From Worship Service to Gathering
Ken Medema is a musician, composer and performer and has ministered to the church for over 30 years.
He studied music therapy at Michigan State University in Lansing, where he concentrated heavily on performance skills in piano and voice. After working as a music therapist in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he returned to Michigan State for a master’s degree (1969) and then worked for four years as a music therapist at Essex County Hospital in New Jersey. It was while employed there that he began writing and performing his own songs. There were many teens who were really hurting, and he started writing songs about their lives. Then, he thought, “Why don’t I start writing songs about my Christian life?” So he started doing that, and people really responded.
In 1973 he left his work as a therapist and began a career as a performing and recording artist, making albums for Word and Shawnee Press, then in 1985 founded Brier Patch Music with headquarters in Grandville, Michigan. Today, Ken performs in a wide variety of venues, from local congregations to charity fund-raisers, to high school and university campuses, to denominational youth gatherings, to globally televised religious programs, to corporate conventions, to annual assemblies of national organizations, and he does this without the use of his physical eyes, being able only to distinguish some shapes and differing degrees of light and darkness.
Ken and his wife Jane (who also has a master’s degree in music) have been married since 1965 and live in the San Francisco Bay area where we met with them on a sunny afternoon around the kitchen table of their home.
HOMILETICS: Let’s start with the basics. Music, for you, is a tool, a means—
MEDEMA: Music is for us a vehicle. A tool. I learned that as a music therapist. I worked with mentally disturbed kids, and the whole philosophy was that music was a tool for accomplishing some other things, whether it was to help kids to get back into reality, or developing muscle groups. Whatever it was, music was a vehicle to get us there.
HOMILETICS: You’re not saying that you don’t see yourself as a musician.
MEDEMA: No, I don’t see myself as first and foremost, primarily, a musician.
HOMILETICS: So first and foremost you see yourself as a:
MEDEMA: Storyteller, teacher, facilitator.
HOMILETICS: How about preacher?
MEDEMA: Preacher. Given the kind of stuff that I do, given the kind of preparation that we make when I do a song or concert, it really is an exercise in theologizing and it’s an exercise in developing a hermeneutic and playing with it.
HOMILETICS: When I’ve heard you in person, after leaving the concert hall, there’s been no need to hear a sermon.
MEDEMA: But for me, it’s not enough just to have nice music. I look at the great hymns that I grew up with. They are mini-sermons in themselves. They are theological statements, are they not? And Jane and I have always wanted to build whatever we do on that kind of model, whether it’s one piece or an entire concert; it needs to be a kind of theological statement — a sermon if you will.
JANE MEDEMA: And isn’t that because you and I — partly by personalities and training and experience — we rapidly get restless with the idea that music is worship, at least when we talk about religious communities, because, the kind of worship produced by that is feeble. As wonderful as beauty is in being a carrier of God to us, nevertheless, it is not adequate.
MEDEMA: The church has got too much music in it right now.
HOMILETICS: The church has too much music?
MEDEMA: Too much. The church is obsessed with music. The church has this false idea that if you have the right kind of music you will bring the people in, you will suck them in! And that came right out of the 14th and 15th centuries when the church was doing organs.
Organs were a Roman circus instrument. When the church started doing organs, the cathedral with the biggest organ would draw the most people. That’s why they started writing organ pieces, as interludes between the chants. If your church had a big new organ, you’d draw the people.
We do these music shows to draw the people in, and we call it worship, and what it is is just emotional manipulation. Too much music in the church.
HOMILETICS: So what else do we need with the music?
MEDEMA: I’m feeling more and more that when the people of God gather, they gather for conversation, they gather to study and learn, they gather to discover directions of discipleship, and the music should be helpful in that process. I am convinced that a whole lot of music is just creating a nice feeling, creating warm and tender emotions, or saying the same few phrases over and over and over and over again. And there’s nothing wrong — necessarily — with repetition, but it’s so limited.
