Why We May Have Already Won the Music Wars

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The CCM Bandwagon

Conservatism, by definition, is slow to change. In fact, conservatives are downright stick-in-the-muds when it comes to certain core beliefs and, in my view, rightly so. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to value change as the summum bonum—the Supreme Good. The change they seek rarely comes from a fresh, critical analysis of where the religious world might be going wrong with respect to God’s word. Instead, it’s all about keeping up with the Pastor Joneses. The latest fad down the road becomes the Next Big Thing, with the Community Church movement being but the latest example.

History has not been kind to bandwagons, let alone what God might have to say on these matters. Our own innovators have tended to jump on board just as their denominational counterparts are fleeing like rats from a sinking ship. The Crossroads movement is a classic case in point.

The Community Church movement aims to make our worship services “seeker friendly.” We achieve that, so the market surveys and focus groups tell us, by adapting our worship forms and practices to people who are essentially “unchurched” and seeking a place to scratch their spiritual itches. This need will not be met, so we are told, if our visitors are expected to sing unfamiliar songs in four-part a cappella harmony. Their postmodern, consumer-driven sensibilities must be served by solos (often sung by women), quartets, choirs and, most recently, bands playing full-out “contemporary Christian music” (often at a Saturday evening “alternate” worship service).

We know this is a bad idea. We have known it’s a bad idea for a very long time. The music of the New Testament church was offered with the voice alone, and was something in which the entire congregation participated (Ephesians 5:19). Despite rapid changes in the post-apostolic era, a cappella singing (meaning, literally, “of the chapel”) was the dominant form of sacred music up to and including the sixteenth century.

After enduring decades of ridicule from our religious neighbors (“Oh, you are the weirdos who don’t use instruments”), and now our own brethren, there are denominationalists who are finally saying “Enough is enough.” Don’t get me wrong: we are not about to witness a mass defection of Baptist music directors. What we are seeing, however, is considerable debate about the place of entertainment-oriented praise music. People are asking themselves, “Why can’t I participate in worship by singing songs? Why do they have to be sung for and to me?” There is skepticism, also, about the value of making supposedly sacred music sound exactly like the current Top 40. It is one thing for Creed and Evanescence to sneak on to the pop charts with thinly-veiled spiritual messages; it is quite another matter to replace the music of the church with thinly-veiled spiritual messages.

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We’re Not Alone

This disagreement has risen to the level of cultural warfare. It has broken out all over the place. It is not merely academic. It is not a small skirmish here and there, or confined to one denomination or even one segment of “Christendom.” These battles have coalesced into what denominationalists are calling the Music Wars.

The most cause for concern has emerged among what might be considered “mainline” denominations. These groups have had a long history of compromise, and yet there are those among their number who think that a certain threshold may have been crossed. They fear that too much of the spiritual and doctrinal store may have been given away in an effort to reach anyone and everyone from a population that knows, or cares, little about the denomination’s traditions and “distinctives.”

Carl Schalk, a well-known professor of music in the Lutheran world, criticized “calls for a more pragmatic, consumer-oriented worship and church music” as being “more concerned with sociology and psychology than with theology” (Christian Century, March 21-28. 1990). He goes on to say that these changes in worship styles are not “theologically neutral.” In other words, the question of how we worship cannot be separated from the question of Who we worship.

Similar complaints are being heard among Catholics. Lucy Carroll observes that music in most parishes is straying away from “active participation” by all members. Further, the kind of music being heard in the Church just doesn’t sound like it belongs in the Church. “If it sounds like a Broadway ballad,” she says, “it belongs on Broadway, not the altar. If it sounds like a ‘golden oldie’, sing it at home. If it stirs feelings of a non-sacred nature, it does not belong in a sacred place. If [it] sounds like a rock group or a mariachi band, then it may be fine for entertainment at the parish picnic or in the gym, but not at Mass, and not in the temple wherein the Sacrifice of Calvary is re-presented” (Adoremus Bulletin, 2003). Of course, we don’t believe that the building itself is a sacred place, but we certainly believe that the people who meet there should be holy, and the way they conduct themselves before the Lord should be reverent in all respects.

Evangelicals also are struggling with contemporary musical forms and practices. In some ways, this is quite surprising. After all, Evangelicals have tended to shun ancient traditions and formal worship styles. Now, however, a few among their number are experiencing those very feelings of a “non-sacred nature” to which Carroll alluded. While watching a recent performance of an attractively dressed, handsome young woman, Steve Hutchens admits that her singing “had a different effect on me than I suspect she thought it would” (Touchstone, May 2004). The song brought him closer to Jesus, he thinks, but only by making him realize the sin of lust that was growing in his own heart. For conscience’s sake he had to avert his eyes until she was finished. Hutchens, an Evangelical, recognizes that these performances are intended to reach the people, but what about those who have been reached already? When do they stop being seekers and start growing up in Christ? He fears that the young woman “displaying herself before the faithful with her sexualized—and hence secularized—religion” symbolizes

…a faith in which the value of worship is measured principally in terms of its ability to excite the worshiper rather than give glory to God, and in which it is assumed that what satisfies the jaded church-attender, always seeking new and heightened religious experience, is what pleases the Lord. It is a faith in which the Scriptures are honored in word, but in which they have always been freely altered, distorted or ignored to meet the changing requirements of an unstable religious culture.

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Above the Fray

Admittedly this is all anecdotal evidence, but the very fact that denominationalists are wringing their hands over the nature of sacred music is reason enough to question the wisdom of certain trends in our own brotherhood. If the wheels are coming off the contemporary music bandwagon in the broader denominational world, then what makes us think that the church of our Lord should jump on board for the ride?

Surely our own music styles and tastes have changed. On any given Sunday we may sing anything from Mosie Lister’s rousing “Where No One Stands Alone,” to the Gregorian “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” No doubt, future editions of our song books will feature new hymns reflecting more contemporary music styles. We may incorporate new technology to raise our heads and our voices from the pages of our books to the open air of the assembly. But none of this need change the congregational, noninstrumental nature of the praise itself.

Those within the church who wish to implement secularized, entertainment-driven performances certainly have denominational numbers on their side. But they are fighting a losing battle. In their headlong rush to join the fray they have failed to see the stream of deserters heading in the other direction. Disenchanted Catholics, Lutherans, Evangelicals and others have seen clearly that worship needs to be offered by all the people, and it needs to rise above the profane.

If we continue to emphasize the true purpose of praise in song, then we have won the Music Wars already. For conservatives, it has not been a matter of organs versus electric guitars, or traditional hymns versus rock songs, or the teachings of a denominational leader versus the findings of a market-research firm. It has not even been about solos versus congregational singing, or instrumental accompaniment versus a cappella. Ultimately, the issue has been whether we were prepared to address God in the way that He wants to be addressed. From the offering of Cain to the strange fire of Nadab and Abihu to the divided communion of the Corinthian church, man has always found a way to satisfy his own needs. But as the saying goes, it’s not all about you, or me. Are we a crucial part of the song service? Of course. Can it produce spiritual growth in our hearts in the hearts of those around us? One would hope so. But those are happy side effects of worship’s true purpose, which is to acknowledge God’s preeminence in all things (Jude 25). Do we pull this off to perfection in every congregation on every Lord’s day? Probably not. But if the struggle is to keep God front and center in our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, then the Church of our Lord is miles above the cultural trench warfare going on in the religious world below. In fine conservative fashion, and for the church’s own good, it should stay right where it is.

[A version of this article appeared in Seek the Old Paths, Vol. 15, No. 7, July 2004.]

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© 2004 – 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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