I’m the music director at my church, my wife is one of our pianists. We and another pianist, a very dedicated and skillful lady, recently attended a Majesty Music Conference in order to gain instruction and, frankly, inspiration for a church music program (our own!) we felt was flagging. It’s my fault entirely, of course, that this was the case. But we all needed help. We were not disappointed.
I came away proud of my alma mater, because almost every person teaching sessions was a graduate of BJU. I have heard Warren Cook and his wife Jean perform and conduct music on countless occasions, but I’d never heard them speak or teach. They were nothing short of stupendous. I was in awe, learned 4.3 tons, and could not stop laughing. I’m so grateful for their gifts and training and experience—and their willingness to share it with a small group whose (very reasonable) registration fees must hardly have covered the workshop leaders’ expenses. Somehow I doubt they were in it for the money. The others who presented did very well, too. The Majesty staff served my church faithfully with the gifts the Lord has given them. Five weeks on, after our church’s first ever choir “performance,” I’m so grateful.
I got tips on leading congregational singing, using group vocal techniques for choirs and ensembles, and planning out various aspects of church music ministry. My wife and our other pianist got tips on modulation, sight-reading, and children’s ministry. The three of us spent all our free time together playing through new music and talking about how to revamp our music ministry. It was very stimulating and encouraging. I learned that three shots in three arms is worth six shots in one.
Now to my point in this post.
On the second and final day of the conference, in the very last session, we had a Q&A with the workshop leaders as panelists. They provided more wisdom and inspiration: they appeared to be a nearly inexhaustible well. Until I asked what I might call a stumper:
Who in this generation is writing to defend and promote the generally conservative worship tradition of Majesty, the Wilds, and similar institutions?
The panelists all looked at one another. After a bit, someone came up with the name of a practitioner, not a writer. Someone from the audience shouted out a name I did and do know: my friend Scott Aniol. That was it. Two names. One whose writing just hasn’t made it onto my radar and another who, if I may speak a little too frankly, writes better for leaders than for church people. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for you, Scott. But I think you’d agree that we need more voices with different gifts for reaching different audiences.
I’m throwing down a gauntlet and writing an uncharacteristically personal plea: church musicians my age who have inherited the worship traditions I’ve inherited, I ask you, please write! I’m not asking you to write to tell me that everything in our tradition is good. (I’m hoping, however, that you won’t tell me it’s all bad!) I feel as if my crowd of Christians is losing its “right” to have its musical tradition, given that people my age have done almost nothing publicly to defend it, promote it, and apply it to our changing cultural realities.
I remember asking my seminary profs on a panel many years ago—custodians of the same overall conservative tradition—something like this: “If we expect Kazakh churches to use musical styles appropriate to their Kazakh cultural situation, and Botswanan churches to use musical styles appropriate to their Botswana cultural situation, where should Americans look in our culture for appropriate musical styles for worship?” I love my profs, and they’re all 14.3 times smarter than I, and I don’t know what they’d say today, but I was underwhelmed by the non-response I received. And these are people I’ve never stumped before or since.
As I’ve checked around with youngish pastoral-type men my age who have experienced the same formational influences I have, my sense is that many feel the same way I do: they are uncomfortable with heavily contemporary, performance-oriented, pop-music-styled music in church; they are comfortable, more or less, with the worship tradition they’ve inherited. We have a basic sense that “don’t be conformed to the world” ought to apply to worship music, and this is bad (not to mention hokey). But they don’t buy all the reasons traditionally given for maintaining our conservative traditions. Rock-music-wilts-plants just isn’t persuasive anymore, if it ever was. Guilt-by-association doesn’t work, either, because that sword cuts both ways: the internet makes the weirdnesses and sins of classic hymn writers just as easy to discover as the doctrinal problems of Hillsong.
