Today I have a review of A Field Guide to Contemporary Worship: How to Begin and Lead Band-Based Worship by Andrew Boesnecker and James Graeser, a hand book I found having a few gems but overall disappointing as it extensively covers the “how” of contemporary worship but lends cursory attention to the “why.” You can also read, rate, and comment on a truncated version of my review at Amazon.
Worship leaders Andy Boesenecker and Pastor Jim Graeser offer thought and advice on creating and implementing band-based worship for congregations looking to add a “contemporary” flare to their worship offerings. While there are gems of thought throughout the handbook, as one whose history is grounded in traditional worship and trying to learn more about the “why” behind contemporary worship, I was disappointed to find this book is more weighted on the “how to” side of the scale. I found my hermeneutic of suspicion overwhelming my attempt at offering the handbook it a hermeneutic of generosity. Still, I offer below a sampling of what I found helpful in the handbook before I explore anything which was frustrating.
Boesenecker and Graeser open by creating context for contemporary worship, rightly pointing out the term “contemporary worship” means many things to many people. They posit that as American culture segues from an auditory appetite to one which is satiated visually, so too must the church acknowledge and embrace such a shift. The handbook is divided into 14 chapters which I would divide further by assigning chapters 1-4 to why one should consider contemporary worship, bands in worship, and the theology of songs and this style of worship; chapters 5-9 digging into how to choose, prepare, and lead songs and how to run a music ensemble; and chapters 10-14 detailing technical aspects of the PA system with a brief, empowering benediction.
There is tremendous advice in regards to pastoral care for the congregation in this handbook. The writers rightly point out people would “grieve the removal of ‘their’ worship service” if traditional worship was outright replaced by contemporary worship in one’s congregation. It’s a helpful reminder that change comes in many forms, some healthier than others, and simply changing worship completely is one of the unhealthy ones. Likewise, for those planning contemporary worship, it is important to understand what they are leading is worship, not performance. This is key for any worship leader to ensure Christ is at the center of worship, not the leader(s) or pastor(s). I do wish, however, the authors had gone the extra step in stating it’s just as important for the congregation to understand itself as a congregation gathered to worship, not an audience gathered for a show.
I also appreciated the balance between something new and something traditional – that is, liturgy, or an order of worship. While it may be presented in different ways than purely traditional worship, it is present as an intentional anchor which can potentially help root the congregation in its own sort of tradition. I smiled when the writers wrote a series of important questions regarding this so we, as readers and would-be worship leaders, always consider our intentions.
Expert attention is given to many practical matters, too. I am a big fan of the charts they used to explain how various worship leaders can (must?) come together around a theme / Scripture readings at the heart of the worship service. I see this as something which could translate to any worship team no matter their style of worship. I also think it’s a tremendous idea to have some open rehearsals to help the band be comfortable in front of the congregation and for a handful of congregation members to get to know the songs before they’re introduced so there’s voice support in the sanctuary beyond the band the first time others experience the song. The professional expectations required of all members of the ensemble is also clear and reasonable; I will definitely be using the sentence, “Rehearsal doesn’t really end until the last piece of equipment is loaded and the doors are locked” or some variation of it in my own ministry context.
Other practical matters are addressed such as where to place a band in relationship to the congregation and how to position PA equipment in relation to both. This is precisely the sort of meticulous detail needed for persons creating a contemporary worship service which I could see getting overlooked easily. Within these sections were some hidden gems which helped me better know the equipment my congregation is already using. For example, I didn’t know the differences between microphones, how to properly place a monitor, and the proper way to coil and protect PA cables. These are the grace notes of the handbook which will definitely stand out for me as particularly helpful.
Several parts of the book addressed my main personal concerns with contemporary Christian music and particularly its presence in worship – that it can be a theological fir or mismatch with the congregation, whether music should constantly be playing (they, and I, say no), and what if the congregation doesn’t want to sing along for various reasons. For the writers, it comes down to offering everyone, both the persons they call regular church-goers and the “unchurched,” something which meets them where they are at and is relevant. Despite any personal hesitation I have regarding this style of worship or music, it is clear many people feel it is relevant and very much so meets them where they are at. To this, Boesenecker and Graeser write with passion and some humor about their topic. Neither approaches the subject lightly; both are clearly gifted in what they do and such passion is infections in this reader’s desire to also help create meaningful, relevant worship opportunities.
While those matters were addressed, I wish they were explored more. I’m walking away from this book with more questions and more frustration about contemporary worship than I had when I began. I was disappointed that theology was specifically addressed on pages 26-29 (midway through each plus one page of lyrics for around two pages total), an amount just over the page space granted to matters of copyright, equivalent to that of where to physically place a band in a worship space, and dwarfed by three chapters on PA systems at 33, 18, and 38 pages long, respectively. I knew something was amiss when the opening of chapter 5 of 14 states, “With your theological compass and an ear for singability…” which came off, to me, like it was saying, “That’s that. Theological mission accomplished.” The handbook, then, is lopsided, to me.
