Working With What We Have
Nearly every day, I see a link to an article or post in my Facebook and Twitter feeds bemoaning the lack of singing in many churches today. While I think many of them make some good points about why we’re no longer singing people, few of them offer insight into fixing the problem. And it is a problem. It’s a problem that with all the music we’re subjected to in our lives (and often in our churches), we just don’t know how to actually sing anymore. – Jonathan Aigner, “13 Solutions For A Church That Just Won’t Sing”, Ponder Anew, January 7, 2015
The post quoted above was one of those endless “Suggestion” Facebook sends, and for once I clicked on it. As this is my area of main concern in focus – music in the Christian life – I wanted to see what this person, of whom I had not previously heard, had to say. Jonathan’s cv is certainly impressive. And there is just no arguing with the very first point he makes:
1. Teach. Teach your people. Teach them why we sing. Teach them why we sing the songs we sing. Teach them how to sing as well as they possibly can. Teach them the best songs. Christians must understand their history as a singing people and the biblical mandate to sing together, or they won’t understand why they should sing in the first place.
There is no substitute for getting people to understand why it is we do what we do as a worshiping community. Particularly we who live in the tradition of John and Charles Wesley, who are known as those who sing our faith. But, the Universal Church’s history of song, and controversy over song, even over whether to sing or not sing, stretches back to the Scriptures. We have two thousand years of history, from St. Paul’s direction that when Christians gather we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs right up to the latest Contemporary Christian Chart toppers. Why this is so, and the controversies surrounding music in worship, is not only important; it’s also kind of fun to discover that people took these matters as seriously as they did.
Jonathan calls himself a supporter of traditional worship. Which is wonderful! Yet, that “tradition” is probably no older than his parents, or perhaps his grandparents. One of the things an attention to the history of Christian worship brings is an awareness of how different congregational worship styles have been across the years, confessions, and even within the same creedal (or non-creedal) traditions. If anything, “tradition” becomes a fallback position, a word that can be filled with, at best, an understanding that our collective worship is for the glory of God, and at worst, to keep at bay those things about contemporary society – and that includes the contemporary church – we dislike for whatever our particular reasons might be.
Yet, the church is and always has been a historical creature as much as it is the Body of Christ. We have argued over music in worship, how to do it, when to do it, whether to sing at all, whether or not to use instruments, then which instruments, since the beginning. The current dislike of what is commonly called “contemporary worship”, including the use of amplified instruments in what is referred to as a “praise band”, is to my mind – a mixture of healthy skepticism and unwarranted attention to the realities the churches face in their various settings.
Another thing you learn studying the history of the church and music – well, really, the history of anything – is that it is impossible to erase the past. What has been done can never be undone. North American churches, Protestant and Catholic (I have no idea of the status and well-being of Orthodox churches), face changes in everything from cultural commitments, demographics, to a spreading distrust of large institutions even as there is a stated desire for these large institutions to operate better, for the benefit of all. Most clergy, for all the classes they take at Seminary, are not trained well in reading the signs of the times. Most church musicians have their various hobby-horses, a combination of education, experience, preference, and understanding. The congregations they serve enter what is supposed to be sacred time and space, to worship God, yet they do not and cannot just set everything just outside the door, to pick up on the way back out. That isn’t Church, anyway; Church is precisely the place for people to carry their baggage, their burdens, and even their preferences and desires and lay them at the foot of the cross.
Figuring out how to sing our praises to God is more than educating congregations, although there can never be enough of that. Clergy and, yes, church musicians, need to be taught not only the theology and practice of worship, including song and music; they need to be taught to listen. St. Paul called it testing the Spirits. Part of listening includes reassuring congregations that disagreements, even heated arguments, over the status of music in Christian worship, is nothing new. That is because, if we listen, we hear not only the argument, but the fear and worry behind the argument. We should encourage healthy discussion, debate, and dialogue about these matters.
Another Spirit in need of testing is the Spirit of the music being used. It is all well and good to hold fast to traditional hymnody. It is all well and good to do so for sound theological, liturgical, and practical reasons. All the same, if one holds on too hard, one is no longer listening to the musical needs of the congregation. It may well be that including non-traditional musical styles – what is sometimes called “blended worship” – is something that will work for a congregation. Perhaps even a wholesale change over to contemporary musical styles, within perhaps a more formal liturgical environment is warranted. Or not. These are not decisions that can be made outside the context of each congregation; and those responsible for the liturgical health of the congregation should always have at least one ear open for whatever dissatisfaction might arise, not only to comfort and reassure, but perhaps to respond faithfully, even against one’s preferences.
All this is to say that, while I have my preferences – I love the hymns of Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby in particular; I also believe there lies a wealth of resources in what is commonly thought of as “secular music” the church ignores, even disdains, to its peril – were I to be in a place of servant-leadership regarding worship and music, my preferences would always take a back seat to whatever the congregation’s needs, wants, and preferences are. All along, however, I would do my best, through offering classes on the history of church music, on the specifics of musics in different contexts, on racial and ethnic differences in music, and so on, in hopes that, regardless of the controversy of the moment, the congregation has the opportunity to draw upon these rich resources and try to practice them within the particularities of its context.
Christian churches should be places filled with song. Our congregations have stopped singing for any number of reasons, some of which lie far outside the Church’s ability to control, such as the rise of “professionalism” in music, and the belief that individuals who are not such have no business involving themselves in music. While being an advocate for traditional worship is all well and good, we should also be aware of just how contingent that “tradition” is. We need to be open to the Spirit moving a congregation one way or another; helping as we can, but never demanding or submitting completely. It is always a delicate balance, creating a worship service that is in the best traditions of the liturgical history of the church while never forgetting that ours are particular times that might be best addressed in other ways. One thing that should never be missing, however, is music. All sorts of music. All in praise of God.