Reforming Worship: Change is not a dirty word

When RW interviewed John Bell in 1993, we described him as a "modern-day John the Baptist. From his piercing eyes down to his sandal-clad feet, he projected the intense charisma always associated with that desert prophet" (RW 27:23).

He still does. Many of you were able to hear and meet Bell this past summer at COLAM 95, the Conference on Liturgy and Musk held at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Michigan), where he was a keynote speaker.

We thought his opening presentation was worth printing in its entirety. The result is the longest article we have ever printed in RW. We only wish ail of you could hear him speak these words as well (tapes are still available of this and his other presentations from the Calvin College Bookstore, 616-957-6378).

John Bell is an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland and a leader of the lona Community, an ecumenical community based in Scotland. With his colleagues, he has composed and produced many collections of song and prayer (see box on page 10). Bell is also the convener of the panel on worship for the Church of Scotland, which recently produced the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland (reviewed in RW 38).

Of all the terms in the vocabulary of the Christian church, the one word that has been most misused, misrepresented, and intentionally demonized is change. To mention it in the context of worship is to invoke the kind of stares of stony disapproval one might expect if you told jokes in a mortuary (which may not be a bad analogy for some of our churches).

Years ago, when I was leading a group in northern Scotland, I discovered one of the roots of that attitude. One saint of God, an old man in his eighties, made an important point in our discussion.

"You know," he said, "this issue of change has exercised my mind and my prayers. I was just thinking the other day how if, in our church, the minister said that he didn't believe in the virgin birth, nobody would bat an eyelid. But if he tried to move the communion table six inches, all hell would be let loose."

"Why is that?" I asked him.

"I'm not sure," he replied. "But my mind keeps coming back to a line in a hymn I learned as a child."

It happened that I, too, had learned the hymn—-one of the most popular in the English language ("Abide with Me" by Henry Francis Lyte)—and I remembered the line he was talking about: change and decay in all around 1 see.

"Now," said the octogenarian, "the church is the only place in my life where I immediately associate change with decay."

No one comes in contact with the living God and remains the same.

Clinging to the Old and Stale

I have tested his discovery and found it to be true. You might want to try a similar test in your congregation.

My colleague and I worked with an Urban Priority Area Congregation in Glasgow, Scotland. Every Wednesday night we met with a group of twelve people who were committed to discovering relevant directions in worship for that parish. One night we divided into two groups. Group A had a large piece of paper headed "Doctor's Surgery." Group B had a large piece of paper headed "The Kitchen." We gave the groups a half hour to write down all the changes that had taken place in their area in the past fifty years.

The difficulty was getting people to stop. Anecdotes flew about how women used to get up at 4:30 in the morning to light a fire in an outhouse in order to do the week's washing; now they put it in the automatic. People joked about how coffee had once meant 50 percent chicory, 45 percent sugar, 5 percent coffee essence; now everybody used the 100 percent genuine filter variety. People mentioned the changes that have enabled a busy parent to mstle up a dinner of microwaved convenience foods in a matter of minutes.

In the other corner, people were comparing old-fashioned medical remedies that often made the disease worse than better. They were extolling penicillin, heart bypass operations, and improved prenatal care.

When the groups came together with their lists, we evaluated them. We went through the changes one by one and asked which had been resisted or were deemed unwelcome. There were only two or three on each chart.

Then I put up a third piece of paper headed "Church." And together we noted all the changes that had happened in the church in the past fifty years:

  • New translations of the Bible
  • New hymnbook
  • Use of instruments other than the organ
  • Family services
  • Ordination of women elders
  • Ordination of women ministers
  • Increased range of vestment colors ... and so on.

And when I asked which of these changes had been resisted or resented, it was every one.

The curious irony is that when it comes to food for the body or medicine for the body, we are keen for the most recent development. We want our bodies well nourished and healthy. But when it comes to food for the soul, we want bread that might be stale and medicine that might be long past its sell-by date.


But the remedy is not simply to state the obvious. We have to go deeper—as deep as Scripture itself. We are, after all, the church of the Word of God.

And what I suggest is not that we identify what was happening in terms of worship in the Bible. That might not be all that helpful. Rather we need to grasp one salient and explicit truth, witnessed from Genesis to Revelation: No one comes in contact with the living God and remains the same.

