EPISODE 10: The Myth of the “Happy Clappy” (or Exclusively Positive, Upbeat Music in Major Keys)

This special version of Worship Mythbusters Podcast was recorded live on October 1st in Ocean Grove, New Jersey at The Forge Conference. The panel was made of up worship leaders and presenters from the conference.

  • Joel Klampert, a founder of Forge and local church worship leader from Rhode Island
  • Jeremy Dunn, worship leader and member of musical group Dunn and Wilt based in Nashville, TN
  • Alastair Vance, worship leader and church planter from North Carolina
  • Emily Schiavi, prophetic worship leader and songwriter from New York City
  • John Voelz, pastor, author and worship leader from Jackson, MI

The notes below are part of the source material that launched the panel discussion.

EPISODE 10: October 3, 2011

The Myth of the “Happy Clappy” (or Exclusively Positive, Upbeat Music in Major Keys)

One fun story from the vault has to do with a lead pastor at a rather large church taking it upon himself to direct the tempo from the front row live during a worship service. It took a few moments for the conscientious drummer on the worship team to notice that the pastor was trying to get his attention. The pastor then expressively tapped the tempo with his index finger to his opposite palm and clicked in an ever increasing tempo. After the service, this professionally experienced drummer looked very confused and emotionally worn out. As we debriefed, he wondered if he had done something wrong. After all, the spiritual leader of a church of thousands with no musical training was interrupting the flow of a worship service to direct a gifted and competent drummer on his tempo. Tempo must matter more that any of us ever though it did.

Another church leader in a different setting made clear to his worship leader and team that no matter what, he had to start his sermon on an upbeat note. So, the tempo and tone of the song had to match the signature joke-telling introduction. It was not an easy for the team to suggest to the teacher to once in a while open in a prayer or perhaps start the sermon with something related to the last thing sung. So, we live with a recipe with only once spice allowed. Minor keys kill. Dead space of any kind makes people nervous. A song on confession seems too depressing, unless it allows people to clap in step. In fact, it seems to some leaders that to be “happy clappy” with a simple, non-syncopated and quick beat is a law and formula.  Years of seeker sensitive models, church growth theory and current marketing practices lead church governing bodies to adopt a process that may do more harm than good in the long. This is true even if it for a season fills seats.

Many times I have heard from lead pastors and from those that work with them that the best music for worship, especially music that leads up to their sermon, is music that has faster tempos and is not in a minor key. Which in my opinion is an old tired mantra from 1990s church growth theory. What does this mantra say? It says this: “The content should be positive…after all, church is not a place to be negative!”  There is even a popular Christian radio program that touts the phrase “positive and encouraging” as their motto. So, it is not a surprise that if in our Christian subculture we’ve been served the upbeat drink of koolaid that anything divergent would sink houses of worship with empty seats and empty offering plates. But, could this really be a myth? Could it be that tempo and “happy clappy” are really limiting our expression of worship and stripping it of other emotional tones? What if people could be touched, inspired and challenged through a variety of responses in worship? This this is the kind of damaging thinking that Worship Mythbusters is happy to debunk.

Are there more effective, godly and biblical ways to connect people to God in our public services without laying on the cheese? Could our culturally authentic artists help us in ways we have rarely seen if set free to create from the stories of God’s redemption in their lives and the lives of their community?

My biggest concern with this “happy clappy” way of thinking is that it forces one way feel in our public worship, when it is clear all of us in our real selves have a variance of emotion. We feel sad at tragedy, happy at winning and warm at inspiration. Beyond that we have fear, anger, doubt and dare I say grief in our human bandwidth. There are complexities and anxieties to being human that are both common and sometimes hard to articulate. This is where God’s gift and call on artists fits so well! They can handle these complexities when a scholar can only crunch survey data about what connects to people. People connect to people. God sent his Holy Spirit because Jesus only could personally touch so many.

Scripture shows us that godly men and women expressed many of these in the recording of worship songs we have in the book of Psalms. The poetry books of Scripture inform us of the many depths and heights of emotion. In fact, some psalms have both the highest point and lowest point in the same paragraph. Yes, some of us are that dramatic in real life–just not in our houses of worship. In our beige-painted contemporary churches we lack the color, beauty and mystery that invites people to find and meet with God.

Good art taps into the more difficult to express emotions. Sad songs are popular. Really. They say things our soul wishes it could say. This truly aids in healing, especially coupled with the power of scripture and our testimony combined. Powerful art comes from grief and loss, which are two of life’s familiar cohorts that instruct us in life. I believe joy is also found in the deepest pain. Or, it can be. This is where I think God speaks to us. Yet, we are never silent enough, dark enough, still enough or free enough to explore our full humanity in some church settings.

So, do you buy into this myth or have another idea to share? Please do! After all, this is your conversation.

