(Originally published with the Art of Worship, 2016)
If you’ve been around guitarists at all, you may have noticed our love for the blues; the blues scale and 12 bar form are nearly inseparable from our instrument, and the genre is foundational to most modern music. Personally, I discovered the blues shortly after I started playing guitar; another worship team musician introduced me to John Mayer, who was my gateway into older blues artists like T-Bone Walker.
For those of us who are unfamiliar with the blues, here’s a quick overview; it’s a genre that emerged around the end of the 19th century. The ugly institution of slavery brought African slaves to America, where they fused their own field holler songs with church spirituals and traditional folk songs. Its melancholy, earthy, and expressive sound comes from the use of the “blue notes” (the b5). The blues comprises the DNA of other genres like rock, jazz, R&B, soul, gospel, and country. The list goes on. It’s a simple genre, yet the phrasing and feel are deceptively hard to master.
There are many things I’d like to say about the blues, but for our purposes, I’ll focus on two: its call-and-response form, and its simplicity. These characteristics mirror what God wants in our relationships, both with Him and each other. As we’ll see, honest conversations with simple ideas are essential to discipleship.
There was so much to say about the blues that I had to split this piece into two installments; look for part two next month!
In our culture today, we’ve become used to live music functioning with a set musician(s) and audience. One plays, one listens. Sad to say, it’s common in many churches where the audience sits there – hands in pockets, lips sealed – without joining in worship together. Churches often solve this by improving their production, a misguided solution that creates another problem: the audience will not sing if the worship band is not excellent enough. Whatever the result may be, there is a misplaced emphasis on the performance.
This happens in our relationships too, exemplified – and in many ways, worsened – by the internet. We live in a spectator culture that comments and reacts to posts and videos from many miles away, with limited personal relationship. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and share/comment our opinion on comment threads, without investing (time, money, etc.) in real issues, the most notoriously disconnected being captions like “1 like = 1 prayer.” Our reluctance to physically engage can come from many places; perhaps we feel powerless to make a sizable impact. Maybe we feel like we are unworthy, or not good enough. Or maybe we are fearful of what others might think. Still others are scared of failure, or supporting a cause that could be wrong.
Field Holler VS Performance Discipleship
This common church problem sharply contrasts with the field holler, an early element of the blues that cemented its conversational style. When slaves were in the fields, they would sing songs to keep themselves occupied, inspired, and in sync. As they would work, a designated leader would sing a phrase (the call), and the rest would answer (the response). The result: a rhythmic unity and drive, as they tilled the soil or chopped trees in rhythm. Here’s an example:
Examples of communal singing can be found in almost every culture around the world, mostly using the pentatonic scale (a fascinating topic for another time). I love how the songs encourage collaboration and participation from everyone present. Just like the field holler, God designed us to converse with one another. We share our lives in a Gospel-centered community: the church. As we participate in each others’ lives, we sharpen one another through discussion, grow wiser from timely rebuke, and become encouraged by fellowship (Proverbs 27:17)
A common misconception is that to enter a discipling relationship, you have to be worthy. Many people will say things like “I’ll go to church once I’ve cleaned my life up.” This is spectator culture; our image of discipleship is skewed by a performance priority. As a result, those who do not attend church are intimidated by impossible standards of righteousness. These standards are mostly limited to words though; often, those who actually attend church feel we need to deliver on ministry deadlines or clean up our image. This overshadows actually dealing with our issues in favor of merely appearing sanctified, reminiscent of the Biblical Pharisees.
I’m guilty of entering discipling relationships like this: with the intent of impressing people. Unfortunately, it just made me better at faking it, instead of actually changing. I wasn’t talking out of my experiences or heart, but was putting up a front. Are you familiar with this experience?
In that example of a field holler, did the singers sound like they had years of technique training? Definitely not; there was no time or means! These people were under immense suffering and oppression; the music is rough, and often out of tune. But there’s a certain resonance and energy that invites you to join in. There’s also a certain unity and purpose when people come together despite their shortcomings, hardships, and imperfections. They grow closer in spite of, in the middle of, and because of that tension.
Like the field holler, discipleship doesn’t have a competence exam; Jesus passed it for you by living a perfect life. On top of that, discipleship does not have an entrance fee; Jesus paid it with His blood. Rather, Jesus invites us to a relationship. No matter how spiritually mature or immature you are, we must humbly engage ourselves in that conversation, both with other people and with God himself.
Sanctification via Conversation
This article was originally posted on a website named The Art of Worship, and they had an accurate tagline; it’s all about “God’s Revelation” and “Our Response.” The end result of a honest, field-holler dynamic between people is a dialogue with God himself. Isaiah 1:18 is a beautiful passage, in which two things strike me.
“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord,
“Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool.
Firstly, God invites us to reason together. There is simply no way for us to match God in an intelligent conversation; He is infinitely wise, and we are not. And yet, He initiates, despite knowing we have the vocabulary of a helpless child.
Secondly, the grammar implies that God invites us despite our current condition. There is no way to clean our “scarlet” sins enough to stand before a the holiness of God. And yet, that conversation between us and God is the means by which we are sanctified. Children are not required to learn the language before interacting with their parents, but are immersed in a relationship with them from day one, gradually observing and learning. Similarly, we learn to speak (pray) through immersion in the Holy Spirit, the example of other believers, and Scripture long before we are “good enough.”
If this is the method to be cleansed – through a relationship and conversation with Him, no matter our current status – then why should we worry if our voice cracks during worship songs, or if the music team doesn’t have it quite together? What could possibly stop us from making disciples and conversation when we draw confidence from God’s nature?
That’s what worship is.
So our discipleship and worship should look like a field holler. Speak honestly – despite failure or triumph – in real conversation. Let’s talk. Ask each other questions without sarcasm, malice, manipulation, or pretense. It’s through confessing and speaking to each other truthfully that we see real redemption.
(All scriptures taken from NASB, using biblegateway.com)