As part of my research, I interviewed the head of Vineyard Creative for Canada, Kris MacQueen. Kris is a songwriter and a pastor at a Vineyard Church in Cambridge, Ontario. The Vineyard has always been a songwriting denomination from its very beginning. John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard church, was a musician and songwriter. What intrigued me about the Vineyard, and led me to contact MacQueen, is that this particular denomination has not turned into a worship music industry machine like Hillsong or Bethel.
The Vineyard is currently in the process of attempting to build a stronger, homegrown approach to sourcing worship music. What Vineyard Creative has been doing since about 2007 is working on creating a crowdsourcing type of model where songwriters from local Vineyard congregations are encouraged to share songs and receive feedback. In the absence of better tools, they have been using social media platforms like Facebook. However, they would like to develop a better system. Through this they are attempting to fill holes in the worship canon; MacQueen specifically mentions songs of lament as well as trinitarian songs as concerns. He mentioned that as a songwriter “you’re helping to cultivate a prayer language” and that it is crucial to be “shaping language in an intentional way.”
“Our worship language does tend to show up in our kitchens. It bleeds over into our everyday lives.” – Kris MacQueen
When pushed on the issue of diversity, MacQueen responded by pointing to the value of having local writers and cultivating local writing communities. He mentioned that when working with young writers, the first advice given is to write for your local context first. If you write for “big impact” (read: national or international play), “you’ll always write for the middle ground.” “By sowing a value that says “write into your context,” says MacQueen, “you begin to address that.” He does admit that writing local is only one piece of the puzzle as some of our congregations remain homogeneous units. However, he was able to bring up specific examples of how Vineyard congregations and Vineyard writers have deliberately worked to privilege the voices of marginalized communities. He referenced an initiative spearheaded by Vineyard writer David Ruis that brought First Nations languages into a church community in Winnipeg. As well, Vineyard writers collaborated with street people and recorded a studio project with them. “Literally including the voices of the marginalized,” says MacQueen. He also says that we need to recognize that our worship song forms come from a culture. Instead of trying to confine minority voices to our [read: white] cultural expressions we need to “allow our forms to be reshaped,” says MacQueen. Another concern for MacQueen is what he calls the “packaging” that surrounds the songs. He points to worship music videos as especially problematic. “When you don’t see anybody who is old or not beautiful and everybody is having an ecstatic experience….it’s not reality. Is that the new standard of what it means to ‘win’ in a worshipping community?”
Creating local writing communities in our churches is a crucial part of this process. However, that will demand investment by our denominations and will require the will to try. It is much like the practice of creating something with our own hands. The healing nature of “digging in the dirt” is profoundly healing and good. Part of this also means empowering marginalized people in our context to help create for our context. Contribution is necessary to belonging.
It is also necessary to expand what parts of the biblical narrative we draw on in terms of songwriting inspiration. The pop worship songs analyzed draw on some Psalms, a little bit of the gospels, and that’s it. The punchline here is that they ignore the majority of the Scriptures in favour of what might be called the “low-hanging fruit” of the Bible. They tend to skip over are compelling prophetic narratives regarding economic justice (e.g. Isaiah 58 “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers” NIV, Matthew 25 “Whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me” NIV), and racial reconciliation (e.g. Exodus 23:9 “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” NRSV. These are particularly applicable to our current debates around refugees). Also, many anti-violence and anti-war passages (e.g. Isaiah 2:4b “beat their swords into ploughshares” NIV) are summarily ignored. In short, any biblical narrative that runs counter to the dominant ideals of business is, unsurprisingly, missing in action from the worship music industry. To spin this in a more positive light, there is an absolute treasure trove of Scriptural precedent for justice-oriented worship music. All we need to do is commit the time and effort to exegete it in the form of song.
Lastly, we need songs of lament in order to counteract our indifference towards our brothers and sisters. In an article for Sojourners, Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah of North Park Theological Seminary writes passionately and eloquently about using Lamentations as a gateway into how lament can begin to create a culture where black lives matter. I will leave the final word to him:
“A passive lament that fails to confront injustice also fails to consider the power of prophetic advocacy in lament. Many white evangelicals feel helpless when the issue of race comes up. I often hear the refrain from white evangelicals in the midst of a situation such as Ferguson, “I don’t know what to do!” Many have taken the important first step of being attentive to the long-hidden history of oppression and the personal lament of individuals who have experienced racial injustice. However, Lamentations shifts from a personal lament to a corporate lament with Jeremiah, as the prophet-narrator, speaking in solidarity with the suffering…We can no longer brush off the long-suffering of others. The church must recover the practice of lament to combat a triumphalistic narrative that hinders the authentic confrontation of injustice in our world. The oft-forgotten book of Lamentations may help to serve as that corrective.”
Hauerwas, Stanley. “Contemporary Worship Vs Worship.” The Work of the People, http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/contemporary-worship-vs-worship.
Interview with Kris MacQueen from Vineyard Creative
“John Wimber.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wimber.
Myrick, Nathan. “An Honest Question To Difficult Answers: Explorations In Music, Culturalism, And Reconciliation.” Liturgy 29.3 (2014): 37-46.
Olson, Roger E. “Biblical Injunctions Regarding Aliens In Our Midst” Patheos. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2011/06/biblical-injunctions-regarding-aliens-in-our-midst/.