Can you guess what the top posts on my blog are about? Worship (music). That’s not a surprise given what appeals to the majority of Christians. It does, however, make me lament on why topics like church revitalization, mission, and race, don’t receive the same interest.
Speaking of laments, why is it rare to sing songs of lament in weekly service? It’s mostly praise and joy isn’t it?
I have a hunch as to why–it has something to do with who get to dominate contemporary Christian worship music. But first, a bit about where I’m coming from.
It may be a surprise to those familiar with my work to learn I got my start in ministry as a worship leader. As a classically trained pianist, and a few more instruments along the way, I’ve led small to large churches in the typical contemporary Sunday morning worship style. That was my jam until I left seminary. That means my worship repertoire ends with “God of Wonders”…. I’ve also never been one who can stand aimlessly during the first half of service to just sing. I need to be playing to engage (any other musicians know what I’m saying)? But I’m not alone. When I visit churches and look around, the majority of congregations may be standing, but few are singing, while most just watch the band do their thing.
One of the criticisms of contemporary worship is its characteristic lack of depth in theology and faith. By faith I mean there is a distinct lack of honesty in portraying the breadth of genuine faith experiences through music. The assumption is we come Sunday for “praise and worship” and nothing else. That’s differs from reality, or at least my reality, fraught with worries and hardships. Take a page from the latest worship music from the charts to see. You would have to conclude Christians are cool, beautiful, full of joy, and never have problems outside of the odd internal battle with sin. No doubts, no lamenting, no dirges, and certainly no prolonged sadness.
What is it with modern worship that seems incapable of producing laments? I have a few thoughts.
Worship (Music) Is Defined by Industry
Evangelical churches may vary in identity, but when it comes to music there’s a lot of similarity. But have you ever thought who decides the latest songs? Ultimately it’s the music industry. Music reps, executives, and producers define the next contemporary hit. It’s not very hard when the top songs come from the same handful of artists. Churches in turn sing and buy the albums.
What we observe less and less are local churches defining their own worship. Not to undermine the worship leaders who go to great lengths to shape local liturgy. But consumerism means the drab local production loses out to the familiarity of the latest Christian hit. There’s a pragmatic necessity to keep up with the church down the road and keep local congregations happy. But what about laments?
Industry is a key reason why we hear few new laments gain popularity. I can only think of this contemporary mash-up from recent years:
Industry thinking centres around dollars. Laments don’t sell records because Christians don’t buy sad music. I’ve been told by a number of top Christian worship artists that they can’t/couldn’t write laments for their albums because the industry won’t play it.
There you have it.
Of course, the answer to the empty repertoire of lament songs is to demand, as a consumer, for more of them. But what if that idea never crosses your mind?
Worship Music is Dominated by Whiteness
The second reason is more important because it describes the root issue why there are so few popular (or new) laments. Bear with me here as we first look at terminology.
When I use the term “contemporary church” I’m referring to dominant evangelicalism. (However, I would include any institutional Christianity formed in Euro-centric thinking.) This evangelical institution dominates because it has built and inherited cultural power. The power has a name called “whiteness” (or white supremacy). Today the institutions with power are WHITE institutions, of which white evangelicalism is a part. Why is this important?
Worship trends are defined by a handful of megachurches and artists. They dictate what other churches sing. It’s no surprise the same voices benefit from inherited power. Simply put the main voices are born and produced in “whiteness”. Whiteness enables a particular worldview (more on this later), which includes a presumption of authority. The assumption is what the top (white) artists produce is considered “standard” for everyone else. All other music is not “good enough” to apply to the whole of evangelicalism unless it’s white. For example, gospel music is “good enough” for black churches, but not the all churches. I’m simplifying things here. But there’s truth to it. Think of your own church repertoires. Who dominates the pages?
Take a look the Billboard Top 50 Praise and Worship chart you will find 49 out of the 50 artists are WHITE. It’s not the “White Worship” category much like gospel being a separate genre for black artists. The distinction not only says something it means something. White evangelicalism gets to be at the top, they inherit influence that permeates contemporary worship in ALL churches, not just white ones. Ask any Asian church what songs they sing. Not Chinese ones that’s for sure. The same applies for multi-ethnic churches that invoke popular worship tunes over localized ones. The effects? Borrowing songs from white evangelicalism is an exercise in losing identity by assimilating through worship. Think of your own experience. What songs are your favorites? Which ones do you know by heart? How many are written by a person of color? Can you even think of ONE written by an Asian artist?
