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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(that’s what I’ll be talking about here primarily) have either checked out of all cultural trends and held to an outdated, outmoded, static tradition, or they have tried hard to make themselves musically relevant to the contemporary youth culture and failed miserably.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!

8 comments:

Rosie Perera said...

Check out Indelible Grace. They are doing much of what you're suggesting. "Our hope is to help the church recover the tradition of putting old hymns to new music for each generation, and to enrich our worship with a huge view of God and His indelible grace."

Some samples of their music with more full instrumentation than the simple versions on their website can be found here. I particularly like their rendition of "And Can It Be" on the original Indelible Grace CD.

I can't remember whether I've already shared this article (from the Indelible Grace website) with you: "My Grandmother Saved It, My Mother Threw It Away, and Now I'm Buying It Back - Why Young People Are Returning To Old Hymn Texts."

I'm not sure I agree with you that just because a song was written for certain instruments or to be sung by a particular ensemble of voices, it must always be done that way. Music history is full of examples of new arrangements of old works which often become favorites in their own right. I think of Leopold Stokowski's wonderful transcriptions for orchestra, for example. There are many others.

Other people who are writing good new worship music include Stuart Townend (In Christ Alone; How Deep the Father's Love for Us; O My Soul, Arise and Bless Your Maker); Robin Mark (Revival in Belfast CD); John Bell, Graham Maule, and the Iona Community.

HilbertAstronaut said...

I've always figured that it's impossible for a hierarchical church to "keep up with the times," so it shouldn't even bother: it should develop its own body of liturgical music that has an internal integrity, and let "keeping up with the times" be a matter of private or informal devotional practice.

For example, as soon as the leadership of Church N. (a) recognizes that such a thing as "screamo" exists (I'm < 30 years old and had no idea), (b) decides that it should be incorporated into the liturgy, (c) goes about arranging music and training musicians to play screamo, and (d) actually schedules a "screamo service," then the whole genre of "screamo" probably will be as outdated as MC Hammer is now.

It's unreasonable to expect formal institutions to move with the times. That's the legitimate sphere of individuals and informal groups. It's better for formal institutions to evolve slowly and with wisdom and introspection, than to evolve quickly in a bad way that's always 20 years out of date, like a teenager's corny dad who always embarrasses her in front of her date by using out-of-date slang. Middle-aged people pretending to be teenagers: BAD THING ;-P

Iambic Admonit said...

Hilbert: I guess that's part of my point. I think that if praise choruses were ever 'in,' they're way 'out' now and should be thrown out! I'm almost kind of but not really making fun of contemporary churches that are so desperate to keep up. I personally just love hymns and organ music. But there's got to be some way of being 'relevant' without being stupid, eh? Maybe the group to which Rosie pointed us is part of the answer.

juda said...

Wow I am wondering if the simple Holy Holy Holy being chanted in heaven would win technical approval. I understand the desire for pleasing to ear music, but pleasing to God's heart might be something of a greater goal. I think focus should always be on the heart and beautiful music does not always have the anointing of the
Holy Spirit. I think the words from Scripture would be simply clanging gongs. Let the Holy Spirit lead us to all worship in truth.

HilbertAstronaut said...

juda wrote: "Wow I am wondering if the simple Holy Holy Holy being chanted in heaven would win technical approval. I understand the desire for pleasing to ear music, but pleasing to God's heart might be something of a greater goal."

The sentiment is noble, but why shouldn't we try to accomplish both, as best we can? Of course we will fall short -- both for technical reasons (we do our best with the musical talents we have) and theological ones (no skill level is sufficient!) -- but that doesn't mean we should justify bad music with the thought that "it's good enough for God."

Heaven makes its own music; it doesn't need our own! However, music serves the purpose of leading human hearts and minds to worship more deeply. Perceiving great beauty leads us to higher, more noble thoughts and greater moral acts. As Paul says, "[w]hatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things" (Philippians 4:8).

Eurydice said...

Church music, eh? Am I allowed to comment when I usually AM my church’s music? In that case, it’s usually under-prepared, sloppily sight-read, and (if vocal) not supported. [LOL] As you know, ever since I was 15, I have been the pianist, organist, choir director, music director, occasional vocal soloist, (or a combination of the preceding) for any of 5 different churches. So I had to reply to your posting. Please keep in mind that I’m a musician, not a writer [insert sheepish grin]; this reply to your brief questions on Facebook is neither concise, nor well-organized, nor even necessarily answering the questions you asked. But please read it! [batting my eyelashes]

Your post is absolutely amazing. All your ideas about improvements to be made to music in the church are brilliant—I would expect nothing less from you by now. :) Admirable.
BUT, there are two major difficulties with all of your suggestions, the evil intervention of two gods that rob us from giving the One True God our best: Mammon and Chronos. Ok, that was corny. But seriously, most of your suggestions for improving the quality of music in our churches would take much more $ and time (which, after all, = $) than any evangelical, Bible-believing church has! I believe such improvements are often made in some wealthier churches; however, those in general are not preaching the Gospel, but preaching what people want to hear (i. e. what they pay to hear).

