I Looked for a Musician to Stand in the Gap

by Jun 14, 2018ChurchLife, Culture14 comments

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.

A Question

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.

A Gauntlet

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.

An Insecurity

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.

A Call

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.

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  1. Dan Kreider

    Mark, one of the few remaining options is that, in fact, there ARE no compelling biblical reasons for measuring modern church music against the rules of the Common Practice Period. I’m not saying whether I believe that (cop-out), merely that it should be considered as a very real possibility.

    I’ve read the relevant books (most of them, I think). I just find the arguments profoundly uncompelling. Is it for lack of trying? I don’t think so.

    I probably bemoan many of the same trends you do in this arena. But I believe they’re largely trailing indicators of a larger problem. Music is more an effect than a cause. I would rather see the focus shift towards personal holiness, robust ecclesiology, and a nurturing of substantive doctrinal content in the songs we sing. Let the musical style work itself out. And I think it likely will.

    • Mark Ward

      Your last paragraph makes a lot of sense, Dan. I’ve heard Keith Getty say the same thing. I don’t know that I share your confidence that style *will* work itself out, because I have seen churches with doctrinally substantive preaching but what I can only call worldly worship music. However, I’ve also seen places like 9Marks (and, I presume, your own church?) where the style is maybe a little but more inflected with popular music styles than I might care for but where, quite clearly, biblical imperatives for congregational singing—teaching one another with songs requires singing, and requires being able to hear one another, and requires singable melodies—are keeping lots and lots of stuff out of bounds, stuff you and I both bemoan.

      Hey, hang around. I have a feeling this will be one of those rare posts where I get a few comments…

      (And have you read Crouch’s Culture Making?)

  2. Ron Bean

    First of all, I’m on your side. I’ve been asking (politely) and waiting for biblical reasons for the conservative music style most associated with typical fundamentalism.(Isaac Watts, Wesleys, Newton, and Revival Songs) Having been saved out of the rock music business, I was embarrassed by Frank Garlock’s “The Big Beat: A Rock Blast” but ignored its arguments. Association/worldliness arguments lost their credibility when some writer would compose a more singable tune to an old hymn (i.e. He Will Hold Me Fast) and it would be dismissed. New music was OK if it was from BJU or the Wilds but other new music was questionable. My wife is a musician and we discuss this quite a bit. Our most recent conclusion is that everyone seems to have a style of music they like but are unable to find a Biblical warrant for their style.

    • Mark Ward

      That’s precisely what I don’t want to conclude and am afraid to conclude… I’ve leaned on linguistic arguments, treating music as a language carrying meaning. It shouldn’t surprise us that people have a hard time articulating what music means, because they have a hard time articulating what a word means. That is, they can’t describe very well how they know what a word means; they just know. I do think music is the same way. Rap means. Country means. Classical styles mean. We know what they mean, because we live in our culture and in this created world.

  3. Robert Vaughn

    Good thoughts, Mark. Like you, I don’t see a lot of folks taking up this baton and running with it. Two that you mention — Scott Aniol and Jonathan Aigner — are the only ones I am aware of doing it consistently. From time to time I’ve linked to articles on church music. You might weed through the following links and find some that interest you.

    Also (since you mentioned 9Marks you may be aware of this) 9Marks Journal for May–June 2014 (Volume 11, Issue 2) dealt with the topic of “The Church Singing.” I don’t endorse all of what is written there, but it contains articles with thoughtful reflection on the subject of music in the churches.

    I hope this links in the reply are OK, and that this might contain something useful to you. Take care and God bless.

    • Mark Ward

      The article by Ken Myers is one I’ve read several times. It’s gold. Just to have a smart person like Myers “take” my “side” (double scare-quotes there because I’m not sure he’d agree he’s doing that…) is an encouragement.

  4. Andrew Efting

    “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’d like to push back on this a bit if I may. I agree with your first sentence here but I think the second may contribute to the problem. I think pastors are often intimidated to not say anything because they don’t feel like they are qualified, when they could be doing much good work here. I was not at this conference but I listened to Dr. Minnick message from Jude. I think what he said applies here — we are losing this battle because we are not contending for it.

    Here is my question: Do you really have to be a musician to understand the issue and make godly choices in this area?

    • Mark Ward

      This is good pushback. Not being trained musicians doesn’t give you and me, for example, excuses. But I guess I’d have to apply John Frame’s triperspectivalism here: moral decision making involves 1) a person applying 2) a norm 3) to a situation. And it’s the situation that non-musicians don’t understand quite as well. I have heard pastors and theologians say things about music that seemed to me to be pretty off-the-wall.

