Friday, October 26, 2012

Church Music Redux

Yesterday there was a op ed that said that revitalizing the Roman Catholic mass will involve abandoning pipe organs.  While I have to say that I have no commitment to revitalizing the mass nor do I think that scraping pipe organs is the solution to any problems the RC church is having in attracting younger folk, I was very interested to see a response to the piece on Felice Me Fa.  The author gives four recommendations:
1. encourage music education
2. prioritize and support music in the parishes
3. give people more time
4. let music come to life
The author betrays a number of problematic ideas that often characterize the mainstream church.  Let me give a little background here first.  There is an interesting disconnect where more theologically liberal churches tend to be more conservative in style, while churches with a conservative theology are often more attuned to cultural change when it comes to their worship style.  It makes some sense.  If you believe that your neighbors are all going to hell and care about them at all, then you'd be willing to do just about anything to get them "saved."  If couching the message in contemporary music and a Jay Leno style worship works, then you do it.  If on the other hand, you do not believe that all of your unchurched neighbors are going to hell, there is a different motivation for what goes on in the life of the church.  All too often that gets translated as a responsibility to convey some higher culture.  That is the problem with the blogger's recommendations.

It is not the responsibility of the church to teach folk about any type of music and even less is it the responsibility of the church to preserve arts and culture from centuries ago, regardless of the beauty of those arts.  Likewise, it is not the responsibility of the church to make judgements regarding the relative value of different styles of music.  While I agree that music is extremely important in the life of a church, its role there is not a central one.  It is supportive.

I have served three churches, two of which had pipe organs and one of which was a very significant instrument.  I have worked with stellar organists and have been deeply moved by some of their performances.  I have also seen significant amount of church resources go into organ maintenance when there were other issues that I judged as being more important to the overall ministry of the church that were ignored.  Personally, I do not experience the presence of God in organ music, listening to a church choir, or a hand bell choir.

Let me address her four recommendations individually. 

1.  Is it sad that young people don't have an appreciation of much of the serious music from our past?  Yes.  (FWIW, my bachelors degree is in music)  Fixing that issue is not the job of the church.  It belongs to schools.  By all means encourage music education, but put it where it belongs.

2. Yes, prioritize music in congregations and spend enough money to make sure the music is done well.  Music is important in our culture.  But remember the role of music in the church.  It is there to help people to experience the presence of God.  It is not the role of the church to preserve the popular culture from previous centuries in Europe.

3.  Unfortunately, waiting for people to become more aware of unfamiliar and unappreciated music styles is not a possibility for the church.  People will leave for churches where they can experience music they already find meaningful... or jettison church altogether.  They are not there to receive a cultural education... they are there to experience the presence of God.

4. Here we agree... more or less.  There is nothing like live music, but music in the church is not about performance, it is about participation. 

So, unless your congregation is one that is showing by the attendance numbers that it deeply appreciates the organ, dump it.  And more than that, dump all of those vestiges of a different age so that the church, especially the mainline and progressive churches, can speak a message which the larger culture can hear.  I believe in the good news.  I believe a progressive gospel message is needed in our broken and fragmented world.  An organ along with those practices and ideas from a past long gone, in almost all instances, only keep that message from being heard.

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