The Bible reveals theologically what is a truth pathologically—that any body in which change does not take place is actually in a state of rigor mortis, inert.

  • Abraham is 99, Sarah is 90. They have lived their life. They deserve a settled retirement. But God nudges Abraham out of his retirement home and makes travelers out of him and his soon-to-be-pregnant wife.
  • Moses stands stammering at sheep in the desert until, drawn by the magnificence of a bush that burns yet remains unsinged, he encounters God and is transformed from a refugee shepherd into the leader of the exodus.
  • Rahab is a prostitute who plies her trade in Jericho with the acquiescence of the local authority, until her contact with the people and purpose of God turn her into a mutineer.
  • Isaiah says, "lam a man of unclean lips." Jeremiah protests that he is too young. But their excuses don't count. Both become major prophets.

And in the gospels, when God incarnate meets humanity, the same pattern continues in bolder relief. You cannot come into contact with the living God and remain the same. So . . . some who were blind begin to see, some who were deaf begin to hear, some who were illiterate become evangelists, some who were stigmatized become heroes, some who held their heads low now walk tall, and some who thought they had all the answers are full of rage and uncertainty.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ—nothing, no one shall ever be the same. Christ will not molder in the grave. The irreversible sting of death will not destroy him. The shut tomb will not silence him. It's either change or die . . . so he moves through death, from being a corpse into being a body fully resurrected.

And if we live in the light of the resurrection, we should not demonize or despise change either. We need to embrace it. Otherwise . . . otherwise ... we become like Lot's wife.

She stands out in the Bible as one of the people who resisted God's call to move, to change. She was so connected to, so tied to the past, to the way things used to be, to the place where she felt comfortable, that in the face of God's express command to look ahead and not at the decadence horn which she was fleeing, she turned around and became as moribund as Sodom.

What It Means to Follow Christ

If you take the Bible seriously as the rule of faith and life, and if, in particular, you see the gospels as the supreme manifestation of God's intentions, then you have to come to terms with another salient and explicit truth: Nowhere in the gospels do people meet Jesus Christ in worship and remain the same. With Christ it is all change.

And I am not alluding primarily to the cleansing of the temple. That is simply the end event in a logical progression that begins with the three wise men who worship the infant Christ and return home by another way.

Move on to Jesus' first preaching engagement in his local synagogue. The people are at first impressed by his oratory, but in the end are so infuriated by what he says that they take him to the nearest high hill—and it isn't to show him the pretty view.

Watch what happens when Jesus identifies a woman bent over double or a man with a crippled hand in the space of worship. He brings them to the front, against all the sensitivities of the elders, and makes them object lessons in God's power to heal. And do the people applaud? Some do and are converted. Others don't and are enraged, accusing him of lawbreaking.

When Jesus Christ went to church, there was no such thing as a "normal service." It was a dynamic and divisive occasion.

And that's simply because no one can come in contact with the living God, no one can worship in the presence of Jesus Christ, and remain the same.

That ironically, is the only constant we inherit from Christ. He doesn't tell us when to sing or what to sing, whether to stand up or sit down, how long to preach or how regularly to celebrate Holy Communion.

The changelessness of God is there in order that we can be transformed without fear.

Transformed Without Fear

The experience of the early church, as recorded in the book of Acts and the New Testament letters doesn't provide much of a guide either. Sometimes the worship is formal; sometimes informal. Sometimes women speak; sometimes they are banned. Sometimes infants are baptized; sometimes adults. Sometimes the Eucharist is simple; sometimes it turns into a bun-fight. In one place the church is governed by a bishop; in another by presbyters; in another the congregation is self-governing.

There is no biblical blueprint for congregational life or for the conduct of public worship. At best, we can identity components. But what is certainly true is that there is no ossification. Change was not a dirty word to New Testament Christians. It might have been anathema to first-century Pharisees, but not to New Testament Christians. Jesus Christ redeemed change. He did it all the time. And the changelessness of God of which we sing is not a state of being we are expected to emulate. The changelessness of God is there in order that we can be transformed without fear.

If an analogy helps, think of the sun, changeless in its regular rising and setting, changeless in the direction of its heat towards the earth. Why is that? In order that the earth might be the same-unchanging—as the sun? No! In order that the life of the earth might be always in flux, always changing, always seedtime and harvest, always summer and winter. Never the same.

We need to redeem our understanding of the word change.

