My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
One of the problems I have with contemporary Christian music, which I mentioned in my introduction to this feature, is the less efficient nature of the song structure. I posited that the songs went on for longer to cover up a lack of substance in the church service, jettisoning the more traditional elements for lengthy sing-alongs of a certain brand of acoustic pop that was last popular around 1997.
The Sanctuary Downtown, a church that is technically a few city blocks north of downtown Denver (but I suppose they don’t want to be confused with the bondage club that goes by the same name), shows what happens when a church combines a weighty, substantive service with contemporary Christian music. What mostly happens is that the service goes on, and on, and on. The service I attended, on Sunday, May 19 at 10AM, didn’t let out until almost 11:45, a ridiculous length for a non-evangelical church that prides itself on being as open as possible to people from all denominations. Somebody should tell them that people from all denominations like to have services that are about an hour long, and then they’d like to get something to eat or attend the after-church meet-n-greet in the basement.
To be fair to Sanctuary Downtown, this appeared to be longer than theit usual service- the pastor, apparently ported in fresh from the Princeton seminary, spent a good 15 minutes detailing the problematic nature of the connections between the Christian missionary movement and European imperialism, which I assume isn’t normal for him- but it shows the problematic nature of using six-minute songs in place of 90-second hymns. I really enjoyed the sermon, mostly because its message centered on the necessity of not dumbing down the doctrines of Christianity when preaching, but when such a sermon follows a song that is 24 verses long, and each of those verses has 4 lines, and of those 4 lines, two were the same in nearly every verse, there’s a faint smack of hypocrisy. You may not want to dumb down Christianity’s message, but what do you call meeting in a church with a gigantic, beautiful old pipe organ, and then placing in front of it a projector screen and the last five people in the world who unironically name Hootie and the Blowfish as a major influence? (yeah, it’s the second time I’ve used Hootie & tha B as fodder for insults, but on the other hand, can you really ever insult Hootie and the Blowfish? They should just be happy anyone remembers them)
Enough with the overview, let’s get to the vital stats:
Church: The Sanctuary Downtown (not a bondage club)
Communion: Open to all, wine and grape juice, bread and gluten-free crackers available
Bible: English Standard Version
Type of Service: Tries to keep people looking up to heaven or down to their clasped hands; lots of standing and sitting to pray.
Audience Participation: A request for people in the congregation to call out stuff to pray for and stuff they’re thankful for (in my college youth group, we called this Joys & Concerns). A few people would raise one hand and sway back and forth when singing, but everyone just tried to ignore them, which raised my opinion of the congregation considerably.
Opening Song: “Your Word” (I think, I hadn’t started taking notes yet)
I don’t have the stats for this song that I had for the others, but it did contain the lyrics “Come Jesus, come, come.” I don’t think Christian music should be a slave to the poor taste of its detractors, but really? Are you daring me to have impure thoughts? Because it sounds like the congregation really wants Jesus to ejaculate all over them.
Also, the song contains the lyrics “Your Word is the light in the darkness,” and “Your Word is the word of truth,” both of which are theologically problematic at best. When God says “Let there be light,” at the beginning of Genesis, his Word is separate from the light: this ain’t no John 1:1-type thing, where the Word is with light, and the Word is light- it’s not! Also, the song seems to be referring more to Jesus, the Son, and saying that His words are the light in the darkness suggests that the universe- which, remember, was created by God- is dark without Jesus in it. But the universe is still created by God, and therefore still essentially good, according to Augustine. Declaring it “dark” without Jesus in it is only theologically true in the sense of Genesis 1:1, where God’s Word is the pre-incarnation form of the Son. As for the line “Your Word is the word of truth,” it’s a tautology, and a pretty lazy one at that.
Song during the Offering: “Dwell in the midst of us”
Original Verse Ratio (the number of original verses to the total number of verses/chorus sung): 4:24
I understand that you need an extendable, iterative song for an offering, but maybe don’t choose one where a full third of all the lines sung are “Dwell in the midst of us.” Also contains the unfortunate line “Come and have your way,” which is the second most-repeated line in the song, and once again is way too much of a sex thing for me to be completely comfortable. When John Donne wrote to God that he would be “nor ever chaste, except you ravish me,” at least he knew what he was doing.
