Why the Great Church Music Debate Misses the Point

There’s a joke that’s been told so often as to be cliché, but just in case you haven’t heard it, here is the gist:

A man’s home gets flooded to the point at which he must stand on the roof awaiting rescue. Boats, helicopters, etc. offer him aid, but his response is always, “No need, for I have asked my God to save me and my God shall provide”. Eventually, he drowns, dies, and encounters God upon his arrival in heaven. He asks God why he allowed him to drown and God responds by pointing out the boats and helicopters he had sent to save the man. (Gasp!!)

The only context in which I’ve ever heard this story has been in church. Repeatedly. And yet the irony of the punchline (?) is, to my mind, absurdly overshadowed by the irony that continually allows tellers and hearers alike to escape learning a thing from it. I feel obligated to to point out that my church knowledge is primarily grounded in Mainline Protestantism, so all further insults will be thus directed.

I frequently read articles and see hard data about what churchgoers, especially millennials, are looking for from a prospective house of worship. Since I’m a career music minister, obviously the notes about style and music interest me most. However, as a rule, churches take this data, assume it doesn’t apply to their “incredibly unique” community, and metaphorically flush any potential insights down the toilet.

As we all know, since the birth of Christ, there have existed only two types of music: 4-part English/German hymnody that reminds us of how Grandma used to smell and a vague blend of U2/Keith Urban that constantly reminds us that Jesus is a very attractive man, while reminding God how worthy he is of various things (apparently, he tends to forget). Unfortunately, no other kinds of music exist, so there’s no need to evaluate the dual-style worship model whatsoever.

Successful churches gained their success by addressing what their communities needed. The very stupid interpretation by most U.S. churches goes something like, “We got lots of young people in our town, so let’s get us wunna them rock bands and watch the pews overflow”. The other version is something to the effect of “millennials think the lyrics in praise and worship songs are vapid and creepily sexual, so they must want a full return to Orthodoxy. Prepare the incense”. Just wow…

Part of the overall issue we face, which is absolutely inter generational, is caused by the immediate and overwhelming availability to us of all music at once, all the time. Except in church, that is. Do you like hip-hop? We’ve got none of that, Mister Snoopy Dig-Dog! Enjoy retro-styled Outlaw Country? No, ma’am! I could go on and on, but let’s face it, we’ve created a Coke vs. Pepsi church music culture when people might rather have a Sprite or the occasional iced tea.

The musical trends within organized Christianity are astonishing. Classical music has drastically evolved just in the last few decades to be more listener friendly, for better or worse. With the emergence of rock star composers such as Eric Whitacre, Karl Jenkins and a host of others, classical music in the mainstream may be in trouble financially (please note my other ramblings about the “death” of classical music), but its fan base has great potential for growth. None of that is regularly observed in mainstream church services. Church choral music typically favors anthems compositionally pumped out with little thought given to theology, musical diversity or any effort to offer God the best we have. Instead, the lyrical content strives for simple rhyming and catchiness. Above all, it’s easy to sing with little rehearsal to accommodate the casual, noncommittal choir member. As for hymnody, many of the traditional worship crowd, who regularly blast the lyrics of praise and worship staples, demand of their music team to choose more of “The Old Hymns”. By the way, “Old” refers to Southern Gospel songs from the 1930’s full of non biblical descriptions of heaven and NEVER to hymns of actual antiquity. Offering a beige version of liturgical music when the full spectrum of brilliant, even modern, colors is an option is a travesty.

As for what has been crassly labeled “Contemporary” Christian Music, where to begin? The casual atmosphere it provides is certainly welcoming to newcomers, but frequently at the cost of any significant theology. Of course, let’s not forget the aforementioned bizarre sexualization of Jesus that so often goes along with Praise and Worship lyrics, that ruins the (presumably) intended message. While so-called traditional liturgical finds itself drenched in blandness, CCM continues to be generally derivative of itself. The resulting music is harmonically stagnant, frequently slow enough to send me into a coma and the lyrics border on self- parody. Straying from the formula is punished by the establishment with utter apathy. In 2009, The David Crowder Band released “Church Music”, a musically adventurous album that was fun and surprising, featuring a broad mix of sounds equally reminiscent of Euro-pop and Super Mario. I like to imagine that it challenged the band that created it. The words were nothing to write home about, but there was certainly nothing to cause objection. I first listened to it and thought I’d heard something important and perhaps even transformative to the album’s genre. Six years later, I have yet to hear evidence that it’s had any impact at all on other CCM artists.

It’s imperative to remember that the greats of church music, like Bach, were constantly contributing new music to challenge their congregations with the hopes of genuine enlightenment through sound. As a composer, I suppose a portion of the onus is upon me as much as anybody. I was recently given a pleasant surprise when I learned that the leader of our church’s worship band was writing new songs for the band to lead, a rare thing in a United Methodist church. I originally became a composer in order to contribute something new to worship. In all honesty, I often get cynical and put my liturgical compositions on the shelf, thinking it doesn’t make a difference. In those times I must remind myself of the purpose of giving a true offering, not simply to offer what’s easy to throw together.

I believe it to be necessary to point out the faults of the ways we’ve allowed worship music to settle into a rut. Nowhere in life should complacency be tolerated, least of all in church. I have nothing against any style of music being a part of worship and I treasure many songs from both of the favored, though exhausted, styles. I’m convinced that musical diversity is a reflection of the age, racial and socioeconomic diversity that exists to a larger degree than ever throughout the country. One may think that two styles cover the full spectrum, but it only serves to point out the differences between to very specific demographic groups. If your city or town is known for its jazz clubs, sophisticated community choirs, indie rock scene, whatever – and your church doesn’t offer even a taste of your community’s musical language, you may likely be destined for failure.

One thought on “Why the Great Church Music Debate Misses the Point”

  1. Thank you for this article, Trevor. I find it refreshing to feel that I’m not the only Church musician who feels that there’s a lot of “cookie cutter” music these days( all genres). My church is very small and the choral ensembles meet only irregularly, so I have a great deal of difficulty finding new music that I find appropriate to my group. I can’t arrange everything myself (most of it, but not everything) and find that I wish that there was a little bit more that originality in published worship music(especially for small SAB groups like mine). I tend to agree with the more conservative line of thought regarding worship music, but I fully understand the frustration Millennials have with the current musical situations in Mainline churches. Keep up the good work with your own music! I can’t wait to hear more from inversion Ensemble and some of the other projects you’re working on.

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