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Thoughts on Smashing Idols: Church Music in the ‘80s

by Carl Schalk

Carl Schalk is professor of music at Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 30, 1981, pp. 960-963. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock


All the popular indicators of health and vitality suggest that church music is alive and well in the ‘80s. Almost every parish boasts (or aspires to boast) of some sort of choir to assist in leading in worship. Church music publishers report increasing sales. The sheer volume of choir and organ music published each year continues to grow. Experts in church music are regularly imported from abroad to hold forth on the latest developments from their corners of the world. Attendance at workshops and conferences continues to rise, and new ones crop up every year. Even in a time of belt-tightening, church music is involving more and more people.

‘Hymnbook Explosion’

The most recent impetus for this upsurge of interest and activity in various aspects of worship and church music has undoubtedly been the "great hymnbook explosion" of the past 15 years or so. In the latter ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s virtually every major denomination in the United States and Canada set about revising, updating or producing a worship book or hymnal for its constituency. Methodists, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Christian Reformed, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Moravians, the United Church of Christ and Lutherans have already produced such material. Episcopalians and some other Lutherans will soon have books ready.

Broadly characterized by greater attention to the historic forms, structures and shapes of worship, by greater concern for the action of the liturgy, and by greater care in the selection and use of both older and newer hymnody, these books are providing the context in which the worship and church music practices of most American denominations will be carried out in the years ahead. Whatever ancillary materials may be produced, it is nevertheless these basic denominational publications that are establishing the general boundaries within which worship and church music in American churches will be practiced.

In the midst of this flush of new worship books, hymnals and liturgical possibilities, congregations, church musicians and pastors need to be reminded of some persistent problems that continue to rear their heads, usually in new guises.

Perhaps it is not too early for a new iconoclasm to be directed against the current crop of idols that plague worship and church music in our time. From the current batch of idols we might mention three of the most insidious. Problems of every age, they threaten, basic understandings of what Christian worship and church music are really all about. They are entertainment, mediocrity and massiveness.

Focusing on the Machinery

One of the most widely promoted emphases in some parts of the church in recent years has been the idea that in words and music the church music heard in most congregations has been hopelessly out of date. For church music to survive, it must in some dramatic way become more contemporary. "Contemporary" in such discussions at first meant the adoption of the folk-pop-rock mentality. More recently, it has come to include wholesale embrace of the country-and-western, Bible-belt, gospel-song tradition spruced up with all the trappings of the electronic church.

From the too-clever, flippant and sometimes irreverent texts and tunes of Richard Avery and Donald Marsh beginning in the late ‘60s and early 70s (Hymns Hot and Carols Cool and More Hymns Hot and Carols Cool), this view of church music has expanded to include a veritable flood of mini-musicals (Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat, It’s Coal in the Furnace, 100% Chance of Rain) on the one hand and a host of singing groups with cutesy names like "Joynoise," "The First Chapter of Acts," "Sonrise" and "Matthew, Mark, Luke and Fred" on the other. With ruffled shirts, expensive audio systems, and microphones in hand, they have spread like a plague over the church music scene with a brand of television-inspired religious music that has everything to do with entertainment but little, if anything, to do with the corporate worship of the people of God.

One does not have to question the sincerity of those involved to note that suddenly church music in this perspective has gone completely out of focus. Rather than centering on the proclamation of the Word and the praises of the people God and their response to the Good News, the attention is now on machinery. Amplifiers, speakers, microphones, electric pianos and showmanship occupy center stage. The voices of young and old, many of whom have yet to learn the rudiments of singing, are amplified beyond the bearable, squelching any need, desire or possibility of participation on the part of faithful.

Church Music as Entertainment

What has gone out of focus is the perception of church music as the people’s song, dissolving to a view that relegates the congregation to the role of spectator. Rather than being regarded as a vehicle for edifying the whole body of Christ, church music is seen primarily as entertainment. That this approach has been warmly embraced among churches of the Reformed tradition should be enough to make John Calvin wince. That it has been espoused in the so-called liturgical churches is the ultimate irony.

