“Not To Prayer But To A Spectacle”
The most committed (and often the most obstinate) defenders of contemporary worship is rapidly becoming the older generation. While their influence remains in many places, it is waning. Within a few short years, contemporary worship will have lost its original impetus and driving force.
Millennials are seeking old ways of doing things. This (thankfully) doesn’t mean a return to the church of the 1950s, but it (thankfully) means an increasing rejection of the church of the 1990s and 2000s. More emphasis is being placed on liturgy and community, and less on using corporate worship chiefly as a contrived evangelistic tool. – Jonathan Aigner, “3 Reason Contemporary Worship IS Declining, And What We Can Do To Help The Church Move On,” Patheos, September 4, 2015
Bad taste has, however, degraded even religious worship, bringing into the presence of God, into the recesses of the sanctuary a kind of luxurious and lascivious singing, full of ostentation, which with female modulation astonishes and enervates the souls of the hearers. When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of the voices, which the nightingale or the mockingbird, or whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. – John of Salisbury (1120-1180), Bishop of Chartres, quoted in Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church And Music, pp.124-125
But certain practitioners of the new school, who think only of the laws of measured time, are composing new melodies of their own creation, with a new system of note values, that they prefer to the ancient, traditional music. The melodies of the Church are [now] sung in semibreves and minims and with grace notes of repercussion. Some [composers] break up their melodies with hockets or rob them of their virility with discant, threevoice music, and motets, with a dangerous element produced by certain parts sung on text in the vernacular; all these abuses have brought into disrepute the basic melodies of the Antiphonal and Gradual [the principal chant books]. These composers, knowing nothing of the true foundation upon which they must build, are ignorant of the church modes, incapable of distinguishing between them, and cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere. . . . – Pope John XXII, Papal Bull Docta sanctorum patrum, 1324
If you’re following the revived Bloom County you’re probably aware that Opus and Bill The Cat are running for President. Again. You’re probably also aware that Opus believes he’s found a “wedge issue” he can use to increase his standing in the polls. For those who may not know, a wedge issue is a topic to which people react out of all proportion to its social or political value, and one that tends to be impervious to legislative solutions. For Opus, it’s the matter of how many spaces appear after a period. Cutter John lost a girlfriend over the issue. It certainly seems to be something that really does get folks aroused online.
You want to get some church folk all stirred up? Forget sex or politics; offer an opinion on styles of worship and church music. Congregations have been known to split apart over the matter. Battle lines are drawn and there seems to be little room for any kind of middle ground. Defenders of traditional hymnody are portrayed as fuddyduddies out of step with the times, technology, and the people. Proponents of contemporary worship styles and music are often portrayed as theologically shallow, offering entertainment rather than worship, and songs that have very little theological meat on their catchy tuneful bones. That these same “praise songs” are part of a multi-billion dollar industry usually also comes up, portraying people as unwitting dupes of a massive capitalistic swindle. That both these portraits contain a whole lot of fact certainly doesn’t help. Articles like Jonathan Aigner’s above are all too common. Like Dick Cheney’s statement that the Iraqi resistance was in its “last throes” just as that same resistance entered a period of heightened violence, we too often allow our wishes to dictate how we see the world.
That’s why historical perspective is important. In the mid-12th century, the Bishop of Chartres wrote scathingly of developments in church music. Another 12th century cleric, a Cistercian monk named Aelred, wrote similarly. It is from Aelred the title of this post comes. Two centuries later, Pope John XXII issued a Bull regarding church music, quoted above. While extolling Chant and Plainsong (something that Popes tend to endorse, right up to the late-19th and early-20th centuries), John referred to “the ancient, traditional music” which was the very style John of Salisbury found so horrific.
For us United Methodists, more recent history (over the past century and a half or so) includes, first, the introduction of staved music our hymnals; the introduction of the “Catholic” organ; the introduction of the “sinners” piano; including popular religious songs like “How Great Thou Art”; the controversy over the 1987 Hymnal; the creation of a separate hymn and song book for the African-American churches. Up through the mid- to late-19th century, clergy either lined unfamiliar hymns or congregations sang them to accepted metrical songs. That’s why there’s still and Metrical Index in our hymnal. It wasn’t until the flowering of 19th century hymn-writing that tunes became set.
In John Wesley’s “Rules For Singing”, he admonishes congregations to learn common hymn tunes; if people knew hymns using different melodies and harmonies, he instructed them to learn the new ones as quickly as possible. Uniformity certainly helps unify a group geographically diverse. All the same, it does remind us that “the way we’ve always done it” has no more meaning in worship music than it does in any other area of church life.
Contemporary worship and praise music entered the life of the church for a number of reasons. I think it’s important to remember that it did so because it served a need for people, to worship and sing to God in ways that connected their lives more closely together. For all that at least some CCM, as its called, is fatuous and theologically questionable, one could say much the same about many hymns, not only those dropped from more recent publishings, but more important those no longer included. During the quadrennium leading to the final proposed 1987 UM Hymnal, both “I Come to the Garden” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” were dropped from several initial proposals. The reasons the committee offered were theologically sound. The church, however, wasn’t quite ready for such changes, sentiment overriding theology. Using traditional hymns less and less is not necessarily a sign of American superficiality or a surrender to commerce over content or a sign of dwindling theological understanding. It can be, of course. That doesn’t mean it is. On the contrary, there are excellent theological reasons for using contemporary instrumentation and songs rather than relying on sometimes centuries-old hymns and tunes. For one thing, we aren’t 17th century German Reformed Christians, 19th century Anglicans, or late-19th or early 20th century church and social reformers. We’re early 21st century Americans who need to sing our faith in our own voice. The Psalms and Prophets often call for “new songs”, for being ready for God to do “a new thing” that has never been experienced. At the end of the Revelation of St. John, from the throne the Father says, “Behold! I make all things new!”. New things can always be a sign of innovation for its own sake. It can also be a sign of the coming Kingdom. Because we are always between the times, living our lives with both the “already!” and the “not yet!”, because our lives – the whole Universe – is both on its way to salvation yet still sinful, it can be both at the same time. We should never be so dedicated to a particular theology, style of worship, or how music is used and sounds in worship that we refuse to hear the whisper of the Spirit.
To all those who insist that “contemporary worship” is “on the way out” or facing its imminent demise, I can only say, “Enjoy the wait!” As long as it serves sound worship and theological purposes, it isn’t going anywhere. On the contrary, the greater challenge is going to be teaching both clergy and congregations how better to integrate differing musical tastes and styles, instrumentation into wholistic, meaningful worship experiences. If you think that the emotional and intellectual impact of the whole worship experience for the people isn’t important, then perhaps you need to rethink why you’re worshiping at all. Yes, worship is about the people offering God the Glory God is due; if our worship is either bland or shallow, or if our people are either disengaged or too emotionally or intellectually engaged, how is that worship offering God a living sacrifice? Of all the things about which our churches bicker, wouldn’t it be far better if folks sat down and asked, “How do we worship in an age of computers and sampling? How do we bring the voice of the people together when the people’s voices all sing different tunes?” Far better than declaring for one “side” or another because there are not “sides”, we should be working to offer worship worthy of God. That would include the enthusiastic and theologically sound words and music that all the people can sing together.