20 thoughts on “EPISODE 10: The Myth of the “Happy Clappy” (or Exclusively Positive, Upbeat Music in Major Keys)”

  1. Wow. I followed a link from FB and ended up here. We had a discussion quite like this at another friend’s blog just about a week ago. I personally cannot do happy clappy all the time. Don’t want to try. My personal worship style has turned out to be somewhat quiet and I wish there was a space for that in a corporate worship setting. I especially do not like the quiet music playing in the background during prayers. Drives me crazy that I feel like someone is trying to manipulate my emotions. And I suppose I resent the fact that those musicians aren’t here in my home softly playing in the background when I have to take my gravest concerns to the Lord. I think it might be good for people to know that they can seriously pray to the Almighty in silence. There is certainly a place for upbeat worship, but I think it is forced way more often than it should be.

    1. I am glad you listened to the podcast! The story Jeremy shared hit home to me. How do we deal with the real suffering in our worship if we only allow one way to emote? 

      Personally, instrumental worship is something I am a fan of. I need it sometimes to tune out other things. Silence, of course, is something we FEAR in church. Why?

      1.  Silence is beautifully appropriate in worship. It should be incorporated. Appropriate silence is very different from “dead space.”

  2. Wow. I followed a link from FB and ended up here. We had a discussion quite like this at another friend’s blog just about a week ago. I personally cannot do happy clappy all the time. Don’t want to try. My personal worship style has turned out to be somewhat quiet and I wish there was a space for that in a corporate worship setting. I especially do not like the quiet music playing in the background during prayers. Drives me crazy that I feel like someone is trying to manipulate my emotions. And I suppose I resent the fact that those musicians aren’t here in my home softly playing in the background when I have to take my gravest concerns to the Lord. I think it might be good for people to know that they can seriously pray to the Almighty in silence. There is certainly a place for upbeat worship, but I think it is forced way more often than it should be.

    1. I am glad you listened to the podcast! The story Jeremy shared hit home to me. How do we deal with the real suffering in our worship if we only allow one way to emote? 

      Personally, instrumental worship is something I am a fan of. I need it sometimes to tune out other things. Silence, of course, is something we FEAR in church. Why?

      1.  Silence is beautifully appropriate in worship. It should be incorporated. Appropriate silence is very different from “dead space.”

  3. This is a great conversation Rich, thanks for curating it. I love your insight on “what worship is” vs “what worship does”

    It is sad but true this leadership trend of allowing only a very narrow range of emotional and musical expression in our worship services.  It’s not authentic, and is antithetical to the biblical imperative of worship “in spirit and truth.” This disconnect ultimately weakens healthy spiritual formation, which long-term weakens the church.

    Keep busting the myths.

  4. This is a great conversation Rich, thanks for curating it. I love your insight on “what worship is” vs “what worship does”

    It is sad but true this leadership trend of allowing only a very narrow range of emotional and musical expression in our worship services.  It’s not authentic, and is antithetical to the biblical imperative of worship “in spirit and truth.” This disconnect ultimately weakens healthy spiritual formation, which long-term weakens the church.

    Keep busting the myths.

  5. I’m the spiritual leader guy, with a little music training and thirty years of experience. I do not mind minor keys. I’m not a fan of happy clappy. I’m totally convinced music sets the tone, the feel of worship. I believe my drummer is a little loud and a little slow.  My praise and worship leader is young and inexperienced. I serve where I am sent, and I’ve been sent to a new place without the experienced praise and worship leadership to support me I’ve had in the past. I don’t set the tempo during the service, but I’m struggling to provide direction in a field that is not my strength. Any suggestions for me?

    1. Hi Rob, I appreciate your candor. The only suggestion, not knowing more than you put here, is to sit with all the people involved and hear what they thing about what they are doing, what they need, and frustrations. The worship leader, like most, will respond to relationship. These guys need to know they are safe, but also crave challenge. There may be answers to all your frustrations if in doing this you find they match yours.

      God bless!

      RK

  6. I’m the spiritual leader guy, with a little music training and thirty years of experience. I do not mind minor keys. I’m not a fan of happy clappy. I’m totally convinced music sets the tone, the feel of worship. I believe my drummer is a little loud and a little slow.  My praise and worship leader is young and inexperienced. I serve where I am sent, and I’ve been sent to a new place without the experienced praise and worship leadership to support me I’ve had in the past. I don’t set the tempo during the service, but I’m struggling to provide direction in a field that is not my strength. Any suggestions for me?

    1. Hi Rob, I appreciate your candor. The only suggestion, not knowing more than you put here, is to sit with all the people involved and hear what they thing about what they are doing, what they need, and frustrations. The worship leader, like most, will respond to relationship. These guys need to know they are safe, but also crave challenge. There may be answers to all your frustrations if in doing this you find they match yours.

      God bless!

      RK

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