20 July 2008
My Two Cents’ Worth on the Worship Wars
I’m sure you know that over the past few decades (well, actually, over the past few millennia!) the Church has been torn by fierce debate about worship styles—specifically, about music. Well, the war is not over, and probably never will be. Music styles in popular culture and “high” culture change over time, and the Church has to figure out how—or whether—to change in response. I’m not old enough, nor enough of a student of church history and contemporary culture, to recount the phases through which church music has traveled in the last half-century or so. Instead, I’d just like to give my observations and advice on what I have observed in churches I’ve attended, and throw in some of the opinions of young people I have asked.
First of all, my observation is that contemporary Evangelical American churches (that’s what I’ll be talking about here primarily) have either checked out of all cultural trends and held to an outdated, outmoded, static tradition, or they have tried hard to make themselves musically relevant to the contemporary youth culture and failed miserably. That sentence sounds really judgmental, I’m sorry! But let me explain. And before I explain my perspective on these two opposite errors, let me propound my basis for what I am going to say—my musical credo, as it were.
1. I believe that any music offered to God in worship must be of the highest possible quality that the members/attendees of that church are capable of producing. I believe that offering mediocre music to God is insulting. If there are people in the pews who are capable of playing better music than those up front, enlist them!
2. I believe that the style or genre of music is totally irrelevant from a moral point of view—that is, it is no more inherently godly or holy to play Bach than to play rock—provided that the music is of the best possible quality that church can produce in that genre.
3. I believe that music ought to be performed in the manner in which it was intended: that the instrumentation, harmonization, rhythmic patterns, style, etc. should correspond to how that piece of music was designed. I know this gets hairy if you are a literary scholar who believes that intentionality is inaccessible. But, seriously, why do we play hymns (written in 4 parts for voices and/or keyboard instrument) on a badly strummed guitar? Why do we play folksy praise choruses on a huge pipe organ? Why do we shake a tambourine and clap our hands on the jazzed-up melody of an antique anthem? If your church wants contemporary music, play it on drums and electric guitars. If you church wants traditional music, play it on organs and pianos and string instruments. Don’t mix instrumentation. One major reason for this rant is:
4. I believe that each musician should play what s/he is trained and talented to play. Only use highly trained or talented musicians, and only let them play what they are good at playing. If they can only strum a few basic chords on the acoustic guitar (well, then they shouldn’t be playing in public at all, but if they’re the best your church has got…), don’t let them try to accompany hymns! Let them play only folk-style, simple chorus that were designed to have three chords and untrained singers. If you have a conservatory-trained Classical pianist, don’t make her play single-melodic-line tunes; let her play Bach and Beethoven.
5. I believe that the music ministers/worship team of every church have a peripheral duty to teach the congregation to be better musicians, collectively. Congregations who sing four-part hymns every week, who have the four parts either explained or played out to them (there are various ways of doing this that won’t interrupt the flow of worship), and who sing new, difficult hymns every month or so become a beautiful choir. Congregations in which more than 50% of the members play music during worship at least occasionally are congregations whose hearts and voices join for the most beautiful music on a regular basis. On the other hand, congregations that are allowed to drone out unison melodies with poor contours and terrible texts settings, week after week, at deathly slow tempi and with no attention to breath or dynamics, continue to be pathetic singers. This does not accord well with item #1 on my list.
OK, now with that foundation laid, back to my observation of the two equal and opposite musical problems in contemporary Evangelic American churches. Well, maybe they’re not equal. As you’ll see, the second gets my goat far more than the first. But that’s probably a matter of taste.
