I don’t hate praise music after all

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Global Anabaptists dance. Photo by Nina Lanctot

I’ve had an abiding revulsion toward the type of modern church music known as praise songs: the simple, repetitive lyrics projected on a big screen, congregation singing along inaudibly beneath the overamplified performance of the “worship team” but with much arm-waving in praise to God the majestic all-powerful one and Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Can’t stand it. I wouldn’t go to a church that does too much of that. Mine only tries it now and then in a nod supposedly to the younger folk and those who aren’t used to singing the traditional Mennonite way. Am I showing my age? Harrumph. Give me good old-fashioned four-part harmony hymns, the older the better, though some modern ones are interesting and add something to the repertoire. If you can sing a cappella harmony in a sanctuary with good acoustics with people who know how to do it, this kind of hymn-singing can be heavenly. (It can also be draggy and somnolent but never mind that right now.)

I was surprised then, to find myself in a whole series of worship services last week, on my feet, singing praise songs at the top of my voice, even waving my arms now and then, submitting to the leadership of a performing worship team. Whatever got into me? Holy Spirit or mass hysteria, depending on your point of view. I joined some 7,000 other people in doing this during the Mennonite World Conference Global Assembly in Harrisburg, PA.

The unanimous verdict of all I’ve heard voice an opinion about the assembly was that the music was wonderful. We were immersed in a huge variety of faith music from around the world, from Bach chorales to those simple praise songs. One of my favorites was a sweetly subversive Philippino hymn, This Land of Beauty, that I nicknamed the Communist song.

This land of beauty has been given

By God, Creator, full of mercy,

Its loveliness has been intended

For everyone to share together

And each one claims the rightful portion,

A piece of land to tend and love.

This heritage so full of promise,

This land was purposed for us all.

Yet selfish people are not mindful.

A few will claim the land to own.

Depriving many poor and needy

Who live in want and utter poverty.

Such greediness will cause destruction

With hate and bitterness its fruits.

Relationships will become broken

And sorrow settle on the land. . . .

Listen up, capitalists!

But the message of faith music is not usually so blunt or detailed, and that goes for most of the songs that were new to me but that I quickly learned to love, including one whose chorus was simply “Ha-ha-ha-hallelujah,” sung four times. Talk about simplistic praise songs. The verses were in Hindi, but we sang those, too.

That was the thing. We sang in Korean. In Shona, Zulu, and Swahili. In Japanese, French, and German. And English, too, yeah, we had a day for songs originating in North America so we Gathered at the River, went Down to the River to Pray, and Waded in the Water while we were there.

What I observed, way before I ended up the last day jumping up and waving my arms to “I’ll Fly Away,” was that skill and quality, sheer beauty, has a lot to do with how I respond to music. It’s not that I hate praise music. I hate bad music. Of any kind. The assembly worship team simply made really good music, beautiful music, whether it was simple or complex, and the talented leader knew how to bring an audience of thousands–most with lots of singing experience ourselves–into the experience. We exulted in the exaltation.

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Worship team led by Marcy Hostetler. left. Photo by Nina Lanctot

I also learned that it helps to sing simplistic praise music in a language that is totally foreign. It doesn’t sound so silly. Mungu nimwema, Mungu nimwema, Mungu nimwema, nimwema, nimwema. (God is good, is good.)

And the words of the original language usually convey the feelings better than a translation. We should all learn the South African lament, Senzeni na? It is a wail not captured in the English words, What have we done?

Short of the whole worship services found here I haven’t found many videos of individual songs. Here are two. You’ll hear the worship team, because that’s where the mikes were pointed, and not the rest of us. You just had to be there.

3 thoughts on “I don’t hate praise music after all

  1. I have been pondering what it IS about the MWC singing that is worth traveling around the world to sing and embody. I remembered Marlene Kropf’s interpretation: for Mennonites singing is THE sacrament. Thank you, Nancy, for capturing its essence: embodying Beauty corporately and corporeally.

    “With our strong preference for ethics and a gritty determination to live our faith in ordinary, daily ways, the church has been malnourished or underdeveloped with it comes to mystical communion or beauty that calls forth adoration and praise – or at least, underdeveloped in its discussion of such things. Thus it may be that Mennonite detachment from the sacramental tradition has caused us to overlook what is the most obvious and powerful locus of God’s presence in Mennonite worship: hymn singing,…Without our music, the faith of many – the interviews suggest – would be barren. Instead, music gives us a faith with flesh and blood and breath and ushers us into realms of glory and grace.” Marlene Kropf, “Singing: A Mennonite Voice.”

  2. Your description of the “Communist song” made me chuckle. I, too, fall on the side of not loving most praise music. But when done beautifully, it’s really amazing, and MOVES the soul. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and fortunately for you, they were speaking your language (and then some!)! 😉 Thanks for your descriptions!

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