It's Sunday morning at the 5,000-member Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church near Birmingham, Alabama. Early risers, mostly middle-aged and older, gather at 8:30 a.m. for a traditional worship service in the 700-seat sanctuary. The organ and one of the church's three smaller choirs are the musical heart of the service. Music director Mark Ridings (who moonlights as the director of the Alabama Symphony Chorus) usually selects standard hymns from the new United Methodist hymnal—something from Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, or Fanny Crosby.
An hour later the sanctuary empties and is immediately reoccupied with a younger, more casually dressed crowd. The organ sits silent in favor of a piano and sometimes a guitar. These accompany a somewhat introspective version of a praise and worship service, where the people sing Southern gospel standards ("I'll Fly Away") and traditional hymns ("Great Is Thy Faithfulness"), done in a contemporary style with projected lyrics.
At 11 o'clock the sanctuary again empties and re fills, this time with a mixed-age group for another traditional service with organ, hymns, and the large Sanctuary Choir. At the same time, in another part of the building, the 300-seat fellowship hall fills with young adults and young children. This is the "Son Shine" service, also known as "Rock & Roll Church." A worship team of singers and instrumentalists—piano, amplified guitar, drums, and tambourine—leads a lively, hand-clapping congregation in a potpourri of crowd pleasers. These range from Southern gospel, to old rock and roll songs like the Doobie Brothers' "Jesus Is Just Alright With Me," to repackaged hymns ("Amazing Grace" sung to the tune of the Eagles' "I Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling"), to contemporary praise and worship standards (Michael O'Shields's "I Will Call Upon the Lord").
At noon most everyone goes home, and the building is relatively quiet until the 5 o'clock Vespers in the chapel. There 50 to 60 retirement-age folks gather to sing favorite hymns and simple gospel songs ("In the Garden") from the old Methodist Cokesbury Hymnal, accompanied by the piano. They finish up at 6 o'clock, leaving a one-hour buffer before Youth Worship begins. This is a monthly service where the teenagers are the musicians, singing both contemporary praise choruses and songs from the radio with rewritten lyrics. The music is amplified, raucous, and very loud; in the words of church member Lee Benson, "not for the faint of heart."
With five musical styles for six services, Vestavia Hills embodies the new reality of congregational singing in America. All over the country, churches are customizing worship-music styles for particular demographic groups. Vestavia Hills is living evidence that American churchgoers no longer sort themselves out by denomination so much as by musical preference.
Since the 1950s, denominational divisions have steadily become less important in American church life. We have the baby boom generation (of which I am a part) to thank for much of this. But at bottom we are all still sectarians; we still prefer to congregate with the like minded. Our new sectarianism is a sectarianism of worship style. The new sectarian creeds are dogmas of music. Worship seminars are the seminaries of the new sectarianism; their directors are its theologians. The ministers of the new sectarianism are our church worship leaders.
Some large churches, like Vestavia Hills, are able to hold the new sects together under one roof. Churches that are too small to sustain separate congregations with separate worship styles are either trying to mix musical styles ("blended worship"), or they are fighting and dividing over which music to use.
For this, too, we have the baby boomers to thank, for they set into motion two movements that have profoundly reshaped what congregations sing. Reformers working from within the church music tradition—animated by baby-boom concerns—began writing new hymns with contemporary themes and experimental styles. Revolutionaries starting from outside the church tradition—baby boomers themselves—began adapting popular secular music for religious purposes.
The turbulence produced by these crosscurrents has put traditionalists everywhere on the defensive. Liturgical churches are borrowing pietistic practices, while pietistic churches are introducing liturgical elements. Conflicts over worship in general and music in particular have erupted in churches of every denomination. Forty years ago, this heightened sensitivity to the details of worship and music would have been unheard of, but now it is the norm. All over North America, worship has become contested ground.
The contemporary proliferation of different worship and music styles may well be the next century's test of our commitment to Christian unity. We seem to have learned charity in regard to differences over mode of baptism, church polity, and a number of doctrines like eternal security or the second blessing—differences that have already produced their schisms. It is not as clear, however, that we have developed the Christian maturity to deal with the deepening differences over music and worship that are now producing our new sectarianism.
The baby boom
The recent avalanche of change in worship life generally, and in congregational singing particularly, is not unique to church life. All of the changes that have precipitated our worship wars are in fact part of a long trail of cultural dislocations left behind by that abnormally large generation of Americans we call the baby boomers. The baby boom generation was like a supertanker, tied to its cultural wharf by too-small mooring lines. When the storms kicked up in the 1960s—unprecedented mobility, the communications revolution, the hot and cold wars against communism, civil rights—the mooring lines of cultural continuity sheared, setting this generation free to create its own youth culture.
