Liturgical Appropriateness

The Story of God

The National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) San Pedro Region held a workshop titled “Lend Us Your Ear” on May 18, 2019, at St. John Fisher Catholic Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. The following is an adapted transcript of the presentation I gave at that event.

One of the first things I want to draw attention to is the title, “Liturgical Appropriateness.” Appropriateness is never a fun word because it doesn’t offer any real reason as to why something is appropriate. We know to look at the readings and to plan our music accordingly. How that music fits in depends on the community you’ve been able to build, both within your ministry and in your congregation. I have always sought to give people what they need, not just what they want. We who are in directorship positions are there because we have been trained, like priests, to move our flocks forward.

The Goal of the Liturgy

But what is the bigger goal of liturgy and its music? I like to think of the depth of our faith. Depth means nuance. Nuance accounts for the many complicated questions we will undoubtedly face in our lives. Where does evil come from? If God loves us, why does my aunt have cancer?

And so on. Thinking about nuance tells us how we might approach the long-term goal of what story we want our music to tell. Praise music is just that: praise. No more. No less. But more than half of the psalms talk about pain, doubt, and fear. Why can’t our worship look like that? We are unwavering believers and worshipers, but that doesn’t mean we ignore our basic tenets and instincts when something in the world doesn’t make sense. The music we share must always explore these areas of inquiry within the worship service.

Our liturgy must tell a story. In his book The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams, Zac Hicks identifies the many considerations of a worship pastor when designing liturgy. According to Hicks, liturgy is a narrative, and there are some things we must answer about the narrative to understand the story better:

  1. What is the story’s context?
  2. How is the story set? How does the narrative begin?
  3. Who are the main characters of the story? Who are the heroes and villains?
  4. What is the climax of the narrative, and how do the story’s elements contribute to getting there?
  5. How does the story end?
  6. What is the point of the story? What message is the author conveying?

How do our churches answer these questions in the liturgy? How would God answer? It’s difficult to say, but our goal is to make the answer to the first question as close as possible to that of the second. We can begin by putting the liturgy in the context of three Gs: the Glory of God, the Gravity of Sin, and the Grandeur of Grace. According to Hicks, the three Gs can help answer questions about the overall narrative of the liturgy.

The Glory of God, the Gravity of Sin, and the Grandeur of Grace

The liturgy begins with a call to worship in the form of music. We are joyous and in awe of the Father. The glory of the Trinity is on full display: the Father speaks creation into being (Genesis 1:3), the Spirit summons form from chaos (Genesis 1:2), and the Son becomes the Word of God (John 1:1–3). We bid the congregation to be overwhelmed by all the things that make God great—God’s kindness, goodness, faithfulness, steadfastness, holiness, brilliance, and so forth.

Next we address the gravity of sin. We must convey the reality of our sin. As Isaiah said, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). We must be made aware of our need for confession, admitting what it is that has taken precedence over the gospel. The gospel message is dull and lifeless if we have not adequately seen our sin. That’s not all, though. We must also lament the world’s brokenness, the utter catastrophe that is the human condition. I say “world” because priests and pastors too often talk to us about our daily, personal problems and how Christian living can affect our behavior. But the world has bigger problems than our individual problems, and we must lament over them.

The final G, the Grandeur of Grace, is the part in which we participate in the cosmic catharsis, when we truly understand Revelation 5:12: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” In the liturgy, this happens twice: first in the liturgy of the Word (the gospel reading, the Lord’s prayer, and the Sanctus), and second in the liturgy of the table at communion.

Authentic Expression: The Psalms

With the three Gs in mind, it is important to distinguish between sentimentality and authentic expression. I find that the praise music industry often uses sentimentality as a marketing tool. People may argue with me about this, but it is indisputable that in the United States “happiness” is a major industry, and, just maybe, our praise music has been commoditized to that effect. Authentic expression is honest, and honesty is not always pretty. Think about the psalms.

The psalms are a wonderful model for worship. They are songs of pain, darkness, hatred, praise, worship, anguish, jealousy, and prayer. They explore the wide range of human emotions and inform us that it is perfectly normal to feel whatever we feel in regard to God. Life is painful, and it would be tone-deaf for me to lead a song of praise when a parent has just lost a child. What would a pastor say to the family? God is good? Truthfully, I doubt the father or mother would believe the pastor wholeheartedly. Our music must not always express praise for God; after all, our congregations who are hearing or singing it include people in pain. Rather, worship music must seek to empathize with worshipers wherever they are in their hearts. The cathartic effect that music of anguish has on a sufferer is immeasurable; dopamine is released in our brains as the words of the sufferer in the psalms resonate with our own suffering and we realize that we are not alone in our pain; we are connected to millions of others who have suffered and used the empathetic ear of the psalms as comfort. Between the Gravity of Sin and Grandeur of Grace lie the idiosyncrasies of our own emotions, nuanced and honest. The result is a liturgy that makes us characters in the story of God.

Formation

Last, we must remember that the language we use in liturgy will help form people’s prayer lives. The well-worn grooves of our worship services and liturgies will be starting points from which our congregations will adapt their own prayers in the quiet of their minds. The melodies and words we sing, play, and lead must seek to authentically express the diverse emotions of the psalms and, indeed, the human condition. The tune may not always be pretty, but it must always be beautiful. The harmony will not always be predictable, but it will always be aligned with the faithful. The rhythms need not always be fast or steady, but they must always move forward. Our faith is complicated, and our music can help us to be present to its nuances and complications throughout our lives and to be honest witnesses in the story of God in the liturgy. Liturgical appropriateness becomes more about simultaneously conveying expression and inspiration to the tune of honest prayer. For me, appropriate music in the liturgy is a springboard for empathetically nurturing our congregation’s expression of faith.

Dr. Adán Fernández is the university organist at California Lutheran University and director of music and organist at Holy Family Catholic Church in Glendale, California.