Rethinking Church: How much is too much?

I’m reading a book right now that I don’t really like, but I’m making myself finish it because it’s important to fully understand a position with which you disagree.

The book is From Memory to Imagination: Reforming the Church’s Music, by C. Randall Bradley.

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The author makes several detailed and valid arguments to begin with, which can be summarized as the following:

1. There are two critical influences on our vision of music: memory and imagination. Both are essential to our understanding of music, and our growth as musicians and as Christians.

-Memory forms the basis of our faith; if we do not rely on our memory, we have a structurally weak faith.

-Imagination is our way of trusting God to do work in the future, rather than limiting Him to our memories of what He’s done in the past.

And so, in any consideration of appropriate church music, both memory and imagination need to be recognized and taken into account. The church needs to remember its roots, and the amazing spiritual experiences facilitated by music in the past, but also trust that God can work those same (or even better) experiences in the present and the future if we permit ourselves to grow as musicians and as a singing congregation.

2. The church’s music has stagnated in a fast-changing world. In addition, the church’s failure to acknowledge the desire for stylistic diversity within the past 50 years has only increased its current resistance to change. Churches that have finally “gotten with the program” over the past 10 years have often found that it’s too little, too late.

– The 1950’s were the years of academia, proper hymns, choral literature, well-crafted sermons, and it was a major push for more musical participation by all members of the church. This is the era to which many churches still cling.

– The 1960’s found themselves the years of the “church basement”, where young people started the first concept of a Christian rock band. While it was adopted into youth choirs, it was largely ignored by the civilized churchgoers.

– The 1970’s was the start of the “praise and worship music” movement, and yet most churches still resisted.

– The 1980’s church decided that this music was just a passing fad, and that we should keep with the “old standards”.

-The 1990’s church finally realized that this “young people’s” music wasn’t going away, so they should probably look into it. Coincidentally, at this same time there was a growth movement that Bradley characterizes as a “worship as the front door of the church” mentality: we need to hook them in with worship and then our church will grow. In my experience, this is still the mentality of all the churches where I’ve worked over the past 14 years. The issue with this, of course, is that the theology of the music matters less and less as we become more absorbed with its flash and sizzle, and over the years our music becomes more diluted and less meaningful.

The 2000’s, according to Bradley, is when some churches have finally begun to recognize the cultural shift of postmodernism, and making the painful adaptations that are necessary to survival. The premise of this book is that not enough churches are adapting quickly enough, and Bradley sets out to change that.

3. He also sets out an honest diagnostic of the roots of the church’s conflicts and issues, including: denial, provincialism, posturing, control, and power struggles. None of these can be argued with, but I do take issue with his tendency to accuse musicians of fighting for control over the music program for control’s sake. It doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind that perhaps trained musicians hesitate in giving executive control to church staff or congregants who are only familiar with a half-dozen hymns. Nope, it’s definitely all about control.

4. When identifying culprits, he also makes some astute observations: the church is faced with a dearth of new quality music, but has historically shunned any music outside of the tradition, refusing to recognize the benefits of a diversity of musical styles and even calling some music “evil”; Christian artists have to play to marketers, which naturally waters down some theology; and society has become accustomed to musical performances and the practice of worshipping the musician has seeped into church. None of this can be argued with, either.

 

Now, he’s set his premises, and they are generally sound, though I mildly disagree with some of his editorializing. He doesn’t present anything, at this point, that hasn’t been covered in several dozen books over the past decade. Perceptive church musicians have seen the writing on the wall for years, and it’s become ever more obvious as the years go on: churches are on the decline from their (modern-day) peak of the 1950’s. No one can say exactly why, and music is a common target because it holds the people’s passions, though personally I’d direct my attentions more toward the self-esteem generation and the accompanying unwillingness of churches to take unpopular Christian positions for fear of offending people, or because what Jesus asked of us is generally uncomfortable or difficult. You shouldn’t doubt that this is also an issue the church faces, but if you do, consider how astonished the world was that Pope Francis touched the face of a horribly disfigured man a few months ago. If Christians were doing their jobs, his actions would not have been newsworthy, they would have been just another Christian doing what those weird Christians do, loving people and stuff. But I’m not writing a book about it, so what do I know? 🙂

At any rate, back at the top of this thing I mentioned disagreeing with him, and you’re probably wondering when that happened. Well, here you go.

So he continues with his diagnosis of what’s wrong with the church, and it seems that it’s time for him for a three-pronged attack on preaching, music programs, and hymnals for the following reasons, many of which apply to two or all three: it’s based on power, it’s leader-centered, it’s not multi-sensory, it’s male-dominated, it’s elitist, it’s non-communal, it’s performance-driven, it’s commercial, and it’s denominational.

My first reaction to these criticisms is this: when I can start attending a church where the congregants have each spent 7 years of their lives in seminary, studying theological concepts, discerning the difference between Calvinist and Armenianist beliefs (and why our church is the latter) not to mention the original Greek and Hebrew texts, then I’ll enthusiastically support a “discussion” format to a service where “community input” is encouraged. Until then, I’d prefer to go to a “leader-centered”, “non-communal”, “elitist” church and listen to the guy who actually knows what he’s talking about. Likewise with music (but I’m biased on that count, considering the degree program I’m currently pursuing).

These arguments seem to join a pattern that has been running rampant in our culture, that of an aversion to the opinions of those with higher education or with an expert title. Part of the ramifications of the self-esteem culture is that anyone can say “but this is how I feeeeeel” and expect it to be as respected an opinion as the man or woman who has devoted an entire life to the study of a particular subject. I don’t want that cultural degradation to seep into my church, so give me the educated leader over the misguided masses any day of the week, but especially on Sundays.

Along those same lines, I don’t particularly agree with the assertion that additional education makes one “elitist”. I could go on and present an alternate view of each one of these criticisms, which he fails to do in his book presumably because those differing opinions are more persuasive than the narrow views he’s chosen for the sake of his book. However, I’ll just address one more. Regarding the criticism of the pastor and music director being church leaders, I wish I could ask the author- have you ever accomplished anything by committee? Besides the havoc that would wreak on the structure of a music program, not to mention the unavoidable dearth of musical education among the committee members, and the general headless-chicken sense that would come of a music program without a vision, he fails to acknowledge a rather important question: why is having a leader such a bad thing anyway? If I weren’t a Christian and went to visit a church, I would approach the pastors or the elders/deacons for more information about the church. If I wanted to join a church’s choir, I’d talk to the music director. Someone has to be in charge, setting a vision, organizing the troops… and why is that suddenly undesirable?

Without a satisfactory answer to that question, I’ve now reached the point where he begins to make suggestions for how all of these should be remedied. Reviewing the table of contents, it looks like I can expect some more misguided church analyses… and when I do, I’ll resume sassing the author while I read, and probably come back here to vent about unanswered questions and illogical conclusions unsupported by shaky premises.

For the record, if you think I’m wrong, and you agree with him more than me, by all means let me know 🙂

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