New harmonies for old churches

Even in classic Protestant churches, most people will acknowledge that the music used in Sunday worship changes from one generation to the next. Many of these worshipers accept the fact, perhaps grudgingly, that the pressures to change are more intense right now than was the case a generation ago when their churches occupied the center of mainstream American culture.

But at this point the practical consensus disappears. It is not at all clear to church people what they should sing, what kinds of service music they should use, and what kind of musical instruments should be featured.

Two essays in the November 29, 2011, issue of Christian Century discuss these issues in provocative ways. They provide case studies of several churches—Lutheran, Reformed Church of America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and Baptist—that are developing distinctive patterns of church music.

Describing these churches, Steve Thorngate, himself a Lutheran church musician, says that they “are creating cohesive, inclusive, excellent music” in ways that go far beyond the old dichotomy or trichotomy of traditional, contemporary, and blended. Some of these churches, he says, “revel in eclecticism,” and others “have developed a singular approach and sound.” By their music, they provide ways of doing “something other” worship, to use the phrase of liturgical scholar Thomas Shattauer (permission to post granted by author).

Several issues can be seen in the musical ventures of the churches described in these articles.

Some of the music now in use is marked by “limited thematic vocabulary.” Some of the music features “pie-in-the-sky escapism, holier-than-thou piety and blood-and-guts atonement.” The musician in one of the churches brushes off this criticism by saying that his church has a high tolerance for contradiction and approaches this music “with a sort of second naiveté.

Many members in classic Protestant churches, however, have strongly engrained theological convictions and will not be willing to dismiss theological issues so casually.

A second issue is the tension between accessibility of the music and its aesthetic value. One musician refers to the “church’s love of excellence” while admitting that it keeps some congregants from participating in the liturgy’s music making.

The incorporation of secular music and secular spirituality into worship is a third issue. The spiritual themes of some of these songs are “rendered thin in the light of Christian worship.” The musician making this point, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the spirituality of rock music, insists that music “has to be good and it has to connect with real life.”

There is much more in these two essays to stimulate vigorous conversation and creative experimentation. The articles could be used by pastors, musicians, choirs and ensembles, worship committees, and worship study groups to stimulate constructive analysis of the musical culture of their congregations and the wider society within which they worship.

One thing is clear to me as I attend worship in classic Protestant churches. The musical tone of worship resembles too much the fussy formalism of post-World War II propriety. A second thing is clear: one of the most constructive ways to move into a new period of vitality is to establish a new musical culture in their services.

Third, each congregation has its own distinctive characteristics and community setting. None of us will do things quite like any of the churches described in these two articles. Yet, the examples they offer can be highly useful in developing new harmonies in old churches.

We sure do need it to happen!

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