Old Does Not Mean Bad
New Does Not Mean Good

We also need to become better evaluators of change. The twin winds of traditionalism and modernism blow both gems and rubbish in our direction. All that is old is not inherently bad and disposable. All that is new is not inherently good and useable.

For years my colleagues and I at the Iona Community have heard people bemoan that we are giving up on our great traditions of church organs, church choirs, and so on. This kind of complaint went by unchallenged until we realized that when people talk about "tradition," they are rarely talking about anything historical. They are usually speaking biographically.

Hence, to some the traditional way of serving communion is to sit in pews covered with white cloths and have a minuscule piece of bread and a glass thimble of wine delivered to their pews by elders. Oh no, says someone who goes to another congregation of the same church. The custom is to have large bowls of wine passed round and give everyone a ladle-shaped spoon to dip in and extract the wine.

Oh no, says a third. & We all go out and I stand round the communion table, passing the bread and wine from hand to hand.

Each of these proponents of "tradition" are merely saying what has been true for them since their childhood. But to generalize or universalize that into a statement of tradition for the Reformed or Presbyterian Church is naivete.

Thus, we discovered that the great Scottish Presbyterian tradition of organs was only a hundred years old and, like the great Presbyterian tradition of choral singing (which is twenty years older), was introduced to our churches with no small degree of reluctance. Both innovations were seen as threatening the song of the congregation.

The Old ...

If we go farther back in our historical tradition, we find some very basic aspects of worship which, while they cannot be replicated today, can be emulated or developed. Let me give three examples:

Unaccompanied Singing

What effectively happens whenever you have a separate class of musician is that worship can move from being a participative activity to being a spectator sport. Unaccompanied singing—particularly of psalms or hymns set to folk tunes or early post-Reformation tunes—enables these tunes to sound as they were intended to and also makes it clear to the congregation that it's either them or no one.

I can now point to congregations in Scotland where the musicians and the congregations would claim that the innovation that has had the most positive effect on church music has been singing the psalms or the occasional hymn unaccompanied, with different genders taking different verses. And of course it's really not an innovation at all—it's an old tradition revisited.

Psalm Singing

In Scotland, Presbyterians never officially sang hymns until the mid-nineteenth century. Prior to that we sang only psalms and paraphrases of Scripture. And when we sang the psalms, we sang all the psalms, not just the nice ones like 23,47,95,100, 121, 145. That meant that in the past, people sang their pain, their laments, their objections to God as well as their praise.

Now we have begun to sing the psalms that way again, using new translations and new musical settings, but trying to encompass the range of emotional and spiritual intensity contained in the psalter. People throughout the country are expressing not just their appreciation but also their deep relief at being able to relate to God in sorrow, doubt, and depression, where previously the hymnodic diet often required us to be joyful. Another old tradition revisited.

Singing Old Hymns

We are increasingly recognizing that some of the best hymns and tunes come from far back. The Victorians dumped on us a legacy of forced piety, sen-timentalism, and sometimes deceptive images of God in their hymns. And their tunes, with mushy harmony or pedantic melodies that only an organist who never lifted his fingers from the keys could invent, were little better.

But go back to a historical hymn like "O Come, O Come, Immanuel," or "O Sons and Daughters, Let Us Sing," or "The Strife Is O'er" and you have a marriage of scriptural words with melodies that can be accompanied by drums as easily as by organs.

The proof comes from a group of Christians in Glasgow called the Late Late Service. They are mostly rock and rave musicians, disenchanted by the mainstream churches. Last Christmas they were asked to do a program for public radio. And they did so—in their own style—beginning with "O Come, O Come, Immanuel."

And what about Hildegard of Bingen and Gregorian chant? Neither of them is "contemporary," and yet they are able to resonate in the minds of many of today's young people who never go near a church.

Along this same line I have a personal interest in revisiting some of the old Genevan psalm tunes, several of which, arguably, began their life as dance runes, but were slowed down by Calvin, who didn't like dancing. Set them to a livelier tempo, change the harmony on the bar rather than on each beat, accompany them by a flute or fiddle and dmm, set them to contemporary metrical translations, and the songs transcend cultures and generations.

And what is this but a revisiting of tradition, proving that all that is old is not bad?

There is a whole range of religious entrepreneurs and gimmick masters who just want to get books sold and turn people on to a diet of good-time, quick-fix, pick-and-mix religion ... on which people grow spiritually thin.