* Sarah Buonanno, on your Facebook page, has some good points, and I assume she’s referring to hymns. Many hymn rhymes are really bad and predictable. Their strophic nature also precludes the music from matching the words well. (Strophic—having one tune for many different stanzas, for those who might not be familiar with that term.) C. S. Lewis, my hero, hated hymns. I love most hymns; but I believe we should stick to those that have excellent tunes (almost any hymn written in Germany or Sweden is worth listening to!), those that have deep theology, and those that have uplifting, beautiful poetry.

*BUT even considering all the faults of hymns, the alternative is much worse. “Praise and worship” lyrics usually have very little theological or poetic value. Also, worship choruses have to be “led”, and this is a dreadful opportunity for showmanship and emotional demonstrativeness. How many times have you sat through the 18th repetition of a chorus wondering why the Holy Spirit won’t give you the same spiritual ecstasies that second guitar player from the left is experiencing? (Or seems to be, until you realize he’s competing with the third guitarist for the title of “spiritually elite”.) People think of classical musicians as being the “performer” types who draw too much attention to themselves during a worship service. But I think the other camp is just as guilty, and more hypocritical for the context in which they perform.

*Furthermore, (and this is an area to which I can speak with authority) P&W is a NIGHTMARE for those of us who care about the voices that God gave us to use for his honor. The technique that one naturally reverts to when singing P&W is one of the most destructive practices known to the human vocal cords. Sarah’s friend Rebecca says that hymns are “in keys in which no one can hit every note.” Actually, many hymnals are transposing hymns down now, attempting to accommodate the change that has come about in the general public’s singing technique (thanks to pop and P&W)! No hymn has a range that is too big for a healthy voice. Really. Go look at a hymnal and check out the range. C to Eb, usually. Exceptions are made on Easter Sunday—then we might sing a high F. :)

*Most of the P&W songs have very little tune. This is so that people can (supposedly) catch on easily—since there’s no printed music to follow. Also, the lack of printed music leads to musical illiteracy in this generation growing up in churches. Thus, as I so painfully found out from working in the music office at Nyack, Christians are excluding themselves from legitimate conservatory educations due to this musical handicap. Students make amazing strides at a school of music like Nyack, but the amount of “catching up” they have to do precludes them from reaching a competitive level of musicianship. All this gives the Devil more of a foothold in the field of classical music performance, an area that is already extremely spiritually dark.

* Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC and its offshoots (including my beloved new home church Trinity in Rye) seems to have found the perfect philosophy of church music, and one that is (perhaps) unique in Protestantism today: give God the best music available, with the highest quality performances, for His glory and for the edification of His church. Redeemer has 5 services every Sunday, and the service music is either high-quality jazz or Classical. Redeemer hired a member of the Emerson String Quartet and his wife to come play in their ensemble many times. They were not Christians, but they enjoyed the “gigs”. Well, through this ministry, they became curious as to what Christianity was about, and through talking with their fellow (Christian) musicians, gladly accepted Christ. They play often at Trinity now.

Trinity hires the best musicians around Westchester County and from NYC proper. James Courtney, “house singer” at the Met Opera, sings there regularly. It’s mostly Classical, with “jazz Sunday” every month. The few times that I have had the opportunity to sing at Trinity, I have worked really hard and prepared to give my best. I have sung Bach, Handel, and Rossini.

*Guess what. I know some readers might not believe this, but I have proved it again and again—people LOVE great music, great texts, and great singing. I mean great in the sense of high-quality. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that, after hearing me sing in church, they are starting to appreciate the operatic sound. And I’m NOT that good! They are responding to the power, the clarity, the emotion, and the expression that is natural to a healthy human voice! During both my gigs with Lake George Opera, I worshipped at a church that has become another family to me: Hope Church in Ballston Spa, NY. Even more than that, they love the “classical” music I’m exposing them to. They had not heard of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”, but they adored it when I sang “O Rest in the Lord”. A friend and I did a duet this morning during the offertory. I had not practiced it much, the last time I had “performed” it was probably in high school, I had never sung it well, my duet partner (soprano) is very young (though an amazing singer for a her age)—no vibrato yet, the pianist made a lot of painful mistakes, yada, yada, yada. You get the idea: not a great performance from a human point of view. My big criticism of myself, with this blog in mind, was that I had not worked on the piece the way that I would prepare for any secular performance. We didn’t even sing from memory; we were hidden behind our music binders. Still, as mediocre as our singing was today, we were better than most singers you hear in evangelical churches these days! We have both had some serious training and have spent years honing our craft (though I have thousands more $$$ of debt than she does! [LOL]). We have young, healthy voices, and our duet was by one of the great masters of vocal music, Charles Gounod. That quality shone through and infused our piece with warmth that everyone appreciated. But the focus adn the glory still went to God.

