Church Music in the ‘90s: Problems and Prognoses

by Carl Schalk

Carl Schalk is professor of music at Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 21-28. 1990 pp. 306-308 copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Churches in the ‘90s will rely heavily on the historic experience of the church at worship.

Anglican churchman W. R. Inge once wrote, "When our first parents were driven out of Paradise, Adam is believed to have remarked to Eve: ‘My dear, we live in an age of transition."’ The song of God’s people in the ‘90s -- as in every other decade -- is also in transition. For some people "transition" means abandoning the old to embrace the new; for others it means abandoning the new to embrace the old. Adherents of both views -- from the terminally hip to rigid repristinators -- have their advocates today. For most church musicians, however, transition means building on the foundation of the old and moving toward a future where both old and new can contribute to the song of God’s people at worship.

Church music is in a time of exciting change. Many church musicians have lost -- or perhaps never found -- their bearings. Far too many church musicians take their cues from a variety of factors having little to do with what is at the heart and center of the church’s worship and the church’s song. Where you stand, says one, depends on where you sit. Here I stand, says another, although I could just as well stand over there . . . or there . . . or there.

Among the various longer-range challenges facing church music in the ‘90s, four seem to be occupying center stage: the challenge of providing church musicians in sufficient numbers to meet the needs of parishes throughout the land in almost every denomination; the continued search for musical roots in many denominations; the ongoing debate between those advocating the worship and musical tradition of the church catholic and those advocating a variety of trendy fads; and the impact of pragmatism and consumerism in determining worship practice and musical style and substance.

But basic to an understanding of each of these concerns is the growing conviction that the church musician is not simply one who, in Robin Leaver’s words, "produces nice noises at various points in worship." Rather, the church musician is being seen increasingly as a liturgical-musical theologian who reflects particular theological understandings about church music and its use. The question is whether such a church musician -- United Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal or Reformed -- is a good or bad liturgical musical theologian.

Perhaps the most obvious fact facing the churches in the ‘90s is that there simply will not be enough well-trained church musicians to meet the demand. Many congregations already face vacant organ benches and empty podiums because not enough young people are seriously considering church music as a viable career.

Despite many innovative and ingenious programs by congregations, schools and colleges and American Guild of Organists chapters, the demand will continue to exceed the supply. A congregation in Cheshire, Connecticut, is hoping to assure its own musical future by setting aside a regular scholarship to help a deserving high school student study organ. Another, in East Lansing, Michigan, sponsors a yearly competition for young organists and fledgling composers. The Association for Lutheran Musicians, among other groups, has an aggressive placement service to help congregations find church musicians. The supply, nevertheless, continues to fall short of the demand.

On the other hand, the prospects are encouraging for those looking for formal training in church music in the ‘90s. Programs at the undergraduate and especially at the graduate level continue to develop, particularly in denominations which understand the necessity for training church musicians theologically and liturgically as well as musically. In fact, as a result of their study of both theology and church music, many church musicians are finding themselves better educated and prepared in these subjects than their pastors. Some pastors welcome the help; others view church musicians with suspicion and their suggestions as invading the pastor’s turf. The greatest problem is the drop in enrollment in undergraduate church music departments throughout the country.

Students attracted to church music in the ‘90s will find the prospects of employment excellent -- a simple case of more churches chasing fewer graduates and offering higher salaries. Of course, countless churches will continue to be served by dedicated volunteer church musicians at various levels of competence who are often trained, educated and inspired only by summer workshops and weekend institutes.

The quest for musical roots also continues, especially as churches reach out to people and cultures new to their experience and their origins. For some churches this quest entails a return to ethnic origins, practices and traditions. For others it involves a search for an elusive "American" church music identity.

This search is most clearly reflected in each new denominational hymnal and worship book as it shapes worship practices and wrestles with what it means to be Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran or Reformed in the last decade of the 20th century. The impact of hymnals and worship books produced in the ‘80s such as Lutheran Worship (1982) and its late ‘70s predecessor Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) , Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal, music edition, 1985) , the Psalter Hymnal (Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1987) , Worship (Roman Catholic, third edition, 1986) , Rejoice in the Lord (Reformed Church in America, 1985) , the United Methodist Hymnal (1989) , and similar denominational hymnals has already been significant. Their full impact will be felt in the ‘90s.

Other hymnals will be published in the ‘90s, including ones by the Moravian Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) , the Wesleyan Church, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Friends General Conference (Quakers) and, in Canada, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Roman Catholic Church in Canada, to name only a few. Many of these new hymnals and worship books, like their predecessors, will spawn new congregational, choral and organ music to support their use. Their influence can hardly be overestimated. In addition to the denominational hymnals are plans for any number of nondenominational hymnals, together with a proliferation of hymnal supplements intended in some cases to promote hymns not ordinarily found in mainline hymnals.

