Time Warp (Safiyah Fosua)

It is said that the internationally known church consultant, Lyle E. Schaller, opens his consultations with the question:  What year is it here?  I stumbled upon the question while preparing for a new course on trends in worship and found it intriguing.  The question is bold, probing, and almost insulting to answer.  What year is it?   It assumes the possibility that intelligent people in the 21st century could not know what year it is.  What year is it here?  (As though it were possible for it to be one year here and another everywhere else.)  It sounds like the kind of question that nurses ask early Alzheimer’s disease patients when I am visiting them in the hospital.

And yet, anyone who leads the church must admit that the question is not an insult, it is genius.

I look at the church from the vantage point of worship, where Lyle’s question practically proves that the church has some form of Alzheimer’s disease and does not appear to understand or care about the year that everyone else lives in. In my travels, I find that is it normal to find 1850s “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” churches nestled on the city’s church row beside a 1984 “As the Deer” church – with the latter claiming to be contemporary despite its 30-year time warp!  If you were to look more closely at my two hypothetical extremes, you might find that the songs mentioned were stylistically supported by worship resources that were nourishing to worshippers at the time that those songs were written – in 1858 and 1984 respectively.

This raises a critical question for worship theologians.   Should it matter to the Church what year it is?  Why, aren’t the music, the language, and the texts of the church timeless?  We who lead churches know that the answer is both yes and no.  Yes, there are some timeless qualities about the ethos of the Church.  But, no, not everything is timeless.  From time to time, the worship aids used by churches must be updated or adapted for new worshippers, while retaining meaning.

The original function of memorized or written liturgy was to give worshippers a tool to enter the presence of God.  I invite you to also view songs sung in worship as a worship aid, a tool to help congregants actually worship and come into the presence of a Holy God.  How do we select music for the 21st century?  Consider the following:

  1. There are some songs and hymns that proverbially stand the test of time.  By this, we mean that the texts and sometimes their tunes transcend time and culture and convey meaning for multiple generations.
  2. For every timeless hymn, there are many more hymns and songs with a very limited shelf life.  These songs and hymns were helpful tools for worship for their time, but times have changed and now people either find their texts awkward or their tunes meaningless.  Some of them were born in a spiritual movement.  For example, the genre of Christian music that emerged during the Civil Rights Movement is said to have fueled the movement by inspiring people of multiple races to remember the biblical principles for which they were demonstrating.  Once the movement was over, the music of the movement quickly retreated into history. The same could be said of music that emerged during several of North America’s spiritual awakenings.  These songs were targeted and specific.  While they fulfilled their purpose in their time, times have changed and the people today who need an awakening are often unable to hear their message.
  3. And then, there are a number of songs whose texts continue to convey meaning, while the tunes no longer connect with our times or vice-versa.  What do we do with them?  Perhaps we could take a cue from younger generations who have become skilled in pairing them with different texts or more contextually relevant tunes.  Two important words to remember as you consider using music from another era are remix and mashup.  A remix involves repackaging the text or the tune with either a new set of lyrics or a new tune.  A mashup goes a step beyond to pair the familiar text and tune with a more contextual one.  Charles Wesley’s “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1739), has recently been both remixed and mashed up in very distinct, culturally relevant ways. Mark Miller provides a recent example of a remix http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gslyMd0MPqs&list=PLNBJvha6_28gwenRztnmDkdUmc9KbG39p  and the David Crowder Band provides a popular example of a mashup http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWekq9bHtKU.

What year is it here?  As you plan and lead worship, keep Schaller’s question in mind.  And, as you look for solutions, consider avoiding the time warp by remembering remix and mashup.