Like a Sloppy Wet Kiss
You know you are at a worship conference sponsored by David Crowder when a fog machine kicks in and gobo lights wash the stage in color while the Welcome Wagon sings an exquisitely spare version of "Hail to the Lord's Anointed." It makes you wonder what the Moravian James Montgomery (1771-1854), author of the hymn, would have thought.
This past weekend I had the privilege of attending Crowder's Fantastical Church Music Conference in Waco, Texas. Presenters included folks like Louie Giglio and Francis Chan. The songwriters spanned a broad range of musical styles: from the "liturgical" BiFrost Arts group to the R&B sounds of Israel Houghton, from the hard rock tones of Gungor and Paper Route to the minimalist soundscape of The Civil Wars. Never heard of them? Mostly neither had I.
I had, however, heard of Charlie Peacock and Matt Redman, second and third generation songwriters of contemporary worship music respectively. I had seen Derek Webb the "firebrand" live in 1993. I had watched Jars of Clay on David Letterman in 1996. I knew many at Duke Divinity School did not think highly of Hillsong music. I knew Rob Bell was persona non grata in certain Reformed circles. And I knew that this lyric might cause near cosmic eye-rolling: "So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss," courtesy of North Carolinian songwriter John Mark McMillan. Oh, the sentimentalism of it. Did it have to be sloppy? Could it not be transcendently circumspect?
For the two thousand of us in attendance, one question occupied our minds: What do all these musicians have to do with each other? The easy answer is nothing. According to David Crowder, however, much. For me the conference represented an exercise in subversive hopefulness.
But since it's more fun to criticize, I'd like to share four things that rubbed me the wrong way. In fact I'm going to do what annoys me: impulsively react. I'm going to criticize, then criticize my criticism. Why? For two reasons: one, I too frequently find critiques of contemporary worship music to be lazy, and two, I left the conference feeling very encouraged. Did that surprise me? Sure. But that only tells you something about my little faith.
Ok, then, let's criticize.
1. Circumcision! No, skinny jeans!
In the book of Galatians, St. Paul rebukes the "foolish" believers for looking to circumcision as a way to establish an identity marker over against outsiders. He tells them that the only identity marker that matters is the presence of the Spirit. Looking around the Green Room at the conference, I saw lots of skinny jeans. I saw baroque tattoos trailing down people's arms, funny hats and thin mustaches, raggedy hair and fussy glasses and a handful of scowls. I thought, "This is so goofy. Skinny jeans are goofy. It's just a way for artists to be cool, which is another way for them to be not like normal people. And what's up with wearing funny hats when you lead us in worship? All that does is to draw attention to yourself."
Then I thought, a suit and tie is goofy. So too are liturgical robes. At one level they symbolize a theological and spiritual posture before God. They matter, yes. But at another level they represent cultural ideas of what is appropriate, and therefore to those outside the given culture they seem "goofy." The suit and tie appears as a 17th century invention, while ecclesiastical robes exist as leftovers of late Roman culture. So why should skinny jeans be intrinsically inappropriate? They are not. In fact, once I imagined the "alternative" crowd that Michael Gungor leads into worship in Denver, Colorado, I got over my bad attitude and gratefully received his hymns.