The New...

just as all that is old is not bad, all that is new is not good.

In the realm of worship renewal, a number of different movements have sprung up in the past thirty years, all eager to advance their aims, and some presuming to have the answer to everyone's needs.

It is remarkable how, for example, the Taize community in France, through its production of short songs for worship, has affected the conduct of worship throughout the European and English-speaking worlds.

Also worthy of note—especially in the Roman Catholic Church—is the charismatic movement, which, in the wake of Vatican II, encouraged less formal types of music and forms of prayer.

And during the past ten years or so there have been communities who commit themselves to working with "seekers," or renewal agencies such as the Willow Creek or the Toronto Blessing people who promote words and music that are new and that come out of their experience.

But behind this, we have to remember that we do not live in a folk culture where the worth of any item or any song is gradually affirmed by a process of familiarization and handling. The culture that commands much of our lives is a commercial culture, where packaging, promotion, and razzamatazz are frequently substitutes for quality.

Buzz words such as "new" and "latest" or "instantly singable" along with spurious testimonies about the power of the material can blind us to its true worth or to what it singularly fails to do.

I have a book at home that comes from a North American Protestant source. It purports to be a selection of the "best new worship songs."

You will not find in it any song more than three verses long. You will not find in it any song that relates to the Old Testament. You will not find in it any song that alludes to the earthly ministry of Jesus. You will not find in it any song or hymn of intercession.

What you will find is page after page of four-lined ditties with words such as praise, raise, and hallelujah freely interspersed—as if the songs had been created by a computer working from a limited data base:

Consider how he loves you
his arms of love enfold you
like a sweet, sweet perfume.

He left his word to hide us
his presence lives inside us
like sweet, sweet perfume.

(No indication of who "he" is!)

Lord, I'll seek after you
'cause you're the only one
that satisfies
turn towards to kiss your face.

These songs are white Protestant trash. They do not edify; they simply entertain. They are the liturgical equivalent of monosodium glutamate: they leave you dissatisfied, hooked on a need for more of the same.

Now, I would not for a moment write off every contemporary song with the same vehemence. Half my time is spent working with new materials. But there are some criteria by which new material needs to be judged.

  • Is this song true to biblical truth?
  • Is there more in this song about the author than about anyone else?
  • Is this a solo song for some weepy-eyed failed pop star to sing to an audience, or is it a community song in which everyone can participate?
  • Does this song have a melody, or does it depend on the accompaniment to keep it going?
  • Does this song offer a fresh insight into the nature of God or humanity, or does it merely say what has been said before—only worse?
  • Does this song or any of its counterparts speak to God of life today in a particular sense?
  • If this song is for guitar, does it have more than three chords?

To my knowledge, there is no serious contemporary musician who would quibble with these criteria. But there is a whole range of religious entrepreneurs and gimmick masters who just want to get books sold and turn people on to a diet of good-time, quick-fix, pick-and-mix religion... on which people grow spiritually thin.

The church is not called on to imitate the mindset of the marketplace. Our worship music should have the qualities of integrity, honesty, clarity, and biblical faith—whether the new song is meant for handbells and organ or heavy metal band.

For me, the most important question to ask of new music is, Does this sing well? Here I'm deliberately talking about congregational music, because there is no more supreme instrument in the worship of Almighty God than the voice of God's people—not the organ, not the choir, not the new bass guitar, not the handbells, not the gifted soloist who's just finished at the Met... but the congregation.

Ironically, the tendency in contemporary music writing is for composers to write out of their own experience and for their own voices and fingers, not thinking about the people who will be singing the words. In doing so, they miss the target. All of God's people are asked to sing a new song. And if a church musician doesn't respect the congregation in the first place, then that's not going to happen.

I recently taught a course on hymnwriting, and time and again I found myself telling the writers, "This doesn't sing well. You know what your voice can do, and you know what your choir can do, but a congregation is different. And if it's meant for them and it doesn't work with them, scrap it. It might be a beautiful solo, but it's a lousy hymn."

We need to ask that same question of our buildings: Does it sing well? Church architects and congregational governing bodies sometimes forget that Reformed church buildings were intended to enable the congregation to sing.