Unwilling to follow their parents' lead, they grew up distrusting established institutions like government, schools, and churches. They have since turned this distrust into a social norm. Never has an American generation been so convinced that other cultures—almost all other cultures—are wiser and better organized than its own.
As a consequence, baby boomers have reoriented our society toward peers and away from family. They have moved the psychic center of the family away from obligations to others and toward self-fulfillment. They have raised to new ideological heights the ideal of individual autonomy fused with democratic egalitarianism. And they have transformed music from a carrier of cultural tradition into the symbolic fencing that marks off a noisy multitude of peer-oriented subcultures.
Once this oversized generation decided that music would be the primary carrier of its symbols and values, music quickly became, in the words of George Steiner, "the new literacy of Western culture." When one chooses a musical style today, one is making a statement about whom one identifies with, what one's values are, and ultimately, who one is. As a result, music has become a divisive and fractionalizing force, Balkanizing Western culture into an ever-expanding array of subcultures—each with its own stylistic national anthem.
A generation so at odds with the traditions it has inherited is going to change the way it does church; a generation this large is going to change lots and lots of churches. Baby boomers have abandoned the denominational loyalties of their parents. The generation that was crowded into maternity wards and grade schools and rock concerts now crowds into megachurches. (Only a generation that loved Woodstock could love Willow Creek.) The generation that reorganized family around the ideal of self-fulfillment has done the same with religion. Surveys consistently show that baby boomers—whether evangelical or liberal, Protestant or Catholic—attend church not out of loyalty, duty, obligation, or gratitude, but only if it meets their needs.
Not surprisingly, a generation that sought its youthful identity in music searches for its religious identity in music as well. For better or worse, the kind of music a church offers increasingly defines the kind of person who will attend, because for this generation music is at the very center of self-understanding. Music for baby boomers is the mediator of emotions, the carrier of dreams, and the marker of social location. It is therefore bound to be an integral part of baby boomers' connection to the eternal truth of life in God. Therefore, in worship and music, the received tradition could not be allowed to stand unaltered. This left only two possibilities—reform of the tradition or revolution against the tradition.
The English-language church music scene of the 1950s was ripe for reform. Classically trained musicians on both sides of the Atlantic grumbled that so-called sacred music had reached a creative dead end, characterized by what American Robert Mitchell remembers as a "dreary seeking after reverence and solemnity."
What finally shook things loose was the surprising new popularity of folk music around 1960 . Rock 'n' roll from the 1950s had failed to influence church musicians partly because its main lyrical theme—teenage romance—showed little promise for any connection to Christian concerns. However, folk music—most famously represented by Bob Dylan's fusion of white-folk working-class ballads, African-American blues, and Celtic laments—brought its long tradition of sympathy for the poor and outrage at injustice to the popular music scene. This shocked some church musicians into awareness that their hymnic tradition was not only artistically stunted; worse yet, it had lost touch with the pressing moral issues of the day.
The reform of American hymnody unexpectedly began in Dunblane, Scot land. In 1962, a group of dissatisfied British church musicians gathered to try to revitalize church singing. The group was led and inspired by Eric Routley, a Congregationalist minister and one of the leading organists in Britain. (Routley had earlier tried to enlist C. S. Lewis, whom he greatly admired, in efforts to improve British hymnody. Lewis declined, cheerfully confessing that he disliked hymns altogether.) Under Routley's prodding, the Dunblane group searched for a new, simple music without traditional ecclesiastical accent "that would catch the ear of our time." They experimented with new poetic structures for the hymn lyrics and new instrumentation to accompany hymns. But most of all they tried to connect church singing to the contemporary social issues that preoccupied the baby boomers. The reformers listened to Bob Dylan records, and they studied the work of British folk songwriter Sydney Carter (best known for "Lord of the Dance," in which he used the American Shaker tune "Simple Gifts" as a setting for new lyrics about Jesus).
The work of Routley and those he inspired was spread to the U.S. by George Shorney, Jr., of the independent Hope Publishing Company, a long-time mainstay of evangelical music publishing. This gave the British reformers the backing and encouragement of a large American audience. In the process, American church musicians were inspired to revise nearly all of their denominational hymnals and to produce a flood of new independent hymn collections.
