like the old hymns, and it probably won't be the same as the latest arrival at the Christian bookstore. But maybe you’ll discover that there’s something beautiful about that.
By the way—that collection of songs I was talking about? It’s still going viral. Download Hope for a Tree Cut Down for free at belovedschurch.org/hope.