Year after year the seasons change, and yet the church organ remains the same.

I’ve heard many people in the church (all of them decades older than myself) talk about what we must do to attract “young people” to the church. I keep telling them that excellent organ music is the ticket, but no one seems to take much stock in the opinion of someone in her mid-twenties who adores Bach and Buxtehude 😉

At any rate, a lot of the suggestions center around music. “The current music is too __(insert adjective here)__”: too bland, too traditional, too much organ, not enough piano/guitar, the hymns are inaccessible or stodgy, or too slow or too fast, or the english isn’t commonly spoken english and who says “thou” anymore? I could go on.

To be sure, music is at least half of any worship service. It’s at least as important as the sermon, and when I’m inbetween engagements and am looking for a church to attend as a worshipper, I look for inspired music just as much as I look for engaging sermons. I can write chapters on how effective music can create a worship atmosphere in a way the sermon cannot. Music wraps throughout the service, woven as thread intertwining each different part of the service together. But I’ll stop waxing poetic and summarize in a saying familiar to church musicians everywhere:

No one leaves the sanctuary at the close of worship humming the sermon.

In that one sentence lays the entirety of the musicians’ burden in worship.

And so, in the ever-persistent question among church groups of how to attract and keep members in our increasingly cynical, disillusioned world, music bears the brunt of the accusations of old-fashioned-ness. It is accused of causing and exacerbating the disconnect between what the church is and what it needs to become to adequately serve the modern community.

Today, I read a disturbing article in the Boston Globe, and an eloquent and comprehensive rebuttal by an organist at Juilliard. I recommend you read both in their entirety, but I will only be quoting from the rebuttal, as the clueless “journalist” who wrote the original editorial and her shoddy “facts” don’t deserve the link.

Arising from thoughts on this article and others, there are a few points of contention that I have with those who insist that music is the primary, and usually the only, thing that needs to change to keep a church “relevant”.

1) Those insisting that church music must be modernized are forgetting the past 40 years of the “contemporary Christian music” movement, which brought us a volume of occasionally inspired, and often insipid and theologically-weak music:

The steep decline in church attendance over the past 40-50 years coincides directly with the proliferation of “popular” liturgical music, not with an obstinate commitment to traditional repertories and instruments. Praise bands abound in rural and suburban parishes; music publishers are falling over themselves to turn out indistinguishable anthems, songs, and hymns of light, popular character; most clergy receive almost no training in the traditional repertoires of the Christian church. The goal of all this has been ostensibly to make Christian worship more timely, relevant, and informal, characteristics which, it is presumed, will attract the ever-elusive “young people.” As the statistics demonstrate, however, these efforts have had at best a negligible effect for the so-called “mainline” Christian denominations, whose attendance continues to decline despite efforts to make worship more accessible and less demanding: efforts that go far beyond music and into the core issues of theology and morality.

2) This “contemporary Christian music” insistence is usually made by individuals well in their 40’s and 50’s, who came to age when the movement began and found it personally appealing. To me, their arguments that it will appeal to youth today are suspect. Instead of just suggesting we do what you liked when you were younger, go out and see what youth actually like! You’d be surprised at the number of articles detailing how current 20-30 year olds are increasingly looking for ritual and tradition in their religious experiences. The rituals have meaning to them, in a way they didn’t to the post-flower-children of the 70’s and 80’s, and the “contemporary” music to them sounds trite and overdone.

3) Pop music gives us the illusion that anyone can sing along with a guitar. They can’t. While it’s indeed portable, it’s one of the more difficult instruments for average people to sing along to; you lose the melody line in all the chords. Who ever thought guitar would be a good substitute for the flexibility of the organ?

4) People like singing songs they know. If we changed that, we’d lose everyone currently attending church. How many “classic rock” stations are on the radio, replaying hits from the Beatles, Hendrix, Queen, the Styx, etc? There are at least 3 in the Richmond area (apparently we need more than one?). Point is, we’re still listening to that iconic music from generations ago. Music can embody emotions, dreams, it can tie in with events in our lives; as the Beatles showed, it can define a generation.

So, Amazing Grace will never go away. Neither will A Mighty Fortress. And a lot of the older hymns, while they may have awkward words, hold a lot of comfort for those who know them. I get emotional whenever I sing or play the Methodist hymn “Shalom to You”, because we sang it at the close of every service at the church where I grew up, reaching across the aisles and holding hands with our neighbors as we sang. I loved every minute of it as a kid, and the hymn brings back vivid memories of goofing off with my Dad during the hymn introduction.

And if we’re honest, none of us really want those hymns to go away. We would feel like outcasts in our own church if we tried to do away with all of the music that we loved. So why are we trying to?

5) Music is, at the end of the day, only a vessel within the service. Music serves many functions; it can tell the stories of Jesus, it can illustrate ideas in the Bible, it can be centering, focusing music (a prelude), it can be a joyful statement of our faith (hymn of the day), it can show us the community we have as a congregation gathering for worship (opening hymn), it can inspire us to leave worship and carry our faith into the world and our communities (closing hymn).

But without an underlying theology, the music is no more than window dressings of the church. The music reinforces the theology, it illustrates the teaching of the Word, it consecrates the Meal, and it inspires the soul.

Before a church begins changing everything it does, it needs to have a frank conversation about what cannot be changed:

…suffice it to say that you are not the first to have the the idea that traditional music should be banished, and that its relatively systematic application over the past 40-50 years has failed to bear any fruit other than the general feeling among young people that religion should adapt to the fashions of the day, rather than hold fast to temporally immutable truth.

And that brings us to point #6:

Why are we worrying so much about keeping church “relevant” in the first place?