The main result of the reformers' labors was a phenomenal outpouring of new English-language hymnody that dovetailed perfectly with baby-boom concerns. Catering to a generation that looks for wisdom outside its own culture, the hymn reformers have gathered for their revised hymnals Christian songs from all over the globe. They have also written new hymns emphasizing global awareness (Carl P. Daw, "We Marvel at Your Mighty Deeds"), and making confession for the social sins of Western culture (Herman Steumpfle, "O God, the Wounded Earth Cries Out"). The baby boom's visceral uncertainty about all inherited tradition reveals itself both in recent hymnwriters' wariness about doctrinal matters and in their eagerness to ruminate on God's incomprehensibility (Dorothy R. Fulton, "Elusive God").
If the baby boom harbors uncertainties about Christian tradition, it entertains none about the evils of war, and this has generated a bevy of antiwar hymns (Thomas H. Troeger, "Fierce the Force that Curled Cain's Fist"). The baby-boom commitment to the equality of all persons has likewise inspired recent hymnwriters (Fred Kaan, "Help Us Accept Each Other"). The reformers have, however, abstained from writing hymns that cater to the baby boom's legendary self-preoccupation (this they left to the revolutionaries).
The reformers were not satisfied merely to produce a new body of hymns that embodied baby-boom ideals. They also insisted on cleaning up the old hymns. This urge to sanitize the language of hymns is, of course, a part of a larger social phenomenon that has produced campus speech codes, business seminars on avoiding offensive language, and laws against hate speech. (Parenthetically, we Americans have tried this before. In the Victorian era, the guardians of culture attempted to purge public language of all profanity, vulgarity, and references to sex and to the body. Legs became "limbs," women's underwear became "lingerie.") Critics of this movement have labeled it "political correctness," a polemically effective but not particularly accurate term. This is not so much a controversy about politics as it is a controversy about morality.
Today's correctitude originates in moral values and is driven by a supercharged sense of propriety. This leads our contemporary moral guardians—most of them baby boomers—to take offense, and to worry about giving offense, when the boundaries of the new propriety are breached. As regarding hymn language, the new sensibilities have occasionally led editors beyond inclusiveness to outright bowdlerization. The example that always comes to my mind is one denomination's new version of William Cowper's "O for a closer walk with God." In this new version, the editors worried that the noun walk excluded the disabled, so the hymn was changed to "O for a closer bond with God." My seven-year-old son, who cannot walk, much prefers the original version. He likes the word walk better because it speaks directly to his most cherished hope, which is that after his body is resurrected and made whole, he will walk—literally walk—closely alongside his Lord.
The main point here, however, is not to take sides in this matter, but simply to note that this is a particularly baby-boom form of moral fussiness. The eagerness to change language is yet another manifestation of the baby boom's readiness to re shape its inheritance; yet another manifestation of its self-sure conviction that its own values are superior to those of the past. The impulse to address modern concerns originates in the baby boomers' quest for relevance. The impulse toward inclusiveness originates in the baby boomers' democratic commitment to equality of all persons. The squeamishness about royal and military imagery comes from this generation's antiwar sensibilities.
The hymn reformers are, nonetheless, reformers, not revolutionaries. They start their work from within the church music tradition, and, at bottom, they are still trying to save elements of that tradition by reforming it. Despite their acquired taste for carefully limited doses of non-Western folk music, they have never been able to develop any real affection for the musical tastes of the ordinary people who are their next-door neighbors. Despite their professed egalitarianism, they assume that the people in the pews need instruction through didactic hymn texts. Despite their commitment to change, the reformers still largely remain comfortably inside the taste culture of formal church music.
Baby boom ideas gave the hymn re form movement its distinctive flavor, but baby boomers themselves were more apt to become revolutionaries. They are revolutionaries precisely because their starting place is outside the church music tradition. The reformers began with church music forms and sought to incorporate baby-boom values; the revolutionaries began with baby-boom music forms and baby-boom values, and sought to adapt these to the Christian faith.
For all their openness to new creative currents, Routley and the English hymn reformers failed to make any connection with the indigenous music of the baby boom generation—rock 'n' roll. The same was true of the evangelical "pop" musicians in America, like Ralph Carmichael, John W. Peterson, and Bill and Gloria Gaither.
Rock 'n' roll was simple. It engaged deep emotions, and it portrayed itself as free of hypocrisy. But above all else, it focused the baby boomers' longings and anxieties, their values and ideals. This music became their primary marker of social location and their medium for articulating identity. Music was so important to baby boomers, it was inevitable that if they came to church at all, they would be bringing their music with them.
