Nothing defines the American church more at this historical juncture than its music. When we are asked what kind of church we attend, most often we describe the congregation’s worship, and we describe it in the all-to-familiar terms, traditional, contemporary, or blended perhaps with a qualifier such as “leaning toward.” Not unlike the generational segregation that we discussed in an earlier post, worship in many churches is fully segregated, and many have accepted the notion that other options are not possible.
Yet when I talk with friends about musical preferences, they have wide-ranging notions, and they act on these choices as they listen to music in their daily lives. For instance, the dozens of students I work with each day are open to all genres of music, and I haven’t in many years encountered a student who wasn’t open to explore music from popular culture, choral music from previous centuries, and the sounds of organs and brass. Likewise, my baby boomer cohorts might regularly attend a Three Dog Night concert on Friday night and go to the symphony on Sunday afternoon – they are not willing to be boxed in by a single-genre musical diet in their daily lives. Why should we accept such a limited offering on Sunday?
Through singing songs transmitted from different time periods, shifted from different cultures, and relocated from a time when the church’s cultural and spiritual challenges might have been different, we have the possibility of seeing and hearing God in new ways. Through experiencing diverse music, the soundtrack of our faith starts to expand, and eventually our God becomes bigger, more inclusive, more capable, and eventually more trusted. As we sing repetitive songs that may more readily lodge their words into our hearts and strophic songs with multiple stanzas that may take a lifetime to digest, we are able to view a God who both comes to us in the here-and-now and a God whom we spend a life-time pursuing.
So why is it that we find ourselves with increasingly narrower music options in church? How did we get to this place and how do we take steps toward more diverse musical options? For starters, I believe that by following our church history patterns, we have failed to consider the longer-term implications of our decisions. Rather than considering fully what we might give up if we too easily disregard our historical musical roots, we opted for the route of expediency rather than becoming more imaginative and creative. In the process, our view became too narrow, and we failed to assess what might be gained and what might be lost by exploring a way that moves beyond the too-easy categories for which we settled.
Similarly, we made assumptions about the broader culture without carefully considering and analyzing. For instance, while the culture has moved toward a more diverse and inclusive musical palate, many churches have streamlined their offerings. Furthermore, when newer sounds began to find their way into the church several decades ago, rather than embracing diversity and considering the possibility that new winds of the spirit might be blowing, the church music establishment of the day entrenched themselves to fight this new music. What resulted was a breach that deeply divided the church. On the other hand, lacking diverse musical skills, the musicians of the church were not prepared to lead in worship gatherings where a vast array of musical styles and genres were utilized. Lacking sound theological guidance from pastors and theologians and trustworthy liturgical direction from denominations and church leaders, decisions about the church’s music were left almost exclusively to those on the front lines who have persevered through what historically will likely be one of the church’s biggest liturgical shifts.
Obviously, any attempt to address a complex issue within the church in a few short paragraphs glosses over many important issues, and it risks stripping a multidimensional matter down to what may appear simplistic. However, opening ourselves to broader dialogue is always a good beginning. For starters, let’s consider the following:
• Develop Hybrids. Let’s continue to nurture the practice of taking older texts, adding new refrains, and recasting them. This historically-used practice has brought many older texts into current awareness.
• Cultivate Relationships. What if each of us were to develop a friendship intentionally with someone who leads worship in a congregation that is different from our current context? Imagine the individual growth that might occur within us and within our congregation.
• Teach New Songs. What if those of us who lead worship each Sunday were to commit to introduce at least one new song per month over the next year from a musical palate far removed from our native musical language?
• Learn New Musical Languages. What if we intentionally were to begin to learn at least one new musical language and find a trusted mentor/teacher to guide us?
• Expand Our Horizons. What if those of us who are choir directors and organists develop expertise to lead worship with a guitar, and what if guitar-led worship leaders developed skills to start a choir?
Obviously, there are no quick fixes to any complex challenge that faces the church; however, if the many-hued God of the ages is to shine forth more brightly through the music of the church, we must begin the process of allowing the church’s music (through which God may be viewed) to express a fuller and ultimately bigger view of the God of all time, all people, all places, and all musics.