Relevant to what? To whom? Was Jesus worried that his teachings wouldn’t be “relevant” or fashionable to the people of his time? Or did he just teach the truth? Maybe we should be less focused on changing and being “relevant”, and focus more on teaching God’s Word to this cynical world. In my experience, there is little that “young people” find more refreshing and novel than pure, unadulterated honesty, regardless of the consequences. Instead of gimmicks like “praise music” and guitars, let’s try some radical, honest Christianity.

So sure, some people don’t personally enjoy listening to the organ very much. I get that– I know many lovely, excellent saxophone players, but I personally don’t particularly enjoy the body of work they usually recital from. But there are many reasons that the organ has lasted hundreds of years as a primary church instrument, while other minor fad instruments have faded away. And there is serious consideration that needs to be made before focusing all of the attentions of a dying church on solely changing the music program. Maybe it’s because the theology has been watered down over the years and needs to be refreshed and refocused. Maybe the worship format no longer suits the congregation. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

But I would bet that, 9 times of 10, the reason a church is dying is not due to the organ.

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Hymns for the Aging

Thought some of you might enjoy these Hymns for the Aging:

 

Precious Lord, Take my Hand (And Help Me Get Up)

It is Well with My Soul (but my back hurts)

Nobody Knows the Trouble I have Seeing

Amazing Grace (Considering My Age)

Just a Slower Walk With Thee

Count Your Many Birthdays, Name Them One by One

Go Tell It on the Mountain (And Speak Up)

Give Me that Old Timers Religion

Blessed Insurance

Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah (I’ve forgotten where I parked)

 

c/o http://www.cybersalt.org, a comedy website run by a Canadian Pastor.

Eternal Father, Strong To Save

This upcoming Sunday we’ll be singing a hymn familiar to all, especially those who served in our country’s navy. The song known to United States Navy men and women as the “Navy Hymn,” is a musical benediction that long has had a special appeal to seafaring men, particularly in the American Navy and the Royal Navies of the British Commonwealth and which, in more recent years, has become a part of French naval tradition.

The original words were written as a hymn by a schoolmaster and clergyman of the Church of England, the Rev. William Whiting. Rev. Whiting (1825-1878) resided on the English coast near the sea and had once survived a furious storm in the Mediterranean. His experiences inspired him to pen the ode, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” In the following year, 1861, the words were adapted to music by another English clergyman, the Rev. John B. Dykes (1823-1876) , who had originally written the music as “Melita” (ancient name for the Mediterranean island of Malta). Rev. Dykes’ name may be recognized as that of the composer given credit for the music to many other well-known hymns, including “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Lead, Kindly Light,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and “Nearer, My God to Thee.”

In the United States, in 1879 the late Rear Adm. Charles Jackson Train, an 1865 graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis was a lieutenant commander stationed at the Academy in charge of the Midshipman Choir. In that year, Lt. Comdr. Train inaugurated the present practice of concluding each Sunday’s Divine Services at the Academy with the singing of the first verse of this hymn.

The hymn, entitled “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” is found in most Protestant Hymnals. One will find that the verses as now published differ from the original primarily in the choice of one or two words in several lines of each verse. However, inasmuch as it is not known whether the original words are now available in a hymnal, those original words are given below:

Eternal Father, Strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid’st the mighty Ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to thee,
for those in peril on the sea.

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walked’st on the foaming deep,
and calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee,
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

Our sermon text for next Sunday morning is Mark 10:35-45, and is familiar to us as the text where James and John ask Jesus to prepare places for them in glory, and Jesus replies to all the disciples: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This text, among many others in the scriptures, reminds us of what we should be proud; of what we should covet; and of what we should prize. Glory on earth, and pride of earthly accomplishments, earthly belongings, and all of the rewards that come with them, make it nearly impossible to achieve glory on heaven. And since we know that this life is fleeting, and heaven is eternal, where ought our hearts, minds, and efforts be focused?

I love how this hymn illuminates this lesson for us. This hymn is one of many written while the author was experiencing or had just overcome a time of great distress, and their faith during their difficult trials can be very moving for us as modern-day Christians, and can help remind us of whom we ought to call upon when we face trials of our own.

(history source: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq53-1.htm)

How Can I Keep From Singing?

The hymn How Can I Keep from Singing first appeared in an 1869 collection of Sunday School songs, entitled Bright Jewels. The Rev. Robert Lowry had written the music, and it’s believed that Anna Bartlett Warner, who used the pen name Amy Lothrop, wrote the original words. Anna also wrote the words to the well-loved Sunday School song that begins, “Jesus loves me, this I know . . . ”

Anna’s father was Henry Warner, a wealthy New York City lawyer, who lost most of his fortune in the 1837 depression. The family moved to their summer home (Good Craig) on Constitution Island in the Hudson River. It was there that Anna and her sister Susan began writing books and hymns to earn money. They also conducted Bible classes for cadets at the Military Academy at West Point, which was nearby.

The successful publication of their hymns and books was not enough to eliminate their financial difficulties; they were constantly in debt for most of their lives. How did they manage without losing hope? A friend tells this story of a conversation she once had with Miss Anna:

“One day when sitting with Miss Anna in the old living room she took from one of the cases a shell so delicate that it looked like lace work and holding it in her hand, with eyes dimmed with tears, she said, ‘There was a time when I was very perplexed, bills were unpaid, necessities must be had, and someone sent me this exquisite thing. As I held it I realized that if God could make this beautiful home for a little creature. He would take care of me.’ ”

My life flows on in endless song; Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul– How can I keep from singing?

What tho’ my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho’ the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths, Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his– How can I keep from singing?