When people come to lona Abbey, they're often amazed that people sing such a wide range of material so easily. Half of that is good teaching. The other half is a good building. We once made a recording with eight half-baked singers standing on the steps at the back of the nave. They sounded like the Sistine Chapel choir. The architecture flattered them.

But elsewhere . . . elsewhere we put in acoustic tiles, we hang acres of curtain, we cover hard surfaces with carpet, we put cushions onto every pew, and we end up with the church looking like a five-star comfort station.

Worse than that, we allow people to sit wherever they want, so they sit together as if the body of Christ had a contagious disease.

And when they don't sing, because the building has a dead acoustic, or because they're scared that other people will hear them, we bring in a microphone and amplifiers for the worship group, the soloists, and the readers. And we end up building a barricade between the performers and the audience.

Not everything that is new is good.

Worship Music and the
Doctrine of Appropriateness

If we want the music in our churches to flourish, to be renewed, to sparkle, inspire, convert, we have to work on a doctrine of appropriateness.

What do I mean by that?

Have you ever heard "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" played on a pipe organ? Or, how would you feel about bagpipes starting up as you were receiving Holy Communion?

Or what about asking your congregational choir, which has two-and-a-half basses and twenty women, to sing the Hallelujah chorus? None of these would work, because they simply aren't appropriate.

Unfortunately, inappropriateness is often not so evident. Often we have to deal with subtler things—■ and that's partly the result of living in a performance culture.

We hear the definitive version of a Bach cantata on CD, and we long to have the same thing happen in our church. So we try it, and it fails. Why? Because the CD cantata was sung by forty fully paid choristers who were Bach specialists, and the only specialist we have in our sixteen-person choir is a cardiologist— handy when you're having a heart attack, but less so when you're singing "WachetAuf."

We listen to a glitzy contemporary music cassette and discover there's a marvelous song called "Jump High for Jesus." But when we try to adapt it for church, we fail. Why? Because the song has funny chords in it—diminished chords, augmented chords, F-sharp minor seventh with E in the bass—and our guitarist can only do C, D, F, and G. Besides, the recording has been triple-tracked . . . and our sound system isn't that advanced.

In Scotland, we've had appropriateness problems in some churches with the music from Taize. One member of the congregation has been to France in the height of the summer, sat cross-legged with four thousand people in the great church at Taize, lit candles, and sung "Ubi Caritas etAmor" fifty times.

That person comes home to her or his parish, full of the joys of Taize. They get a chance to enthuse the congregation the Sunday before Advent at the evening service. So they light forty candles (which immediately upsets the Presbyterians, who believe that Calvin invented the electric light). They clear the chancel so that people can sit on the floor (of course, everybody privately wonders why we've abandoned the more comfortable pews). And then "Ubi Caritas et Amor" begins.

By that point half the attenders are asking themselves, "Why are we singing in Latin? Isn't that what the Reformation was all about?" And five minutes later the other half, who have been tolerant so far, begin to feel both cold and uncomfortable and wonder when this infernal chant is going to stop.

All this is simply to say that what works well in one context cannot be guaranteed to work well in another. And when we innovate in a congregation, we have to consider what is appropriate for these people in this building.

Think About What's Appropriate

Big churches with big congregations and rural churches with smaller congregations offer a different range of possibilities, and the discerning liturgist and musician will be attentive to what is appropriate. Thinking about what is appropriate will affect which songs and what type of accompaniment you choose.

If you want to kill a contemporary song with an upbeat tempo, there's nothing better than playing it on a pipe organ. The sound reminds you of ballet dancers doing apas-de-deux wearing ski boots.

If you want to sing a Victorian hymn tune, there's no worse accompaniment than the guitar. Victorian hymn tunes change the chord on every beat. Anyone who tries to accompany that on guitar ends up with skinned fingertips.

But the following tips make sense:

  • If the song is set to a folk tune, use a flute or a fiddle.
  • If it comes from the past, sing it on its own.
  • If it comes from Africa or Central America, think of drums.
  • If it is set for keyboard but has a strong rhythmic feature, use acoustic piano.
  • If it has eight verses, change the harmony in two of the verses and vary who sings.
  • If it looks like a verse and chorus item, get people to sing the verses from all around the church.

Before we who plan and/or lead church music can develop a doctrine of appropriateness, we need to learn to swallow our pride. We need to start thinking more in terms of what is good for the people of God in this place—and less about showin

Reformed Worship 40 © June 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.