      I listened to Minnick’s message last night on a plane trip (I had to leave the conference a little early). I thought it was excellent. I do think non-musicians can make godly choices. I guess I’m talking about institutional-level and movement-level thought leadership. On our toughest issues, that leadership should come from the most qualified people—or I would think so! There’s no reason a pastor couldn’t have these qualifications, but wouldn’t we expect the members of the body gifted to minister in the area of worship music to be the most qualified?

  5. Robert Vaughn

    Andrew mentioned that he thought “pastors are often intimidated to not say anything because they don’t feel like they are qualified.” I have an anecdotal story along that line, from a church long long ago and far far away (when I was a teenager). We had a pastor who was very active and outgoing and did a lot promoting the music in the church. He was very successful incorporating the young people (especially teens and pre-teens) in the music/choir. We had an untrained lay-member who was the music director. This pastor thought he and the music director had gone as far as they could go with the music program and convinced the church to hire a professional music minister. It was all downhill from there! I know this isn’t exactly what Andrew is talking about, but I do think it intersects in the fact that the pastor came to a point he didn’t feel qualified to continue “saying and doing” when he should have. Looking back over that distance, the problem may not have been the fact of a music minister so much as that he was pretty much out of touch with the music program of the church — that, and that everything had to be his way.

    Mark, you asked, “wouldn’t we expect the members of the body gifted to minister in the area of worship music to be the most qualified?” That seems a normal expectation. But pastors shouldn’t opt out of leadership in this area. I can’t imagine it, but I have a decent understanding of the knowledge and practice of music. Perhaps some just aren’t interested. (I’ve known a few pastors in my lifetime who would have been as happy as a hog in a mudhole if there had been no music program at all.) Ideally, it seems that those gifted in teaching (which should include teaching what the Bible says about music) should coordinate well with those who are gifted in the area of music itself.

  6. Josh

    Here is my two cents:

    First, good luck. Really, I thought the reasons of my youth were quite embarrassing. Haven’t heard much different since. And maybe because there isn’t and should not be.

    What do you want? Seems you want to feel good that you have warrant to do what you think is best. If that is so, no one is stopping you. If you want to have your opinion heard and respected in the public square, then put it out there.

    Personally, I think it will only backfire. Some thoughts that came to mind that got me thinking. One, you seem to push the idea for the notion of brute reality and objective “fact”. In this case, there is only interpretations and responses. Two, and probably what struck me most, is that I get the sense that you feel your views are not contestable. I say this with some hesitation because I would be surprised (as I would be) if you would actually agree. let me put this sense I have out there: I wonder if you (really the collective nature of fundamentalists) think your religious position should take precedence in the public square. Please don’t take this as a jab. I am trying to put together my take on the situation and not create some spin story—which seems to be a trait of those who identify as fundamentalists. That shell of protection they seem to want to create to protect themselves from cross-pressure. Which has led to isolation.
    But ironically, this is what has happened to the rest of us. And one big reason I thought what you propose will never come to fruition. Our modern world is now one of enclosed communities. Good luck climbing the walls. Ours is a world where we (the majority) just don’t bump into others who hold different beliefs. The city has very little in common with the suburbs. Furthermore, as much as folk want us to read the nutrition labels on the Big Mac or even the 6-inch sub, we don’t. We just wonder around in this open space of a system we created for ourselves going to and fro and around all that is within. All the while, few of us lands on anything definitive. It’s too complicated for any of that to honestly occur. We’d rather live in the middle. And frankly, your reasons, just like the nutritional data at fast food restaurants, are not the sole change agent. (As I know you would agree). Much of this comes from my own wrestling with the matter, and from my now 1 year at a SGC church (and long time personal friendship with an atheist). Don’t assume I “buy” into all song selections etc. I don’t. I mention it because this imagery I’ve painted is real for me. I am in their story. A different story. For instance, when I shared the idea of “singing TO one another”, the associate pastor says to me, “I’ve always saw that is what we are doing.”

    I also get the sense that folks today are stifled by instrumental reason. In a way, the mystery gets let out. And frankly, our modern world wants mystery. There is something more out there than this repressed life we’ve been living in for so long and still being ‘pushed’ by some groups today. They don’t want religious proper/traditional religion. (Sorry, but it just is implausible for most). And music is the outlet.

    I’ll apologize in advance if my words come across in the wrong manner. I got to thinking, started typing, and didn’t stop until I ran out of breath.

    Well, that’s my two cents.

