Using music to help progressive congregations progress

First Christian Church of Portland, Oregon, stands firmly fixed as a progressive Protestant church and for some 130 years has been part of the city’s cultural district. Its longtime minister of music was considered to be a highly skilled interpreter of Bach, and its Sanctuary Choir regularly sang music by the most preeminent classical composers. As far back as people can remember, the traditional Gloria Patri and Doxology, which have been standard elements in traditional Protestant worship, have been part of this congregation’s Sunday service.

On Reformation Sunday, 2010, however, First Christian Church followed Luther’s example and broke tradition, not by nailing theological propositions to the door but by celebrating Gospel Music Sunday. The hoped-for consequence will be a fruitful conversation within the congregation about music in worship. Most people know that churches today cannot continue as Bach-Beethoven-Brahms congregations, nor will churches in the progressive tradition adopt Black Gospel as their sound. Experiencing a significantly different kind of music, however, can foster transformation.

Sundays like this stimulate comments that can help the worship team understand the attitudes and ideas of congregants. Consider these comments that I heard in the days following Gospel Music Sunday: “I like the energy the music brought to the service. People in the choir really seemed to be rocking. Clapping doesn’t seem right on most Sundays but today it fit right into things. The choir director (a music professor in nearby Portland State University) made really good moves.  I wish they had included Fanny Crosby. I stayed home. If I wanted that kind of music, I’d go to a church where that’s what they sing. I love to sing, but I couldn’t do it in this service because even the congregational hymns were done by the choir. When the combo started the communion music, the style reminded me of bar music. The combo (keyboard, bass, and percussion) added a lot to the service.” By listening to what the people say, worship leaders have a better idea of how to move forward in the process of transforming worship.

Occasional use of other significant musical styles generates more understanding and broadens the congregation’s religious repertoire of music for worship. Historic genres such as Anglican Chant or the Shaped-Note tradition could be included. (First Christian recently hosted a Saturday Shaped-Note sing, but a full Sunday service of this music would be quite an experience.) Contemporary musical genres, across a wide range, could be explored. Cross-over music that begins with classical motifs and morphs into an entirely new sound would be especially interesting and useful. Serious electronic music would be a challenging sound! Gradually, the congregation is abled to develop an enriched and more diverse sound in its own regular way of worshiping God.

Careful use of differing musical styles highlights the various ways that music and spirituality are intertwined. Music shapes our experience of time, intensifies the emotional aspects of our words and actions, and connects us to one another in subtle but very strong ways. Even more important is its capacity to lead us into a kind of altered consciousness in which we sense the presence of the spiritual depths of life. Most congregants are tuned to experience a fairly limited range of spiritual modalities. A broader range of music can expand the broad band of our connection with God

Special music Sundays can help worship leaders understand and improve factors that are important in all services, including those in which everything is familiar to congregants. At its best, worship music, whatever its genre, incorporates the congregation in the performance. In churches where worship is alive, the congregation is the most important musical component. Furthermore, on special music Sundays, musicians and congregants have to make special preparations in order to perform the music in an authentic and skilled manner. Similar attention to how the music is performed on ordinary Sundays can strengthen worship at all times.

Experiences with various forms of worship can open the door to other changes in the way that worship is done. Whatever the liturgical form and style, however, the objective is always the same: to worship God in ways that are rooted in the culture, vital in the hearts of the people, and consistent with the deeply ingrained character of the congregation. Congregations that have been shaped by progressive patterns of thought and life will continue to interact with popular culture in ways similar to how they have done for generations past.

The goal for special music Sundays is to help these progressive congregations continue to progress.

4 Responses to Using music to help progressive congregations progress

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Thanks Keith,

    As one who makes a lot of use of music in worship and seeks to bring in a diversity of style and expression, I appreciate the difficulty that many find in making the transition. That said, I believe you are correct in suggesting that broadening our musical experience can broaden our experience of God’s presence.

  2. Steve Silver says:

    Kudos to Portland FCC! As a more progressive, liberal Christian who loves contemporary music styles, I have always found it perplexing and frustrating that-in general-those churches with whom I would most resonate theologically and doctrinally do not speak to my musician’s soul with their formal worship styles and music, while those churches that fully embrace contemporary music styles in worship tend to espouse theology and doctrine I am not always comfortable with. We need more such theologically progressive churches to explore and embrace contemporary musical styles in worship.

  3. Bob McGeary says:

    Keith, as one who participated in the gospel service, I can tell you that we had a ball doing it. Stand by for more variety in our music. A group of us are planning some guitar music for the 9am service on November 28th. We are still experimenting with our types of music and genre. ~ Bob

  4. wvDisciples says:

    Bless you! There is no “right” music for worship except that which is inauthentic. Even THAT would be hard to define. Limiting our musical styles to whatever trend has caught the director (or congregation’s) fancy in a given era is deadly! As a minister, as a church musician, and as a mortal with a beating heart and love for music, thank you, Keith. I will share your thoughtful work.
    David Chafin

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