But because neither the hymn reformers in England nor the creators of evangelical pop in America would engage teenage music, "Jesus rock" was slow to get rolling. It started with long-haired Christian teenagers themselves who loved the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. In the mid-1960s they began forming garage bands that married Jesus lyrics to the electric thump of rock 'n' roll, but this music was most unwelcome in sanctuaries. So an underground circuit of Jesus rock musicians began to form, playing in parks, coffeehouses, and in a few more daring churches.
It is no accident that Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel, one of the first congregations to welcome the counterculture, was one of the first to welcome its music. And it is no accident that in 1973 Calvary Chapel started Maranatha! Music to spread the new music to other churches. As baby boomers moved into the churches, this music came along too. It soon acquired a new name—"praise and worship"—but it began as baptized rock 'n' roll.
In the quarter-century since Maranatha! was founded, the enterprise of praise and worship music has precipitated a blizzard of creative activity. There are dozens of nonprofit and for-profit companies producing this music, with hundreds of musicians involved (see "The Profits of Praise" at right). They cover a surprisingly wide landscape of popular music genres, produce a bewildering variety of high-tech products to aid church worship leaders, and sponsor workshops all over the world.
Despite complaints about commercialization, this music continues to bubble up from the wellsprings of local churches. All three of the largest praise-and-worship companies (Maranatha! Integrity and Vineyard) began in local churches, and musicians in local churches all over the country are today writing, recording, and marketing new music to other churches. Over 100,000 churches in the United States (nearly one-third of all churches) participate in the reporting program of Christian Copyright Licensing Inc., which distributes royalties to publishers based on how many overhead projector transparencies churches make of each song. Most of their songs are in the praise and worship genre, the most popular of all being Rick Founds's "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High."
Because praise and worship music is a baby-boom creation, it is impregnated with many of the same values that characterize the new hymnody—though sometimes the same values work themselves out in different ways. The old denominational concerns, missing in the reformers' hymns, are also absent from the praise and worship songs. Likewise, both schools draw some of their inspiration from international sources.
The reformers have been influenced by international church music and the revolutionaries by international popular music. Both, curiously enough, have been influenced by the interdenominational Taize community in France, whose simple yet rich songs (the Taize "Alleluias" are sung the world over) are rooted in both traditional church music and in the baby boom's guitar-and-folk-chorus style of the 1960s.
The same democratic sensibilities that prodded the reformers to revise hymn language have prompted the revolutionaries to do away with hymnals. The overhead projector means that no one needs to be able to read music, everyone is singing in unison, and everyone is—literally—reading off the same page. The quest for relevance in the new hymnody finds expression in contemporary social concerns, while in praise and worship music it focuses on intensifying the individual's experience of God.
Not coincidentally, the focus on individual experience aligns perfectly with the baby boom's luxuriant self-concern. Just as one cannot sing the reformers' new hymns for long without noticing their didactic character and preachy tone, one cannot sing praise songs without noticing how first person pronouns tend to eclipse every other subject.
There are, of course, differences between the new hymnody and praise and worship music that are not the outworking of common values. The starting place for the revolutionaries was secular rock 'n' roll, so they eagerly used guitars and drums, simple accessible lyrics, and the conventions of popular music—simple harmonies, steady rhythm, frequent repetition. The reformers, however, retained many of the conventions of formal church music, even while experimenting more cautiously with new themes and modes of presentation. The revolutionaries freely employed parachurch networks to disseminate their music, while the reformers remained more closely tied to the denominational church organizations. This, by the way, accounts for the not-quite-fair criticism that praise and worship music is too "commercialized." Parachurch groups, such as evangelistic organizations, missionary agencies, and publishing houses always behave more like businesses than do denominations.
Perhaps the most important difference is that the hymn re formers still cherish the pre-baby-boom hope that the ideal of Christian unity can be achieved in worship. Praise-and-worship musicians, by contrast, bring the baby-boom assumption that different groups will all need their own kind of music.
In this last argument, the baby boomers are, as usual, having their way. There are just too many of them. Increasingly, people choose their churches by the type of worship and music they feature. Increasingly, churches sponsor multiple services for multiple musical tastes. Increasingly, we are grouping ourselves with the musically like-minded. This is the root, stem, and branch of the new sectarianism that is flowering in American church life.
There is nothing we can do to stop the new worship divisions, any more than we could stop the doctrinal divisions over who, when, and how to baptize. So the question is: How will we respond to the new tribalism of worship and music? How can we keep our sectarian worship from becoming a sectarianism of the soul?