So what does this have to do with laments?
Privilege is a Barrier to Lamentation
Think of your personal dark night of the soul. Maybe you’re in a desert season now. What circumstance produced lamentation? Can everyone relate to the same laments?
Yes and no.
Laments reflect both artist and her culture. Worship therefore reflects and shapes worldview. This is crucial. Inheriting cultural power comes with specific benefits. White evangelicalism, or any form of dominant institutional Christianity, has the dubious distinction of individualizing the Christian faith. Your “personal relationship with Jesus”, and “where does your soul go after you die”, are the chief concerns. My sin, my faith, my doubts are brought to the table. (I won’t dive into the toxic theology that has produced a brand of evangelicalism incapable of lament because doubt, hurt, and confession are no longer values.) Cultural power is a privilege that produces a worldview insulated to the plight of any have nots. Privilege is a barrier to lamentation. That means,
White artists have no memory of systemic oppression because they’ve always been at the top. These artists can only associate their experience of lament through the lens of privileged worldview. That usually amounts to the extent of the “personal” lament to God.
Contrast this position to that of the black church, along with some Orthodox traditions, who are born and formed out of oppression, not privilege. Generations of black churches don’t need a lesson on how to and what to lament about. It’s in their blood. It’s part of their every day experience. They don’t have to become “woke” to lamentation–they were born into it. Gospel music then reflects a worldview of lament beyond the personal ordeal, rather it knows about the Powers and Principalities behind systemic oppression. The old spirituals decry oppression from the master slaveholder and cry out to God for real deliverance from real bodily annihilation.
Privilege on the other hand produces blindness to these systemic problems. Privilege means a choice, to sing about a world full of joy, or the odd lament about personal reflection and loss.
What Can You Lament About?
Yes, we can all appreciate laments, but they do come in different forms. Not everyone will have the perspective to sing about deliverance from slavery, racism, or colonization (is there a good de-colonizing worship song? Asking for a friend). Just remember it’s only “half” of the lament repertoire. There are some really thoughtful pieces out there. Here are a couple that people shared when I asked Twitter for favorite lament songs.
To be clear, this is not an admonishment, rather an observation of reality. I’m not saying white people can’t write good laments, just that they come in a particular shape and form. White artists and churches can’t sing what they don’t know. Hence why lamentation in white Christianity will come in the one form–the personal cry for God to “saved a wretch like me.” It’s a world that stands in contrast to poverty, climate change, abuse scandals, racism, and other systemic injustices.
Pathways to Improve our Cry
This doesn’t let the white evangelical church off the hook. We need better formation and should demand better music. Polish and glitz should have less prominence. The consumer appeal of the band performance detracts from wholistic worship. In this sense, the entire church body needs a better understanding of what worships is. For starters, it’s not just music. Secondly, it’s not always supposed to be happy. Forming congregation to expect and demand better, and then forming and building worship leaders to respond, is the slow process to draw out a new worship experience for the local church.
Another pathway is basic economics. Stop buying from the major bands and artists. If you can’t see a person of color as far as they eye can see (I’m looking at you Bethel and Hillsong), then ask why, and move on. Buy from different artists. The industry engine will keep pumping out the same stuff until consumers vote with their $$$. In particular, Christians of color should think twice about what they purchase. Hillsong (I pick on them because they’re the biggest) can pump out records and proclaim joy raining down from the heavens, but it’s difficult to translate to people of color who live under the thumb of systemic injustice day by day.
Re-Imagine Localized Liturgy
The creatives in our churches are usually in the worship department and they have skills to…create! They don’t have to regurgitate the top chart music from 3-5 of the same artists/bands. They can write new music that reflects the community, the city, and the monuments in the neighborhood. They can speak to the needs of the local church and amplify the worship experience by making it both relevant and local.
To wrap, we are missing laments in Christian worship because the contemporary scene is dominated by whiteness. Whiteness can’t see past its privilege. We must expand the repertoire so we can be a church that’s joining the unfolding kingdom in our midst, righting wrongs and tearing down dividing walls of oppression. To do so involves revealing our blindspots and expanding the table of who gets to create and speak to the whole. In the meantime, let us pause in lamentation over the err of our formation.
Oh Lord, God in our midst, incline thine ear unto our calling.