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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2 thoughts on “Year after year the seasons change, and yet the church organ remains the same.

  1. Kristen – This was a very interesting essay on church music styles! I concur with you about music being a vital part of the worship experience. Thank you for inspiring us to do our best to bring glory to God through our voices as we present anthems and lead hymns in worship. Helen

  2. Excellently articulated points. As a fellow organist, I’ve heard many of the same complaints, and haven’t been able to convince them of otherwise. So many churches seem so ready to abandon the wonderful hymns that so many of us have grown up with, which is just so sad. But that’s just the opinion of someone who enjoys the hymns and the organ music. Again, excellently articulated.

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