Director of Music Mark Morgan talks about Worship @the Well and finding the right music.

 

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In the spring of 2009, our Senior Minister, Paul Shupe, asked me if I would take over the music for the Sunday evening service that had begun that year. I had been rather dreading the request for multiple reasons and I’m sure was somewhat less than enthusiastic in my response at the time. My hesitation extended from personal reasons: doing two completely different services each week is time consuming, a lot of energy, and leaves my family with only one day a week we can spend together—and professional: I had yet to find any musical model for “contemporary” worship that wasn’t, to be frank, completely terrible.

 

Having worked in church music for 25 years, I had been party on many occasions  to  conversations about having to reach newcomers and “young people” with a new form of worship. The unfortunate result of these conversations in so many cases has been either what has come to be defined as “contemporary worship”: simple (I would say simplistic) preaching, little liturgy, a focus on what Christ and God can “do for me”, and “praise and worship” music that consists mostly of easily singable short refrains repeated ad naseum to pseudo folk and 80’s style pop music. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the solution in places that could not find their way to both a traditional and “contemporary” service was to create a “blended” service of traditional elements with some of these “contemporary” elements tacked on—a result that usually pleases no one and annoys most.

 

So when Paul asked, I did need some reassurance that this was not the path we were headed down. Having gotten it, we embarked together as a staff on finding a third way—something new that would speak across generations, that would fulfill the spiritual newcomer and the experienced churchgoer, and that would attract those for whom our “traditional” worship was not the worship experience that  they needed or desired. That something has become The Well.

 

I will not relay here my thoughts on reinvigorating traditional worship—I will let our efforts and results for the past three years speak to that. While there is always more that can be done, I feel that we are on the right path there and from the feedback we have received, the church as whole seems to agree. What I do want to discuss here is my understanding of a new way to do music for  “contemporary” services—the third way that had eluded so many worship conversations in the past.

 

My first thought was to throw out all the labels. Music is music—there’s good, there’s bad, and a whole lot in between. No type of music can claim “superiority”—they are all expressions of individuals in particular socio/historical/cultural situations. To compare the great fugues of Bach to the Beatles is a ludicrous exercise.

 

So then if we put ALL music on the table, what can we find that will speak to those we are trying to reach and that will work authentically in that setting?  My first decision was that the music would be largely rhythm and solo vocal based (rather than organ and choral based for traditional worship). Nothing earthshaking there, but it then was a question of how we build on that foundation. The answer became apparent partly through necessity and partly trial and error—we draw on anything and everything that can authentically be based in that aural world. Why should we limit ourselves by genre? We found that by exploring multiple genre—frequently within the same service—that we could engage people’s minds, hearts, and voices.

 

Before I describe further what music for The Well is, let me first describe what it is not:

  • It is not “Praise and Worship” or “Christian pop.”—I find the vast majority of this music to be saccharinely sweet and simplistic. It has an air of inauthenticity and manufacture that I simply can’t get past. In the end it also commits that most egregious of musical sins—it’s boring. It also is very problematic theologically, being frequently oriented around the self (Christ died for ME, God did this for ME. etc..) to the exclusion of our call to act like Christians in the world. There’s also a lot about judgement, heavy use of male God imagery, and other issues that generally make it inappropriate for use in mainline churches.
  • As much of that music comes from fundamentalist or evangelical traditions, the mainline churches have tried to respond by writing their own kinds of praise and worship songs—with sometimes rather hilarious results. Many of the new texts are so overwritten, so self consciously “PC”, so grossly “poetic” that they are virtually unsingable and can be giggle inducing to boot.
  • It does not draw from the choral/organ tradition (we do that in the morning) but MAY well draw from some of  the same traditional hymns, etc that portions of that tradition draw from as well.

 

So what IS music at The Well? Well, it’s a sort of gospel/jazz/bluegrass/celtic/

folk/rock/world/roots thing! On a practical level, it is a mix of songs meant to be fairly easily sung by everyone, along with pieces specifically for “the band.” (the same split we have at the morning service between hymns and anthems, etc.)  It is music that is directly accessible, yet that frequently has a good deal of substance in its DNA. It is music performed by real (mostly professional) musicians playing real instruments (rather than synthesized, loops, pre-recorded backing tracks etc.) Sometimes it’s old hymns set in a new way, or an old text set to a new tune. Sometimes it’s a song by a contemporary artist (Nickel Creek, Sting, The Wailin’ Jenny’s…) that causes us to stop and think. Sometimes it’s a song of praise out of a village in Africa. Sometimes it’s a wail of a trumpet on an old gospel song.

 

In short it is music to reach people of all ages that can lift the heart, provide solace, cause one to think, create a deeper feeling of connection with the holy, and leave you humming. This is NO different than what we try to achieve in the morning service—it simply uses a different aural platform to launch from.

 

If you have not yet tried The Well, I urge you to do so. You can check out the music by visiting the Well page on our website, where we have posted a number of songs by our ensemble, The River Rock Band. If you are an instrumentalist or singer who might like to participate, please do let me know! We are always on the lookout for new sounds to incorporate into our new/old worship music world.

 

—Mark Morgan

Director of Music

 

Mark can be reached at mark.morgan@hancockchurch.org or by phone at 781-862-4220 ext 212