I Can’t Sing That! (Light from the Dark Ages 4)

The lyrics come up on the screen. I don’t recognize them. Looks like we’ll be learning a new song today. Good. I like to sing, I love to worship, and I’m always looking for new music. The drums lead off followed by both acoustic and electric guitars, and then the vocals kick in. The song sounds great.

I should know, because all I can do is listen.

The lyrics, range, and rhythm of the song are so difficult that you need to be a talented musician who has  practiced extensively during the week to sing the song. So, the worship team sounds great. The rest of us just stand mute.

I suppose that wouldn’t have frustrated me as much if they’d made it clear that this was “special music,” a performance that the rest of us were never intended to participate in, at least not vocally. But, with an invitation to sing along, the words on the screen, and the congregation on its feet, it sure seemed like we were supposed to be doing something. But we couldn’t.

So, we did nothing.

What happens when the complexity of worship leaves the worshiping community behind?

Photo by Michael Hiess (via Flickr)

That was a problem for the church in the middle ages as well. Some time ago, I started a series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Middle Ages. I had to step away from that for a while, but I’d like to come back and continue reflecting on what we can learn from those who have gone before us.

By the time the church reached the early middle ages, it had well-developed worship practices. Liturgies, vestments, processionals, rites, and most other aspects of the church’s worship had been around for quite some time. And, these seemed to have worked quite well in the cultural context of the Roman empire, from which they developed.

As the church transitioned into a post-Roman Europe, however, problems arose. As we discussed in an earlier post (“Should we teach classes on how to speak Christianese?“), the average church-goer couldn’t speak Latin, the language of the church, anymore. And, although the strongly visual elements of the liturgy helped many stay connected  (see “I’m listening, but I still can’t see anything“), the new “barbarian” cultures developing in much of Europe left many struggling to understand even this aspect of the church’s worship. So, many simply stopped going (see “Do I really have to go to church?“). But others continued to attend, convinced that somehow just being there would make a difference. Even if they didn’t really know what they were doing.

With all of these factors in place, the medieval church struggled with (at least) the following issues:

  • Professionalization: Given the complexity of medieval worship and the widespread ignorance of the laity, professional worship leaders was almost a necessity. Who else could do it? And, there’s nothing wrong with supporting ministers/priests so that they can devote themselves fully to leading God’s people in worship. The problem is when worship itself gets professionalized, when worship is something only the pros can do. And, that’s where the medieval church found itself. The people still gathered, but the professionals did the actual work of worship.
  • Passivity: The second problem stems directly from the first. Disconnected from the act of worship, the people didn’t do anything. Now, don’t get me wrong, worship doesn’t have to be “active.” Hearing a sermon, listening to a song, or viewing a painting can all be acts of worship. The problem is when the people aren’t even doing that. Instead, they’re just there. Maybe they’re even enjoying themselves. But they’re not worshiping. Someone else is doing that for them.
  • Elitism: Professionalism does not have to become elitism. But it’s a short step. And, once worship itself has been professionalized, elitism always tags along. It’s just too easy to conclude that the one doing the worship is the one who truly stands closest to God. The rest of us hang out in the worship ghetto just hoping that they’re doing it right.

And, these aren’t just problems for the medieval church. I think we can see many of them at work in the church today. When I visit a new church, I often check out the people during the worship service. And, in some  churches, I think I see a lot of people but few participants. I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong, but it sure looks at times like the professionals on the stage have left the people far behind, worshiping for them instead of leading them to worship God as a community.

So, what can we learn from the medieval church for today?

  • Strive for quality without sacrificing participation. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be your best when you lead others in worship. If God gifted you for leading others in worship, do it well. But, remember that in worship participation trumps performance every time.
  • Lead people by bringing them with you. People often say that to be a leader, you have to have people following you. That’s simply not true. But, a leader must at least be trying to take people somewhere. And, if you’re a worship leader, you’re there to lead people to glorify God with their whole being (mind, heart, will, body, etc). So, your primary purpose is not to produce quality music, a great sermon, or (heaven forbid) a funny skit. Your primary purpose is to glorify God by leading God’s people to worship him. Everything else is secondary.
  • Beware the cult of celebrity. One might think that elitism would be the least of our problems. Evangelical churches in general are driven by the egalitarian notion that all are equal before God. We’ve learned the “priesthood of all believers” so well (at least we think we have) that we even struggle at times to honor our leaders as we should. How could we have a problem with elitism? Yet we do. The cult of celebrity is alive and well in our worship services. And, wherever the cult of celebrity  thrives, elitism tags along.

I could also mention that we need to understand cultural transitions and the impact that they have on the worshiping community. But, with the seemingly never-ending traditional vs. contemporary “worship wars,” I think that’s been discussed enough.

It’s important to recognize that complexity itself is not the problem. Many churches use highly complex liturgies to lead the people of God in meaningful worship. The problem is when we allow complexity to produce professionalization, passivity, and/or elitism. This happened in the medieval church with tragic results. And, if we fail to learn from those who have gone before, it can and will happen today.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 9, 2011, in Medieval Church, Worship. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: