The Common Good
September-October 1997

Where Have All the Choirs Gone?

by Scott Robinson | September-October 1997

The church as custodian of culture.

Debates over "appropriate" styles of music used in worship settings demonstrate how important this aspect of liturgics is to the believer. Music challenges and provokes, as well as satisfies and comforts. Increasingly, cultural pressures about the "uses" of music are entering the life of the church—a blessing to some and a bane to others.

This article offers examples of the church's choices as it seeks to deepen its mission as an advocate of the beauty of God's created order and humankind's creativity. — The Editors

"Try to imagine how your priest might react," wrote Keith Shafer in The Living Church, "if a group of parishioners said, 'We think your sermons are too intellectual. We know you have a seminary education, but we've been watching the television evangelists, and frankly, they involve us emotionally. So we'd like you to begin preaching in a more folksy style. We're confident that you'll see how popular this sort of thing is, and that it will increase attendance at services. And please don't be inflexible...if you don't go along with us, we'll find someone who will.'"

Shafer, a church musician, was responding to the pressure under which many music ministers find themselves to accommodate what they see as an ill-considered demand for third-rate church music. And there is a strong case to be made that banal and frivolous music bespeaks a banal and frivolous theology. What does our sacred music say about the Most High? Does it say with Thomas, "My Lord and my God," or rather, as Thomas Day put it in Why Catholics Can't Sing, "Have a nice day, God!"?

Yet Shafer's call for a "Just Say No to Renewal Music" movement is specious. Style is, of itself, neutral. (There is a variety of service, but the same Lord.) What counts is a commitment to excellence within whatever stylistic, demographic, financial, or other parameters we find ourselves. But in a desperate bid to increase flagging attendance and bolster Laodicean spirits, many churches have become so afraid of throwing out the baby of "relevance" that they retain the bathwater of inane music.

Michael Dennis Browne, librettist for Stephen Paulus' church opera The Three Hermits, describes text as a boat, and music as the water buoying it up. His metaphor echoes Martin Luther's description of scripture as the rough manger in which God is laid. Whether as simple as a boat or manger, or as complex as an opera or psalm, the forms we use to glorify God proclaim what we believe about God. What follows are profiles of some organizations that take seriously the commitment to offer a worthy sacrifice of musical praise.

Hungry for Solid Food
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. — 1 Corinthians 9:22

You'll never see a sign outside a church offering "pop" services as an alternative to "traditional" ones. We won't say "pop service" because we want, if not an odor of sanctity, at least an air of legitimacy. But I worry that using "contemporary" as a euphemistic code word for "pop" has the effect of—perhaps even the intention of—silencing and marginalizing serious music. Yet it is that seriousness which confers legitimacy; if it didn't, we would call pop services by their name.

Not content simply to use music in a pop style, Grace Fellowship in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, employs all the trappings of popular entertainment, including synthesizers, light and sound crews, stagehands, and video. Rather than offer an alternative to the prevailing culture, they seem determined to beat MTV at its own game. And though they continue to call what they do "contemporary," their pop services seem to be paying off; attendance has increased 300 percent since music director Chris Atkins arrived in 1994.

Atkins' first cleansing act was to replace the "Holy Karaoke"—prerecorded song accompaniments—in use when he arrived with actual musicians. So serious is his commitment to strong music that these "worship leaders" must sign letters of agreement with the church. Without dependable music in a polished pop style, Atkins couldn't depend on the congregation either.

"In the Brooklyn Park/Champlin area," he explains, "many of the people come from unchurched backgrounds, or from hurting experiences in churches, where there's alienation, and have identified some of the icons of those bad experiences." Those charged images include some very taken-for-granted things.

"We do not have an organ at our church," Atkins says, as the mere sight of the pipes "would be an icon that would not fit the community we are serving. It would evoke images for them of a church that seemed inaccessible—that they felt they could not enter into." As Paul vowed to turn vegetarian if the possibility that the meat had been sacrificed to idols might wound the conscience of his weaker brethren, so has Atkins embraced the pop idiom in deference to his wounded constituency.

But couldn't such rapid growth be compared to the seeds that fell on shallow soil? Aren't "worship leaders" actually a Sunday morning version of Saturday night's rock stars?

In answer, Atkins compares Grace to another large evangelical congregation, Wooddale Church, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. "What you need to understand about Grace Fellowship is that we are in a predominantly blue-collar community. Wooddale is in a highly professional, more culturally literate community," Atkins opines. This is why, he believes, Wooddale is able to have a choir at all services, while Grace cannot field a choir at all. In addition, Wooddale culls players for its orchestra from its own music school. Their services include everything from newly composed art music to classic repertoire, traditional hymns, and praise songs.

While he acknowledges Eden Prairie's white-collar demographic, music director David Bullock hesitates to ascribe the success of his program to it. "My premise is that people respond to quality regardless of style," he says, pointing out that the evangelical community is "beginning to open up to discussing content instead of style" and focusing on spiritually enriching worship over against a "formula for getting people in the door."

Another goal for Bullock is to undo the damage done by well-meaning choir directors whose musical ambitions surpass their choirs' abilities. "When we do something classically oriented, we do it well, so people say, ‘Oh, that was good!', as opposed to when a little 18-voice choir with no tenors" tries to tackle subtle or complex music.

Disharmonies Over Music Ministry
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants.... Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. — Matthew 20:25; 1 Peter 5:3

"When I come into a situation like this, I don't try to find out what went on. I try to offer a healing presence." The more one digs into the recent past of one of the country's most renowned church music programs, the more fitting rector William Warner's approach shows itself to be. Like the elephant described by blind men variously as a rope, a snake, and a tree, the near-dismantling of Emmanuel Music by Massachusetts' Episcopal Diocese is variously accounted for by the parties involved; and Warner's experience ministering to parishes in "organizational chaos" has stood him in good stead.

Today, the church runs a children's choir, composed of parish and inner-city kids, which periodically leads worship and gives concerts around the city. Like all of Emmanuel's music programs, this is a project of Emmanuel Music (EM), which, though it was separately incorporated for tax purposes in 1979, has remained integral to the church.

Though the parish does invest in EM's programs, it reaps a return from frequent benefit concerts, according to Pulitzer laureate composer John Harbison, a long-time parishioner and musical consultant. This money helps the church maintain—in partnership with city and state government—a Safe Haven Center for homeless schizophrenic women, while EM concert revenues directly support an AIDS Respite Team ministry.

But EM has always been foremost the music ministry to the parish—which was at the heart of Emmanuel's troubles.

When the Rev. Michael Kuhn became rector in 1990, he inherited a parish with a 20-year tradition of Bach cantata performances during the services. These works, which Bach composed for liturgical use, are "very oddly shaped for concert performance," according to EM's director Craig Smith. Based on hymn tunes, and usually beginning with a large, complex fugue for choir and orchestra, they end with a simple chorale setting of the hymn—unusual for concert works, which more often increase in complexity as they unfold.

Yet in the context of the Eucharist such an arrangement can be very moving, as the chorale tune, hinted at throughout the work, coalesces into a broad, sweeping, familiar statement at the end—especially as the cantata texts reflect the day's scripture readings and tie the service together. For this reason, and by dint of tradition and inertia, EM was committed to keeping them in the services. Lectures and chamber music, the Jazz Coalition, and larger works like passion settings EM relegated to concerts, both in the church and at the New England Conservatory. But the cantatas were part of parish worship.

But Kuhn, according to Harbison, "was not sympathetic to the very prominent role the arts were playing in the church." And when Kuhn began holding Mass for a small group on Sunday evenings, the perceived threat to the centrality of the music program became a lightning rod.

"There were people who came to me and said, ‘I would love to come to Emmanuel, but to sit through a whole cantata, that's not where we are,'" Kuhn says. "And to the music leadership in the parish, [the evening service] was threatening—as if that was going to distract from music." A standoff ensued, between Kuhn and a small band of supporters, and a large majority of the parish, whose unusual mix of musicians and artists had built a uniquely suited environment for their spiritual community.

