A few weeks ago a woodstock parent who lives on the hillside grabbed me as I was walking through the quad. She was helping to mentor the youth at her church, a small local hindi-speaking pentecostal congregation, and she wanted to know if I would help them become better worship leaders. I said I was happy to help in some capacity, but I should visit first to get a feel for the church and the kids and what they are doing in the service each Sunday before trying to teach them anything.
So come Sunday I skipped out on the traditional post-service omelette at Char Dukkan and headed straight down the hillside to the small cafe at the top of the bazaar where the congregation meets. I say it is pentecostal not because of any denominational affiliation, but mostly based on certain mannerisms which are unmistakable to anyone like me who has spent any time in a “charismatic” church.
Inside the cafe, chairs were all arranged to face a corner of the room where the leaders stood. Outside the window you could see all the way down to Dehradun and the plains beyond it, some 4000 feet below us. Locals (plus one middle-aged white couple) were milling about and chatting while the two guitarists and drummer which comprised the “worship team” noodled on their instruments. Valentine’s day had just passed, and the cafe had apparently celebrated by hanging red heart-shaped balloons upside down from the ceiling. They were hung from the bottom, which, combined with their general state of post-valentine deflation gave the unfortunate appearance of red, shriveled scrota. Nobody else seemed to mind worshiping under red ballsacks of love, but I found it hard to concentrate because I couldn’t stop thinking of how I was going sneak a photo of them for the blog. Alas, I left my camera at home.
The service was mostly in hindi, so I missed large swaths of it, but the parts that were translated were remarkably similar to charismatic services I’ve been to before. There was a kind of musical rhythm to everything that was said: a stately introduction cresendoed into climax of volume and intensity and the retreated back to a more subdued but poignant tone. Most of the exhortations were about what God wanted for them right then and now. And they tended to be very specific. “The Lord is saying to you today that you need to forget about any money worries that you have.”
It occurred to me as I sat there that if every denominational stream has a blind spot, for the charismatics it’s issues of control. I can’t back that up with any hard data, but it seems like pentecostal churches seem to attract leaders who control others and followers who either need to be controlled themselves. How else do you explain the obsession with creating a “spirit” of worship or the apparent infallible grasp the leaders have on God’s specific wishes for each congregant? (For the record, the PCA’s blind spot is misogyny or theological self-righteousness. For the SBC it’s their obsession with gays. For the progressive mainliners, it’s defining themselves by what they are not: fundies.)
The kids (who were all closer to twenty years old) did an admirable job. The drummer played sensitively and made good choices that served the song. The guitarist was earnest and mostly competent. The female singers sang with gusto in the punchy, nasal style of Indian singing. And the congregation went right along with it. Sometimes, the band would stop playing but the congregation just kept going, forcing the band to start back up again. It was like a power struggle (there’s that control issue again). The band would propose to end the song and the congregation would veto that measure, forcing the band to continue on. This process repeated itself several times.
At one point in the service, the woodstock parent I referenced earlier gave a long personal testimony. It was untranslated, so I perked up when I heard the word “Woodstock” and then I noticed everyone in the room turned to look at me. She went on and I heard the word “music teacher” and “workshop”. Apparently the American from Woodstock would be doing a worship workshop.
At this point in my life, I’m a teacher not a worship leader. We help with the music at St. Paul’s but it’s mostly a musical, not pastoral, role. Whatever wisdom I thought I had about the topic of worship seems like a distant memory. Nevertheless, two weeks later I found myself meeting with five boys in a tiny guest room underneath the cafe. There was a powered speaker, a rickety drum set, a cheap guitar, and copies of a hindi songbook. As soon as I arrived, a boy handed me his guitar and for the second time in a week, asked me to play “When September Ends“.
There was no one there to translate this time and I had only a vague idea at best of what I was supposed to be doing with them. I took out my guitar and sat on a stool and waited. They just watched me expectantly, as if they were waiting for me to do something. Finally, the kid with the guitar said in broken English, “please, sir, can you teach us how to worship.” At this I think I must have laughed aloud and suggested they play some songs first. I could not teach them how to worship, but I did teach them how to appropriate the basic groove of the jam at the end of “Free Bird” for one of their hindi praise songs. The idea of changing strum patterns in the midst of a song would be enough for the first session. Let’s see how this goes over and then we’ll try something else next week.
After they had chosen and run through four or five songs, they asked me again to play “When September Ends”. I fumbled through the chords for a few seconds while the drummer practiced the snare part. Then I said I didn’t know it but they suggested I try “Summer of ’69“. Being a child of the 80’s, I did know this one, and was surprised to find that I actually remembered nearly all the lyrics as well. I don’t know why the boys were so fixated on these two songs, but it might be because they were young and restless, killin’ time and they needed to unwind. I guess nothing can last forever, but for a few glorious minutes they jammed a microphone in my face and we filled the khud with the sentimental strains of Bryan Adams.