I Hate Praise Music
Excerpted from UU World article: The Gospel of Inclusion by Kimberly French, Fall 2009
I was 21 years old when I was hired by Dixboro United Methodist Church just outside of Ann Arbor, to work with their praise and worship band called Joyful Noise. I would show up at their weekly rehearsal and coach the singers, and all of the instrumentalists, keyboard, guitar, bass, drums, and an electronic midi clarinet. The people were very sweet but the music…
At the time I was a fundamentalist atheist. Not only did I believe that all religion was stupid but I thought that if you believed in religion you must also be stupid. I’m thankfully very over that now.
So they would play songs like:
Our God is an Awesome God he reigns o’er heaven above with wisdom power and might our God is an awesome God
These are the Days of Elijah, Declaring the word of the Lord
God Of Wonders beyond our galaxy. You are Holy, Holy.
I worked with Joyful Noise for a year and really enjoyed the people, but working with them did little to change the already very low opinion I had of Praise Music
My caricature of praise music really. You might see the same one in your mind’s eye. Arms in the air, eyes closed, singing “God Music.”
At the time all I could think was, “Those people must be brainwashed. They can’t really feel that way, they’re just showing off, it’s just an act.”
You heard about All Souls in Tulsa and their huge leap in diversity both of race, and of worship style, worship feel. I was fortunate to have lunch with their senior minister Rev. Lavanhar up in Boston and he shared with me a really interesting piece of insight. He talked about how these Christian mega-churches would hire an amazing band and a charismatic song leader. Then people would show up, many out of curiosity, and they’re singing catchy, repetitive music surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people doing the same thing. Singing itself feels so good. Singing with other people feels even better so they get into this group singing, their endorphins are pumping, their hearts are wide open. Then someone walks on stage and says, “That feeling you have there: That’s Jesus.” To which they reply, “yeah… ok, sure,” because they’ve never had that feeling before and they want it again. That literal high that they got from the music.
Part of the idea for this service came from a similar experience in this sanctuary during our all James Taylor service this past March. People were excited to be singing this music that they love and even people who were singing it for the first time were surrounded by so much good feeling that they were into it. This congregation, which always sings really well, had never sounded better.
It led me to ask “What is praise music?” And to hypothesize that maybe it’s everything we sing. Maybe it has less to do with creed or intent, and more to do with feel, emotion, connection.
I have two experiences to share with you:
The first involves the song We Pray that we sang for our meditation.
On July 27th 2008 I was in a big yellow moving truck with my car towed behind it moving from Ann Arbor to Atlanta for a pretty cool job. My then girlfriend now wife and I stopped at a truck stop for gas and a bite to eat in Knoxville Tennessee. It was in an Arby’s I saw the news report: there had been a shooting at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville during a production of Annie Junior, killing 2 and injuring 7 more.
Needless to say I was shocked. I started here at UUCA five days later on August 1st, and on August 3rd I flew to Boston for the UU Musicians Network conference. So there I was with 400+ UU musicians that I didn’t know but all of us carrying this grief, this shock, this weight. On our second day there we began rehearsals with Nick Page who shared with us his song We Pray. This song was so moving. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, a balm in Gilead to heal a sin sick soul.” This song began the healing process for everyone in that Sanctuary. Most of us cried while we sang but even those who didn’t felt it. Everyone needed it.
After the conference I brought We Pray to UUCA. When we performed it here I had some people tell me they hated it, that UUs don’t pray. That same Sunday I had people tell me with it was the most religious experience they ever had. Isn’t it wonderful that we embrace differences here?
If you had asked me then if We Pray was praise music I would have definitely said, “No.”
Four years later I attended another UU Musicians Network conference, this year at All Souls in Tulsa Oklahoma. I had heard that they do praise music at their last service every Sunday and I learned that they do a full on 90 minute praise music service one Friday a month. So we get to the conference and they’re going to do their big praise service the Friday we are there and honestly, I was uninterested; I wasn’t going to go. I like most music: classical, rock, folk, rap, world music, weird music, but Praise music just isn’t my bag. So I was going to skip it.
Some friends and I went out to dinner that Friday evening. As we were walking back in the Oklahoma summer heat it started pouring rain, we got soaked. Then someone from the conference driving by picked us up and took us to the church. We were there so we decided to go to the service; we had heard the band the night before do one tune and they were really good. We didn’t have anything else to do it Tulsa so we figured, why not?
Not being people who do things half way, my friend Mark and I sat in the front pew and chatted with the band before the service. I admit that I was a little uneasy. If they were going to break into Our God is an Awesome God I would be very uncomfortable. So they get started and they sing Enter Rejoice and Come In, and Come, Come, Whoever You Are, and This Little Light of Mine. Well, these are all UU songs… I can get into these. So we’re singing, we’re changing keys, the band is rocking and before I know it, I’m having a really great time. I was that same sort of endorphin rush that I get when I sing in concerts.
They did some “God” or “Spirit” centered songs but by that point I didn’t really care. I realized that maybe it wasn’t praise music I didn’t like, I just had some work to do as a UU in my acceptance of other forms of worship. There are many right answers.
If it wasn’t the music then it must have been the stigma, the judgment that I placed on people who would close their eyes and wave their arms in the air.
As I mentioned it was pouring rain and I was still rather damp during the service. After over an hour of different hymns the band moved into a song and it just clicked in the room. There was something about it.
The Healing Rain is Falling Down
I’m Not Afraid
And that’s it. Two simple phrases repeated. And on that night in Tulsa we sang this song for at least ten minutes but everyone there could have gone for hours. It was weeks before it was out of my head. It just got me.
I don’t know if there was something in me that needed healing. I don’t know if there was something I needed to stop being afraid of but right then this song moved me.
It moved me in the close your eyes and put your arms in the air because you don’t quite know what else to do with yourself way.
My heart was open, my cup was full.
Singing this song in that place I had a musical experience I will always remember. A musical experience that made me accept a worship style that I didn’t previously understand that made me realize that maybe I didn’t hate this praise music thing.
The Healing Rain
My goal today was to tell my story not to convince you of anything. For some of you this music opens you up, makes you feel good, makes you feel connected. For others, it’s just not your card.
I wouldn’t want to attend a congregation that didn’t have great classical music and great choirs. I also dig the rock, folk, jazz, world music, and the weird stuff we do on occasion.
I hope we can be more accepting of the people for whom this is the kind of worship experience that feeds them and I hope you found something in this service that feeds you.
Please rise now in body or in spirit, and fill this space with your voice.
The Healing Rain is Falling Down
I’m Not Afraid