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When the Mountaintop Experience Isn’t Enough

Blogger David Bjorlin is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter.

 

It can be a difficult time to be happy in our world. I could run through the list of reasons, but I think most people do not need a reminder that we are living in fraught times. As someone not naturally given over to optimism or cheerfulness, I’ve been trying to cultivate in myself a habit of gratitude and thankfulness as an antidote to the fear and anxiety that is swirling around us.

So, one of my latest practices has been listening to The Happiness Lab, a podcast from Yale Psychologist Laurie Santos about what the latest scientific research says will make us objectively happier human beings. Often, what will make us happier seems at first glance counterintuitive. For example, while many people dread small talk on the subway, research has found that these small social interactions with strangers throughout our day actually make us happier (So take those headphones off in public once in a while!).

In one of the early episodes, Santos explains a concept that many of us have probably never heard of but most have experienced: hedonic adaptation. From the Greek word for pleasure, hedonic adaptation is the idea that humans will quickly adapt to good (or bad) fortune in their lives in order to return to the relative stasis they knew before. So, we mistakenly believe that once we get married, land our dream job, take that vacation, or make our first million, then we will be happy. However, for those of us who have achieved one of these goals, we find that after the initial luster wears off, we basically return to how we felt before our success. We have hedonically adapted. Instead of asking whether we are playing an unwinnable game, most of us set a new and bigger goal and believe the next success will be the one that finally brings happiness. Like a drug fix, we keep needing bigger and bigger doses of success to feel fulfilled for shorter and shorter periods of time. The antidote, Santos suggests, is to get off the “hedonic treadmill” and find gratitude in the present moment.

 

Hedonic Adaptation and Worship

Before jumping into what hedonic adaptation has to do with congregational song, I think it’s helpful to ask how this concept can help us think about worship more generally. Namely, I believe an understanding of hedonic adaptation can help pastors, worship leaders, and planners avoid the trap of needing to make each Sunday, each series, each feast day bigger and better than the one before it. We’ve all experienced this, right? A series or a season goes really well, and immediately the question becomes, “How can we make the next one even better?” So, like the guitar amp in This Is Spinal Tap, we grow accustomed to a 10, so we try to turn the next service up to 11. Hedonic adaptation tells us that this is a losing game. When every Sunday has to be a mountaintop experience, we have to keep elevating the mountain to give worshipers the same emotional experience. From what I have observed, this tends to lead to an insatiable congregation and a burnt out pastoral staff.

To me, this is one of the greatest gifts of the Church Year. Yes, we have our great feasts and fasts, but we also have that long stretch of the calendar known as Ordinary Time. Now, I know that “Ordinary” does not mean mundane—it comes from “ordinal,” simply meaning “counted”— but I believe we in the church need to reclaim Ordinary Time in all of its ordinariness. If we think of the other seasons and feasts as the inhale of our worship, this might be the exhale, where in a culture of frenetic work and consumption, we learn the wisdom of rest and lying fallow and conserving time and energy. And for those churches that do not follow the Church Year, perhaps hedonic adaptation suggests that we need to be intentional about planning seasons of rest into the rhythm of the church. For not only does embracing the mundane and ordinary help us to find God in those places where most of us live the majority of our lives, it also allows the special seasons and feasts to retain their peaks of wonder and awe.

 

Hedonic Adaptation and Congregational Song

Just as we sometimes attempt to scale newer and larger heights in our worship services, so too we often are tempted to create endless mountaintop experiences in our congregational song. This is a subtle temptation because it often starts with giving appropriate attention to the shape and flow and dynamic contrasts of the music that help to give the song that same shape and flow and dynamism. Yet, slowly this care can shift into believing that we manufacture an encounter with God through creating musical mountaintop experiences, and soon we are back on the hedonic treadmill.

And this temptation knows no bounds of style or genre. In styles influenced by contemporary worship music (CWM), this sometimes can be seen in the necessity of every set or every song starting softly and simply and slowly building to a climactic climax or catharsis, with every instrument and voice set to fortissimo and the worship environment pulsing with smoke and lights. In more traditional services, the virtuosity and power of the organ or choir can occasionally drown out the voice of the congregation, as the haze of the smoke machine is replaced by the smoke of the thurible. In both, the song structure is often visualized consciously or unconsciously as an ascent to the mountaintop.

