Carried Away

I didn't set out to be an internet troll.
It was early in 2007, years before I even encountered the term. I was music director of a large (by Northwest standards) United Methodist congregation in Vancouver, Washington, supplementing the income from my 0.8 FTE job teaching music in Hood River. Between those two jobs, I was on the road a lot. Early on, there were grumblings in the church that I wasn't doing enough "contemporary music" during the early service. It soon became clear to me that what these peoples meant by "contemporary" was Praise music, a form of simplistic, rock-flavored worship music that is heavy on praise (hence the name) and light on everything else. You won't get much theology from a praise chorus. You may get the feeling that the hymnal has been chucked in favor of the religious rack at Hallmark. Despite the word "contemporary," the musical style of this music is usually about 15-20 years behind current trends in pop and rock, which makes sense, because the generation that would rather have truly contemporary music in church isn't in church--at least, not at the local UMC. The youngest people at "contemporary" or "praise" services tend to be in the early stages of middle age, and eager to hear (there's not a lot of congregational participation in this music) the same kind of music they enjoyed when they were in their 20s.
You may have gotten the impression by now that I did not care for this style of music. It's not that I was opposed to newer music in worship; it's that I wanted it to have some theological and musical substance. Repetitious choruses that all boil down to "I just want to praise the Lord" don't cut it for me, nor does a steady diet of songs that all sound the same. On top of that, I felt I had a responsibility to keep this congregation within the bounds of United Methodism, and some of those praise choruses were downright sexist, not to mention presenting a theology that often promoted materialism rather than service. Fortunately (I thought), there was a recent addition to the pew rack: a hymnal supplement called The Faith We Sing, which contained a wealth of contemporary and gospel songs with solidly Methodist lyrics. There was still a sprinkling of choruses, but most of what was there had the theological weight I was seeking. On top of that, I had, through my Metanoia connection, discovered many musically and theologically sophisticated contemporary songs within the Catholic tradition. Drawing on all these resources, I consistently programmed music for the early service that fit what I believed was a good model for a "blended" worship service, one that is within the standard format for mainline Protestant worship, but draws upon contemporary music.
People hated it.
They knew what they wanted. They wouldn't tell me. I asked around. I dipped more frequently into a collection of praise songs the congregation had approved. Not enough, though. Finally I was sent to Nashville to attend a gathering of United Methodist music directors, led by the head of the music division of the General Board of Discipleship. The church paid my way, giving me the simple instruction that I was to learn all I could about contemporary worship. What I learned at that meeting is that college-trained musicians--and most music directors of churches large enough to have that position have, like me, earned at least a Bachelor's degree in music, as well as, in many cases, doing some seminary work--find themselves constantly clashing with the congregations they serve over the quality of music they program for worship. We all commiserated. Our text was The Faith We Sing. Nothing about that workshop taught me how to satisfy the grumblers in Vancouver.
I had three months after coming back to my job before the church reduced me from music director to choir director, and took the contemporary service away from me. I just couldn't do what they wanted me to do. A year after that, they completely let me go, over the choir's objections.
The one helpful thing I brought back from Nashville was membership in a UMC bulletin board for church musicians. I went online daily to chat with colleagues from all over the denomination who were struggling with issues much like mine. Posting on the board became a satisfying outlet for my frustrations with the position--and, after awhile, with the entire United Methodist Church. I won't go into those thoughts in depth here, because you can find them elsewhere in this blog; suffice it to say I had much to complain about. At first, it was almost exclusively about music, which was the proper topic for the board. I hadn't been doing it long, though, when I encountered a troll.
I can't remember what set her off, or what her arguments were, though I have a memory of them being extremely conservative. She would seize on something I had written, obsess over it, and hurl invective at me, getting personal in her attacks. I complained to the moderator of the board about it, and he suspended her membership. When she came off suspension, she did it again, and got suspended again.
My struggles with the church in Vancouver, especially as they summarily dismissed me at the end of my third year, fed into my long-standing complaints against Methodism, and I began writing long posts about what was wrong with the denomination, focusing especially on clergy privilege. It was here that I was warned by the moderator that I was getting dangerously close to being suspended, myself, because my posts, besides going far afield from the preferred topic, were becoming much too passionate in their criticism of the denomination that sponsored the board. This just fanned the flames of my indignation, and I kept at it, getting more and more troll-like in my quest to win the others on the board over to my views. Finally, the moderator had given me all the leeway he cared to, and he suspended my membership. I never went back.
In retrospect, and especially after experiencing some trolling occasioned by some of the opinions I have posted on this blog, I realize that what I was doing fits the definition almost perfectly. I was using the comments of others as a diving-board into passionate views that had little to do with whatever topic was being discussed, and I was insisting on proclaiming those views long after their connection with worship music had passed from tenuous to nonexistent. I was rightly excluded from the bulletin board. I had gotten carried away, and hijacked the board for my own purposes. The only way to right that ship was to maroon me.
It took me five years to find the forum I'd tried to turn that bulletin board into, the one I always needed. This blog usually doesn't draw more than a couple of dozen views per post, but that's fine with me--though I have started tagging it with keywords to, just maybe, attract some more attention. But it's enough for me that I'm writing, and some people are reading, and maybe finding inspiration in what I have to say. This is, first and foremost, my forum. And it's free. Anyone can have one.
So no more trolling. If you have something passionate to say, more power to you, but get your own damn blog for it.


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