HOMILETICS: We can take Zwingli’s approach and take a hammer to the organs, guitars —
MEDEMA: No, we need them all, but they need to be in their place. They need to be an expression of people’s devotion and discovery, an aid to discipleship, teaching tools for theology and helping to conceptualize our task. When I look at what I consider to be the best of hymnology, or even contemporary Christian music, there is always the component of challenge in it. There’s always the component of helping me grow, helping me discover something new, helping me find something that I need to know. It’s not simply chanting one more verse from one more psalm —and I love those verses — but week after week after week after week after week after week after week after week after week — to have “How I love you Lord, how I love you Lord, how I love you Lord, we fall down, we fall down, we fall down, Jesus you’ve done such a nice job for me,” it’s silly. [laughter erupts]
JANE MEDEMA: Not to speak of narcissistic.
HOMILETICS: How do you decide what is good music or what is bad music? Is contemporary music junk food music?
MEDEMA: In any musical style, whether it is traditional hymnody, folk music, country, rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, classical, there is music that is the product of the best thinking, the most conscientious effort, and then there is music that is much less carefully done. There are bad hymns. When I was growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were a lot of scholcky hymns, and I can’t really say what made them that way, except that they were made without the greatest care, without a desire for excellence.
JANE MEDEMA: Yet, how come, given the fact that you are so great at improvising, how does that work with your idea that things have to be done with the greatest care. Sorry!
MEDEMA: I am always — in the listening I do — working to refine what I do with improvising. So that my improvising style today is much better than it ever was before, because I’ve listened to a whole lot of music, and I’ve refined the style, I’ve gotten rid of excess baggage, I have tightened the style, I’ve found more interesting chord progressions. I don’t spend a lot of time using the same old rhymes, bow and now, for example.
HOMILETICS: Perhaps it’s not a question of time. Handel wrote The Messiah in 18 days.
MEDEMA: That’s right, and the reason it’s great is not that he took so little time to do it. Handel was developing his sense of excellence for years.
JANE MEDEMA: The reason I pointed that out, is that you do take the time, but it’s somewhere else other than that moment. In the same way, if you ask Marcus Borg to have a conversation with the audience, and you ask him something to which he has to respond spontaneously, you don’t have a man unprepared to speak. Ken spends hours and hours and hours on musical craft and on theological content, psychological content, cultural content.
HOMILETICS: So it’s not improvising in that sense. How would you describe your music? How do others describe your music?
MEDEMA: The word people always want to use is “eclectic.” They refuse to pin it down to a certain style. They say, “Well it’s eclectic, it’s multi-stylistic, it’s kind of half pop, half classical, and they go on and on about it until they just can’t find the right words. And there probably isn’t a better word. One moment it’s a Bach chorale, the other moment it’s a hip-hop piece, or a heavy metal moment, or it’s the story of Zacchaeus sounding like a Broadway musical.
HOMILETICS: Has your style changed over the years?
MEDEMA: I think I’ve added dimensions to it, so that it becomes broader. There are certain aspects that I’m not using now. The ‘70s rock, arena rock, that was very intense, and wandered all over. I don’t do a lot of that now. But I do use a lot of the techno thing, the dance sound that kids listen to these days.
HOMILETICS: Why do people feel so strongly about music? You turn on television and you hear music in ads for everything from soup to nuts to deodorants. Why would it come into someone’s mind that we need music in this ad for Right Guard? What is that kind of power?
MEDEMA: It’s the same power that makes people think that we have to have music when we go to church. Farnsworth wrote a book in the ‘50s called The Influence of Music on Behavior. The psychology of music has studied this for years. Music has a profound effect on behavior. It’s an emotional stimulus, it has conditioned responses, to the extent that, in India for example, if you go to a music therapist, if you are mentally ill, you may have a certain raga that is prescribed to be played for you, and you go to a music therapist and he or she sits there and plays with a sitar and actually plays a certain raga, and if you’ve heard that raga all your life, and that raga is a raga for mourning, that raga will provoke a certain response in you and the therapist knows that, and desires that you have that certain response.