 

Not Height, But Depth

Perhaps one possible remedy to this problem of hedonic adaptation in both worship and congregational song is to use other spatial metaphors for worship. What if we are not always moving to the heights of ecstasy but also to the depths of being, not inhaling to climb higher but exhaling to sink deeper into God’s embrace? In Arthur Green’s Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology, he suggests just such a proposition for a new way of understanding spirituality:

The Torah tells us that our early ancestors were diggers of wells. Suppose we try to reach for the understanding that flowed as water from the depths of Abraham’s well, rather, for the moment, than the one that came down from the top of Moses’ mountain. This journey inward would be one that peels off layer after layer of externals, striving ever for the inward truth, rather than one that consists of climbing rung after rung, reaching ever and ever higher. Spiritual growth, in this metaphor, is a matter of uncovering new depths rather than attaining new heights.[1]

Perhaps leaders and planners of worship and congregational song could also think about worship and song as a movement toward depth rather than height. If I think about this movement in my own worship planning and song leading, I think it might call for: 

  • More cyclical songs. While verse-chorus-bridge songs or stanzic hymns are a staple of many of our traditions, the very structure often suggests the build-up to the mountain. On the other hand, cyclical songs (like songs from the Taizé community) often work to plumb the depths rather than scale the heights.
  • Less Instrumentation. Every song or every service does not call for every instrument to be used. Using less instrumentation and sparer arrangements on occasion can keep us from trying to make every song better than the last. You might also consider using less instrumentation during a particular season, like Lent, to musically remind people of the solemnity of the season.
  • No Instrumentation. Singing a capella recenters the human voice as the center of congregational song and empowers the congregation to claim their voice in worship while enacting and building a listening community. Perhaps consider joining the Center for Congregational Song’s yearly A Capella Sunday!
  • More silence. Every moment of the service does not need words or songs—or even meditative background music to accompany our prayers. Sometimes the silence helps to receive the word God has for us and give new meaning to the words we do sing and speak.

The purpose of expanding our spatial metaphors for worship is not to rid our communities of mountaintop experiences in worship or song (God forbid!). Rather, it is perhaps one way to avoid hedonic adaptation that ultimately becomes unsatisfied with a God of the plains, the silences, the ordinary moments, and if we cannot find God in those moments, we will miss God in the majority of our lives that are usually lived far from the summit. So, let our worship help congregations find God in both Eastertide and Ordinary Time, in the ecstasy and the stillness, in the heights and the depths.

 

[1] Arthur Green, Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2003), 9.

 

 

Guest Contributor – Hannah Cruse is the founder of The Church Musician’s Assistant. She has been working in the church music field for a decade and has a Master of Sacred Music from Perkins School of Theology.

 

 

“Why won’t people sit through my postlude? So rude. I spend hours every week practicing, and dangit, I want people to listen!”

Yeah… Frustrating, I know.

So, why won’t people sit through the postlude? What could possibly be the underlying problem? Yes, people want to get to lunch as soon as possible… Yes, not everybody loves music as much as you… But I propose a bigger issue is at stake here: the lack of critical listening skills. You heard me (pun intended)!

 

Listening

Let me first establish how critical listening is…well, critical. As Christians, we’re called to be good listeners. Proverbs 2 tells us that, “if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding…then you will understand righteousness and justice equity, and every good path.” Critical listening opens the door to deeper understanding of how to live according to God.

While undoubtedly essential, understanding only gets us so far. When we insist on always understanding before believing, we possibly cut ourselves off from experiencing the mystical, miraculous God. John 3:11-12 says “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” If we only believe what we have seen and experienced for ourselves, we can never know the fullness of God. We must listen for what we do not know. Only through critical listening can we glimpse heaven.

Furthermore, critical listening can save our souls, boldly claims John 1:19-21. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” How can listening save us exactly? Well, it’s all dependent on what happens after we listen. “But be doers of the word,” says John 1:22, “and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” We are called to go out into the world and be disciples of Christ 24/7. Listening is just the first step in our long journey towards Christ.

As musicians, we know all about listening. Most people, though, have no formal occasion to practice listening skills. In fact, popular culture loathes listening. Society would much rather tout self-righteous correctness than show its growing edges to the world. What a shame. How can we expect people to sit through our postludes when they haven’t been taught why or how to listen? If our educational system and our society won’t teach listening skills, then we, the Church, must!

 

Church Musician’s Role

So what is the church musician’s role in all this? Church musicians are perfectly positioned to teach critical listening skills. There’s nothing like music for arresting the attention. In order to make listening a priority in our music ministries though, we need a game plan with actionable steps. Below are some ideas for transforming your absent-minded congregation into a listening congregation.

 

Model good listening for your congregation by improving your own critical listening skills.

Always start by praying for the Holy Spirit to speak through your music. We’re pretty useless without the Spirit anyway. In addition to prayer, be open-minded. Be open to friendly, respectful theological arguments with your colleagues and congregants. Instead of responding angrily to opposing viewpoints, just say “Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that before. I would like to pray about this and get back to you so that we can continue this fruitful discussion.” If you aren’t already, begin to have thoughtful conversations at choir or ensemble practice. Genuinely ask for the opinions of your musicians and take those opinions into consideration. And if you ever start to feel aggravated, just remember 1 Corinthians 13:4-8: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Prioritize active listening for yourself so that others might be inspired to do the same.

 

Build trust with your congregation so they will respect your instruction.