All of these books include an increasing number of new hymn texts and tunes written by contemporary poets and musicians. Such American hymn writers and translators as Jaroslav J. Vajda, Thomas Troeger, Gracia Grindal, Martin Franzmann, Herbert Brokering, F. Samuel Janzow and such British writers as F. Pratt Green, Timothy Dudley Smith and Brian Wren are rapidly becoming household names. Using new melodies by musicians Peter Cutts, Gerald Near, Richard Hillert, David Hurd, Erik Routley and Alec Wyton, among others, countless congregations are singing new hymns and finding them immensely satisfying.

Probably at no time in American church music history since the advent of the gospel song in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has there been such an outpouring of new texts and tunes. Many of these new hymns are of the highest quality and thus will become a permanent part of the church’s inheritance from the 20th century. The search for musical roots goes on in many ways, but in the hymnals and worship books -- the basic resources of the church musician -- one sees the process focused more clearly than in any other endeavor.

For some, tradition means "how we did it last year," a tradition based all too frequently on the personal and idiosyncratic projections of worship leaders. But for many churches in the ‘90s the return to the tradition of the church catholic will mean an increasing reliance on the historic experience of the church at worship. Materials produced by virtually all main-line denominations are emphasizing the stability and continuity of the historic dimensions of worship and church music. This approach is finding a welcome reception by many pastors, church musicians and congregations exhausted by impossible demands for a constant variety. The losers seem to be those who continue to advocate the trendy style of worship characteristic of the late ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s. The ‘60s folk mass, for instance, is almost dead. Many Catholic parishes have outgrown their ‘60s-style musical heritage. In most Protestant traditions the mandatory weekly or monthly folk mass has all but disappeared, continuing to find a place only where aging graduates of the ‘60s and ‘70s attempt to relive their memories of bygone days.

While one might expect the case for ordered worship in the tradition in Episcopal, Catholic and Lutheran churches, its resurgence is being felt also among groups whose contact with the church’s tradition has been minimal. In Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacraments, Thomas Howard chronicles his evangelical encounter with the rich tradition of the early church. Robert E. Webber of Wheaton College -- a center associated more with mass evangelism and crusades -- advocates in Celebrating Our Faith: Evangelism Through Worship an approach to the unchurched which he calls "liturgical evangelism."

While the wider impact of such appeals is not yet clear, the call to consider the catholic tradition of the church is receiving an ever-wider hearing. The field belongs increasingly to those who have experienced the richness and depths of the tradition and who are restive with the something-new-every-week folks who, in Luther’s words, have "no more than an itch to produce something novel so that they might shine before men as leading lights."

The concept which has caused the most consternation on the part of church musicians has been that modern heresy that sees worship as a tool and a vehicle for various other agendas and music in worship as an entertaining diversion along the way. These ideas, in marked contrast to the whole of Christian experience, have most recently been embraced by the church growth industry, which, together with its basically sociological approach, promotes those quintessential American values of pragmatism and consumerism.

Pragmatism asks: Does it get results? Are we attracting people to our worship? If we are, we must be doing something right. If not, we must be doing something wrong. The devastating implications for the church musician are obvious. Such pragmatism, critics of the church growth industry say, tends to quantify success. For church musicians, a "successful" music program would thus be identified by the size and numbers of our choirs, the breadth of our music program, the number of people involved and, most important, its attractiveness to outsiders. We aspire -- as congregations and as church musicians -- to emulate the fastest-growing and the biggest. And whatever it takes, musically speaking, for that to happen is its own justification.

Consumerism asks its own set of questions: How do we compete in the denominational marketplace? How do we get our piece of the pie, our market share? Are we giving people what they want, musically speaking, when they come to church? Or the even more insidious question, Are we meeting people’s perceived needs (as if we ever could) ? We tend to shop around; if a church does not offer our kind of religiosity -- and our kind of music -- we will go down the block to one that does.

Such questions, critics of the church growth industry suggest, reflect basic misunderstandings about worship and its music. We do not come to worship to shape it to our own ends, but to be shaped by God who calls us together to hear his word and share his meal. Likewise, calls for a more pragmatic, consumer-oriented worship and church music are more concerned with sociology and psychology than with theology. The claim that such approaches are theologically neutral is sheer nonsense. The medium is the message; there is a close connection between what we believe and how it is expressed and celebrated, whether in word, action or music.

The church growth industry has thrived in mainline churches that are panicked by declining memberships and looking for a quick fix to reverse the trend. Church growth has strong adherents, both within and without church bureaucracies -- adherents who are just beginning to be challenged by serious theological voices. One can anticipate the musical aspect of the dialogue to get more heated in the ‘90s.

As leaders of the people’s song, church musicians in the ‘90s will be increasingly at the forefront helping pastors and congregations understand the role of music in their life together as the people of God. The central act by which the church is constituted is at stake as people, pastors and church musicians alike continue to determine the doxa and the dogma.