For Dominant Christian Culture, It’s Excavation or Extinction

“Bro…it’s not that deep.” I hear that occasionally from friends who know I have a penchant to overthink things. Most of the time, they’re right. But sometimes the problem is actually not going deep enough.

I thought about this recently while watching veteran evangelical worship leader Don Moen on YouTube trying to illustrate the perils of what he calls “overplaying.” Moen asks each band member to demonstrate his technique, first by playing in an understated fashion, and then by flexing his musical chops and really showing off. The video culminates with Moen singing while each member of the band intentionally overplays with intensity.

Moen’s directive seemed to be lost on the YouTube commenters. The vast majority preferred the overplaying to the original style (these are exact quotes): “That’s the kind of energy we need in church.” “The bass player’s overplaying made me believe in God.”

Now, context matters. This video was intended for musicians aspiring to play in megachurch worship bands. Decades of experience have taught Moen that when it comes to evangelical churches, his way is the way.

If Moen’s goal was to train musicians to perpetuate the existing norms of the contemporary Christian music industry, perhaps he succeeded. But if his goal was to raise up musicians to engage and inspire their peers to worship God, then Moen appears to have failed.

This is the inherent hazard of dominant culture. It disincentivizes honest reflection—especially true when it comes to issues of race and class. Without needing to dig into his own motivations or preferences, Moen behaves as though his standards are universal, rather than the product of a cultural viewpoint.

 

Rigid conformity robs us from experiencing
all the richness and beauty of God’s creation.

 

Yet black or brown musicians are rarely afforded that kind of benefit of the doubt, especially in the church. As a hip-hop musician, I grew up constantly having to explain my art, its genre, its origins, and the values it seeks to express, in order to justify it as a valid expression of worship. While that requirement was a burden, it also taught me to help make my art accessible to people who weren’t native to my culture.

This is a clear example of how institutional racism doesn’t just hurt people of color, it hurts white people too. The emphasis on rigid conformity robs fellow brothers and sisters of faith from experiencing all the richness and beauty of God’s creation as expressed through different cultures.

Moen did have some legit points. Worship musicians should avoid drawing too much attention to themselves, and too many notes in accompaniment can distract from the melody.

But he missed some important caveats. First, in some contexts a more energetic playing style is not only appropriate, but in some churches—especially black churches—it’s necessary.

Moen’s approach was a classic example of white supremacy in action, because he assumed that the preferences of white people are universal moral imperatives. But the beauty of the divine can also be expressed in complexity. Syncopated rhythms, compound chord inversions, and vocal harmonies can all magnify the beauty of a melody of a lyric by adding dimensional depth and sonic energy.

I’m sure Don Moen has participated in great worship music that does exactly that. I’m sure he knows great musicians who can dig into their own cultural influences to find the balance between simplicity and complexity. The guys in Moen’s band seem to get this intuitively, or they wouldn’t be able to “overplay” as well as they do.

Even before COVID-19 disrupted our paradigms, many of our churches were in crisis. When it comes to reimagining our worship music, we cannot afford to simply recreate the tainted victories of yesteryear. We need the boldness and humility required to look back, find out what went wrong, and try to correct it.

Don Moen insisted that overplaying was wrong and came out looking like a dinosaur. If the rest of us want to avoid extinction, we must dig deeper and do better.

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6 Comments

  1. What is sacred music? This was clearly answered for most of Christian history. Chant without instruments has been the default for thousands of years. The primary purpose is to convey the words of scripture (psalms and gospel primarily), not to have catchy original tunes to whip people into an emotional frenzy like every Sunday is a tent revival. Now some people think you can have bands and pop music and simply change the words? This is pure emotion and is far removed from Christianity and was always rejected from Christ until the 1960s. You can’t redefine Christianity and sacred music to be whatever you feel it should be. Christianity is about acts of the will and intellect, not getting on some emotional high each Sunday. Relying on emotions is satanic. All Protestants of earlier generations prior to tent revivalism and especially prior to the 1960s would reject all of this.

  2. Mr. Greenidge, I enjoy your articles – they usually help me understand a different perspective. But help me understand why Don Moen’s approach is an example of white supremacy. I watched the video. He gave an opinion and backed it up with examples. White supremacy and racism are serious charges. I’m afraid you’re applying a motive to Mr. Moen’s opinion that clearly isn’t there.