But the Episcopal Church, unlike the Congregational Church from which many New England Episcopalians come, is not democratic. The Greek word episkopos means "bishop," and the Episcopal Church is governed accordingly by a hierarchy, with the rector of a parish as its chief liturgical officer. There is an elected vestry, but Kuhn and the late Bishop David Johnson questioned the appropriateness of paid musicians, many of them non-Episcopalians, serving on it. When tensions came to a head, the vestry filed for a Dissolution of the Pastoral Relationship under Canon 21 of the National Convention. (For undetermined reasons Canon 20, which provides for the reconciliation of such tensions, was bypassed.)

Four years later, EM—in whose support such musical luminaries as Seiji Ozawa, Kurt Masur, Christopher Hogwood, Andre Previn, and Peter Sellars appealed to the late bishop—is stronger than ever. On a total budget smaller than the rector's salary, they have expanded their concert schedule, produced a number of lauded recordings, and commissioned new works—including a Hebrew choral piece, in conjunction with a Boston synagogue, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. The atmosphere Smith described as "very lively and non-routine" has been restored, and the parish has a rector supportive of their celebrated and unique cantata program.

"The choir and orchestra members are an integral part of the community," Rev. Warner says. "They pledge, their children are active in the Sunday school program, they offer leadership on commissions, and it's wonderful. Is it a church for musicians? It certainly is. But it's a community of many different people from a variety of backgrounds, and we're just glad that we can be a home that is particularly attractive and meaningful to artists."

"The Bach cantata in the context of the Eucharist adds a great deal," he continues, "and the gestalt of the Eucharist with that quality of music—along with a great liturgy and a history of strong preaching—creates a lot of spiritual energy. And what Emmanuel needed to do, and what we're doing, is to create avenues into the world for that energy."

"Sharing God" in a Sacred Space
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly...and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. —Colossians 3:16

What should congregations do that find themselves in conflict over worship style?

As novelist Alice Walker pointed out, we do not come to church to find God, but to share God. This is why traditional church music is simple, sturdy, and suitable for congregational singing—and of a relatively objective character. The goal has been what Bullock describes as "vertical worship," in which the faithful talk not about God, but to God, with a unified voice. According to Warner, "If you try to divide the church into those who are a part of the music and those who aren't, you miss the dynamic completely—it's a straw man. The community is of one nature, and you can't divide it that way."

Yet unlike the early church, in which proselytes were confirmed in the faith before ever participating in corporate worship, modern churches find that services must be worship and evangelism at once. Some, like Wooddale, respond with "blended" worship, offering something for everybody—but the level of musical ability must be exceptional in order to carry this off, since much renewal music is more performance-oriented than participatory.

Many churches now offer praise music in weeknight "Prayer and Praise" services. This is actually an old stratagem, traditionally employed in such settings as the revival meeting. Even in Islam, which permits no liturgical music but Koranic cantillation, the Sufi orders offer public gatherings in which devotional poetry is sung to popular songtunes, and the Hasidic Jews also have a repertory of non-liturgical devotional songs.

One disturbing term in the rhetoric of renewal musicians is "Spirit-filled," which, like "Bible-believing," is a rubric designed to silence opposition by implying a divine mandate. If we need no other discouragement to such divisive language, we have Jesus' warning against the eternal sin of blaspheming the Spirit.

Singers and dancers alike say, "All my springs are in you." —Psalm 87:7

Any features of Christian worship, including music, must, as Rev. Kuhn points out, have a strong faith base, rather than being themselves objects of faith. If any of our worship aids become central to our faith life, eclipsing the central social mission of Christian discipleship, we tempt the judgment of Amos: "Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream."

Finally, we must remember that our struggles over style are a part of the culture wars. Before the throne of the Infinite, there is infinitely little difference between our highest art and our lowest, and all our good works are as filthy rags. The question is not how high our brows are, but how prophetic our voices.

The way we worship is finally about what we are saying of God in the images we hold up. Moses held up a golden serpent in the wilderness—certainly not an easy or congenial image, especially during a plague of serpents. Yet it was a salutary image for the snakebit children of Israel to contemplate, and all who would raise their eyes were healed.

Is the serpent we hold up a lovingly handwrought work of art, or a commercialized reject from Jurassic Park? Though God may choose what is foolish in this world to shame the wise, our sacred art ought not to be dragged down to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of some chimerical democracy.

Scott Robinson was a composer and free-lance journalist in Minneapolis when this article appeared.

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