Example: I was working as a music therapist in 1964 in the Topeka State Hospital in Kansas. We had a young client come into the hospital. Upon graduation from high school, he flipped out. So Carl [not his real name] began having the typical delusions — voices, the enemy is coming to gas us, and so on. Came into the hospital and no one could do anything with him.
We found out that he loved country music. He just loved country music. One of our music therapists took him down to the music room. He would be totally delusional, whispering to voices, hearing voices, and she would put on one of his favorite records, Hank Snow, or Johnny Cash, and Carl would snap back into reality immediately and would sit through the whole song, looking alive, listening to the song, not talking to his voices. As soon as the song was over, he was back in his own world.
Example two: I talked to a woman last year who said, when she was considering coming to one of my concerts — it was a Sunday morning service — “Do they play organ music in the service?”
I said, “I think so.”
She said, “Then I don’t think I can come to that service.”
I said, “Why?”
She said that she had grown up in a cult where she was ritually abused. In this satanic cult, the ritual began with Bach organ music. She said her response to Bach organ music is so thoroughly conditioned, that when she hears that kind of music, she has to run, or throw up. Music provokes incredibly conditioned responses. So if we want people to feel a certain kind of way, we will use a certain kind of music.
It’s the same thing we do with colors. If you want people to feel a certain kind of way, you have a certain kind of color scheme. The Muzak people have known this for years. If you want people to do their shopping quickly — get them in the store and out of the store — you have music with a certain kind of tempo with this kind of harmony, these kinds of strings, no vocals, etc. On the other hand if you want people to stay in your store for a long time, to relax and browse, and be inclined to buy, then you need this kind of music.
HOMILETICS: So you say to the Muzak people: “I want a certain kind of music for people coming into church; they want to encounter God, experience God; what kind of music do I need?”
MEDEMA: As long as you put “experience God” in quotes. Someone else would say, “This is not experiencing God at all.” They want to conjure up an emotional experience which they can say is experiencing or encountering God.
So then the musical expert will ask, “What are the ages of these people?” and you say, “Well, they’re in their 30s and 40s.” And the expert says, “Then you need very pleasant, adult contemporary music, something between “Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon” and Cat Stevens, Sting, not Britney Spears, not rave Def music, but something that is adult contemporary — which is exactly what Christian contemporary music (CCM) is in most churches. Most of the big churches, what they’re playing is music that really comes out of the 1980s, late ‘70s. And who goes to the contemporary services? Thirty-year-olds, forty-year-olds. Who’s in the band? Thirty-year-olds, forty-year-olds. Where are the kids going? Mostly not to the contemporary service if they have a choice.
HOMILETICS: They’re going to services that feature Gregorian chants, incense, candles.
MEDEMA: For the kids, there’s the extreme. On one level, they want dance music; on another level they want Gregorian chants.
HOMILETICS: It seems kind of odd for there to be a situation in which the pastor has to say, “Okay, what kind of music do I need to have?” Especially when you have an intergenerational congregation.
MEDEMA: For me, the ideal is for that pastor to say, “What kind of musical expression comes out of my people? Who are they, musically? What are their various mother tongues?” It’s fair to say, if I’m the pastor, the people in my church ought to have the freedom to have music in their mother tongue, so that if there are people in my church whose mother tongue is country music, we ought to have country music in our church. If there are people who are young, hip-hoppers, then there ought to be music in their mother tongue.
The churches that do it best, are the churches who don’t ask the question, “What kind of music do we need to draw people in?” but the question, “What kind of music would help my people express their devotion in their mother tongue?”
I’ve seen teens sitting in the front row, on the edge of their seats singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” with incredible passion. In that same church, there’s a 70-year-old woman, with a cracked voice, singing “In times like these, you need a savior.”
