Reflection #44 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 44 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #44: Contemporary American worship can learn a thing or two from Taizé worship.

I teach a class at Judson University every two years called Worship Resources.  The course has two foci: 1) I endeavor to introduce students to the wealth of resources available to them these days, instruction which often comes courtesy of fabulous guest lecturers I’ve come to know over the past 30 years of doing worship ministry; 2) I take the students on a number of field trips to Christian worship experiences that are off the beaten track of the contemporary worship with which they’re very familiar by the time they set foot in my class.  Time and again, student evaluations list the field trips as the highlight of the class, and longtime Judson Worship Arts alums frequently wax nostalgic about them as well.

Taize picEspecially when the subject of Taizé worship  comes up.  We happen to visit a church (Ascension Church in Oak Park, Illinois) that has offered a monthly Taizé service for over 20 years, and the primary liturgist, David Anderson (no relation), has led all that time.  The sanctuary is beautifully ornate, the acoustics are fabulous, and there’s always a full congregation.  It makes for a really wonderful service.

Several years ago, writing in Worship Leader magazine, I argued that it was “time to take Taizé out of the quiet, candle-lit cathedrals and into the media-frenzied converted warehouses where many of us worship these days.”  Why?

  1. Taizé worship counteracts the self-focus about which many detractors of current worship practices groan.  The extent to which self-reference predominates in contemporary American worship is debatable (and I would argue is getting better), but wherever congregations focus more on me than Thee, Taizé choruses, with their frequent emphasis on rejection of self and embrace of God, put things in proper perspective.
  2. Taizé worship fosters communal worship.  . . . Taizé, with its simple and easily learned melodies, takes the emphasis off the presentation and puts it on the participation.
  3. Taizé worship is a great way to involve musicians who normally don’t get a chance to share their gifts in contemporary worship.  Do you have a first- or second-chair-in-the-high-school-orchestra violinist in your youth group?  Any stay-at-home moms who used to play flute in the marching band back in the day?  Excellent Taizé orchestrations for almost all of the songs are available through GIA Music. . . . Exploring some of the better Taizé choruses can help worship leaders expand their church’s musical palette.
  4. Taizé worship can translate into contemporary worship.  It’s a misconception that every Taizé tune is slow and sedate.  In three separate worship ministry settings (two churches and one Christian college), I have seen more upbeat Taizé fare (and a few slower pieces) work with a typical praise-band lineup of electric instruments and drums.  It takes a little bit of effort, but it can be done.

I concluded by suggesting two strategies for any who might take the plunge and introduce a Taizé chorus into their worship sets: 1) Do the songs in English, saving “singing them in their original languages for smaller, more intimate gatherings where there will likely be better buy-in for this kind of display of diversity”; and 2) avoid the typical vocal descants that waft over the congregation’s vocals in many Taizé worship songs.  Instead, turn the descants “into verses (sung either individually or corporately) and let the choruses function as they would in a typical A-B format.”

I’ll stop here to admit the chances that Taizé will start rivaling Bethel or Elevation for space on the CCLI Top 100 are slim to none.  The whole ethos of Taizé is so countercultural in re: to how so many of us understand worship these days that few will be the worship leaders who embark on such a risky experiment.  Given that reality, here are two things you might try that reflect the spirit of Taizé without embracing the songs themselves.

First, consider teaching new songs during your pre-service time.  Rather than introducing new songs by inviting the congregation to join along as soon as they feel comfortable–i.e., fostering and tolerating a lack of participation, at least initially–why not ditch the energetic walk-in music and the video countdown and have your band run through a new song to give the congregation a taste of what’s to come?  In every Taizé service I’ve attended, the worship leader has taught a song or two beforehand, and it makes for more satisfying singing when those songs are then sung a bit later.

Second, find songs that feature a greater variety of harmonic expression beyond cwm’s ubiquitous I-IV-V-vi patterns.  The Taizé songs I’ve done with the Judson University Choir this year (“In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful” and “The Kingdom of God”) each feature six chords, used in interesting combinations.  I’ve also used “Laudate Dominum” in the past, with a full praise band locking into the deep 3/4 groove.

In the unlikely event that I get any takers on this score, I’d love to hear feedback on your efforts.  The Lord be with you, and try to catch a Taizé service sometime in 2020!  You won’t regret it!

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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