What was the Reformation -- or Vatican II -- about, if not in significant part about the restoration of the church’s song of proclamation, praise and thanksgiving to the people? No longer were they to be passive listeners; they would henceforth be participants in the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of the church. Where the medieval church seemed to suggest that the faithful were spectators before the holy mysteries, the churches of the Reformation emphasized the involvement of all the faithful in the song of the church. What an irony that churches that have stoutly upheld the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers are now, in an important part of their worship life, content to sit back and be entertained.

Especially appalling is the theological content of much of this worship material. Many of the songs are characterized by a superficial moralism, a cheap grace and an easy and comfortable gospel. The hard word of sin and grace, law and gospel, death and resurrection is -- if not obliterated -- at least seriously muted. The Word around which Christians gather as they meet to worship is the good news of the gospel, or it is no word at all. Whatever else it may be, the word of God to humanity is the word of guilt and forgiveness, of estrangement and reconciliation, of death through sin, and of life through Jesus Christ. That word must sound out loud and clear in the music of the church. All other words may be entertaining, interesting, enticing and provocative, but they are not the words that nourish and build Christians in the faith.

And this is precisely the point that church music as entertainment has missed. For when entertainment has become the aim -- inadvertently or by design -- the central focus of the gathering of God’s people for worship and praise has become blurred.

Perhaps the surest sign that many church musicians, congregations and pastors have lost sight of the purpose of Christian worship and the place of music in the life of God’s people is the tremendous popularity which such trivializations of the gospel presently enjoy. On the one hand sincere purveyors of such pious pap can simply say, "Sour grapes! It works! Everyone seems to enjoy it!" And church musicians had better consider seriously such comments. But it is also true that this is not the first time that a popular piety has subtly reshaped worship to serve its own ends rather than the glory of God and the edification of his people.

Church Music as Mediocrity

Anyone who has the opportunity regularly to assess the flood of church music spewing forth from the presses catering to church musicians cannot help being disheartened by the mediocrity of much of it. Of course the judgment of mediocrity assumes the existence of criteria by which church music can properly be judged. Those criteria have generally been of two kinds: suitability (Is it appropriate to the demands of the liturgy?) and craftsmanship (Is it a well-made example of its art?). Those who assume that church music is, after all, a matter of individual taste must either reject the idea of any kind of objective criteria, or they must plead that if such criteria do exist, works that fall below such standards must nevertheless be admitted to use if many people find them attractive.

The movement for liturgical renewal in churches of all denominations has made church musicians more aware that music in worship must be more suitably tied to the forms, structures and action of the liturgy than has often been the case. Such an awareness needs to be reinforced and strengthened at every opportunity. Likewise the criterion of craftsmanship needs to be reinforced by the regular and recurring demonstration in the church music of the parish that within the limitations of particular circumstances there is abundant room for satisfying the needs of composers, choirs, organists and people alike. Within those possibilities there can be music for worship that is appropriate, challenging, exciting; music that involves, all the people. There is so much attractive and significant music at hand -- even at simple levels of difficulty -- that no parish can possibly exhaust it in a lifetime. Why then do so many insist on the trivial, the superficial and the shoddily made?

Mediocrity thrives where the superficially attractive is held in high regard, where the easy effect is too readily applauded, and where the trite rhythm or the maudlin or treacly melody too easily satisfies. The ideals of craftsmanship and liturgical suitability are upheld and reinforced when the hymns and the choir and organ music are models of those ideals. The best chair, we need to remind ourselves, is not only one which is well built and does not fall apart at first or second use, but one which serves well the purpose of sitting and continues to serve its purpose well as one grows more comfortable with it over a period of time. Such simple criteria, widely applied to church music, might result in a revolution in what is heard in our churches.

Perhaps the frantic search for something new each season may reflect, in part at least, that we have become rather quickly tired of last year’s novelties. There has been precious little to keep us interested over the long pull; too much of our worship music is material which we rather quickly grow out of rather than something which we can grow into.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly of our own making. Publishers, after all, will not print what church musicians are not willing to buy and use. If we insist on the mediocre and the maudlin, there are publishers only too happy to serve those needs if it is financially profitable. In church music, as in politics, we usually get what we deserve and are willing to pay for. If a sufficient number of church musicians would insist (through their purchases of music) on liturgical suitability, craftsmanship and quality, that concern would ultimately be reflected in the products available. To topple the idol of mediocrity will require a clear-sighted vision of what is necessary and crucial for worship by God’s people. It will also require perseverance in the pursuit of that ideal in every facet of church music.