First, we need to remember that differing expressions of Christianity are not necessarily a bad thing. For decades, theologians have wrung their hands over America's ecclesiastical fragmentation. "Denominationalism … represents the moral failure of Christianity," claimed H. Richard Niebuhr in The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Well, maybe. In fact, the United States, with the most denominationally divided Christianity of the Western world, also has the highest levels of Christian faith in the Western world. This empirical reality has led some people recently to wonder if the organizational splintering of the American church has not, in fact, been a strength as well as a weakness. The advantage of multiple expressions of Christianity—whether they are based in doctrine or based in worship—is that there is an expression for everyone. Anyone can find a home. And in this world of brokenness and homelessness, maybe having many different homes is a good thing.
Second, it is right and good to put different expressions of orthodox Christianity to a functional test rather than a theological test. Every complaint about worship music, no matter which style, claims to be rooted in theological principles. Yet in every critique, the theology aligns perfectly with the critic's own musical taste. What may be more helpful instead is a pragmatic test based on a bit of wisdom from the Gospels: "The tree is known by its fruit." If this is so, then worship music ought to be judged not by the songs themselves but by the people who sing them. Looking at the songs themselves is rather like looking at the bark of the tree and then pronouncing the tree good or bad. Better to look at the fruit itself—the lives of the people who are singing the songs. The job of the local church is to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ, to draw people into a living relationship with God, and to remold disciples of Jesus into a Sermon-on-the-Mount shape. Any worship music that aids a church in these tasks is almost certainly a conduit of the Holy Spirit. In light of this, maybe it is time to substitute charity for condescension.
Another path out of the wilderness of disdain is to begin to see others' music with new eyes. When the hymn reformers introduced music from other cultures into their canon, a handful of them noticed that the characteristics of praise and worship music that they most disliked are abundantly present in Christian folk songs from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Many of these international songs have simple music, driving beat, repetitive lyrics, light theology, and an emphasis on experience. Here is a South African folksong that appears in the current United Methodist hymnal:
Send me, Jesus, send me, Jesus, send me, Jesus, send me, Lord.
Lead me, Jesus, lead me, Jesus, lead me, Jesus, lead me, Lord.
Fill me, Jesus, fill me, Jesus, fill me, Jesus, fill me, Lord.
An openness to simple, repetitive international songs like this opened some reformers to accepting contemporary praise music produced domestically.
Meanwhile, a parallel movement is taking place on the other side of today's church music divide. Several musicians working out of the praise and worship genre are beginning to explore and appreciate music from different cultures around the world—including the classic English hymnody. The revolutionaries are already starting to include such hymns in their catalogs. One hopes it will not be long before they begin to draw upon the best of contemporary hymnody as well.
Does an openness to the varied musical expressions of different Christian cultures and subcultures leave us stuck in relativism, the tar baby of contemporary secular thought? By no means. It is merely to remember that the God who created this world did so with exuberant extravagance, his unchanging purpose often hidden in a tumbling cascade of variety. The resulting multiplicity has, ever since, been the medium of an infinitely dexterous Holy Artist, furthering the work of redemption in whatever cultural forms human beings have been able to devise.
The Bible has four different Gospels; no single one of them tells us the whole truth about the life of Jesus. Likewise, no single musical style brings to full flower more than a few of the many possibilities for communion with God. It is said that when King George II of England heard Handel's Hallelujah chorus for the first time, it was not the glory of the music that—to the astonishment of the audience—pulled him to his feet. It was, rather, the glory of the Lord, surging through the conduit of the music. It was much the same when my elderly neighbor Elsie Hudson lay for several days in a coma. She responded to no one, not even her closest family members, until her pastor sat beside her and softly sang the simple gospel songs that she had sung all her life. The power of God surged through that music also—to the astonishment of the hospice workers—waking her up one last time before she went home to her Lord.
It is fruitless to search for a single musical style, or even any blend of musical styles, that can assist all Christians with true worship. The followers of Jesus are a far too diverse group of people—which is exactly as it should be. We need, rather, to welcome any worship music that helps churches produce disciples of Jesus Christ. We need to welcome the experimental creativity that is always searching out new ways of singing the gospel, and banish the fear that grips us when familiar music passes away. For this kind of change is the mark of a living church—the church of a living God, who restlessly ranges back and forth across the face of the earth seeking out any who would respond to his voice.
Michael S. Hamilton is coordinator of the Pew Scholars Programs and concurrent assistant professor of history, University of Notre Dame.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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