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Contemporary Music, Ecumenical Conferences, the Assurance of Pardon

Q My church sings contemporary music, but with piano accompaniment rather than guitar and drums. It doesn’t sound very contemporary. Why can’t the music be led by a band, like it was designed to be?

A There are a lot of layers to this question. Some churches don’t have a praise band because they don’t have people with the necessary skills. Others prefer piano or organ or have discerned that in their context piano or organ accompaniment leads to the best possible singing. All of those judgments need to be made contextually.

Your question sounds a lot like the sentiment I have heard from some organists: if a hymn was written to be led by an organ, then why should it be led by a praise band? Both you and the organist I am thinking about are expressing a certain purist desire. It is similar to people who want Bach’s music performed on original instruments or those who think you really shouldn’t sing an African song in worship unless it’s accompanied by djembe drums.

The fact is that for centuries musicians have been sharing music across cultures, with varying performance practices that either bring out or obscure aspects of a given song. Some artists have built an entire career around taking music from one context and refashioning it for a new one. Often music works particularly well when played by the instrumentation for which it was written, but that does not mean that crossovers are not possible.

For example, “A Mighty Fortress” can be sung with a lush, four part-harmonization led by a pipe organ, or it can be done by a recorder or trombone with its spare, angular dance-like rhythm. It can also be led by a praise band with a back-beat. None of these is “right” or “wrong.” Each is more or less adequate to encourage full, vibrant congregational singing in a particular time and place.

Singing contemporary music with a piano can, in some circumstances, make the singing stronger, offering more support for the congregation than may have been needed for the solo artist’s version of that song. In other circumstances, it can weaken singing, taking away rhythmic energy. So it is important for pianists to explore different ways of playing these songs, including interpretations that energize the rhythms inherent in the music and emphasize the bass notes that provide a strong foundation for congregational singing.

Q The best part of my summer is attending a worship conference in another Christian tradition. Could you recommend this practice to your readers?

A I am happy to. Most of us attend conferences with people from similar backgrounds. But I heartily recommend seeking out a learning event in another Christian tradition. Some of the most formative experiences I can remember involved events in Mennonite, Lutheran, Methodist, or other Christian traditions. In every case, I learned aspects of the gospel I had not previously focused on. I came away with new appreciation for practices that I otherwise would have taken for granted.

At the same time, conferences may not be the only or the best way to experience ecumenical hospitality. I recall gratefully the testimonies of an ecumenical team organized to visit each other’s congregations and reflect together on the gifts and challenges of each local congregation. It was particularly instructive because it built ecumenical relationships through (not “around” or “above”) the experience of local congregations.

Conferences are splendid. But nothing matches the experience of sharing in the lives of congregations.

Q Why do we call the response to confession “an assurance of pardon” if salvation is so much bigger than pardon from sin?

A Indeed, salvation involves a lot more than pardon from sin. It also entails the healing of the nations, the redemption of all creation, the sharing of life abundant. Salvation includes not just justification, but also sanctification. Perhaps we really should rotate our terminology, having “an assurance of pardon” one week and an “assurance of sanctification” the next.

At the same time, it’s important to see the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon as parts of a larger whole. These actions put the focus on human sinfulness, culpability, and divine pardon. They then lead to a focus in the rest of the service on the other aspects of salvation. A good sermon should often (perhaps always!) include an assurance of God’s continuing sanctifying work among us. The Lord’s Supper offers us that same assurance.

So perhaps we need to ask a larger question: Do our worship services as a whole convey the fullness of all that God offers us through Jesus Christ?

Too often the message we convey is wonderful but incomplete. We convey that Jesus saves us from our sins, but become vague about the rest of the story.