Saturday, October 11, 2008

Free Liturgical Advice #1 - Background Music

This is the first installment of a little series I'd like to do for the next three months or so. I didn't write the book on liturgy, but I did write a book on the subject. That doesn't mean I'm an expert, but I think I have a good eye (and ear) for spotting liturgical silliness. And that's what I intend to do in this little series—identify some practical liturgical mistakes that are commonly made in modern American worship services. Liturgical corrigenda ("things that need to be corrected"), if you will. Lucy charges 5 cents. My advice is free.

So here is my first piece of advice: don't play background music during the long pastoral prayer. You know what I mean. The piano or synthesizer is playing some slow, nondescript muzak as the pastor begins to pray. The soft, simple music continues throughout the prayer. Sometimes the music is meant to conjure up "heavenly" thoughts or even "outer space." Oh yes, I've heard synthesized "space music" played as the prayer is being made. I don't know what else to call it. It's the kind of music you might hear during a presentation at your local planetarium.

This practice is pure cheese. It is so incredibly annoying and ridiculous. I suspect that it comes directly from televised church services and other televangelistic "ministries." Don't do it. Just pray. If people are having a hard time following your prayers, pastors, then shorten them. That's right. Most pastoral prayers are way too long. Better yet, use a form of prayer—a litany or a bidding prayer—that actually incorporates the congregation in the act of prayer. Now, there's a novel idea. No, actually, it's an ancient practice that treats the congregation as participants in the liturgy rather than simply as an audience that is being manipulated by emotive music.

Cheese is for Friday night at the wine bar. Keep it out of church.


Unknown said...

Would you also consider it cheese to use synthesizers to evoke any range of "imagined" destinations?

(i.e. - the organist who isn't content to keep it sounding like pipes, but feels the need to use the midi unit to give it some wind, bagpipes and scottish drums...or maybe a harp and flute duet, all from the confines of that console sitting up behind the communion table while we're waiting for the invocation or passing the offering basket.)

Maybe the above examples are too specific to be helpful, but I'd be interested to read your discussion of the use of background music and whether it always falls into some category of impropriety.

JATB said...

I subbed at a little country church one Sunday and the organist started in with that sort of thing under the "pastoral prayer." (The church had a Hammond B-3 with the Leslie effect, which lent a whole ball park/skating rink feel to the whole business.) It was all I could do to keep from thinking about "Elron" MacKenzie's "Don't Kill Bugs" sermon from the "Great White North" album.

shookfoil said...

I believe it's spelled "muzak." Yeah, I'm an expert.

How 'bout that visit, btw?

Jeff Meyers said...

Yeah, it is muzak. Thanks. I'm working on the visit. I've got way too much going on this month.

Anonymous said...

The practical worship difficulty that I have with this practice is that music is like a competing language to what is being said. It is like another person speaking. I can't concentrate on both an English prayer and someone plunking music at the same time. It is one or the other, so in addition to schmaltz, which it is, it is invariably distracting schmaltz.

What utility do you think those who practice this effect think it has?

Jeff Meyers said...

True enough. I think those who do this just think it's helpful background music. It puts people "in the mood" and helps them concentrate on "spiritual things." Something like that. But unless the pastor is chanting the prayer, you're right, it may become a competing language.

As for "background music," I'm not sure what place it has in the service at all. Music, of course, can prepare us for and adorn our worship. But simply to play something in the "background" while some other liturgical act is going on is questionable.

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Too funny. My housemate, who is new to the area, thought she'd found a church she liked 'til the first Sunday of the month rolled around and they played muzak during communion. (And served grape juice.) Eventually I will wear her down and she'll join my church!

CatholicPresbyterian said...

Amen! The worst is the offering! The music keeps going on and on after the offering is done! Or when the music during communion sounds like a funeral durge! Good thoughts Jeff!

Chris said...

Thanks. This entry made me laugh. I'm looking forward to future additions to this series.