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Hooked on Holyphonics

4 years ago written by

I’ve been attending church since I was a fetus, and leading a church for the last 15 years. I’m a pastor’s kid, a seminarian, a professor, and an executive coach for large-church pastors. I am a student of congregations, and have often wondered what — exactly —people are hoping to get out of their church experience.

Truthfully … not much.

We attend church in hopes that we will receive some insight about faithfully following Jesus. We trust that the environment will shape us into the way of Christ, that our children will benefit from age-specific programming, and that faith will be normalized in our homes. But we’re mostly hoping for a little nugget from the sermon and a little boost from the worship.

I don’t intend to lampoon or to disparage — only to learn, and I’ve learned most of our hopes for Sunday church are fairly pedestrian. 

So I began to wonder if there were additional ways we might get people their “little boost” outside of a traditional Sunday service. I wondered if we could design something that would be meaningful, concise and useful in a wide variety of locations like the gym, the breakroom or in the car during a commute. This led me and my friends to experiment with “six-minute church services” that comprise liturgy, Scripture, testimony, preaching and worship in song-length audio files available on iTunes and Spotify. 

Creating these “Holyphonics” (“many, holy sounds”) required I learn a new way to preach. After all, I couldn’t cram a 30-minute homily into one-fifth of the usual time simply by speaking faster. I needed a new method of preaching altogether, something as interesting as stand-up comedy and as rich-in-content as a poem.

After some consideration, I began to experiment with “spoken word,” a nonmusical style of rhyme similar — but not identical — to rap. As a 40-year-old Canadian, that was a stretch, but I learned a tremendous amount from my foray into urban linguistics. 

Here’s a sample of the track “Masterpieces,” by Westwinds, from the album “Holyphonics: a Loud Liturgy for an Unruly Audience.”

The Son of Man has eyes like a flaming fire. Two coals, red hot, purifiers. Your sin is getting burned up, murdered, every time you’re getting turned up and you’d better learn it!

A great forest is set aflame by such a small fire. Small cheats and misadventures turn campfires into wildfires. But God is the true fire. 

You and me, we’re the burnt offering, laying on the stone altering, waiting for the bush to get burned up, but it’s faltering and will not be consumed. 
Will you? 

Isn’t that why we’re afraid of the way, the life, the truth? 

‘Cuz all our junk is kindling, every hateful word we bring, every bigoted idea and sad song we sing — it’s garbage. We don’t want it. Just cinders and ashes, stuff we once flaunted. 
So let it burn; don’t be concerned. It’s like Palm Sunday’s fronds coming in Ash Wednesday’s urn.

How well were these Holyphonics received? Well, since you’re reading about them in a magazine, it’s fair to say they haven’t exactly taken the music world by storm. However, I often get gratifying messages from people who have discovered the tracks and received great hope. Every now and then I receive a pleasant little surprise, like the phone call I got last week informing me a country music radio station in Philadelphia played a Holyphonic in between Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum. 

Another experiment with spoken word was our All Saints Day liturgy, which largely relied upon the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-135). These are psalms about leaving one place and journeying to a new place, specifically the Temple in Jerusalem. Figuratively, we might consider these psalms “conversion psalms” that help us visualize our journey from our old lives to our new lives in Christ. For the liturgy, we took excerpts of the Psalms and reworked them into a consistent meter and pattern. Working with seven different English translations of the text (and relying heavily on the Amplified Version’s expansive verbiage), we added internal rhymes and alternated between Scripture and commentary, back and forth, like a new American midrash.  

Why did I do all of this? In part to stretch myself as a preacher, to refamiliarize myself with the rhythm and cadence of language so I could get out of some of the ruts I’d developed over the years; I also wanted to connect with a different segment of our culture, learning from new voices and finding new inspiration for ministry. The more I investigated the genre, the more I fell in love with Scripture all over again. I discovered new resonance in the wisdom literature and prophetic discourses of the Old Testament — both in their literary merit and in the weight and eternal timeliness of their themes.

If you’re interested in these experiments, you can find “Holyphonics: a Loud Liturgy for an Unruly Audience” on both iTunes and Spotify. Steven Furtick, famed pastor of Elevation Church in North Carolina, has created something similar. Check out Furtick’s best track: “I Can Handle It.” Also, our All Saints Day liturgy will soon by published on Facebook as a series of five investigative videos from a local radio personality. 

My prayer is that you get more than a “little nugget” from these experiments. I want you to be provoked, changed and inspired. 

I think God wants that too.

David McDonald, D.Min., is the editor of the FreeMo Journals and the founder of the Fossores Chapter House.

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[Pop Theology] · General · L + L January 2019