Church Music as Massiveness

The idol of massiveness is seen in our attempts to impress with sheer size, numbers and volume. It crops up in our concern for the big choir, the large organ, in our one-upmanship as to who has the largest church music program, in fascination with the big effect. None of us is exempt from this kind of idolatry.

One problem with placing an inordinate emphasis on size and numbers is that there are few parishes where that is a realistic possibility. Most parishes are small, and most church music programs of necessity work with modest musical resources. Are these by definition situations whose only hope for making a significant contribution to the worship life of God’s people lies in recruiting more members to the choir or in installing a newer and larger organ? Instead of espousing the idea that "Big is beautiful," perhaps we need to learn that "Small is salutary" or "Small is seemly" -- seemly in the sense of being "agreeably fashioned, suited to the purpose"; salutary in the sense of "promoting health, and of beneficial effect." To think in such terms, however, will require -- for many -- a reorientation of priorities.

While one recognizes the important role of large parishes with large church music programs, it needs to be said that it is often easier to work where the resources are abundant. It is precisely where the resources are more modest that the ingenuity, flexibility and creativeness of the church musician are most crucial. Resourcefulness is required when the choir is made up of eight or ten singers, none of whom can read music, and the accompanying instrument is the wrong size for the building, ineffective, and in need of repair. Perhaps we need to recognize that when the smaller parish does not seek to imitate the larger church down the block but rather builds on its own strengths, fashioning a worship style and church music program suited to its resources, we will be on the road to a more meaningful, realistic and effective church music style geared to the situations in which most parishes find themselves.

Servants of Worship

What would this mean for the smaller parish and its church music? It would mean first of all a redirection of the expectations of the music-makers, as well as of the parishes themselves. Emphasis would be placed on what is really central to music in the life and worship of God’s people. It would mean a concentration on essentials -- essentials which can easily be overlooked in situations where the "big effect" is what too easily impresses pastors, congregants and church musicians alike.

It is precisely in the smaller parishes, where the pretensions of larger musical forces and more massive resources are neither possible nor available, that such a reorientation is most likely to occur. The question is no longer "How do we sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ on Easter morning with six singers, a spinet organ, one trumpet and a piccolo?" The simple answer is that such a parish shouldn’t be attempting it in the first place. The question is rather, "How can available resources be marshaled to focus on what the Easter celebration is really all about?" To accomplish this will mean using the literature increasingly available from many publishers that directs attention first of all to more effective ways of singing the hymns and the liturgy, to those proper texts which give richness to particular celebrations, and to those materials which help us see more clearly the respective roles of congregation, choir, organ and composer as servants of the worshiping assembly.

"Small is salutary" is not a theoretical accommodation to an otherwise poor or hopeless situation. The reality of the smaller parish can help us all by focusing on the essential thrust of music in worship and how it functions in a congregation -- no matter what the extent of resources.

Big may well be beautiful in particular situations and circumstances. But many church musicians and worship leaders can confidently assert that God reveals himself not only in the noise and power of the musical whirlwind, but also in the smaller voice of church music whose primary considerations are liturgical suitability and musical craftsmanship. The more modest musical resources found in the parishes most of us serve can be exciting and creative stimulants and can free us from the tyranny of the idol of the massive.

The church has always struggled to maintain the connection between two terms which signify what congregations, church musicians and pastors are about as they gather for worship: the dogma (or teaching), and the doxa (or praise). Perhaps we all need to remind each other that dogma and doxa are best held together when the church sees itself first of all as a worshiping community, that orthodoxy means "right praise."

To realize this truth more faithfully and effectively in parish practice may well require a smashing of idols that hinder its fulfillment, and a realignment of priorities on the part of congregations, church musicians and worship leaders alike. But that is precisely what all of us as worshiping Christians are to he about. When this begins to happen in the local parish, then -- and only then -- will worship become the exciting and enriching experience that all Christians instinctively know that it can and should be.


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