    • Mark Ward

      Josh, it’s good to hear from you. Just saw your twin brother last week. I’m afraid I’m not sure I really follow all that you’re saying here… I think I’ll only note that I’m well aware that my position *is* contestable. And even if I didn’t think it was, it (empirically speaking) is: it gets contested all the time.

      I have put my opinion out in the public square—well, as public as my blog. =) But I don’t think it’s wrong to hold a position one needs help defending. I’ve got enough knowledge of Greek to follow the arguments for the Protestant translation of John 1:1 rather than the Jehovah’s Witness (mis)translation, but I couldn’t create those arguments.

      Thanks for sharing our two cents!

      • karacter0

        Thanks for the reply. Sorry for any confusion. My comment about ‘contestable’ were more toward Fundamentalists in general than at you particularly.

        I think what would help clear up the confusion I created, would be for me to take more time to relate more closely with what you said here. And then to reply more particularly. I didn’t really want to do so because of all the other obligations I have to attend to. Not being around this all day like yourself and others, I don’t have the storehouse of knowledge and experience to easily and quickly pull from.

        Above all, I want to say that I do think this matters. So, thank you for addressing the issue. That it matters became very clear to me when my wife and I moved to where we live now a couple years ago. Previous to this move, I had been blessed for many years under the pastors of Emmanuel Bible Church in Mauldin. I guess I have the case of, “Some times you don’t know what you have until it is gone.” Here, we go to a church where Christ is preached. God meets us in His Word and His people every week. But some of the leaders’ choices for conducting worship has continued to fill my mind with thoughts and questions. I’ve recently begun a conversation with them since I’ve been unable to resolve them personally.

        But why? Why has my worship on Sunday ‘bothered’ me? This isn’t a question with a simple answer, I think. Obviously, it seems to be important to me; otherwise, I wouldn’t keep thinking about it. A new thought occurred to me the other day. Maybe I think it is important because of what worship has been created to be. Particularly, a tool for formation, which imply the importance of the means. And so, maybe I seem not to let this go because what’s on the line is who I will become. Let me put this in more concrete terms.

        When choosing friends, schools, or a church, it’s important to look at the product. Because, in some sense, that’s your future. You want to know if a church may be a good fit for you and your family? Look at those who are older and been there the longest. They are a good visible sign of who you will become.

        To finish, it’s my opinion that this is still important because my formation is important. And, for me in my situation at least, more to the issue, it’s about the means for formation. That’s probably why I have changed my views on the applications for liturgy in church. EBC allowed me to see and understand this on a personal level. Teachers outside my local body have helped me in this area as well from a more critical level (Alastair Roberts, James K.A. Smith, N.T. Wright, Michael Horton’s ministry, etc).

        Thanks for allowing me to share some thoughts.

  7. Andrew Efting

    I suspect that pastors and theologians are afraid of saying something “off-the-wall” and so not saying anything at all. Or they have been pressured into thinking that music is just a minor issue that we shouldn’t make a big deal about. I don’t know what the answer is but this is an issue I care deeply about and would also like to see someone stand in the gap, as it were.

    I’m not a musician and cannot explain what musical elements make a song a rock song or a rap song or a pop song, and further, why those elements make those genres objectionable to me. I suppose that would be helpful but I’m not sure it is necessary. I think it is possible to identify types of music and what that type of music is about and make appropriate moral choices concerning that music without understanding all the underlying mechanics of what makes it so.

    Ultimately, and especially in regard to church music, the issue is what does this music communicate about God? What does it say about his character, his beauty, his majesty, his holiness, his love, and every other aspect of his person? Style is a major part of that communication, and I just think that pastors in particular need to take the lead in this conversation, especially with their congregations, and should not shy away from teaching and preaching on this topic.

    If we have musicians that can stand in the gap, I’m all for that, too.

  8. Robert Vaughn

    Andrew, I suspect pastors and theologians not delving deeply into this issue has varying causes – from, as you say, fear of saying something “off-the-wall,” to not caring deeply about the issue, to thinking music really isn’t “theological” business, to believing it is best left for the musicians.

    I’m not a musician in any professional sense, but read music, understand the rudiments of music, etc. Nevertheless, I don’t think I could explain either what musical elements make certain genres objectionable to me. I guess one question in connection with that is, “Do we have to be able to explain our objections in relation to musical elements?” It would probably be good for someone to be able to do so! But, if not, does that nullify our objections?

    I agree with you that pastors should not shy away from teaching and preaching on this topic. And, of course, they should be biblically informed. Musicians standing in the gap are also good! In some cases, I fear that professional church musicians may be moved as much by self-interest as by standing in the gap. That comment is too generalized, but I have experience with some who fit that accusation.