Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Navigating the Great Divide

There is now a widespread practice in Christian congregations across North America to provide a menu of options on Sunday morning for worship oriented toward particular musical or ceremonial styles. Often labeling worship as “contemporary,” “traditional,” or “blended,” these congregations are responding to the perceived needs of congregants who desire or enjoy a particular style over another. Some of the planners of worship in these congregations have been persuaded by data that claims that offering such options meets the needs and desires of a great variety of worshippers.

I am particularly and newly concerned about the church we cultivate by the division of worship according to musical styles. This concern has been enlivened by a number of recent conversations and circumstances which I will consider over several blog entries. Here is the first situation:

N’er the twain shall meet

Consider an individual who has attended for the last fifteen years only a Sunday liturgy where the music has been all from the current “pop-contemporary” genre. This person has not, over these years, sung one classic hymn, any of the lyrical poems of Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts, nor any of the melodies of plainchant, the chorale tradition, or even Victorian hymnody. This person also has learned all of the music of this genre while reading the words projected on screens and led by a band singing with microphones and a variety of electronic and acoustic instruments.

Imagine that this same individual goes to worship at a regional synod assembly or denominational convention where the music is intentionally diverse, including some songs from the pop-contemporary genre, but also global and classic hymnody. Such a person might be led to believe that all worship should look and sound like the worship they have experienced in their congregation’s contemporary service. Further, when provided with a hymnal or a printed worship aid that includes the words and melodies of the music sung at such a churchwide event, the individual has no capacity or inclination to access the song outside of their contemporary repertoire, having never been challenged to “read” musical notation or endure longer poems or strophic stanzas.

Or, on the other hand, consider a congregant who has gone only to a “traditional” service for the last fifteen years where the musical repertoire has only consisted of hymns from the German chorale tradition. This person has not sung one text written or one tune composed after 1850. This worshipper has only ever sung to a hymn accompanied by a pipe organ and feels confident that the only hymns appropriate for Christian worship are the hymns they know, or ones that are included within the boundaries of their denominational hymnbook.

Imagine that this believer goes to the same regional synod assembly or denominational convention above and again encounters diverse music, some of it accompanied by piano or guitar, and some of it with newer poetry informed by changes in language or translation, or informed by the contexts of world wars, global poverty, and needless hunger. When presented with a hymn from the Asian churches or a freedom song from the South African peoples repurposed for the expression of Christian freedom, this individual can’t imagine that this song has anything to do with them.

Both people are impoverished by our Sunday morning Great Divide. The worshipper informed by only the German chorale tradition may only understand God as a “he,” or may think the only way out of the trials and tribulations of life is death and heaven. The worshipper informed by only the pop-contemporary repertoire may only hear God through the din of electronics and drums, or may never experience the layers of metaphor, other poetic devices, and the vast biblical allusions inherent in classic strophic hymnody.

Toward more unity

This blog is written on the day when the church commemorates Irenaeus, the bishop of the third century who was one of the first persons to use the word “catholic” in reference to the church. “Catholic” means that congregations do not exist by themselves, but are linked to one another throughout the whole church. We have many signs of “catholicity” in our worship: the inherited pattern of worship that transcends time and place; a common lectionary used by a growing number of churches around the globe; the sharing of communion and ordained ministers and other leaders among a great many churches; and common signs and symbols that represent God and God’s presence among us.


Can we expect music in each of our liturgies to also, in some ways, reflect our catholicity – our connection to each other and our connection to the body of Christ made alive in the church around the globe? Can we expect that we will share in at least some ways the texts and tunes of our songs? Is there benefit in forming Christians to know and love at least some common musical elements? Should we encourage all Christian liturgies to include the very best of every possible musical genre, all of it answerable to the whether the music serves the purpose of worship – namely the praise of God, the proclamation of the word, the celebration of the sacraments, and the prayer of God’s faithful people? Can we get past the obsession with musical style and focus our attention on what God might be doing in and through us in the great diversity of the world’s music?

More will follow in blogs about these matters, but especially these questions: what does it mean for North Americans obsessed with individuality and consumerism to use music in worship that is primarily created for individuals to sing and in styles not different from the music we use to sell and entertain? what do we say about African congregations only using African music, and does that compare at all to North American congregations only using 20th and 21st century music? how might the multi-lingual character of the mass inform an expectation that Christian worship always have some cross-cultural elements?