On the other hand, there’s the 15-year-old kid whom everyone knows is addicted to drugs, who stands up and says, “I went to a Christian concert the other night, and I walked down the aisle and I gave my life to Jesus.” And she looks at her grandmother and she says, “I want you to hear the song that brought me back to this church.” You think her grandmother is going to reject that song? No way!
The little church that we were a part of in San Francisco was so exciting, because we had people who were into movies, television, alternative music and all kinds of weird media, and we used it all, but only because it grew out of our little collection of people. So the question is, “What can we do today that will help our people to express their devotion or confront the challenges of discipleship in a mother tongue that is familiar to them?”
JANE MEDEMA: And some of it is that there are some tasks that people in a faith community have to do. They have to do some mourning, they have to do some learning, they have to do rejoicing, storytelling, and there’s all kinds of music that carry that well, and within each musical style you’re going to have some rules that relate to whether it’s good or bad, but at any rate, the way you would judge music for your faith community is to say, “Does it accomplish these tasks — with integrity?”
MEDEMA: For example, a lot of the contemporary praise music, even by its very harmony and rhythm, doesn’t do lament very well. So if a church needs to lament, which a church does — I’ve never seen a church be healthy if it can’t lament — it’s not going to do very well by, you know — [here Medema sings a little a singsong la la la la thing]
HOMILETICS: How is that going to be transcribed? [laughter all around]
MEDEMA: By upbeat chords, and happy drums! [laughter again] So if I go into a church community, I try to get a sense of who they are. I’m assuming a wide breadth of intellectual and artistic and musical language. I’m going to think about where these people have been musically. Classical? Adult contemporary influence? Diverse world music? I’m going to want to use as many of those mother tongues as possible. Now, how I use them is the question. Do I use them simply to bring back old feelings? I hope not. My goal and desire is to use those mother tongues to evoke a response to rather specific theological content.
Usually my performances are based on a theme. If I’m doing a concert on the theme “God’s Feast Is for All People” or “Being Called Out of Your Comfort Zone,” or “Life in the Place of Death,” or “Dance with a Stranger,” perhaps I’ll ask them to tell me a story about when they were called to a table with strangers. If I am trying to create an environment where talking about these things feels natural, I’m going to use these languages.
HOMILETICS: You were talking about lament, and about storytelling and singing and how it helps us get through hard times. This year, 9/11, the fourth anniversary falls on a Sunday. So if you were the pastor, how would you mark this event?
MEDEMA: I would first sit down with my music person and ask, “What can we know about the people in our church and where they are musically?” I would do a little survey: “Tell me about the song that you remember in your life that most poignantly sings about sadness. Tell me about what you remember about 9/11. Was there any music that you remember from that week?”
Once I got those responses from people, I would sit with the music person, and say, “Look, here are three people who have said that the song for them is ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Here are 20 people who’ve said, ‘God Bless America,’ here are 17 who said, ‘Come Ye Disconsolate’ and here is someone who said, ‘Brahms’ Requiem.’”
So I get all this stuff. Can we build a gathering around the spoken word and some of this music? I would ask people to write little meditations. “I remember 9/11.”
In fact, on the Sunday after 9/11, I was in Nashville, and I asked people to tell me a story about a moment of grace this week in all this sadness, and people talked about sitting around the TV with their families, they talked about sitting around the kitchen table. They ate hamburgers and looked at each other and cried. So I would ask people to write remembrances like that, and then I would bring these remembrances and this music together in a series of lessons and carols.
JANE MEDEMA: And what you would do, of course, is to do your own original response to that, and insert themes from these pieces of music.
MEDEMA: Little video clips. Probably I would have some kind of prelude experience where many people had an opportunity to say things.
We are more and more about the idea of conversation. The gathering is conversation. I am so tired of “worship service.” I tell churches, “Let’s call it a gathering.” Worship service has no meaning anymore. The practice of worship or of adoring or loving the divine is a valuable, valid Christian practice.
