The Decline of Church Music, Pt. II

I realise that a number of my colleagues (at least those of certain social media groups) might have been a little upset with Part I of my little personal analysis of the dismal state of church music — particularly my opprobrium of of those large numbers people (“masses” if you will) who are more than willing to subjugate the rational to the simplistic answers or dogma of similarly predisposed religious leaders.    Maybe what I say here will help to clarify a few things. Some may have been reluctant to respond, because I’m sure a fair amount of them have perfectly fine working relationships with their bosses.

Notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that the clergy bear most of the responsibility for the dismal state of music in the church: if for no other reason the clergy are the leadership in the church.  This includes the supposedly more democratic non-liturgical denominations (Presbyterian, Methodists, Baptists, United Church of Christ, etc.); because, although these denominations have strong committee based governments, it is still the minister who supplies the leadership and steers the ship.  His/her influence over the direction of a church remains considerable.  After all, clergy are supposed to be the experts, and are supposed to know all about this business of running a church.


Nevertheless, clergy cannot be held completely accountable for the deterioration in the quality of church music.  There’s lots of blame to go around.  Even in the Roman Catholic church, in which the laity are quite literally treated as sheep, external societal pressures, both cultural and economic, have had a bearing on the decisions that the hierarchy have made concerning music.


Music is an easy target.  Changing or modifying music in the liturgy doesn’t have the political weight as many of the social and political issues with which the church has been contending. Therefore, the one thing about which the congregation isn’t really going to make too much of a fuss is music. Very few people understand the subliminal effect music has on them; so as a result, they simply don’t care. They don’t realise how important it is until it’s missing. The governing bodies of the church, whether they be the ecclesiastical hierarchy of  the liturgical denominations, or the various lay councils (sessions, trustees, vestries, what-have-you) of the majority of Protestant churches, have often had a deleterious effect on the quality of music in the church simply because they don’t know anything about it; ironically, the one person who does is often treated with — let’s say — um — less than appropriate respect.   With the exception of the occasional church that has an affluent, highly educated, or at least, fairly enlightened lay leadership, the church musician is usually pretty low in the pecking order.


Of course, this low regard for the church musician merely reflects our society’s generally dismissive attitude to the arts, and is extended further to people who instruct or teach, in some fashion, in general.  America has traditionally been a musically, and, more often than not, a culturally, ignorant nation.  Even back “in the day” when we did teach music in the public schools it was always considered as something extraneous, if not down right frivolous.  Music (and art in general) isn’t considered important to American culture because it doesn’t fit well into the concept of an avarice based economy.  That’s not to say you can’t make a lot of money as a musician: it’s just that it is usually accomplished by doing what Americans do best:  appealing to the lowest common denominator.


This is the crux of the matter.  Congregations and clergy come from the general population; they reflect the educational, cultural, and intellectual development of their society.  That culture is, in turn, influenced by those who wield control over the two most important determining facets that direct our society:  the media, and those who own that media.


This, of course, leads me back to the lowest common denominator mentality of an avarice based economic and political structure.  The present state of our culture presents a serious problem for mainstream denominations.   The church’s main message of eternal life, the quintessential deferred reward, directly competes with the speed-of-light instant gratification which permeates popular culture.  Coupled with the absence of historical and cultural education which is endemic in even our supposedly better public and private schools, making the case for serious, deeply spiritual, dare I say, metaphysically provocative music and its associated liturgy, becomes a daunting task in the very least.


All denominations, even the UU’s for all their disingenuous New-Age touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy approach to spirituality (if you call it that), engage in some sort of evangelism.  The dilemma is the form in which that evangelism takes place.  In our present culture — thanks in large part to mass media — evangelism has become synonymous with a kind of unseemly grab for masses, using a blend of highly emotional (to the point of hysteria as in Pentecostal movements) fear mongering (the harps of Heaven or the harpsichords of Hell) and superficial, pop-style entertainment.  Unfortunately, when music falls under this purely commercially based pop form of entertainment, it is, resultantly, ineluctably, trivialised.  When you trivialise something it becomes a throw-away item, easily replaced by the next trivial item which, of course, is hyped as the latest “must have” phenomenon.  Excluding the ubiquitous “mixes” incessantly played in malls and chain stores, when was the last time you heard, much less recalled the title of what was considered a hit song from 15 years ago — even 5 years ago?


Unfortunately, the church has adopted the use of this dismal type of music in a pathetically  frenzied quest for converts and members, new or old (hoping that a more “upbeat,” “happier” service will entice the wayward sheep back to the fold).  Church leadership who engage in this approach to music in the church have become so caught up in this trend they don’t see that it, not unlike much of the theology associated with it, is a house built upon sand.


2 thoughts on “The Decline of Church Music, Pt. II

  1. As always, provocative and passionate and well reasoned commentary from you my friend. I will put in my vote as far as instrumentation goes, and suggest that the harpsichord is indeed heavenly, while the music of hell is most frequently accompanied by accordions. On a more serious note, at least part of the problem from my 40 years of experience as a practicing Church musician is that there is a great deal of turf warfare and power dynamics between those who bear responsibility for the pastoral care and direction of the church, the ordained ministry, and those with a professional gifting and training to make the most appropriate musical decisions, who are in almost every instance not ordained citizens by those who hold the pastoral power. Finally, it is a challenging thing indeed to determine where your congregations musical tastes presently are, where you believe they ought to be, and to confect a long term plan to get them there. It is far easier simply to impose one’s own personal tastes and preferences and when challenged shroud them in privilege and expertise. I offer but one example: my dear teacher, Robert Carwithen, was a gifted conductor with extensive knowledge of the classical choral canon. Yet he lavished no less love on hymn tunes like what a fellowship, what a joy divine or what a friend we have in Jesus. To him, nearly all music had the potential to be great prayer, if approached with respect and the application of great craft. Sadly, and perhaps this is a topic for a third installment at some point, there are virtually no places in the United States teaching these skills of music as ministry any longer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ralph, I agree with much of what you say. But two thoughts— first, let’s not let the clergy (Mainline at least) off the hook- they did go to seminary, and many many seminaries have fine musicians on staff and excellent music programs, no? Thus the clergy have been exposed to fine music well performed, so if they “ditch the traditional music” it can hardly be caused by personal ignorance. Second- having worked at a UU church (First Wilmington) and continuing to this day with a number of friendships, I have a high opinion of UU folks and their churches/fellowships. Please investigate the U-U and rethink your daggers sent their way. BTW- many if not most UU churches/fellowships have quite fine musicians, music programs, and musical instruments.

    Liked by 1 person

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