Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Fed Up with Being Fed Up with Bad Church Music

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena when it comes to music…people seem to think that if they happen to like one particular style better than another, it behooves them to belittle the form that they don’t like. It can’t just be a matter of different tastes; one has to be good and the other has to be not worthy of even being considered.

I noticed this many years ago when I was teaching a summer course on web design when Hanson was big. Rather than creating a website about something they liked, the adolescent boys I had worked very hard on an anti-Hanson page. Further back than that, I remember working in Manhattan with someone who adored Springsteen, but reviled Barry Manilow as being “ersatz.” And I have a dear friend who I went to music school with, who hates country and bluegrass music because “her mother didn’t pay all that money for her musical education for her to listen to that crap.”

And into this already sad mix, I saw a link on Facebook a few weeks ago for the group I’m Fed Up with Bad Church Music. I had already let out a long sigh when I saw the name of the group, and then I got more disheartened when I read this partial description of the group:

This group may be for you...

1. If you are of the opinion that Shine Jesus Shine, Here I Am, Lord, etc. are not the most beautiful church songs ever written.

2. If you think the Mass of Creation has had its day.

3. You actually kind of like the idea of singing chant and hymns. Gasp!

4. If you'd rather hear a pipe organ in church than a band or keyboard.

Really? Is this really necessary? Can’t one say that they prefer a certain type of hymnody and liturgical music without saying that everything else is trash?

I got pretty much the same musical education as my friend who looks down her nose at country and bluegrass, and that education enabled me to appreciate the value of all kinds of music…even if it wasn’t a style that I was particularly enamored of.

My first paying job was as a boy soprano at a “high church” Episcopal church of the type that many members of this group either belong to or wish that their church was like; and I can chant with the best of them. But I was also lucky enough to experience all kinds of hymnody and liturgical music as a result of not only being in the choirs of many churches, but of visiting many churches with my friends.

What I learned from this is that there’s a lot out there. There’s a lot of church music out there from all different subcultures and styles, and they all have their place.

That being said, there are many contemporary hymns and pieces of liturgical music that I could live without ever hearing again. But I can also say the same thing about many “traditional” or “classic” pieces of church music. Similarly, there are many pieces of both types of music that I absolutely love.

I don’t make an idol of any one particular style, and am capable of mixing them up. I also believe that to think that God likes one type of church music better than another is the height of arrogance. Can’t we accept the fact that we have a personal preference for one particular type of church music without saying that all other types are holy crap?

And yet, since we went there, I’ll be honest with you…I’m no big fan of Shine, Jesus, Shine either, but I love Here I Am, Lord.

But...my all-time favorite hymn remains In Heavenly Love Abiding, from the venerated 1940 Episcopal Hymnal.

And that's OK. 

Now...can we all just get along now?


  1. Harold David RennieAugust 15, 2017 at 1:45 PM

    As you may know, I grew up with various forms of "contemporary" music in the Roman Catholic church, but also listened to Gregorian Chant. About eight or nine years ago, I joined a Gregorian Chant choir. Our choir director used to run a rock band, and one of our best singers also plays in a praise band at his parish. You'd think that with the diversity of musical backgrounds, there would be an open-mindedness about musical styles. Alas, no. While most of the members enjoy a wide range of music, when it comes to liturgical music, they are closed-minded and sneering. But, since you're good at seeing other peoples' viewpoint, I'll try to tell you why they act this way. They believe that Gregorian Chant is in fact the ancient language of the church and its liturgy. For them, it's not a "style" or a "type of hymnody", it's sung prayer, and that prayer is monophonic, not polyphonic, and played on the organ and harp, not on the guitar and drums. The marketing slogan that I developed for them is "we sing the liturgy, not at the liturgy." They want a standardization of liturgical norms, and Gregorian Chant gives that to them, while contemporary music disrupts all that.

  2. Nice to read other views of church music and that it should be diverse. I've noticed since I became a follower of Christ that music has followed some trends and yet there often appears to be a central core that remains relatively unchanged (certainly in the last 20 years) . It believe worship is sometimes written to make it easier for the church members to be able to sing without struggling with difficult shifting motifs and syncopated lead melodies.

    I am a performing DJ and have been since before I went to University (gotta pay your way somehow). I adore electronic music, specifically deep and soulful 'House'. Additionally I do like many other forms of music both contemporary and classical, that being said, we at our church have recently evolved our band to integrate Cubase and Halion Sonic (a Virtual Studio Technology) along with some decent MIDI controllers/keyboards. Essentially this has greatly increased our sound palette and widened our scope of musical genres that we can perform. We've found that during a quieter section of worship we can use some really wide and ethereal sounding pads (airy, floaty sounds) to create a sonic backdrop, using a LPF (low pass filter) you can really bring a warm, space filling undertone that sits beneath an acoustic guitar or piano. Our drummer is a very canny (accomplished) fella and he uses a full size Roland kit, you can change the sound template for different styles (it has the TR-909 set amongst many others). The bass player will pick up his electric bass and yet he can switch right over to the keyboard and lay down a Moog bass-line groove.

    Ultimately I believe that music is a multi accessible creation and can only have been designed to resonate with us that way. It certainly can be a very powerful vehicle for focusing the mind in prayer and I don't think most believers would have any doubt about that. I do believe that the reference to 'sung prayers' kind of fits into what I know as deep worship, whereas praise is more akin to what may be described as being 'disruptive'. I suppose in king David's era they did make a more noisy form of worship using their instruments and according to the Bible included percussion. David did also play the harp, perhaps he may have done this for more intimate, reflective moments of worship with the Lord.

    Just to mention in closing we apply the new technology instruments to our once a month evening service, all are welcome and yet it is primarily presented to young adults; the more 'mature' congregation who you wouldn't normally expect to acclimatise to newer sounds seem to be gate-crashing the events in ever increasing droves.