First, some churches have held to an old tradition as it was, or as they imagine it was, without making that tradition vibrant and dynamic. Specifically, there’s hymn-singing and organ-playing. Now, this is the church music I really love, for the most part. I adore four-part harmony, the good old chorale-tune hymns (mostly Lutheran in origin), a well-played organ, the music of Bach, 17th-19th century choral anthems, and the like. That’s the music I would choose for a church were I the music director. But I don’t think that the traditional music should be treated as if it is dead and mummified, just on display in a museum. There is a living practice of “Classical” music in the world of “high culture”: symphony orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music centers are constantly premiering new works that have developed out of centuries of European music theory and practice, but are exploring relevant new ways of expressing that. For instance, Classical music went through its Dodecaphonic (12-tone) phase in the 1940s. Church music didn’t. Now, I’m not saying I want the Sunday School children’s choir to get up and start singing 12-tone rows! Yikes! But I am saying that if the church wants to use the grand old tradition of Baroque-based counterpoint, voice-leading, and harmonic practice, it should stay current with the best scholarship, practice, and composition in the development of that practice. So here’s some advice for “traditional” churches and denominations:
- Commission new hymn-words from the top Christian poets of today. Has anyone asked Dana Gioia? How about Scott Cairns? Luci Shaw?
- Commission new hymn-tunes from the great composers of the day who were trained in the classical tradition and are cutting-edge experimenters and also capable of producing great works in the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic traditions. I don’t even know who these are, since it’s lots of years since I was actively involved in a symphony orchestra or opera house. Perhaps Eurydice will answer this one?
- Get your church organist involved in the Organists’ guild, where she can go to conferences, take workshops/classes, keep up-to-date on new developments, hone her skills, and get inspired on a regular basis.
- Find out which young people in your church are taking lessons on a instrument from a good, solid, technically virtuosic teacher or music school—especially those who are music majors in a conservatory or other college with a good music program. Encourage these students to continue those studies with an eye to using those skills and talents to serve the church. Perhaps offer them scholarships to improve their technique if they will play in church.
- Have the music director read up on and listen to all the latest developments in the classical music world. Encourage her to attend symphony concerts, operas, and chamber music performances. Suggest to her that she host musical evenings in her home to play with good “secular” performers from the community.
- Advertise concerts at church and encourage church members to attend. Have them develop an ear for great music.
- Use choir practices as educational settings. Give brief (like 30 seconds!) music history lessons. Have the choir listen to recordings of the great oratorios of the past. Always have the choir sing just a little bit beyond its current skill level. Teach music reading and music theory in little increments, subtly, so they won’t even realize they’re being educated.
- If you have a children’s choir, have them sing “real” music. There’s no reason to have kids sing stupid stuff just because they’re young. There is plenty of Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, Mozart, old carols, and other high-quality music that a children’s choir, even a beginning one, is perfectly capable of singing.
- [This one is huge, and very difficult!] Get rid of the musical hierarchy in your church! Don’t give the solo to the awful, quavering soprano with a vibrato as big a Gibraltar every time just because she’s always had the solo and would be offended if she didn’t get it. Give it to someone who’s good! You figure out the politics of this. I’m not a bureaucrat. You shouldn’t have gotten yourself into this problem by letting that pecking order develop in the first place.
I could go on, but instead I’ll move on to the other, opposite problem: churches that think they are musically relevant to the contemporary youth culture and really have nothing to do with it. OK. So, the “praise chorus” phenomenon. I’m no church historian, so I don’t really know the details of when and why this, um, shall we call it, genre of church music developed. But I know it was in response to the exclusive and increasingly irrelevant usage of hymns-only in churches. Young people didn’t want to sing hymns, so they were leaving the church. So the church came up with a kind of music that apparently was more relevant to that generation of young people. But that was, what, my parents’ generation? It wasn’t even mine, let along my students’. [OK, so this morning the praise choruses we sang, if you could call that droning singing, were written between 1979 and 1986. So that’s my generation. But my students weren’t even born yet]. So the fact that the Church continues to use these poorly composed, bad settings of worse lyrics means that now the Church is two a generations behind. Who listens to anything else like that at all, anywhere, ever? It’s a simple, awkward melody with odd contours and strange leaps (not at all conformable to the average untrained singing voice), with a difficult range, and with only the most elementary chordal accompaniment—and with a very boring rhythm, too. Where else will you ever encounter music like that? Some sorts of American folk music might be just a simply melody with a few basic chords, but the melody will be memorable and the rhythm catchy. The only other music I can think of that is comparable to praise choruses is kids’ campfire songs.