    1. Hi Denise,

      Thanks for your response. Here is a fuller explanation…

      White supremacy is not always about burning crosses and making threats. Sometimes it’s as simple as assuming that the tastes, styles and preferences of white people should be the default standard for everyone… white and nonwhite alike. That’s what Moen is doing here.

      You said, “he gave an opinion and backed it up with examples.” This is true! But have you stopped to consider how that opinion was framed? Nowhere in this video does he say, “this is just how we prefer to do it at our church” or “this is how I prefer my band to play” … he uses language that assumes that his way of playing is THE way the music should be played.

      Now, if he was only talking about this with regard to his music, then that would be one thing, but he’s not talking about just his music… he’s making a value statement about worship music in general. He’s saying worship music in general should be played HIS way. He never stopped to consider that perhaps there are other churches in other cultural contexts where his style of playing might be insufficient.

      This is one element of white supremacy, taking what a white person thinks/says/believes and applying it as the standard to which all others should aspire.

      You said, “I’m afraid you’re applying a motive to Mr. Moen’s opinion that clearly isn’t there.”

      I’m sure that he did NOT intend to communicate white supremacy. But that’s not the point. He did it even without trying.

      It sounds like you have a problem with the term “white supremacy” … how else would you describe it when a white person makes a universal value declaration without first acknowledging his cultural background, and that value declaration excludes people of other cultures?

  3. Dig even deeper. The style or cultural background might be important, but the power of the Holy Spirit to draw a congregation into worship is essential! Trained musician or rank amateur, whatever style, it is the Holy Spirit Who does the work. We must acknowledge how dependent we are on Him and do the necessary soul work to be the instruments He can use to bring forth worship from His people.

  4. You say “to-may-to,” I say “to-mah-to.” A worship style must fit its culture and its context. Passionate “overplaying” may draw some into deeper worship, while others are drawn in with a more classic, contemplative style. Jesus said: “Wisdom is shown by its offspring.” So, in any particular context, the deeper question than style preference is this: Does it help make disciples? In worship leading, are you connecting people’s hearts to God in worship? Are they becoming worshipers who worship God “in Spirit and in truth?”

    Who is your audience? If you go visit an elderly saint (white, black, or any ethnicity) in the nursing home, and want to bless them, and connect their heart to God in worship, sing one of the old hymns a cappella. Sing it straight– no embellishment. And watch their face glow as they enter into worship!

    And my guess is that Don Moen was trying to advocate humility when up front. That’s always a good reminder for musicians. The greatest danger in music, as a musician, is the temptation to draw attention to oneself. As a worship leader, that needs to be avoided like the plague. Pride is what made the devil the devil (and he was, originally, the angelic worship leader in heaven).

    If, by “overplaying,” one can help others go deeper in worship, helping them tap into the deeper recesses of their spirit and faith, wonderful! In many contexts, that produces the desired fruit. In others, it will go over like a lead weight. “Know your audience.”

    You had good points, Jelani. But you were a little too harsh in your criticism of Don (“dinosaur”?!). You’ve had good success in your genre of music. Congratulations! God bless you! But be a little more humble in evaluating others who speak, teach and write from their experience, particular to their genre. And I hope you’d recognize that Don has been a faithful minister, and has had good fruit in his career.

    1. I think we’re agree more than we disagree. What you said here is key:

      If, by “overplaying,” one can help others go deeper in worship, helping them tap into the deeper recesses of their spirit and faith, wonderful! In many contexts, that produces the desired fruit. In others, it will go over like a lead weight. “Know your audience.”

      Part of what I’m saying, though, is that Moen is making some huge assumptions about his audience, and those assumptions reveal the cultural disconnect between who’s coming to church and who isn’t.

      If part of the mission of the church is to reach the lost, and you hear people literally saying “the bass player’s overplaying made me believe in God” … even though that comment was made in jest, it reveals an important point, that there are plenty of people for whom “overplaying” is simply… PLAYING.

      Why didn’t Don Moen call his style “underplaying”? Because the unspoken assumption is that his way is playing the right way. All I’m saying is that his was is just one of MANY right ways, and the fact that he wasn’t able to communicate that is indicative of his inability to communicate cross-culturally.

      And why is it that he could be a faithful minister for all these years and still have that blind spot? My guess is that he ministers primarily in white churches to white people who appreciate his brand of worship music. And that style is legitimate, but it shouldn’t be elevated over and above all other forms.

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