So I’ve been listening to contemporary worship music on and off for the past few months. Why am I subjecting myself to this? Well, in part, I actually like some of it (gulp). Hillsong UNITED’s “Another in the Fire” was one of my most-played songs of 2019 on Spotify and Matt Maher’s sappy “Abide with Me” genuinely moved me one time while I was driving home from Lowe’s. Additionally, I’m fascinated by how Christian music of the last two decades so different from the rock-oriented, “let’s just imitate secular music” Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) I grew up with. I remember a poster in my childhood Christian bookstore that offered Christian equivalents to your favorite secular bands, like a chart in a chemistry lab or a measurement converter app. Enjoy Green Day? Check out MxPx. Pearl Jam? Listen to Plankeye. Nirvana? Try…dc Talk.
I felt bad for those Nirvana fans.
I’m also listening to worship music lately because I’m genuinely (morbidly?) curious about what’s happening in contemporary Evangelical Christianity. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of this music is about the individual’s relationship with God, how the individual feels pained or alone until God arrives, how a person feels wonderful when they commune with Christ, &c. And there’s relatively little about the role of the Church or communal worship. (One exception: TobyMac’s 2010 hit “City On Our Knees,” though the role and responsibilities of the Church are left pretty vague in that song.) In this regard, worship music circa 2020 isn’t much different from the CCM I listened to circa 1995. CCM placed more emphasis on sin, “living in the world,” and proselytization, but a lot of it was about the emptiness of a life without Jesus and the individual’s relationship with God. Even my favorite CCM songwriter, Rich Mullins, made his career with stuff like “Hold Me Jesus,” which is basically about how Christ can tend to our isolation and suffering, or “Calling Out Your Name,” which is all about an individual standing in awe of God amid the wonders of nature.
So most contemporary worship music is about how God loves us, how God will always be there for us, how we’re not alone when we have Christ. And the “us” is always an individual person. An isolated unit. The middle-class subject. Whatever.
What’s missing in all of this, as I said, is the Church. The role of the Church as the Bride of Christ is sometimes acknowledged, but not the Church’s relationship and responsibilities to itself, the love that members of the Church are supposed to have toward one another. That’s a huge part of the gospel, something Jesus emphasized especially toward the end of his career and after the resurrection. The constitution and communal nature of the Church is a huge part of the book of Acts and of the Epistles. It used to be central to North American Christianity, going back to John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian,” which placed the needs of the community above those of the individual:
…love among Christians is a real thing, not imaginary. … we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love and live in the exercise of it, if we would have comfort of our being in Christ. This was notorious in the practice of the Christians in former times; as is testified of the Waldenses, from the mouth of one of the adversaries Aeneas Sylvius “mutuo ament pene antequam norunt” — they use to love any of their own religion even before they were acquainted with them. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.
In Winthrop’s time, the community of believers was the bedrock of Christian experience. Then something changed, sometime during one of those Great Awakenings, and the individual became paramount.
None of these insights are original to me, of course. This stuff has been gone over and rehashed by scholars and pastors alike for decades. I remember hearing Michael Warner describe how American Christianity had evolved from small, communal churches where God was approached through the experience of the community to massive megachurches were the individual was easily isolated.
I’m writing this because I recently rediscovered one of my favorite “worship songs,” which isn’t a worship song by a Christian band: it’s the Decemberist’s “Don’t Carry It All.” Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
Here we come to a turning of the season,
Witness to the arc towards the sun.
The neighbor’s blessed burden, within reason,
Becomes a burden borne of all in one.
Let the yoke fall from our shoulders,
Don’t carry it all don’t carry it all.
We are all our hands in holders
Beneath this bold and brilliant sun…
This feels like something something from Winthrop or early Puritan writings, like something Jesus would have said at the end of the Gospel of John, when he implored his disciples to take care of one another. The reference to bearing a neighbor’s burden brings to mind Paul’s letter to the Galations: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
The Orthodox have a saying for such community-oriented spirituality: “One Christian is no Christian.” Or as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote, “No one can be genuinely Christian in isolation. We are saved, not alone, but as members of the Body of Christ, in union with all the other members.” I could go into all the political reasons why Evangelical Christians are suspicious of this aspect of Christianity, or why they don’t emphasize it. (The Bible commentary website Enduring Word is quick to point out that when Paul commands the Galations to bear one another’s burdens, he is giving “a simple command to obey. … It isn’t complicated, and it doesn’t take a huge program or infrastructure to do it.” We wouldn’t want, y’know, something that smacks of socialism.) But my point here is not meant to be political. American Evangelicals suffer from their ardent individualism. Their worship, sentimental and sometimes genuinely moving, rings hollow against the centuries-old understanding of Christian faith, which teaches us to operate as a body. Each of us is nothing without the rest of us.