Music in the Church 2

Music in the Church (part 2)

THERE are certain kinds of religious or gospel folk songs and styles of performance that are out of place in the church. I personally question the use of amplified guitars, a trap-drum set, and a bass viol played in a certain style that emphasizes beat and rhythm. These instruments have so many associational connections with secular musical situations that are openly wanton and musically and morally vulgar, that the minds of most people would be diverted from the worship service by their use. . .

-Chairman, Music Department, Andrews University at the time this article was written

THERE are certain kinds of religious or gospel folk songs and styles of performance that are out of place in the church. I personally question the use of amplified guitars, a trap-drum set, and a bass viol played in a certain style that emphasizes beat and rhythm. These instruments have so many associational connections with secular musical situations that are openly wanton and musically and morally vulgar, that the minds of most people would be diverted from the worship service by their use.

The early Christian church had strong feelings regarding the introduction of any musical instrument into the religious services. In ancient times musical instruments had long been associated with practices that were not only secular but totally immoral, and the church needed three centuries to eradicate the worst of these orgiastic customs. The use of instruments was banned by the church because it was felt that their use in religious services would remind the congregation of events associated with secular, wicked practices. One cannot find a single church historian who condemns the early church for its decision to prohibit musical instruments in worship services, even though the only basis for this prohibition was association.

There may come a time when there is no longer an unsavory association connected with the amplified guitar, the trap-drum set, and other similar instruments, and when their use will no longer be responsible for a diversion from an attitude of worship. However, I doubt that this will occur during the decade of the 1970's, and it may never happen. I applaud the church pastor who today will not allow them into his worship service, since they are used almost exclusively for activities that are secular and often degrading. And there are such pastors, both within and without the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

When we come to church in order to find an environment that is unique for one day in seven, let us leave behind anything that may not contribute to worship objectives. The music that is to be used in religious services has for its purpose the enhancement of the worship experience. If our worship services are truly dedicated to God, then should we not make sure that no distractions of any kind are permitted to interrupt the holy communion? If the sound or the appearance of an ensemble in church relates to jazz bands or to rock 'n' roll combos whose primary achievement has been to produce a negative influence on those performing and listening, then this presentation is not wise, and one must question the judgment of those engaged in it. Is their interest really in worship or merely in performance? Are they being victimized by the popular music industry an industry that has discovered that there is publicity value in being identified with church activities, and that seeks to make pop church music a major industry in a taste-manipulated and media-conscious world? By appropriating the so-called folk and popular idiom, is the church simply taking the easy way out, instead of facing the problem of developing a contemporary church music that is vital and significant?

It is one thing to accept the sensitive, virile, and original composing that was done by church muscians of the Reformation Era, and it is quite another thing to accept the present onslaught of amateurish church music written in an "off-the-streets" style. "Church musicians have been wondering just how far ought the church to go in trying to keep up with the latest popular trends in order to be 'contemporary' or 'relevant.' Is it to be hard rock this month and folk-rock or hillbilly or country and Western or rhythm and blues (white or soul) the next? How far can the church go in tolerating ephemerality?" 1 These questions face many churches, and easy Satisfactory answers will not come readily.

When folk music is used in church there is danger that its secular connotations will detract from the solemnity of the religious service; when jazz and rock are employed the danger becomes even greater. One cannot be unaware of the close association of jazz with social dancing and the night club. The connections of jazz and rock 'n' roll with immorality, civil disobedience, and criminal acts are well known. "It is difficult to believe that the people who fill a cathedral are praising God while listening to the improvisations of a jazz combo," 2 yet in some places jazz and rock have become a part of the religious services.

In all churches, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church is no exception, there are pressures to liberalize musical standards. The younger generation seems bored with the standard hymnody of our church, and part of the responsibility for this restlessness lies with those of us who are church leaders and musicians. I tend to agree with Austin Lovelace, one of the most respected church musicians of our age, when he says:

The mess we are in is related to the fact that we have done a poor job of training youth in what Christianity, worship, and good music are. . . . The average junior ... is brought up on musical pablum of the worst sort. Youth have not heard great music, they do not know great hymns, and they are going to want what they hear pounded out by the commercial world . . . even in church. Our forefathers who learned the gospel songs want to sing them alt the time; and now our youth who know little but rock and roll want that all the time. 3

If Mr. Lovelace has made an honest appraisal of the musical situation in many of today's churches, and there is much to indicate that he has, what can be done about it? What are some of the answers? In his descriptive comment on church music, Ralph Thibodeau, a Catholic church musician, gives a practical but slightly overstated suggestion:

I think it is possible to ... make the church more relevant to man in our day. But in the . . . matters in which they [pop church singers] are granted expertise, they often seem not so much healers of souls as witch doctors, prescribing nostrums and incantations for the worship of the Lord. Perhaps in the present turmoil it is impossible to retain the old structures ... of the church. . . . This will have to be seen. But if we may be permitted yet to seek beauty in the architecture, art, and music of the church, if we may yet worship in the temple, then, in all good sense, let us kick out the witch doctors and call back the musicians. 4

When the Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking is presented, a physician is asked to explain the physio logical problems involved. An architect is consulted when plans are to be made for a new church building, and when the edifice is completed a landscape artist is employed to place around the structure the shrubbery and trees that will give a pleasing balance. But in church music nearly everyone is an "expert," and those who exert the most influence are not necessarily those with the greatest knowledge of music.

