We’re Still Treating Worship War Casualties

It’s the music that carries the text, CCM or otherwise.

A recent post on a Christianity Today blog caught my eye because of the topic of music in the Church. This is a well-worn subject, and I can’t say everything I want to here, because it’s too broad (and I’m writing something more extensive), but I’m glad the topic hasn’t simply been dismissed with a hand-wave, as if to say “We’re done with that!” Christians need to keep talking about it. If in the evangelical world we haven’t quite reached resolution, we have in many quarters at least reached a truce, but it has come at a cost. By this I mean many churches have a traditional service and a contemporary service. This is another way of saying we have effected an amicable church split, or perhaps friendly separation may be the better term. Those who feel strongly about one style over the other will always attend that service, and so there are functionally two congregations meeting in the same building, one after the other. This has facilitated peace, but not necessarily unity.

Karl Vaters, the post’s author, makes some good points, and I’m sure that he would agree there is much more to say than his brief article allowed. He begins with the question of whether churches are targeting unbelievers with contemporary music, as a hook to get them into the church. He answers in the negative, and gives some reasons why his church uses the music it does. Some of these are absolutely valid reasons, and as he says, “Every old song used to be a new song.” That is certainly true, and in the Western church, even those who advocate for “traditional” music are using a fairly narrow definition of that. They mean the quasi-popular music that dates back about 200 years or so, running through the mid 20th century. But the history of the church is much longer than that, and tunes that were sung 1000 years ago would sound very strange to our ears today. One can make the case that this music is even more traditional than Western hymns, because it has a much older lineage, but no one sings those tunes because they are culturally foreign to us. I don’t mean the words are foreign, I mean the music itself, and that part of the question gets too little attention.

Vaters makes the point that “There is no such thing as “church music” outside of the lyrical content.” I understand what he means, but I don’t think that statement suffices for everything that’s going in with music. It’s true that one cannot say, “aha, that is a Christian f-sharp”, but it’s also true that music is not created in a vacuum. It is culturally located, and comes with connotations and associations that are sometimes so firmly entrenched that they cannot be dislodged. I am not referring to words and music together, but to the music alone. That is, the notes, rhythms, tempi, harmony, instrumentation – all of the elements that make up music.

The music alone tells a story and colors the words. It doesn’t work the other way around. I’ll give an example. Years ago there was a radio ministry called the Haven Of Rest, (now Haven Today), and the resident musicians were a male quartet. They came and did a concert at Moody Church in Chicago, which I heard over the radio. In a nod to the radio program, the quartet sang four verses of the hymn. “Haven of Rest.” The first verse was sung as one would expect – straight. The second was sung in an operatic or “classical” fashion, as they explained that Chicago was a city with a renowned symphony orchestra. The audience chuckled a bit at this. The third verse was sung in a country and western style, which the audience found quite funny. The final verse was sung in a rap style, and the audience laughter was the strongest of all. Without realizing why, the audience recognized this digression in tone of words and music with each verse. As the music (and its connotations) departed farther away from the text, the satire increased. This effect is what makes the idea of a parody in song at all possible. If the text alone dictates whether a piece of music is Christian or not, then there would be nothing humorous at all in this. I could cite other examples too, (Oliver Sachs Musicophilia is filled with several) and the whole idea of a film soundtrack is based on the idea of music influencing us in ways we may not even realize.

Local churches should at least ask these questions about associations with their music. Traditional or contemporary, it all carries a message apart from the text. People can overcome certain associations, and learn to enjoy and be moved by music that was previously uncomfortable for them, but it may be a formidable effort. Quite often, it’s a youngest common denominator that determines our music, (how many worship leaders are over 40 I wonder?), but the biblical model is that age brings wisdom. Churches that are mono-generational are impoverished. Whether they know it or not, younger Christians desperately need older believers among them. It’s a shame if musical choices prevent that. Am I saying that the older Christians must dictate the type of music in a local church? Not at all, but there is a real need for education, to talk about what happens in music, that is, within us as people. It’s insufficient to take a text, pair it with music we like and say we know have “Christian music.” Does the tune, support or undermine the message of the text? What about the rhythm, meter, and instrumentation? All of these subtly add or subtract from what the text is conveying. Vaters notes, “New Songs give voice to how people express worship today.”
They do indeed, but music – all music – doesn’t simply express, it impresses. It influences us and shapes us, and being aware of that effect is not always appreciated by many who plan worship.

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