But what we mean by worship service is simply what happens when folks get together in a big church. It needs to be a gathering. And what we do there is multitudinous, it’s multileveled, it’s multilinguistic. Sometimes it’s teaching. Sometimes it’s sitting looking at each other. Sometimes it’s a call to do what we have to do out in the world. Sometimes it’s a time for the world to come in and exegete us. But if we free it from that phrase “worship service” we free it to be whatever it needs to be at that moment.
HOMILETICS: You cite John Lewis who talks about using “just the right notes.” Do preachers talk too much?
MEDEMA: Very often. Perhaps the best preacher I’ve heard in my life is Jim Forbes, and one of the great gifts that Jim Forbes offers is that he doesn’t talk too much, and then when he uses words, they’re carefully chosen. There’s a craft about the way words are used.
Now, sometimes I want that kind of carefully wrought, elegant, every single word in place experience. And then there are times when I want my pastor to just be a witness. To just sit down, and say, “You know what, you know what happened to me?” and just talk to me like anyone else would. I want all of that.
JANE MEDEMA: Like Claypool. He was basically a conversation person.
MEDEMA: And it was never too much. He didn’t preach. He conversed with you, as if you were in his living room.
JANE MEDEMA: Jim Forbes’ sermon is a work of art right down to the refrains and responses.
MEDEMA: But I want both. I want it all. There are moments when you need the work of art. You need that carefully written script where every single word is in place. And then there are moments when your pastor simply needs to sit down and say, “Okay people, here’s what’s on my heart today.” And there are times when a gathering feels that way.
When a family gathers at Thanksgiving, the tablecloth is on the table, the best china is out, we’re going to have this wonderful meal, we light the candles, and Grandpa prays. And Grandpa prays for a long time. And after Grandpa prays, everyone around the table prays. And then before we eat, we all say what we’re grateful for. And then we get into the meal. And it’s a special occasion. We need that.
But every family also needs the meal where you come into the kitchen. There’s no tablecloth on the table, everyone helps cook, it’s fried chicken. The kitchen smells greasy, and you’re yelling at each other about whether there’s too much salt on the food, and you’re carrying on, and finally you get around the table and everyone’s yakking and you forget to pray, and someone spills something, but it’s great because that’s the way people are. Churches need that kind of diversity when they gather.
HOMILETICS: Sometimes people come up to you and want you to play the “old music.” You want to play the new music.
MEDEMA: What they want is my old music.
HOMILETICS: So your music has changed.
MEDEMA: I have added to what I’ve done. I have a sense of what I want to accomplish on a given night. But a lot of people would like me to sing a concert right out of 1976. That’s when I say, “No, there are other things we want to do here.”
HOMILETICS: What’s your fascination with movies?
MEDEMA: Oh, oh. Both of us absolutely love movies.
JANE MEDEMA: You can’t get him to see comedies, though.
MEDEMA: I just don’t know comedies well. I don’t find them all that funny. If I’m going to spend my time, I want a good mystery or adventure, something that forces me to think about new directions, something that pushes.
HOMILETICS: Do movies inform your own inquisitive nature about the world, nature and life?
MEDEMA: Oh, absolutely. One of our friends, who used to teach at Fuller, used to teach a course called, “I Saw Jesus at the Movies.” And for us, that has been a significant phrase because we’re always finding theology or gospel —
JANE MEDEMA: There’s always a hermeneutic at work around a movie. You wouldn’t use that phrase with a religious movie. You wouldn’t say, “I saw Jesus at the movies at The Passion.” You’d say that about Million Dollar Baby.
HOMILETICS: How much can you see at the movies? You write, “You’d be amazed at how much you can see through your ears.” What do you mean?
MEDEMA: I’ll give you a couple of examples. Panic Room. Every room in that house has a different echo. You can tell where the people are moving in the house by how the room echoes. When they go into the panic room, all the echo is gone. Even though I couldn’t see the movie, when she went into the panic room and closed the door I had the feeling of mild claustrophobia, because all of a sudden my ears heard no echo, and it was as if the walls were this close to my ears.
