Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Where's the Breadth?

There are two kinds of people, so the beginning of the joke goes.

There are two kinds of churches...and it's no joke.

For church music it's one of two things:

1. The church uses an organ or piano and sings from a hymn book or printed music in a bulletin. Throw in another instrument if someone else plays one, but the music is essentially the same.

2. The church uses some combination of keyboard, guitar, drums and a cadre of vocalist leaders to lead people singing praise songs whose lyrics appear on a screen. Throw in another instrument if someone else plays one, but the music is essentially the same.

The beginning of the two kinds of people joke usually has some exceptions, but the (humor?) is usually true. Through consultations and interim ministry, the two kinds of churches joke appears to fit over 90 percent of the congregations I've observed.

Is that the way church music should be? Who said so?

My thoughts on this topic rekindled after attending a Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three concert last week--steel guitar, large upright bass, washboard, and harmonica filled St. Edward State Park in Kenmore, WA with the genres of string jazz and ragtime blues. What instruments, creativity, genres and people is the church missing because of an misplaced devotion to a particular strain of music?

A few exceptions come to mind.

The Roman Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Kansas used to offer a diverse orchestra, likely based upon the gifts of the congregation. Bassoon, harp and oboe stood out.

Melanie and I used to worship at Nativity Lutheran Church in New Brighton, MN. The music had a Celtic flavor, with numerous flutes, mandolin, drums and harp.

Community Lutheran Church in Las Vegas hosted (maybe they still do) a country music worship service led by The Honkey Tonk Angels.

I know there are other examples of creative musical breadth in congregational life, but where is it? Where/what are the examples? The time is ripe for the church to take some musical risks. It's not like Mainline Protestant congregations are busting at the seams and the risk of offending folks will end congregational life as we know it. I am thankful for the pioneers who engaged in "worship wars" so that this idea of a guitar in worship would not raise such ire. They withstood much vitriol. Interestingly, "contemporary" worship music has become just as territorial as its predecessors with organ and piano.

What is the goal? I believe the church can facilitate a sense of awe in the Holy and encouragement for the community. It's not that a congregation has to employ a particular genre of music to be faithful, but that the musical gifts of the congregation are cultivated. I believe this movement taps into the creative power of God.

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Location:NW 63rd St,Seattle,United States


  1. Excellent stuff! A variety of musical styles that uses the gifts of the congregation sounds like it would bring glory to God in lots of new ways. To use your joke, there are 2 kinds of people- those who praise God, and those who sit in church. Amen!

  2. The church I served in seminary had a bluegrass group called the vicar's pickers made up of members of the congregation and some others that got picked up along the way (evangelism). The group played once a month and it was the most well attended service of the month. They were great fun and they worked really hard on their monthly musical responsibility. It helped that the organist/choirmaster was also an accomplished mandolin player.

    I think the challenge for using other styles of music is doing them well. My organists and choirs have always been well prepared whereas when I've used acoustic musicians, they sort of show up and work together like a pick up band (vicar's pickers being the exception). Often they get away with it but sometimes the results have been less than stellar. This would not be an issue if the congregation's expectations were low, but they have come to expect outstanding music.

    I'd love to include more variety, but I'm not quite sure how to accomplish it. We have started using some of the John Bell stuff from Iona, but we are a long way from straying too far from the Hymnal 1982 and our tracker organ.