Cover Story

A matter of taste? Religious meanings and musical styles: Religious meanings and musical styles

The cover of the August 1996 Atlantic Monthly announced a Christian cultural revolution: “Giant ‘full-service’ churches are winning millions of ‘customers’ with [their] pop-culture packaging. They may also be building an important new form of community.” Author Charles Trueheart described what he calls the “Next Church”: No spires. No crosses. No robes. No clerical collars. No hard pews. No kneelers. No biblical gobbledygook. No prayer rote. No fire, no brimstone. No pipe organs. No dreary 18th-century hymns. No forced solemnity. No Sunday finery. No collection plates.

The list has asterisks and exceptions, but its meaning is clear. Centuries of European tradition and Christian habit are deliberately being abandoned to clear the way for new, contemporary forms of worship and belonging. The Next Church and its many smaller, typically suburban relatives are held up as models of the options available to Christians who want to “catch the next wave.”

Music provides the clearest indication of the revolutionary change. The musical idioms of the Next Church are contemporary (nothing dating from before 1990 in many cases). One 24-year-old pastor characterized the predominantly rock music of his university-related church as “a cross between Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish”—in other words, somewhere between angst-ridden “grunge” and upbeat pop.

Yet in many of these churches, the spectrum of styles offered is actually quite narrow—as it has been in most churches throughout history. Country music is usually out of the question, as is religious jazz in the style of either Duke Ellington (in his “Sacred Concerts”) or Wynton Marsalis (In This House on This Morning). Nor is there music like that of Sister Marie Keyrouz, a Lebanese nun who has begun singing the chants of her tradition in an appealing, “secular” style that utilizes colorful instrumental accompaniments. The typical Next Music sound is club-style soft rock.

It would be unusual to hear anything in these churches so morally daring as certain songs of the Grammy-Award-winning Indigo Girls, or anything so ironically and astutely probing as a song on ecological spirituality by James Taylor (“Gaia,” from Hourglass), or music as alert to alternative spiritualities—African and South-American—as Paul Simon’s Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints or as achingly yearning in overall effect as k. d. lang’s “Constant Craving” (Ingénue) or U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (Joshua Tree). These are only a smattering of widely accessible, white and mostly middle-class alternatives.

The more ritualized yet contemporary music from Taizé (composed by Jacques Berthier) and the newly composed yet folk-based songs of the Iona Community in Scotland apparently smack too much of traditional religion to find wide acceptance in the Next Church.

And little of what is currently heard in the megachurch or suburban church with contemporary worship resembles contemporary classical “spiritual minimalism.” Nothing in those settings sounds much like Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, John Tavener, John Adams, Giya Kancheli or (more Romantic in idiom) Einojuhani Rautavaara. Nor would such churches, which often make use of recordings, be tempted to venture into the recorded repertoire of more avant-garde classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky (by now virtually a classical icon), Olivier Messiaen, Krzysztof Penderecki, Sofia Gubaidulina or James MacMillan—all certifiably contemporary and almost shockingly spiritual, and frequently explicitly theological.

The current selectivity in church music, because it is more the rule than the exception, would be unremarkable except for the claim made by the Next Church and its contemporary Christian relatives: that theirs is the truly contemporary alternative for Christian music today.

In his book Dancing with Dinosaurs: Ministry in a Hostile and Hurting World, William Easum makes this very claim about worship and music. A former United Methodist pastor, Easum works as a consultant with congregations and religious organizations. He describes major changes in worship as the “second stage” of the Reformation. “The shift in the style of worship is the most obvious and divisive [of the changes]. This divisiveness is over the style of worship rather than doctrine or theology.”

Easum insists that the generations that are most vital to church growth, the midlife baby boomers and the baby busters (born after 1964), do not want to be reverent or quiet during worship. He singles out music as the “major vehicle for celebration and communication.” Few movies, he observes, make a profit without a solid sound track. So what sort of sound track should a church choose, given the variety of options? Easum claims that the right method for arriving at a suitable style is to determine which radio stations most of the “worship guests” listen to. “Soft rock,” he declares, is usually the answer.

For Easum, classical music—and traditional church music in general—is a relic of a dying past. “Classical music was rooted in the native folk music of the time,” he says. “That world is gone.” He quotes John Bisagno, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Houston:

Long-haired music, funeral-dirge anthems and stiff-collared song leaders will kill the church faster than anything in the world. . . . There are no great, vibrant, soul-winning churches reaching great numbers of people, baptizing hundreds of converts, reaching masses, that have stiff music, seven-fold amens and a steady diet of classical anthems. None. That’s not a few. That’s none, none, none.

If you want life and growth, Easum suggests, make use of music, art and media that are “culturally relevant.” He repeatedly emphasizes the importance of “quality music”—music produced not by choirs and organs, but by praise teams, soloists and a variety of instrumentalists and small ensembles that use synthesizers, drums and electric guitars. Quality music, especially in the context of youth evangelism, needs to be entertaining. What about cultivating some sort of developed and mature taste for quality in worship music? Easum says, “Worship is not the place to teach music appreciation.” The only question that worship communities need to ask about music is: “Does it bring people closer to God?” Music is never the message. “No form is inherently better than another. Music is good if it conveys the gospel; it is bad if it does not.”

Easum is willing to cite historical precedents if he thinks they serve his purpose:

Spiritual giants such as Martin Luther and Charles Wesley showed us the importance of culturally relevant music [by] taking the tunes out of bars, putting words to them and singing the songs in worship. They accommodated the people in order to reach them with the message that would change their lives. They did not conform the message, just the package.

Christians should be able to sympathize with most of Easum’s pastoral and musical concerns. Importing Vivaldi or Brahms or William Mathias into a church community whose native musical languages are closer to those of Madonna, Jimmy Buffett or John Tesh is like missionaries imposing European or North American religious styles on drastically different cultures. (Not that converts do not sometimes need and welcome a sharp alternative to their native cultural vocabulary. Chinese Christians have treasured the gospel hymns brought to them by 19th-century missionaries, choosing them over songs using Chinese folk tunes or composed later by Chinese Christians and in a Chinese idiom.)

Easum makes a valid point, moreover, in claiming that music that was originally secular has repeatedly found its way into church. The boundary between sacred and secular has repeatedly been blurred or transgressed. No one style is unalterably sacred or unalterably secular. And Easum is probably correct that much of the soft rock or pop music that he advocates for worship has become a kind of generic musical product, with no set of specifically worldly associations that would prevent its use in worship. One could make a similar observation regarding the baroque and early classical musical styles of the 17th and early 18th centuries (roughly from Handel to Haydn), which crossed rather freely from the operatic stage and concert hall to the church and back again.

Again, matching religious words with neutral or nonspecific popular music can bring out a suitable range of meanings that the music might not have on its own. Amy Grant, Petra and countless others adopt and adapt rock as a Christian musical style that their listeners find entirely consonant with their sense of Christian life and proclamation.

Finally, we can agree with Easum’s implicit claim that church music has sometimes been unduly limited by traditional suspicions of pulsing or lively rhythms, “irreverent” instruments and entertainment. (Religious music would be in trouble in much of the world if it could never be rhythmic or animated.)

Despite the merits of some of Easum’s claims, he makes several highly questionable assumptions: