Welcome to the blog of author Marlo Schalesky!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Worshipping When You Can't Stand the Style

Hi Friends,

We had our community group here at our house last night, and we were talking about Philippians 2:1-11, particularly about considering others, esteeming others, and following Christ's example of having an "others-first" mindset. Then, the discussion moved to worshipping God and music styles. I was reminded of something that happened at a previous church and how it taught me that I needed to look beyond music style to focus on God in worship, not on myself and my preferences.

Anyway, I thought you might appreciate this story as well, so here it is:

It was the cowboy hat that did it. I would’ve been okay if not for that hat. At least that’s what I told myself.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary that Sunday morning as my husband, Bryan, and I walked into church and settled into our usual seat. I laid my bulletin beside me and prepared for a good time of contemplative worship. It would be a nice mix of hymns and choruses, with a touch of guitar and a sprinkling of piano - just like always. Maybe the microphones would be turned up too loud, and maybe the leader would sing a bit off-key. But that wouldn’t matter. I was used to it. And that Sunday, I was especially eager to meet God in worship.

A side door creaked open, and I looked up to see the biggest, whitest, ugliest cowboy hat ever made. The brim was pulled low over the brow of a woman I’d never seen before. I stared at the guitar slung over her shoulder, the microphone attached around her ear, and the ten-gallon smile on her face. “Just what I need, a guest worship leader,” I murmured.

Bryan frowned at me. “Maybe it won’t be so bad,” he whispered.
He was wrong.

“Okay, y’all, let’s sing!” the woman yelled. Her guitar twanged. The drums ker-thumped. Then it started – a good old-fashioned country western sing-along, complete with hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’, and a guy on the banjo. I hated it. Not only was this not the quiet worship I’d hoped for, but it was country music. I couldn’t stand country music.

Yee-haw, I thought, and crossed my arms.

After three songs, the woman tipped back her hat, grinned, and said, “Now for one of my favorites. Y’all should know this one.” Then, she started How Great Thou Art, country-style, in a Dolly Parton voice that I couldn’t hope to sing with.

Minutes crept by like ants laboring under a heavy load until finally the woman swung the guitar strap over her head and walked off the stage. A moment later, our pastor stepped behind the pulpit. His next words put a chill in my heart. “I’d like you all to welcome Ellen Mae, our new worship leader!”

I groaned. Was it aloud? I hoped not.

The pastor smiled as he continued. “As you may know, Pete’s leaving at the end of the month for seminary. Ellen Mae here has volunteered to step in.” His smile widened. “This will be the first time we’ve had a real professional leading us in worship.”

“Professional?” I hissed under my breath.

Bryan frowned at me. “I think she’s in a local band."

“Ugh.” I rubbed my temples and tried not to look as horrified as I felt.

Then, for the rest of the service, I sat and wondered what I was going to do. I loved worship.

But how could I ever find God in the midst of a country western jamboree?

All the way home that day, and every Sunday for the next three months, I complained. Finally, Bryan had heard enough. We’d just left the church parking lot when I started in with the usual: “How’s anybody supposed to worship with that? It’s bad enough that it’s country, but she doesn’t even know the difference between worship and singing! If I just wanted to sing, I’d stay home and put in a CD. At least then I’d be singing to good music!”

Bryan scowled. “You didn’t seem to have any trouble worshiping in Madagascar. And they didn’t even sing in English!

My mind flitted to the short-term mission trip we’d taken just last year. “That’s different.”

“Is it?” Bryan answered, then said no more. The rest of the way home we rode in silence.

For two weeks, I thought about Bryan’s comment. It was true that I’d enjoyed the worship in Madagascar. But this was different. This was “my” church, and I wanted it be the way I liked it.

But what if I took Bryan’s advice and considered the country western style a “cultural experience” as I had in Madagascar? What if I sought to find God and worship Him in new ways despite the style?

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if the key to worship was not so much style, but desire. If I truly wanted to worship him, wouldn’t He help me to find a way to do so, even with all that hand-clapping and banjo picking?

The next week, I decided to take the “cultural experience” attitude, which meant I stopped complaining and instead attempted to find something to appreciate in the musical style. And while I didn’t start to actually like the music, I was able to appreciate a few aspects that I hadn’t noticed before. There was a joy in the music. People smiled a bit more. Psalm 100:2 (NIV) says, “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” And I supposed even country western qualified.

Over the following weeks, I learned a few tricks, some simple, some silly, that helped me focus on God even in the midst of the hoe-down.

First, I determined that I would utter not one more word of complaint. Griping had done nothing but harden my heart.

I purposefully began looking for aspects of God that became clearer through certain types of music. During hand-clapping choruses, I thought about the joy God brings. During hymns, I focused on God’s holiness, his majesty, the wonder of His presence. With slower songs, His love for me was often central.

I began to pray before the service that I’d somehow see God in a clearer way through the worship time.

On the way to church, I read a psalm aloud and spent a few minutes meditating on what it said about God.

On Saturday nights, I started to spend a short time listening to music I liked and singing along. Having this private worship time with a music style I preferred helped me be more flexible on Sundays.

During corporate worship, I started to sing “you” instead of “him” or “he” to remind myself that I was singing to God.

For songs I really didn’t like, I used the time for silent prayer, or I changed the words and quietly sang “holy, holy, holy, is the Lamb on the throne,” or “thank you Jesus,” or something else that meant something to me.

Bryan and I changed seats. I sat behind tall people so I wouldn’t be distracted by that huge, white hat.

And if all else failed, I closed my eyes or focused on something (like the cross at the front of the church) that helped me think about God and meditate what he’s done for me in Jesus.

Over time, I’ve found that it’s getting easier to find God and worship him in whatever style of music I encounter. And I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems that our worship leader is getting a little less “Dolly.” Sometimes, I even catch her worshipping too. But I have to admit, I still don’t like that hat.


RefreshMom said...

Oh Marlo! I can so relate to so much of that! I have to say I'm glad that I haven't had to deal with a country-western worship leader (aside from Dennis Agajanian and the Calvery Mountain Boys at Hume Lake, but it seemed appropriate there!).

I spent a couple years in college sitting on the side of the room where the big screen blocked my view of the "worship team" because their performance (that's really what it came off as) was distracting to me. And in the church that was all brass and noise during a time when my spirit really needed quiet, I learned to give myself permission to sit after standing for 30 minutes if I needed to and to not clap if I was more focused on what my hands were doing than what my heart was offering. It's a shame that really what comes down to musical preference is so often the deciding factor when people decide to stay at or leave a church. I'm glad you've been able to make peace with "Dolly."

Smilingsal said...

You gave some pointers that I will use this Sunday. Now, what can be done to turn the sound down?