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.