71 Further thoughts on Christian music

One of the things I have learnt from Chris in our conversations is the incredible importance given to contemporary popular music by many conservative churches across the world. As an individual reared in the music of Tallis, Bach and Stanford, it would not occur to me to attend a church where I was regaled every week by music with a mesmerising beat. And yet, I have to recognise that the popular style of Christian music, influenced by contemporary pop music, is far more the norm than the pale imitations of cathedral music that I have encouraged in my churches over the years. Rick Warren, the influential writer of The Purpose Driven Church was asked if he would do things differently if he were to start all over again. His answer is striking. He said ‘I’d put more energy and money into a first class music ministry .. I made the mistake of underestimating the power of music so I minimised the use of music in our services. I regret that now.’ In talking about music, Warren was not referring to hymns or Taize choruses but to the loud beat driven music of the contemporary music scene, albeit with Christian words.   The extensive influence of Warren’s words on this subject mean that Christian leaders all over the world are following him in providing a plentiful supply of popular music dressed up as Christian worship.

To write this post, I am allowing myself to be in part guided by a book sitting on my shelves called Why I left the Contemporary Christian Music movement by Dan Lucarini. His is a story of first involvement and then gradual disillusionment with the Christian music scene in the States. His theological perspective is a fairly conservative one but I can respect some of the biblical issues he raises in his questioning. He first asks the question ‘What is worship?’   In answering this question, he draws attention to the fact that the Greek word for worship, proskuneo, means to kiss like a dog licking his master’s hand. I have to confess that this is for me a completely new insight but the important idea is that of obeisance or reverence before someone of power. Implicit in this word is the idea that we come to God with nothing of our own. Lucarini contrasts this idea of human abasement with the fashion for feeling good about oneself that seems to pervade much modern worship. He says ‘worship is not looking up and feeling good, it is bowing down and feeling lowly.’ The word ‘fear’ needs to be reinstated in its proper meaning of awe and holy veneration rather a sense of dread of eternal punishment. These two words, holiness and awe might well provide a summary of the direction we wish to aim at when we seek to introduce people to the heart of worship, with or without the aid of music.

The problem for Lucarini is that churches the world over have been seduced by the mantra that the only way of bringing people into church is to offer them a musical culture that they are already familiar with. The common denominator is popular music which will always have a good rhythm and probably a repetitive melody. Pop music, otherwise called ‘rock and roll’ is, for Lucarini, a dangerous container for Christian teaching. The very expression ‘rock and roll’ is slang for sexual activity and the music itself is designed to arouse a variety of emotions, not all of which can be said to be wholesome or edifying. As someone who will not enter a shop or supermarket which tolerates ‘piped’ music, I am not the best person to judge whether Lucarini is right or not over the corrupting influence of certain forms of music. I find his arguments interesting and worthy of an airing. Because of my tastes in music, I have always been afraid that my indifference or dislike of pop music was based on my some form of musical snobbery. It is therefore interesting to read of the case against such music in church being made, not on aesthetic but on moral grounds.

One issue that Lucarini raises, which is familiar to every church goer, is that of splits when new musical traditions are brought into churches. The modernisers all too easily characterise the traditionalists as ignoring a movement of the Spirit. Many Christian leaders will make the decision that a new musical style makes the loss of traditional members a sacrifice worth making. A parallel mini revolution is going on in Anglican congregations across the country and this concerns the replacement of ‘ministry’ with ‘mission’. What this means in practice is that the pastoral needs of the old and the sick are sidelined in favour of new and often untried methods of attracting new potential members into the church building. This may include a revolution in styles of music.   Clergymen of my generation do not understand the changing priorities of a new generation of ministers who, in many places, seem to have retreated from many of the mainstays of parochial ministry. These included faithful pastoral care, teaching and the support of individuals from birth to death. The introduction of new music is perhaps one way that an untidy shift towards ‘mission’ is taking place. Sadly this has left casualties, and hurt, abandoned faithful Christian people are pushed to the sidelines and sometimes feel it necessary to leave their churches after many decades of faithful membership.

For me, an older clergyman with conservative musical tastes, it is good to read that there are younger people who express what we secretly feel but do not articulate, namely that some styles of music are spiritually harmful. My own objections to ‘pop’ styles of music are probably nothing to do with the issue of causing sexual arousal, as Lucarini would claim. The objections have far more to do with an intolerance for loud noise and the inappropriateness of such sound for the business of worship. Lucarini touches a very good point when he talks about the modern tendency to project God as being like a mate, rather than the object of awe and wonder which is as he presented by the Bible and Christian tradition. Both the lyrics of songs and the sometimes seductive lilt of the melodies do suggest a relationship that is some way from reminding us of the majesty and awe of God. The idea that music contributes to a generally looser style of morals and relationships in a congregation is not an idea I have heard before but it certainly requires some pondering.

