Earning a Praise and Worship Brown Belt

Pity the poor novice who innocently walks into a ‘with it’ church to worship. They expect to hear a little music, perhaps a reading from the Bible and somebody talking about God.

But at the ‘Church of What’s Happnin’ Now,’ these stunned, would-be participants hear not just a little music, but a lot. A whole lot of music. They probably don’t hear anybody reading from the Bible, although allusions might be made. And who knows what the guy–or gal, as the case may be–up front will talk about? Caught up in the need to be relevant, and not necessarily good at it, he probably won’t talk much about God.

I don’t know exactly when God became irrelevant in their eyes. My own personal eyes see God as the wheel in the middle of the wheel, keeping life together and on track. Since that means God makes life work, doesn’t it also imply God’s relevance? Assuming you want life to work beyond where to find the best latte?

But I digress from the issue at hand–the worship service.

Since most of the service is devoted to music, let’s talk about that. Much of today’s church music falls under the general heading of Praise and Worship music. Some call it 7/11 music; that is, seven words repeated eleven times. Ah, if only there came a guarantee that the endless repetitions would stop at eleven.

But repetition isn’t what our newcomer finds disconcerting. It’s the varied and sundry hand motions that leave them thunderstruck.

In olden days, newcomers to the Catholic Mass talked about the up-and-downness of the experience. However, while everybody alternated, unexpectedly to the untrained eye, between standing, kneeling and sitting, at least they did it in unison. If newcomers so chose, they could follow along and fit in quite nicely. They might even find the rhythm pleasantly bracing.

Alas, such is not the case in a session of Praise and Worship music. The guitars start up, and the audience suddenly launches into a frenzy of free lance body language. Some raise both arms straight up. Some are content with one arm in the air, with a slight bend at the elbow. Others throw their arms out horizontally, hopefully missing any bruising contact with their seat mates. A few engage in complicated hand motions that seem to mean something, at least to them.

What, pray tell (praying being appropriate in a church service, although not much of it goes on in a ‘with-it’ church), is a beginner worshiper to make of it? With an abundant variety of methodologies of throwing arms hither and yon, there’s no hope of following along, so joining in doesn’t seem called for.

As our newcomers stand in frozen disorientation, they begin to wonder what it all means. Do the various arm positions denote rank? Do the two-arms-straight-in-the-air folks outrank the one-arm-straight-in-the-air people? Where does the bent-arm crowd fit in?

Maybe it’s like karate. You start out with a white belt and earn your way to black.

Befuddled newcomers, knowing none of the moves, are obviously white belts.

Those who hesitantly hold their palms upright somewhere around their waistline, not seeming too sure of themselves, rate gold belts, maybe with a stripe.

Horizontal arm flingers indicate an orange belt. Since karate includes good manners, risking your neighbor’s life and limb signals a low skill level. Maybe they get a stripe if they manage to avoid bodily harm to those around them.

One hesitantly raised arm with a bend at the elbow merits a blue belt, while two such arm placements earn green. In either case, bent arms raised with confidence get a stripe.

One arm raised ramrod straight up definitely gets a purple belt. Holding your arm in that position for the eternity of endless repetitions deserves something. Especially if the beat is no faster than a dirge, as is so often the case.

And two arms held rigidly aloft for vast periods of time surely qualifies for brown-belt status. Throw in an automatic stripe for dogged perseverance.

We award no black belts ever, lest we encourage this ecclesiastical free-for-all.

And the folks with the hand motions should go back to kindergarten.

All of this raises the question: Where does one go to learn the arm motions and attain the ever higher levels of competence?

Or can we return to the old-fashioned understanding that a church service is a group experience–not finding one’s private bliss whilst surrounded by other disconnected folks–and just keep our arms to ourselves? Or must we continue to scare off newcomers?

© 2007 by Bette Dowdell. All rights reserved.

About the author: Bette Dowdell is a former IBM Systems Engineer, small business consultant and software company owner. She also taught the Bible to just about anybody who would listen, including successfully teaching serious theology to grade school kids–mostly gifted, mostly boys–not a job for sissies. She wrote the book How to be a Christian Without Being Annoying, that breezily explains the Bible’s description of Christianity. Read about the book, enjoy some other articles, get a no-cost e-mail subscription to Bette’s original quotes, and contact her at http://www.ConfidentFaith.com.

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