Never before have their been so many styles and genres of music both in popular music forms and in the field of art music nor have we had such access to them. With the roots of popular music as we know it having come into its own with the advent of rock and its many derivatives in the 1950’s – now well over a half century in our past – the development of art music ongoing and vibrant, the resurgence of folks idioms in the 1960’s, the emergence of dozens of alternative styles since the 1980s, and the immense cross pollination of these forms; the creativity and sheer output of music in our day is unprecedented.
While the church and its musical productivity do not rival the musical yield of the culture at large, it is nevertheless prolific. This abundant output combined with the ready access that most in our culture have to it through the internet and technological devices, and the sheer near-addiction that many have to “their” music, exercises a large influence on the music of the local church and our role as leaders and curators of its song.
Are the Worship Wars Over? Many have declared that the worship wars are over, and I believe this statement is partially true. (See Mark Galli’s March 11, 2011, Christianity Today article). While some in our congregations hold out for a single musical style preference and may seem closed to exploration and variety, most in our congregations are willing and eager to express their worship to God through many musical forms.
For example, as late as the early 2000’s students in my classes and choirs at Baylor sometimes expressed strong opinions regarding their desire to sing, play, and study music drawn from certain stylistic roots. In fact, in a church music class in 2001, students (perhaps subconsciously) chose to sit in two different rows that just happened to mirror the musical biases they revealed in their classroom comments and reactions.
However, since that time, I have worked with college students who are sometimes even sponge-like in their willingness to explore musical idioms that span the gamut of musical creation. Many of today’s young adults have open minds to music, and they desire for music to challenge them intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Just last semester, I surveyed the 100+ members of the Baylor Men’s Choir concerning which pieces from the fall repertoire they engaged with most, and the top-rated pieces were Baba Yetu, from Sid Meier’s Civilization IV computer game, and Hymn To God the Father with text by 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne and set by John Ness Beck.
Similarly, observing the listening and concert-attending habits of middle-aged people (and of those who believe themselves to be middle-aged) can be equally revealing. In some recent conversations with colleagues at school and of friends from church, it is not unusual for the same folks to attend a symphony concert in Waco on Thursday evening and travel to Dallas or Austin on the weekend to hear Three Dog Night or some other rock band (albeit a few decades removed). These friends are musically diverse in how they describe themselves and in their actual practices.
You may be asking by now, how does all of this anecdotal information regarding music styles and preference interface with this being a good time to be a worship leader? Here are some observations:
(1) Serving and working with parishioners and leadership who are open to many kinds of music allows us to choose from a broad array of options instead of being boxed in by a singular or small group of musical genres.
(2) Since some styles tend to be paired with certain texts (perhaps more formal texts attract more formal tunes), utilizing a broad range of styles in a given worship gathering allows for not just a broad musical experience but potentially a broader theological and poetically artistic one as well.
(3) If we make the likely true assumption that varied musical styles engage and garner the attention of different congregants, then having a varied array of music offerings within a service helps people to become and remain engaged in the service, and it can allow them ultimately to be more deeply engaged with God.
(4) If the creation of music is a direct response to our experiences with God, then utilizing diverse musical types within a given service is a way to model a bigger God – a God who is more inclusive, one who goes beyond our experience and expectations, and one who loves people who are different than we.
(5) If we believe that God often speaks through community – that the voice of God is often most trustingly heard through the voices of many others who are also seeking to follow God, then hearing not only their verbal stories but also their musically embodied stories is a way to hear the voice of God more poignantly and clearly.
As you can see, serving the church in a time when congregants are musically diverse gives us freedom as ministers and allows for the potential of God to work among our congregations in ways that may even astound us. However, in closing I leave us with two observations/challenges:
(1) Serving musically diverse congregations is demanding. It calls for us to embrace and seek to understand music that may not be within our own experience or preference. We are called to seek to understand these musics or to depend on others to serve as translators when the music transcends our mother tongue.
(2) While people in our congregations are continually becoming more musically diverse, many churches are choosing to offer services that are aligned with a single musical preference – traditional or contemporary. Likely, this trend to segregate services by musical style will be a misstep that will take future generations many years to right and will consequently leave generations of worshipers musically malnourished.