Are you familiar with the Jesus-is-my-boyfriendian school of thought? If you’ve run in evangelical circles even a little bit in the last couple of decades, you probably know the music. (Or if you’ve seen the South Park episode “Christian Rock Hard,” but I digress.)
Last month (!) on the Two Friars and a Fool blog, Sandra Billy contributed an interesting post on worship music, differentiating between the intimate music of the individual, “upper room” music (i.e. contemporary worship music), and the transcendent voice of the worshiping church, “temple” music (i.e. traditional tunes). She comments that churches in the past included traditional music while adding to the canon—churches neither discouraged new forms of worship nor excluded old forms.
That’s not how it seems today. The feeling I get is that you can go to a church with traditional music—choir, organ, the whole bit; or you can go to a church with contemporary music and a praise band. Or you can go to a church with no music to speak of, or a church with middling to poor musical offerings—churches have strengths and weaknesses in different areas.
Some of the comments on the post were interesting—questions of whether there is a need to have “religious” music at all, or notes about attending more to the story we tell in worship than the particular vocabulary we use to tell it.
I think these are important and valid points. I have a point of my own: I think the music and lyrics are really important. My parish is blessed with a music director who puts a great deal of care into choosing our music, and I think we—choir and parishioners—put a great deal of care into singing it. Tucked in the choir folders is the RSCM Chorister’s Prayer, the middle portion of which reads, “Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives.”
Now, if that doesn’t place a lot of importance on what we’re singing, I don’t know what does. And this happens for me—being in choir isn’t just fun, it’s a really big part of my spiritual formation. So, yeah, I think what we’re singing is really important.
Not that I’m an expert. I mean, what do I know about liturgical theology? Not a whole lot. But I know a bit about being a worshiper, in all kinds of church environments. Hymns-on-a-screen at my schools and my childhood church. “It Is Well with My Soul” in Jamaican churches, from my spot at the portable keyboard. Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” in a Massachusetts UUA balcony. Taizé chants in all shapes and sorts of spaces. “Pharaoh, Pharaoh” at the diocesan young adult retreat.
I have my preferences. I love choral music. Love it. (I’m in the choir, duh. I think it’s a prerequisite.) I like music from the baroque period. I’m very fond of pipe organs. I like holding a hymnal in my hands and following the alto line and singing all the verses. Chant moves me. Yeah, I like the high-church-y stuff.
But there are also praise-and-worship-esque songs I really like—“In Christ Alone,” “Shepherd Me O God,” “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (I guess we quit singing this one at my undergrad worship services because of the theology—any guesses as to which line was the problem?). I have a lot of memories, full of warmth and light. Memories like lying in the bed of a pickup leaving Chihuahua, gazing at the moon, singing “The Heart of Worship” and feeling deeply and intimately connected to everyone—and everything—though I’ve long since lost touch with that ragged band of students.
And then there’s the not-really-church-material-but-still-spirit-touching stuff, like Over the Rhine and Sufjan Stevens. (I recently learned that Over the Rhine and Sufjan are considered the epitome of “Christian hipster” music. Huh.) Now, do I want to sing Sufjan songs on Sunday morning? No. Well, maybe in the shower. And I don’t particularly want to sing “In Christ Alone” or “The Heart of Worship,” either, edifying though they may be.
So I don’t fit in well with “contemporary” services. But I don’t want to just brush them off, dismiss them as “not for me.” So I really wonder—is there a happy medium? Can I enjoy my baroque music without being stodgy and snobby and alienating people? I like to think the answer is a strong “yes,” I just have yet to see it played out.
What sort of music do you prefer in worship? What is the music like at your church? Do you ever wish for a change or more variety? Do you think there can be a happy medium among music styles?