As a friend of mine wrote to me recently,
I’m decidedly conservative in my music styles, especially for worship, but aside from [the] “don’t-worship-like-the-world” argument, none of the others have really been convincing in the long term. I really wonder how much of my position is merely tradition and preference, and I have a certain sympathy for people who no longer hold to the same standards. If I’m not convinced with the standard arguments, how can I expect them to be?
But very few theologians in my circles who are my generation or younger, and very few musicians, are stepping into the gaping hole of contemporary argument. There’s a traditionalist United Methodist (?) musician on Patheos whose every post on music is greater than the total output (minus Scott Aniol’s blog) of my generation of BJU graduates. Or at least it seems that way. An undefended tradition is a tradition left to rot. It appears to be something we’re insecure about. And it becomes, I’ll say this again, a tradition we have little or no right to hold. Even when I’ve written a few posts on worship music using my own socio-linguistic angle—such as two posts on pop and two on rap—I’ve felt like I was a lone voice speaking on a topic others with the proper training ought to be speaking to; I felt like I had little authority to speak but had to risk it because of the silence of my more musically knowledgeable friends. Thankfully, my blog is so obscure that I didn’t stir up any hornets.
Even without the right to speak, I feel compelled by Rom 12:2 not to bring rock, pop, rap, country, and jazz styles into church. That’s sufficient for me for now: the argument from worldliness has always felt intuitive to me, starting at least in fifth grade in 1990, when I argued about this very issue in my Christian school with skeptical classmates. But I can see how easy it will be for my own church teens and my own kids to join the skepticism, now that contemporary musical styles are part of the assumed background of our American cultural life—as objectionable as peanut butter.
Theologians do need to form a significant portion of any discussions like those I propose; they will bring careful thinking about culture and careful exegesis of NT passages on church music. But musicians are the only ones who have the specific domain knowledge necessary to make credible arguments for pastors and people in the pew.
I worked hard over many years to popularize—to make accessible to laypeople—the most important new arguments against KJV-Onlyism. I found rhetorical strategies and concepts like “false friends” with which to package up those ideas to help them go farther. I went to considerable effort to write it all up and get it published and promoted. I hope I was able to do all this while maintaining a gentle graciousness toward my brothers who are KJV-Only (initial reactions to the book increase my hope). Plus, my book is short, and it contains jokes my wife found funny. T. David Gordon has done something similar—and his book is short, too—for the church music of upper-middle-class Presbyterians (and indeed he has much to teach my very similar worship tradition); who will do this for the church music of middle-class, conservative Baptistic “us”?
If no one stands in the gap, we will be overrun; and it may be what we deserve. Ironically, it may be the Anglicans and the Protestant mainline who keep alive the beautiful hymns and styles of the Western church music tradition. My impression is that (sweeping generalization alert) some of the KJV-Only folks out to my right are letting revivalistic music with a Southern twang and a nationalist tinge overtake what was once more robust Western church music. I think that’s unfortunate, but the best I can say is 1) that that music feels low-brow (and that nationalism doesn’t belong in church). And 2) it seems to me to be violating the principle I found in Andy Crouch’s work, namely that we are called by the Creation Mandate to cultivate the tradition we’ve inherited. I still see rock and pop and rap as lowest-common-denominator styles, illegitimate children of the Western tradition, “technologically massaged tool[s] for the delivery of pleasing or cathartic emotions” (Crouch, Culture Making, 60).
But people who know better than I do need to duke this one out. So, you music people, please write. I’d even welcome hearing from people nurtured in my tradition who, I sense, don’t quite share my feelings about what worship music ought to sound like. This debate needs to come out of private conversation and into the harsh light and cut-and-thrust of the (Christian) public square: we need books and articles and lectures and whole blogs and Facebook live chats and explainer videos from our educated and gifted musicians. My “side,” which I’m not even sure how to describe, needs to be gracious and assiduous, or (one more time for the road) we deserve to lose.
I fear it’s too late; I fear that we are losing and have lost important institutions that once conserved the Western church music tradition in its specifically English form. But we can’t waste time worrying about what is lost. The time to write is now. A one, and a two, and a NOW.