Many Adventist musicians feel that what seems to be happening in Thibodeau's church is unfortunately taking place to a smaller degree in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. While the problems of church music are of concern to everyone, the musician should have an opportunity to be heard. When modifying the musical activities of the church, it would seem reasonable to consult those Seventh-day Adventist musicians who have studied music and are practitioners of the musical art. Seventh-day Adventist church musicians are not opposed to change, and because of their musical sensitivity a sensitivity that has been enhanced by years of study they can guide the church as it expands its music practices in the direction of proper relationship to the contemporary scene.

Church music composers of the past, such as Bach, Palestrina, and Martin Luther, took songs of the people and refined them through the gift of their genius. "But the 'street song' was not transported unchanged and unsanctified into the sanctuary. Using his own consumate skill and artistry, Luther forged a new church song which lives to this day." s A look at the twentieth-century church-mu sic scene reveals that there is a need today for men with comparable interests and gifts who will be willing to spend their talents and time as did these church-music giants of past centuries. Educated, professional church musicians should spend time ' » adapting the folk music idiom for use in religious services. This would ensure the best adaptations and arrangements, and the result could be some superior musical settings, avoiding the musical triteness that is the dominant factor in so much of our disposable music of today. Leaders of youth ought to seek the judgment of men of musical and theological experience in any endeavor to publish for church or religious purposes the folk-gospel style of music. Should this not be done, we may find our selves under an influence that is more secular than religious, and one that relates to the world more than to Christ.

Thus far our discussion of "sacred" popular music has dealt primarily with the music. But what are the words saying? The early American gospel music had some very serious deficiencies, it is true, yet theologically speaking, the words of many of our con temporary folk-type songs are weaker than the poorest examples of early gospel hymn texts. Whereas hymns are addressed to God, we remember that by definition gospel songs, as well as folk gospel songs, are addressed to people. To be acceptable, gospel music must do at least one of three things: (1) present the facts of the gospel, (2) bear testimony to the efficacy of the gospel, or (3) call on men to respond. As far as the words are concerned, not all gospel music is acceptable.

Let us consider an old favorite, "It's Real." Through four extended stanzas and a rather dull refrain, this song talks about a spiritual experience, but nowhere does it really mention the basis of our faith--Jesus Christ.

Much of the gospel music that is blaring from radio and TV speakers proclaims a philosophy of life and theology that should cause us concern. Notice, for example, these words from a song that is widely used:

I believe for every drop of rain that falls,

A flower grows.

I believe that somehow in the darkest night

A candle glows.

I believe for everyone who goes astray

Someone will come to show the way.

I believe, I believe.

Referring to this song in his article "What Is 'Pop' Music Really Saying?" Charles W. Keysor gives this thought-provoking comment:

Here we have the essence of religion for many, including, alas, not a few church members. What counts is belief any kind will do. The object of belief doesn't matter. You just have mystical faith in ............. (Fill in the blank for whatever seems important to you.) This popular concept of belief gropes and stumbles in a swamp of objectivism, where it matters not whether one believes in the girl next door, America, or the "Man Upstairs."

What has caused this theological vacuum? How have so many people gotten the idea that belief has no fixed proper object? This sort of mellifluous heresy could achieve popularity only in a Christless culture, where the world's Saviour has been forgot ten or relegated to the Sunday Sabbath School quarterly. 6

Mr. Keysor goes on to call attention to the radio evangelists' use of the concluding lines of the song: "Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, Or touch a leaf, or see the sky Then I know why I believe." Keysor's appropriate comment "Who says that all the pagans live in darkest Africa!"

(To be continued)


1. R. Hillert, "Popular Church Music 20th Century Style," Church Music, vol. 2, 1969, pp. 4, S.

2. D. Wood, "lazz, Folk, Rock, and the Church," Journal of Church Music. September, 1969, pp. 2, 3.

3. Ibid., p. 48.

4. R. Thibodeau, "Threnody for Sacred Music," Church Music, vol. 21969, p. 15.

5. O. Husted, "Church Music Today," address at the 1968 conference of the National Church Music Fellowship, Washington, D.C.

"6. C. W. Keysor, "What Is 'Pop' Music Really Saying?" Christianity Today, Dec. 23, 1966, p. 24.

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-Chairman, Music Department, Andrews University at the time this article was written

July 1973

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