This handbook, to me, posits ideas based on many assumptions and without much context. I agree with Boesenecker and Graeser that, indeed, American culture is now less about a primarily auditory experience and shifting (shifted) to a visual experience. However, the way this idea is presented appears to make the assumption that this is “just because” and not due to how mediums have changed. It’s as if they’re saying people are more visual than they used to be when really it’s that media is more visual than it used to be. Also, statements like “just pull up YouTube on your iPhone and immediately get up to speed” may seem like a reality in the US but it left me wondering about those on the other side of the digital divide. Yes, much is stirring in the US culture but I question what “our culture” is, really. Assumptions about shared cultural experience are not helpful, in my opinion, particularly for the church. Ironically, as this section about how US culture is changing when it comes to how we consume media, I couldn’t help but notice this handbook is not currently available as an ebook…
Finally, I was disappointed in the presentation style of the handbook. I think it’s difficult to find information and determine what is the most relevant to a reader’s situation. For example, the sidebar boxes have no discernible pattern. Some have tips, others have inspirational quotes, a few are inspirational quotes without clear context, and several are plugs for the writers’ website. Rather than provide important highlights to the main body of text, they end up, to me, like a smattering of jigsaw puzzle pieces and it’s up to me as the reader to discern their import. The table of contents is sparse and I couldn’t help but think short bullet point lists could have been helpful to help the reader have a compass before diving into a chapter. For example, why not provide a short list of equipment with concise descriptions right at the top of chapter 10 instead of having each new type of equipment need to occur every few pages?
The handbook presentation, to me, comes off as amateurish, almost as if it’s self-published and lacking focused editing. The book is “illustrated” with only four photos (pages 4, 5, 25, and 30) and two cartoons (42 and 210). Each photo is culled from an online stock photo repository and none necessarily strike me as prescient. On the other hand, I’m not surprised the authors didn’t explore photography and illustrations available online via, for example, the Creative Commons attribution license when their exploration of copyright is less than two pages and a parenthetical mention in a sidebar box. Regardless, I found the photos of various pieces of PA gear overwhelming and the accompanying copy lacking. In fact, I was amazed to see how many of the gear photos were low-resolution, pixelated messes. I was especially disappointed to read the software program my congregation uses, PowerPoint, referred to in a pejorative manner yet without any reasons why it isn’t the best choice for a worship setting, nor why the church-specific presentation software was better and what differences / similarities there are between them. Again, there is a lack of context that left me disappointed and the screenshots of the various software – not even edited from the Mac desktop, simply imported as screenshots – are not informative and are, to me, unprofessional.
Finally, the handbook contradicts itself several times. There’s an example of poor-to-read sheet music font to avoid compared with easy-to-read font, and then that exact same poor-to-read font shows up in a later section on notation. The writers say to avoid the “stage” and explain that keeping the band on the same level as the congregation will help people feel like “we are all singing this together” instead of as a performance, and theologically that the band should be off to the side in a best-case scenario so it is not a performance and the focus of worship, yet some diagrams depict a “stage.” (I was glad, however, to see at least one diagram put the band off to the side as earlier stated.) In regards to lyrics, the writers give excellent advice – to embrace corporate language over personal language as often as possible. On the facing page, however, are lyrics including “the heart of man” which is corporate yet not gender inclusive and on the next page one of the positively-portrayed song examples lifted up uses a lot of “me” language – right above an example of negatively-portrayed song example with “me” language. It is difficult to consider the writers expertise helpful when they contradict their own advice.
Re-reading the second portion of this review, I would completely understand how one could say I am getting “nitpicky” with this handbook, writing about my frustration with sidebars and pixelated illustrations and continuity. To this I must say I approached this book with as open a mind as I could. I am in seminary to explore new ideas and tackle healthy challenges to my context – not to merely confirm what I already “know.” I wanted to be generous. But my context as one who needs convincing on the “why” is left unconvinced and my context as a holder of an MFA in Writing, a former English teacher, and one who loves reading was left disappointed by these “nitpicky” issues.
I’m not sure who the audience is for this book. If it’s people who need to be convinced this is a healthy way to do worship (people like me), there’s not enough here to help us understand the “why.” If it’s for those who are already doing it, the handbook is preaching to the choir. Perhaps there is a middle audience, then, who are willing to forego any reasonable amount of researched convincing and will simply go with it because what’s most important to them is the “how.” With respect, while I am grateful persons are moved in their faith journey through contemporary worship, I am left simultaneously helped and frustrated by this handbook.
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