I have included these notes about the experience of one Christian writer on the worship music scene as it resonates with some deeply felt concerns that Chris has expressed. I hope that my readers will add their own thoughts. If some Christian music is even slightly harmful, as Lucarini claims, then that is a matter of enormous concern to our attempt to understand and interpret the face of Christianity today, especially in its conservative manifestations.

8 comments

  1. Chris Pitts

    Godless boring repetitious.
    I was once a ‘Christian rocker’ it held me in its power for many years. It was an illusion. It is an illusion. It (Christian music) is now a thriving industry that rivals that of the secular music industry. The inverted concentration on ‘me’ and ‘my selfish salvation’ has put a focus on ‘worship’ that cripples the thought process.
    It has led to an indifference to pastoral care and community responsibility.

    I have written about this and have a CD that charts my experience (Broken Body and Surviving) chris-mary@skylash.freeserve.co.uk

    What Stephen has said in the above article cuts at the heart of one of the greatest issues ever to have threatened the Christian faith.

    I stand by everything I have formally said on this issue. Chris Pitts

  2. Robert Jeffery

    I remember when I was first ordained touring Church Youth clubs in Co Durham with a portable gramophone giving a talk entitled “Rhythm in Religion”.Some of us had been influenced by the 20th Century Church Music group headed up by Geoffrey Beaumont and Patrick Appleford. There was both interest and concern when the BBC televised their 20th Century Mass, with a jazz band. But my talk also included Britten’s Missa Brevis. The interaction of Church and Culture is very complex and we do need to let people worship in ways that help them. At the same time the repetitive beats and repetitive words (often combined with dubious theology) does had a bad hypnotic effect. Some of it relates to motive, well expressed by a preacher at an Ordination in Christ Church Oxford, two years ago, when he said”Most contemporary worship is for the entertainment of the congregation and the edification of God”!

  3. English Athena

    Well, where to begin? For many evangelicals, including trained clergy, the word “worship” is synonymous with music. The “worship leader” is the leader of the music group. I would say that in a sense it doesn’t matter which style of music you prefer, but it does matter if you’re the kind of cleric who will not thank God for what you have, but always wants what God has not sent you. An organist, if you fancy a music group, or a brilliant guitarist if you are looking for an organist. Also, the music should be of a high standard. There is no excuse for offering less than your best to God. I understand the subliminal effects of a driving beaton the psyche, but I don’t object to it, as long as it’s not all that’s on offer. I value silence a great deal. And it’s funny (not!) how a new curate will say, “Why upset people by changing the hymns they love?” and then when she becomes the incumbent, insist on her choice, whether the congregation can sing it or not. Give people unlimited power! And, yes, I have noticed how clergy don’t think they are called to love and serve the people they have. Especially if they’re elderly ladies. What use is a modern rock song to them, even if it’s well done? I wouldn’t go to a church with an unremitting diet of driving rock, anymore than I would go to a church with an unremitting diet of Wesley, which I love, or nothing but a Sunday morning concert as you get in some Cathedrals where it’s all about the choir.

  4. English Athena

    We’re moving, and will have no internet for about six weeks. Longer if the plans to buy don’t work out! Best wishes all, see you later.

  5. Chris Pitts

    The Church is supposed to be the place where the Spirit of God Dwells.
    Is that true or false?
    What do you mean by ‘Good Music’? It is all down to personal interpretation.
    I have never known a group of people shoot themselves in the foot with such success as those who continue this hernia of the ear drum crap.

    Those involved with the theatre of praise music or Christian rock will continue to worship their own conclusions. Middle class mummy and daddy, who want to see their son or daughter play flute or drums in the praise band, will of course not want to think of the greater implications.

    Celebrity ‘Christians’ will distance themselves from ‘the fans’ the worship band will invert into its own inner sanctuary.

    Chris Pitts will continue to see people pointing to their temples as they pass by the door!

    Wake up FOR CHRIST’S SAKE

  6. Dick Davies

    Like Chris I am deeply suspicious of the praise band scene. I have to say however that I find music helpful in worship. And I am a proud dad of a guitar strumming worship leader. (Thankfully he is not a superstar in anything but my and his kid’s head!). So I find myself torn.
    Musical tastes divide. I was just enjoying some personal worship to Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars”. I also love the Messiah (with a small orchestra and chorus).
    Music with good lyrics has been very influential to me (Go Chris!!)
    But I hate what it has done to the market-led church.

  7. Chris Pitts

    In the final end it comes down to this question: ‘Do we care about how the outsiders perceive us?’ We fill church’s and fellowships with people who believe ‘God is good for you’. The outsider sees no spiritual reality only a theatre. They are left with a ‘take it or leave it’ choice. Where do they go after that, the Samaritans? They were engaged last night when I rang them!

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