Song during Communion: “Amazing Grace”
Original Verse Ratio: 1:1 (every verse has original lyrics, with no repetition of a chorus)
Nothing bad to say about this- they even sang all the verses!- except that I don’t think it needed a guitar solo. Also, they had to play it at half-speed in order to keep it above the critical above-5-minutes mark that this band felt obligated to hit with every song.
Other Song: “Mighty to Save”
Original Verse Ratio: 7:20
Is there a more awful musical instruction than “repeat x6?” Because that’s how many times the song instructs us to say “shine your light and let the whole world see/We’re singing for the glory of the risen king JESUS.” Yes, you’re supposed to shout “Jesus” at the end, throwing off the whole rhyme structure, but also distracting from the stupidity of the lyrics. So Jesus is supposed to shine his light, to let the whole world see that we are singing about Jesus? I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty narcissistic for Jesus, and this is a guy who went around telling everyone he was the son of God from the time he was twelve. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean you have to be a dick about it, Jesus. How about, as long as you’re shining your light on the whole world (thereby depriving half of it of much-needed darkness that allows people to sleep and crops to escape the heat of the sun), how about You just tell them You’re the risen king? Half of the world has already been plunged into untimely light on Your account; I’m pretty sure they’ll believe You.
Worse, this was one of those songs where none of the lines rhyme. Scratch that, looking at lyric sheet, I notice that the song manages to rhyme “save” with “save” and “grave” with “grave,” so the whole thing isn’t entirely a bad free-verse poem set to the most generic acoustic-guitar riff you can imagine… though it mostly is that. Take a look at this tercet:
Everyone needs forgiveness
The kindness of a savior
The hope of nations
Can anyone tell me any reason at all that these lines should appear together? They don’t rhyme, they don’t have a similar rhythm, they don’t even consistently say the same thing: lines 1 and 2, by themselves, seem to be focusing on the qualities Jesus provides to people who most need Him, but lines 2 and 3 simply seem to be describing Jesus using terms found everywhere in the Bible. This fails my personal three-part commandment for songs:
1. Thou shalt express an original sentiment
2. Failing that, thou shalt express a common sentiment in an original manner
3. Failing that, thou shalt not sound like shit.
“Mighty to Save” fails all of these with the gusto of an abortion-clinic bomber convinced he is doing the right thing. I could go through each of the individual verses, but then I would have no time for
Closing Song: “Everything That’s Beautiful”
Original Verse Ratio: 4:8 (actually not bad. Too bad all those verses are terrible)
The standout lyric hear would have to be “the only things that satisfy come from You/they come from You,” because clearly the missing ingredient for Christianity, until this song came into being, was a lyric that sounds like the tag line for an instant coffee advertisement. And then a repetition of the first line, so the songwriter
doesn’t have to get out a rhyming dictionary makes completely clear that all good things come from God, which I’m sure is a novel sentiment to anybody who goes to church. The song goes on to list all the good things that come from God, including (but presumably not limited to):
Your grace, your heart
Your voice, your touch
Your word, your peace
Your hope, your love
Leaving aside that “love” and “grace” are two ways of saying the same thing (and “heart” is not far off), this song seems unaware that God is (with one exception) incorporeal, and therefore it is probably unnecessary to distinguish between all these things. The song is big on anaphora, not so much on rhyme (though they do try to squeeze a slant-rhyme into the quoted verse), but the worst part is not in the details, but in the song as a whole: it simply repeats the same incredibly basic idea for five minutes, pausing for an instrumental, and the end part of the song where the band is getting really fired up and singing the chorus again and again, and everyone in the congregation is just trying to make it to the Benediction without throwing a hymnal (the risk of which the Sanctuary Downtown has removed by not having any hymnals). There is no depth, no inspiration, no real songwriting, just warmed-over sentiments set to a C-chord and repeated until you either lose all sense or start to take a perverse pleasure in it, swaying obliviously as the platitudes pummel your brain. Maybe it’s not a mistake that this church has the same name as a bondage club.