Hey Mr. DJ, put some praise music on

Hey Mr. DJ, put some praise music on August 14, 2013

As a famous religious figure once said, “Ask and you shall receive.” Sometimes even we media critics get what we ask for. Last month I asked for more – and deeper – coverage of hipster churches, and then this week veteran Godbeat reporter Michelle Boorstein fulfills my request (at least partially).

Last Sunday the Church at Clarendon, a self-professed “diverse urban church” in Washington, D.C. held an “experimental service called Church Remixed, which featured music by a DJ rather than live musicians” and Boorstein was on hand to report for the Washington Post. The superb story begins with a wonderfully obscure, hipster-friendly headline: Deuteronomy meets Deadmau5 as church DJs seek exaltation*

When you’re DJing a Baptist church service, is it more appropriate to mix electronic music by Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim as congregants are being ushered in or as they exit?

Such were the choreographic and theological questions at play Sunday at the 104-year-old high-steepled Church at Clarendon, which for the day replaced its usual eight-piece band and singers on the pulpit with an Atlanta wedding DJ who has hipster glasses, a table of music-mixing technology and a tendency to fist-pump while playing.

“Okay, let’s get going!” said Hans Daniels (whose DJ handle is Hans Solo) after being introduced at the start of the service, cranking up the beat — and volume — and eliciting a whoop that filled the bright, airy sanctuary. “Blessed Be Your Name” quickly became “B-B-Blessed Be Your Name,” and congregants started cha-cha dancing in their seats.

Boorstein does an excellent job of finding sources that help put this “experiment” in historical context. For example,

Tony Lee, pastor at the 3,000-member Community of Hope, noted that what we now call classic gospel — practically the soundtrack of contemporary black Christianity — came out of jazz and originally was seen as “too worldly” for church. Thirty years ago, drums were seen as outrageous, and then liturgical dance. Of course, there are still some faith communities that forbid music during worship or the sounds of women singing.

I’d have preferred to hear which faith communities “forbid music during worship or the sounds of women singing” but that’s a minor quibble.

In providing the counter-perspective, Boorstein sought out a source that helpfully frames the concerns many Christians might have about a church DJ:

“Today there’s a lot of entrepreneurialism, but I wonder if it’s more of a philosophy or a pragmatism than theological,’’ said Ed Willmington, music director at the Fuller Theological Seminary’s Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts. “One of my worries is, am I thinking about God first? That becomes the question for anyone: Does it serve theology or some other purpose?”

From start to finish, it’s a very interesting article – perhaps even too interesting. I don’t know if it’s praise or criticism to say that the reporting in the article is exceedingly more interesting than the event being reported on. To see what I mean, check out the accompanying video (a great multimedia touch by the Post) that shows some of the music being played in church.

Don’t worry praise band leader, if this “experiment” is any indication, you’re not likely to be replaced by two turntables and a microphone anytime soon.

* Deadmau5 is a Canadian progressive-house music producer and performer. You’ve probably never heard of him.

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5 responses to “Hey Mr. DJ, put some praise music on”

  1. Something bothered me about the quick explanation of the origins of Gospel music, so I did a little digging. Yes, Gospel does have connections to jazz and secular music, but early leaders in Gospel music, like Mahalia Jackson and Thomas Dorsey, made a sharp distinction between what they were doing in church and what their jazz and blues peers were doing in nightclubs. Jackson refused to record secular music (http://www.southernmusic.net/mahaliajackson.htm), and Dorsey left a promising career in jazz to focus on sacred music (http://www.southernmusic.net/thomasdorsey.htm). Both of them advanced their musical careers through churches and with broad support from church networks. Maybe Gospel music was kept out of some churches for being “too worldly” like Tony Lee said, but I’d like some specific examples.

  2. I’d have preferred to hear which faith communities “forbid music during
    worship or the sounds of women singing” but that’s a minor quibble.

    Isn’t this a pretty clear reference to the Churches of Christ and Orthodox Judaism, respectively?

    • Technically, Churches of Christ discourage instrumental music or accompaniment during worship. I am not familiar with the reasoning, but I know that sacred music, whether in worship or outside of it, is expected to be sung a cappella. Some congregations are less strict about the rule than others.

  3. If you have to be “hip” to be Christian, then you don’t fully understand the message of Christ.

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