I recently read David Robertson’s review of Leonard Cohen’s latest album ‘You want it darker’ in which he states the record to be the “best Christian album by a non-Christian I have heard.” Views on the record itself aside it made me think on the state of Christian music and art. Christians themselves have the potential to be perfectly competent musicians much the same as anybody else. In some ways I think our music outside the church has been improving in recent years. Yet our churches and services are increasing occupied by a form of music that is, at times, resource intensive to create but also thoroughly unoriginal, safe and engaging with only a limited spectrum of human emotions.

The subject of music and art in general has proven a favourite punching bag for many Christians for years now. Often under the pretext of a preference for a particular musical style. It is a conversation we have in isolation and what tends to happen is probably a result of many churches simply trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator in terms of style and substance. A combination of choice afforded by the free market inspires change and churn but that same choice invites a divisiveness that avoids anything too outside what we’re already familiar with. One writer I came across when reading into this highlights this issue perfectly. One US church was so big that they had several different venues to cater to different worship styles, the sermon was then broadcast to all the different venues simultaneously. We might think this is problematic, but really its not all that different to smaller churches offering varying worship styles across different services. We want to give people, understandably, something they can engage with when it comes to music in church.

The advantage of music outside of church is that, most of the time, its written by an individual for their own ends. They’re at liberty to do whatever they want musically (unless signed to a big publisher) and the venues in which its listened to can vary massively (or be entirely absent). The audience for this chooses to listen to the music in question, so presumably they’ll like it. Church music is music for a specific time, context, place and purpose. The purpose itself has many variations each depending on the theology of the church answering the question. It is music directed towards God in worship, but its also music that says something about us too. Our culture, beliefs, resources, priorities and bodies all come into play and inform the shape the music takes.

Regardless of what you think about it Christian music that focuses on the voice alone is arguably one of the more indiscriminate and traditional forms of church music. Forms of this music include plainsong but also music from the sacred harp folk traditions. In the time before microphones, for any large body of people this was realistically the only option available outside of a performance setting. Yet we don’t live in this age now and the impact of modern technology is something hard to deny in church. Not everyone has a microphone and the decision to introduce it to church I imagine was something done relatively innocuously and yet probably had very far reaching implications.

Yet even before the introduction of things like microphones, earlier Christians took consideration of the kind of sounds they made. Emphasising some and omitting others, choirs are an obvious example and architecture another perhaps less obvious one. Older churches were designed specifically to curate certain kinds of sounds. This suggests the idea that the music used in churches was to be done in the context of services forming a composite of architecture, art and people. This sort of attention to detail is something we lack today even with the most glamorous contemporary churches. The experience of this music was that it wasn’t music alone but became something more with the compounding of all these other elements. Yet it also suggests that contemporary attempts to enhance environments through music and other means during corporate worship are nothing new. A smoke machine is perhaps a poor form of secularised censer.

All of this leaves me wondering if our current relationship with music in church is because, when we talk about music, we’re talking about it in the contemporary sense of the word. Music today is played or recorded often without context or one that is not native to church services. That isn’t to say this is bad nor good (although I would say all music should have context) but to then appropriate this style is to divorce this music from its original context. The appropriation when subsequently internalised by the church mutates into something that is not quite at home in its original role but remains out of sorts for the life of the church. This isn’t to condemn instruments, techniques or genres but rather to let us appreciate music in its appropriate contexts. When we treat church music as synonymous with the uses and applications of secular music, church music will always fall short. Even church music is perhaps too crude a word, as the church is broader than its services. Even by secular I mean music literally for purposes other than that of church services.

Perhaps an aspect of our difficulty or animosity when it comes to discussing music in church is our abandonment of liturgical patterns and church calendars divorcing us from contexts the church has otherwise been familiar largely since its conception. We have no shared frame of reference to draw from outside our own microclimates. Part of worship is a collective stating of ‘who we are’ and I believe an argument exists for consistency in our worship as a result. If the early church worshiped in a particular fashion, perhaps theres an argument there – because we want to be drawn together across time in not just theological convictions but in practice, the two are linked after all. Preference is fine but our singing is more than worship just as worship is more than singing.

What do you think? In my own thinking I’ve found myself having gone from leading worship in church to years later being unable to participate in a band due to my uncertainty regarding the role music is pragmatically serving in many services today. I don’t dismiss or denigrate others if they differ in their views on this, I still sing as a congregant, I just think this is something I am currently revising my views on.

One thought on “Thoughts on music in church

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