Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My Return To Playing Guitar At Church

I've started playing guitar for my church's "contemporary" services. For the first time since my wife and I changed churches almost three years ago I'm involved in leading worship on a regular basis--and really, really enjoying it.

For most churches "Contemporary worship" just means "not hymns." This can be anything from church-camp style praise choruses supported by a single acoustic guitar to something approaching a fully produced rock concert. My former church home, a Vineyard, uses contemporary music exclusively and in a form closer to the latter. I volunteered to play with my current church's worship team because we lost a couple of good musicians and were sliding toward the former. We are a small ELCA Lutheran congregation which has only had contemporary worship for a few years. Clearly, my job, electric guitarist, is very different in this context.

In stead of setting my amp as low as I can to help control my old Vineyard's chronically excessive stage volume (secure in the knowledge the sound engineer will turn me up in the mix as needed) my amp is not miked. The congregation will either hear me off my amp or they won't hear me. On the other hand, if I turn my amp up not only will I piss off the singers standing two feet in front of me but I'll also blast the people in the front row.

Playing electric guitar for a small Lutheran congregation in a small town. I never would have predicted this.

So here I am, the only member of the congregation who owns Sandinista, standing between my kids' algebra teacher and the Chief Of Police. In stead of trying to guess which of the drummer's tattoos are cover-ups (a great pastime at the smaller Vineyard we attended, in a tough neighborhood in Waterloo) I'm constantly trying to gauge how much I need to hold back. We're getting ready to sing yet another folk-rock setting of some psalm. The drummer is very tame and we no longer have a bass player. If I stretch out very much at all I will step on the acoustic guitar, electric piano and singers; there is no buffer. If I don't play with a great deal of restraint I am going to look like a terribly obnoxious show-off and the congregation won't be able to follow the melody.

Put that way, it doesn't sound fun, but it is.

One of the reasons I'm surprised to be enjoying this so much is that I don't like worship music. Specifically, I don't like listening to worship music. I never have. I'd rather not hear it on the radio and I almost never put it on myself. For for over 20 years I've been around Pentecostal praise tunes and contemporary worship music. I know this body of music almost as well as full time worship leaders do, so it isn't like I'm at the mercy of Christian radio and have "never heard the good stuff." When it comes to listening I'll turn off anything but City On a Hill, (COH's more obscure predecessor) At The Foot Of The Cross and some of Matt Redman's very best recordings.

Why? Wow, where do I start? First, a lot of worship albums are poorly produced. Others, to be fair, are well produced in a style I don't like (too Nashville, too good-ol-boy southern gospel, too post-'72 co-opted Jesus movement). There is also the sincerity factor, similar to what I believe is a central problem in pop music, as I wrote about in this blog post.

More important than any of those things is the idea that different types of music play different roles in my life, and probably everybody else's. That's a topic for another day.

Right now I'm having a blast doing something that is good for me, good for my church (probably, The Church) and, hopefully, God approves of. I'll over-think it later, when I have more time.

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