The movie, Fatal Attraction. Glenn Close is stalking Michael Douglas. He goes into the parking garage. In a minute, he’s going to discover that she’s in that parking garage. I knew she was in the garage before you did. I heard her breathing. The sound mixers were clever enough, or not, to have her mike on, and she is actually breathing very softly when she’s in the garage.
Very seldom do I need to ask what’s going on.
JANE MEDEMA: If the church would sit down with a movie a week and have a conversation about it, they would be farther into the business of saying, “What are we here for, what is the church for, what is the world crying for, what is there to celebrate?”
HOMILETICS: So what are some of the significant movies in the past year around which we could have good conversations?
MEDEMA: Certainly, the most recent example is Million Dollar Baby. I hate boxing. Yet, in that horribly violent context, you have this soured old man who discovers Mo cosúlacht, discovers a love he thought was gone, finds a daughter when his own daughter had left him.
JANE MEDEMA: That’s Jesus at the movies.
MEDEMA: The question for me is, “How do we find moments of Mo cosúlacht? [chokes up] Boy, if that isn’t gospel, I don’t know what is. But I don’t have any emotional reaction. [laughter all around]
HOMILETICS: Is the church transitioning into something new?
MEDEMA: I would like to see the church move from less triumphalism to more humility. We are really in a very bad period of triumphalism right now. That was shown so clearly after 9/11 when you had Christian banners and American flags parading together. I remember going to a huge praise affair shortly after 9/11. There was this huge triumphalistic music and they came out with banners, “Jesus Reigns” and it was God and country day. I was sick.
HOMILETICS: When you die, you want to die dancing?
MEDEMA: I have an obsession with dancing. Which is odd, because I can’t. [laughter all around]
JANE MEDEMA: Even with his wife. We were both brought up in households where it was absolutely forbidden.
MEDEMA: It’s a perfect metaphor for so many things. I very often do a concert and the whole theme of the concert is dance and I have people tell me a story about dancing.
JANE MEDEMA: One of his very powerful, poignant songs — he did it first in an extremely formal church.
MEDEMA: I had come to town on a Saturday, and the youth had thrown a party in my honor. A beautiful party in this very fancy Southern mansion. They had brought in a jukebox, right out of 1959 with my favorite songs on it, and there’s a hundred kids who are dancing.
Suddenly I — for whom this party is being held — feel left out. I’m the geek who couldn’t, the dork who didn’t. So, about halfway through the evening, this 14-year-old girl asks me to dance. She wasn’t the most popular girl, didn’t have a whole lot of friends in the youth group.
She asked me to dance. I said, “I can’t dance.”
She said, “Yeah, you can.”
I say, “No, I really can’t. I never learned how.”
She said, “I’ll teach you.” They’re playing a Fats Domino piece in the jukebox. So she’s dragging me across the floor. It was so energizing, and so exciting and so wonderful, I got back to the hotel and couldn’t sleep.
So Sunday morning comes, and I’ve written this song. I want to play it for you. [We all leave for the living room where Medema sits at a baby grand, and begins to play and sing the following lyrics] The church is shocked. It’s a very formal church. I told them I’d do this very formal piece.
She asked me to dance.
I’d never tried dancing before.
I had visions of everyone laughing me right off the floor.
“No,” I protested, “it just wouldn’t be any good.”
She gently insisted. Finally, I told her I would.
Unforgettable. She was a fresh breath of spring on my cold winter’s day.
Unforgettable. She taught this singer to sing a whole new way.
He asked me to dance.
I’d never tried dancing before.
I had visions of saints and angels laughing me right off the floor.
“No,” I protested, “it just wouldn’t be any good.”
He gently insisted. Finally, I told him I would.
And it was unforgettable. He was the coming of spring on my cold winter’s day.
Unforgettable. He taught this singer to sing in a whole new way.
The coming of spring, on a cold winter’s day.
Taught me to sing, in a brand-new way.