It is not my purpose in this article to cast moral judgment on contemporary Christian music. What I hope to show, rather, is a musician’s perspective on how a trend toward contemporary Christian music affects a church and its worship service. The last two times I’ve been to Loma Linda University Church, the worship service has been led by younger people, and all of the songs that they chose would fit into the contemporary Christian genus. Up until very recently, LLUC sung primarily hymns during church. (They might go back to hymns next week—two Sabbaths is not a statistically significant sample.) I believe that the atmosphere of the worship service and the reaction of the church to the songs and the song leaders are instructive, particularly because the congregation was not used to such worship services. (Only the style was unfamiliar. The songs chosen were known by all, young and old, and the words were on the screen.) Just to clarify, the music was not loud, nor was it accompanied by drums.
The most obvious change from previous Sabbaths was that the congregation barely sang. There were people quietly mumbling along, but very few people engaged in any of the songs, and many of the people politely did nothing. There are various reasons for this, having to do with both the song leaders and the music.
First, the musicians almost always treat this type of song service as a performance. The people that wrote many of these songs wrote them for the purpose of performing them at their Christian Rock concerts, and the song leaders have carried on the tradition of performing on stage. The problem with this is that performance is diametrically opposed to congregational worship. When one has the attitude of a performer, he or she seeks to become the center of the audience’s attention, rather than leading the congregation to focus its attention on God. The difference can be quite subtle. It is possible to be a humble and soft-spoken performer, and still fail to focus the audience’s attention on God.
The music itself has characteristics that inhibit people from engaging in worship as well. The first has to do with the intellectual level of the music. When I teach a child to play the piano, the first thing they learn is to play a single melody line. A short while later, they learn to add simple chords to the melody line. In a few more days or weeks (if they practice), they are playing songs that contain simultaneous melodic lines in both hands (think of simple works by J. S. Bach). Eventually, the students move on to three- and four-part works of ever increasing complexity (think of “O Sacred Head” or “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light”). These songs actually have four simultaneous lines of music. Each line has a melodic beauty of its own, and together they form a work of sublime harmonic beauty and interest. When a person has grown up singing hymns, they have been educated in an art form that calls forth the higher levels of intellectual appreciation and aesthetic response. The bulk of contemporary Christian music is stuck at the second stage of music education that I listed above—simple melodies accompanied by simple chords. I think that one of the main reasons hymn-singing congregations feel uncomfortable with contemporary Christian music is that it pulls them back to their second month of childhood music lessons. As an analogy, think how a congregation would feel if a visiting pastor got up to preach a sermon, and started acting out the cradle roll lesson with a perfectly straight face.
A related problem is that the song leaders often pick keys that are too high or too low for some of the people in the congregation. This can be a problem with hymns, too, but when a church sings hymns out of the hymnal, there is a ready solution: sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses each have their own part written out for them. One might think I’m asking too much of congregations here, but I know from much experience that there are very few people in the world who cannot learn to sing well, and most people who do not think they have much musical talent can actually learn to sing in parts with a few years of practice. (It really can take a few years.)
This brings me to an educational consideration. At the academy I attended, we sang hymns and choral songs for several hours a week. Choir was mandatory, and we performed regularly. After a year or two (or occasionally three or four) at the school, most of the students had the capacity to sing well as part of a group and had learned to enjoy singing. Every time we sang, the church rang with rich four-part harmony. When it came to learning new songs, there were enough good readers in the church to carry most any hymn on the first or second run through. All of this was accomplished mostly by mere exposure to the music, rather than dedicated attempts by the faculty to educate us in music.
On the contrary, I’ve noticed that the trappings of contemporary Christian music generally correlate with an overall decline in the musical ability of congregations. The first problematic characteristic of the contemporary style of worship is the movement away from hymnals and written music, which is related to the educational problems mentioned above. This virtually guarantees complete musical illiteracy in all the members of the congregation that do not actively seek out a musical education elsewhere. The second such characteristic is the move away from traditional instruments like the piano and the organ, which are more conducive to a higher level of musical education than guitars or drums, and are much better for leading congregations in four-part harmony. These factors combine to make learning new music cumbersome and limit the complexity of the new songs that are introduced.
Finally, I have noticed that there is an inverse relationship between the volume coming from the stage and the volume of the audience’s singing. The obvious reason is that most full-fledged contemporary Christian praise services are so loud that they do not allow anyone to really hear his or her own voice. In this setting, people feel that they are not contributing to the worship service by singing. The result is that very few people even try to compete with the sound system. On many occasions, I’ve witnessed the congregation spontaneously start singing when the band cut out for a few bars, only to stop and settle back into audience mode when the band came back in.
Supporters of contemporary worship often object that young people will not come to church or get involved with the worship service if we do not play contemporary Christian music. Music appreciation, however, is primarily an issue of education. I have, at various times in my life, appreciated nearly every musical style invented since the dawn of Western musical notation back in the Dark Ages, including modern classical music that very few people can tolerate for more than a few seconds. (In fact, I wrote a thesis on such music.) As I mentioned above, contemporary Christian music is more accessible to those with a very limited musical education, but the fact that it does not seek to improve the musical education of the congregation is a fatal flaw. Singing beautifully as a congregation requires some education and effort. We should, as congregations, strive to make beautiful singing a reality, and in so doing, we will bring up our children to appreciate music of the highest quality.