So—after all my rambling—what is a church to do?
Some thoughts:
*Let the best musicians perform at the highest-quality level for the service music (prelude, postlude, offertory, communion). This is where you can bring in Bach or Brubeck. You just can’t expect (most) congregations to sing perfect four-part harmony really well all the time or to sing fabulous jazz worship choruses and sound good doing it.
*Let the congregation sing their hearts out in whatever style suits them best—maybe some hymns and some praise choruses—without regard to quality. Why? I believe they will naturally respond to the beautiful sounds coming to them during the service music. They will become curious and appreciative of what they are hearing. I shook the rafters with a high G during an offertory solo and the congregation loved it, but nobody has ever asked me to turn down the volume while I’m singing hymns or choruses behind them. In fact, they turn around after the service and say “What a beautiful voice!” My point is: people wish they could sound like that—they just don’t know that they can! Thanks to pop and P&W having robbed them of their natural singing abilities.
*Vary the music style and the manner in which it is presented. You cannot please everyone at the same time, and you never know how you might be able to touch someone’s spirit. Make the congregation want to get involved in the music-making. How about the old method of having a soloist or the choir sing a line of music and have the congregation sing back, until you’ve learned a new song? Why not divide the church down the middle and have them sing rounds, canons, echoes, polyphony? Hey, you know what? We Christians are such an odd lot anyway; and we are not going to be able to reach our generation by being like them, no matter how hard we try—we are not like them!
*Branch out, get creative. I love your idea of commissioning current composers to write new choruses and hymns. There’s plenty of great music that doesn’t get played in church because musicians don’t immediately associate it with church. I had a friend in college who was amazing at improvising; he would work themes from “Star Wars” into the postlude, and no one would know—he disguised them in church vestments and made new and beautiful music out of them. I am guilty of playing “In trutina” from “Carmina Burana” for an offertory, and other super-secular works, just because of their beauty. A pleasing sacrifice, acceptable to the Lord? I believe so.
*Keep your motives for any music-making pure, and your focus on Him! God has an amazing ability to bring glory to Himself through any circumstances, but particularly through His peoples’ conscious efforts on His behalf. Make music out of gratitude, sincerely wanting to give back to God some of the gift He’s given us.

PS~ If you’re looking for some music by a great composer to enrich your worship service—how about a rare Christian moment in opera: the male chorus at the end of Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia”. How often does that get performed in church??? (Don't worry-- I'm totally kidding.)

HilbertAstronaut said...

eurydice wrote: "But seriously, most of your suggestions for improving the quality of music in our churches would take much more $ and time (which, after all, = $) than any evangelical, Bible-believing church has!"

We've got a choir entirely of volunteers and our budget is practically nil, yet we do just fine. We choose music entirely in the public domain; books are available, but singers can also download them. Our choice to remain instrumentally unaccompanied frees us from trouble and expense. (Plus it's the right way to perform that particular body of music.)

eurydice suggested, "How about the old method of having a soloist or the choir sing a line of music and have the congregation sing back, until you’ve learned a new song?"

Once I heard a lovely album recorded live in a rural Appalachian Kentucky church in the 1960s, which practiced this technique for their hymns. A lot of those folks probably couldn't even read, yet the whole congregation joined in loud and clear.

Antiphonal singing is something singers of the various liturgical chant traditions have been doing for literally thousands of years.

Rosie Perera said...

Andrea Tisher is another gifted musician who is bringing new life into old hymn texts. She's a Regent alum, now Music and Worship Coordinator at Regent. She has just been nominated, not once, but twice for this year’s Gospel Music Association of Canada Covenant Awards in the categories of Classical Traditional Song of the Year and Classical/Traditional Album of the Year. Her album Awake the Sacred Song is a collection of new settings of hymns by 18th century hymnwriter Anne Steele, which Andrea did for her IPIAT (Integrative Project in the Arts and Theology) at Regent.