Does your church have rhythm? Sure, it does! The question is not whether your church members can clap on beat but, rather, what rhythm of worship establishes itself among you.
For many of us, this rhythm is recognized by the well-planned sermon series. These multi-week series, promoted on social media and attractive church signs, are great ways for churches to announce what’s coming. “Here’s what we’re doing. We hope you’ll join us,” they communicate. Inside our churches, powerful unwritten worship rules also frame this rhythm! These habitual practices communicate when we should stand or sit, what we should drink and how we should talk. They are powerful practices that, over time, profoundly shape our church’s identifiable rhythm.
Among them are the words we sing. Lyrics deeply shape our personal and corporate theologies. Not convinced? Test it out. Ask ten people to answer the following:
- Name the topic (make it easy, not even the main points) of last week’s sermon.
- Quote Romans 12:1-2.
- Fill in the blank. “You call me out upon the ________.” (answer: water)
So, yes, lyrics mean something and, since our sermon recall capacity is weak and our Scripture memory is light, maybe lyrics mean even more than we realize. Perhaps, they are one of the primary shapers of our church’s rhythm. If so, could it also be that worship leaders, not preaching pastors, are today’s theological gatekeepers?
For millennia, the Christian Church, in varying degrees, has used the church calendar to govern its rhythm. The Old Testament Israelites used festivals, and the New Testament Christ-followers used them too. Centuries of early Christians also relied on these biblical traditions. But do we sing about them? Consider this: among the 60 most commonly sung contemporary worship songs and hymns since 2015, this rhythm is largely absent (data affirmed by CCLI and hymnary.org).
In fact, aside from some modest references to God’s work in creation, we don’t explicitly sing about much of anything from the Old Testament. Instead, the New Testament’s redemptive Passion Week gets our full attention. Yes, we sing about the cross. The incarnational birth narrative and the heavenly life-to-come gets a nod from us too. But what we really get is “ordinary time.” And we sing about it a lot. God loves me, holds me, saves me, finds me and lifts me in present, ordinary time.
Is singing about what God does for us a bad thing? Not necessarily. Should we be singing Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) songs and setting tents in the church lobby in October? Should we add a Maundy Thursday service to the Passion Week calendar? Perhaps not. But maybe it’s worth taking worship inventory on how we ground ourselves through recurring rhythms and the theology we sing. What might we gain from asking rhythm questions that seek to enrich our worship?
So, what is your church’s rhythm? Does it follow a New Year’s—Spring Break—(skip Good Friday)—Easter—Mother’s Day—Independence Day—Back to School—Thanksgiving—Christmas (not Advent) kind of rhythm? Throughout history, Christians have enacted practices and used songs that have sought to meaningfully represent more of God’s activity.
What does your church’s rhythm communicate?
Rev. Mike Tapper is religion chair at Southern Wesleyan University. Dr. Britt Terry, associate professor of English at SWU, and Jacob Clapp, SWU student, also contributed to the research for this article and a broader project.