Some unfocused thoughts on church music

In the worship service it has long been during the music where I’ve struggled hardest to worship.

I would much rather hear a professional musician play the organ than hear five praise band amateurs try to keep time and play three chords correctly. However, even in what is now called the traditional service, something is missing.

I once saw Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme live (no, not at church). Now, Steve and Eydie aren’t our favorites, but when that full orchestra kicked in during “Fly Me to the Moon”… Wow! Every hair on my head stood at attention. I was as giddy as a schoolboy. On my Ipod, I listen to the trumpet and organ version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” or the “Hymn of the Cherubim,” or “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” or “Praise to the Lord the Almighty,” and ah… pure joy. I think back to that Orthodox choir we saw in Vladimir, Russia. It may have been the loveliest thing I’ve ever heard on earth. It was an agape moment. That is, I stood agape, stunned.

The organ in a small church tries to mimic an orchestra, but cannot, nor can our puny voices the choir. As an old rock group once put it: “Music, music, I hear music over my head.” On earth, glimpses of heaven will have to do.

Further, for every good hymn in a hymnal, there are two bad ones. Some have dreadful melodies; others, theological weaknesses. The Baptists and Revivalists (especially the former) have given us good things, but music is not one of them. In the Trinity Hymnal, there is a fine modern rewrite of Rock of Ages. I prefer it to the original.

Ok, so hymns and hymn-playing have deficiencies, so why not bring in the contemporary stuff? Well, mainly because it offers no real alternative. For every theologically sound song churned out of the Nashville factories, there are a hundred poor ones. Most are so bad they are barely appropriate for a nursery.

Some find praise music lively and exciting; I find it stale, vapid, and dull. I don’t get tired of “This Is My Father’s World;” I’ve been tired of Michael W. Smith’s music for years. Is anyone still playing 70s and 80s contemporary music in their churches? Other than a song or two here and there (e.g. “Thy Word,” “There is a Redeemer”), probably not much. Ever wonder why? Pop music is like fashion as Tolstoy (or perhaps it was Wilde) described it: everyone laughs at the old and follows religiously the new. It’s not good enough to last. (I can’t read music. If I appreciated it more I probably would’ve graduated to classical years ago, listening to those inexplicably public stations where an erudite host talks in measured tones.)

Worse, I doubt anyone has lately discussed the theological merits of “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” It seems to me that devaluation and desecration of worship, the scrapping of the elements of worship in favor of more, more, more “praise music,” is as big a problem as the inroads of feminism. It’s not a popular topic among people my age to decry the rottenness of contemporary worship. But folks, most of it is rotten. There’s no time to read the Bible during a service, but plenty of time to sing the same praise chorus 14 times.

If you think hymns are irrelevant, there’s another option that doesn’t involve buying an expensive organ: chanting the Psalms. Who can possibly object to that?

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