Trust is an essential component of any healthy relationship. Would you follow a military general blindly into the night if he couldn’t shoot a gun properly or had no tactical plan? In Paul’s words, “Me genoito (hell no)!” Your congregation, likewise, will not heed what you have to say if you do not exemplify expertise and excellence in all you do. You’re probably thinking, “So all I have to do is get a fancy degree and play well?” Wrong–sorry! There’s another component more important than expertise or excellence: humility. As Philippians 2:5 says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” If you do fantastic work and demonstrate humility, your congregation will likely follow you into the darkness with confidence.

 

Foster communal music-making during worship so the congregation can practice listening to their neighbors.

Reciting texts together in worship is certainly beneficial, but there’s something extra special about singing together. Singing in public–surrounded by people you talk to at coffee hour every week–is a huge act of bravery. Singing is deeply physical and personal. When we sing in the midst of others, we expose a little piece of our souls. In these moments, we get to practice listening without judgement and encouraging with love. As written in Hebrews 10:24-25, “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” When we bare our souls to each other through song, we suddenly see that we are not that different. We all love the Lord. We are all vulnerable. We all want to be better people. Through communal singing, we witness beauty in diversity and strength in unity.

 

Teach your congregation how to enjoy and listen through the silence.

This is a tough one because we typically despise awkward silence. However, we can teach congregants that silence is not awkward. Lamentations 3:26 instructs, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Silence allows space for meditating on the Word, listening to God, praying individually, and noticing the network of believers around you. Try to work with your pastor to find appropriate moments for silence in worship. Experiment with giving each segment of the liturgy due respect and time. Often, we attempt to avoid “wasting time” by overlapping segments of the liturgy. For example, while one reader walks to her seat, another might walk past her to the lectern. Or, while the pastor prepares the communion table, the musician might noodle through some chords. How might worship feel if we waited for the reader to sit down before anybody else stood up? How might it feel if we intently watched the pastor prepare the communion table in silence? What might it be like if we allowed each segment of the liturgy to speak for itself? I wonder if waiting in silence could help us listen better. Sometimes, we need to experience one extreme in order to appreciate the other. As Ecclesiastes 3:7 says, “There’s a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

 

Stimulate your congregation to listen critically by programming edgy music.

What do I mean by edgy music? Any music that challenges the status quo, that makes people feel a little bit uneasy. Definitely read the temperature of your congregation and don’t go overboard on this! However, it’s important to stretch people beyond their comfort zones occasionally. You will probably get a few complaints from members… Don’t be discouraged. If your congregation trusts you, they will generally tolerate–or even enjoy–your little expeditions into the unknown. “What’s the point of stirring things up?” you might ask. Well, when we get too comfortable, we often become set in our ways and closed off to others. We forget to listen. So we have to be reminded to listen–sometimes by music as shocking as a bucket of ice water over the head. When we actively listen to that which is different, we start to understand it, and then perhaps we can grow to love it.

 

The Original Question

Let’s return to the original question… “Why won’t the congregation sit through my postlude?” Because the Church has not properly taught its followers how or why to listen. People don’t listen to things that don’t matter to them. So before condemning church-goers, perhaps we should examine our own work. Have we educated our congregations about the vitality of sacred music for their spiritual lives? Have we modelled open-minded listening as leaders? Have we encouraged listening to neighbors through communal singing? Have we stimulated critical thinking in our congregations through purposeful silence and boundary-pushing? Education is key to forming congregations that listen well. You have the power as a musician to teach your congregants how to listen with open minds and hearts. Let the transformation start with you.

 

Guest Contributor – Hannah Cruse

 

 

 

 

 

 

INVITATION TO BROOKLYN

The “Centered in Song” launch tour for The Center for Congregational Song is coming to Brooklyn! Join organist, composer, and master song leader Mark Miller for a day celebrating the importance and power of congregational song. There will be sessions on justice in music-making, introducing The Center for Congregational Song, and a closing hymn festival. Come join in the song!

LEADERS

Mark Miller, Composer, Organist, Centered In Song, Brooklyn, NY, Center for Congregational Song, Let Justice Roll Down

Mark Miller believes passionately that music can change the world. He also believes in Cornell West’s quote that ‘Justice is what love looks like in public.’ His dream is that the music he composes, performs, teaches and leads will inspire and empower people to create the beloved community.
Mark serves as Assistant Professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School and is a Lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University. He also is the Minister of Music of Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey.

Hymn Writer, Poet, The Hymn Society, Congregational Song, Singing, Let Justice Roll Down, Centered in Song, Brooklyn, NY, Brooklyn NY

Jacque Jones has been writing in various forms all her life and in recent years has taken up the challenge of writing hymn texts. Her hymn text collection Songs Unchanged Yet Ever Changing was published in 2015 by GIA. Jacque has been a member of The Hymn Society since 2003, and is currently serving as its Immediate Past President, having served previously as Treasurer and President. A native of Texas, Jacque lives in New York and is an active member of the laity at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.

Ana Hernandez is a composer/arranger, workshop facilitator, author, and mischief maker. She works with people to create beautiful liturgies in many different styles; from early music to contemplative, to drummy and participatory. She facilitates deep and meaningful conversations using the Art of Hosting modalities.

Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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