Please don’t stop the music

From a 16th-century BCP at the Lilly Library in Bloomington -- cool stuff. I think I might've signed something about not taking photos for commercial use... so I'm still good, right?

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?


5 thoughts on “Please don’t stop the music

  1. I believe the objectionable line in “How Deep the Father’s Love,” was, according to L. Smit: “The father turns his face away.” I still don’t know why, but I’ve often thought of e-mailing her to ask for her thoughts on the issue.

  2. Huh. I’ve never heard anyone complain about “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.” We sing it on our praise team Sundays. People don’t like the line about the Father turning His face away? Weird.

    So. Music! I think this is church people’s favorite thing to argue about. ^_^

    I’m LCMS Lutheran, and though it varies a lot from church to church, what I have seen most often is that LCMS churches compromise by having one or two services a month/week that do all “contemporary” music (sometimes this means stuff published since WWII, honestly) and the rest “traditional” music. A contemporary music service is usually accompanied by a non-traditional/contemporary liturgy (which mostly means you don’t chant anything, and the words to the litany aren’t the ones in the hymnal), while traditional music services can have either the traditional (hymnal) liturgy or the non-traditional one.

    The contemporary services usually mean a guitar and piano/keyboard and vocalists at the front of the church, but it depends on the musical talents of the congregation: my church growing up included flutes and tambourines, this congregation has drums and bass guitars (which makes it sound way cooler and more rock-bandy than it really is).

    We sing “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” and “Shine Jesus Shine” and what have you. My current music director likes to include a lot of gospel-style songs that are older (I am really getting sick of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”); the director I had growing up is a little more hip to the newer music. Anyway. This church does a contemporary music service one service a month; my childhood church used to do it one service a month but switched to two services per month a few years ago. The other service each Sunday is always still a traditional one so that people who don’t like the guitar or whatever have an option.

    My parents once attended a church that had a high-church service the first Sunday of every month, a more middling style the second, a very contemporary praise team service the third, and service in German on the fourth Sunday, which sounds awesome to me.

    I’m in the choir and a vocalist for the praise team and honestly, I just love music. I love all kinds of music (though there are specific songs in each style that I’m not crazy about). I love the hymns, I love the praise songs, I love the spirituals, I love the choral music (ok…most of it…the director and I do not really have the same musical taste. He likes really scoopy schmaltzy sentimental stuff, and I am the only soprano under fifty and if that style of music can possibly sound good sung by anyone it is NOT by a group of old ladies).

    Ideally, if I ruled the church-world, there would be a nice variety at each service. I wouldn’t mind mashing it all up together. Why does contemporary music demand a “contemporary” liturgy? Why can’t you sing praise songs at a traditional service? Maybe that’s where some people’s concern comes in with contemporary music—they see that using that music involves changing or even “watering down” the rest of the service. I just like to make a joyful noise while following an actual meaningful Order of Service.

    I will say this, though. Like you (I think), I couldn’t live on the praise songs alone. I could live with a church that just sang out of the hymnal every Sunday, but I’m not sure I would want only the praise songs every Sunday. So many of them seem to be not as, I don’t know, deep? theologically rigorous? lyrically as most hymns are, and what I’m singing is as important to me as how I’m singing, if that makes sense. BUT I don’t think contemporary songs are the devil and a sign of the lazy, dull-witted depravity of the new generation, either.

    Oh, and also the organist makes a big difference—maybe more “younger people” or whomever the contemporary stuff is aimed at would enjoy hymn music if it were played well and at tempo. And it’s true that familiarity with the hymns helps. Once you have tunes pretty much memorized you start to appreciate the harmonies, and the lyrics to the third verse, and just in general how beautiful a lot of those old hymns are.

    Sorry for writing a novel in your comment box! Heh.

    • Church people do indeed love to argue over music! I don’t think I would mind a mixed-music service (and some of the hymns we sing on a given Sunday are new-ish, if not contemporary praise anthems), though some songs just don’t seem to fit in our services (i.e. we’re the more “high church” Episcopal church in town, and I suspect some in our congregation would be irreparably scandalized if parishioners started clapping along to something).

      The praise songs I really don’t like are the ones I tend to dislike because I find them boring––7/11 songs, we would call them (as in, 7 words 11 times), which is why I like what you’ve said about having a good organist and playing hymns well and at tempo––in some regards, maybe good music is just good music. (which also has to do with choosing and directing choral music according to the choir’s abilities :))

      Thanks for your response!

      • Ha, 7/11 songs–I hadn’t heard them call that, but I know exactly what you mean. Blech. But, a time and place for everything, I suppose.

        I’m not sure Lutherans know how to clap. 😉 But yes, obviously different churches have different styles they’re known for, and that’s why those parishioners attend those churches. So I guess you can’t stir the pot too much.

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