So if we think we’re playing praise choruses to be “relevant,” to make church interesting to young people, or to “reach seekers,” I submit the proposal that we are doing just the opposite. What teenager listens to praise choruses in his free time? They listen to pop, rock, rap, hip-hop, punk, emo, screamo. They don’t listen to praise music. Well, then, what ought we to do? I asked several high school and middle school aged students (and I think I will ask a few more right now, on the wonderful world of facebook). I asked them what they thought of church music and what they would like. They gave me a really interesting variety of answers. Some said that even though they didn’t really like hymns and organ music, they still agreed with their elders that hymns & organs were really churchy; in other words, they didn’t really feel like they’d been to church and had worshiped unless they had that big, traditional music. Others said that their church music was totally disconnected from their real lives, and that they “wish we could have screamo at our church, but I know that totally wouldn’t work.” Most of them understood that their elders were doing the best they could with music, and were resigned to feeling disconnected.
But what couldn’t we have punk and emo and screamo churches? Always provided that it was the best possible quality of those genres, and that the musicians were thoroughly trained in the techniques and skills of those genres (whatever those may be!). I don’t know how that would work. But it think it’s actually a better idea than poking along playing irrelevant praise choruses that are very poorly composed, very poorly written, very poorly played and sung, and have nothing to do with contemporary or traditional musical culture.
The whole point of praise choruses, as far as I can discover, is this: it was designed to be played and sung by really, really bad musicians: so therefore, a priori, it shouldn’t be played as worship music at all! Remember the first point in my “credo”? If the music is of poor quality, I believe it ought not to be played to “glorify God” at all. I mean, think about it: He invented music. Playing bad music and dedicating it to Him is like dedicating a tin-can-and-string “telephone” to Alexander Graham Bell, or a stinky dip candle to Thomas Edison, or a Crayola scribble to Michelangelo. Only worse, because He’s GOD.
So here are my pieces of advice for “contemporary” churches and denominations:
- Figure out what music is actually relevant to your congregation. Here’s where you’ll have to make all those hard decisions about multiple services, etc. I have no idea how to help you here, since I’m neither a pastor nor a politician! But part of the decision should be, I think, based on the kinds of talented musicians you have in the church. Got a great folk singer? Why not have him write and perform some folk settings of Psalms? Got a fantastic rapper? Why not have him create Scripture-memory songs to teach to the Sunday School? Be creative! Be relevant!
- Commission new song-words, including versions of Psalms and other Scripture passages, from the top Christian poets and singer-songwriters of today.
- Commission new songs from today’s greatest Christian recording artists in whatever genre(s) your church decides to use.
- Have your church musicians attend tons of concerts and do whatever else they can (Creation?) to keep up-to-date on new developments, hone their skills, and get inspired on a regular basis.
That’s really all the advice I have, because that music is not particularly meaningful to me, but I imagine that there are contemporary musicians out there with fantastic ideas for contemporary, youth-driven, “seeker-sensitive” churches. I’d be interested to hear their ideas.
And I haven’t even dealt here with two other huge topics: first, “blended worship,” and second, the movement of the Church towards the “East.” Nor have I talked about the real worship aspects of various styles, nor about the dangers of a performance-based attitude in the church. But this was only supposed to be two cents’ worth, after all!
Postscript: What about every Communion Sunday, or during certain parts of the Church year, you put on a brand-new, occasion-commissioned, fully staged sacred opera? Now, how’s that for an idea? It would give a lot of jobs to composers and opera singers!