The Common Good
March 2006

Bridging the Church Music Gap

by Steve Thorngate | March 2006

There's a rich middle ground between organ lofts and praise bands.

At a seminar last year, composer and liturgist Marty Haugen led clergy and church musicians in portions of a new Lenten liturgy he composed with Susan Briehl. He noted dryly that after years of hearing from people who use his Holden Evening Prayer for midweek Lenten services, he thought it time to compose an actual Lenten piece, one that drew from the appropriate texts and themes. Guilty as charged, I glanced at my pastor; others shifted uneasily in their chairs.

That Haugen’s Evening Prayer (GIA Publications) should be a popular choice for Lent—the season during which many congregations hold their only regular evening services—is logical. It’s a lovely vespers; its combination of traditional texts with reverent and fresh settings has struck a chord with many.

What is less clear is why more American churches don’t include a good deal of music like this in all their services, particularly since its engaging mix of tradition and innovation gives answer to the relentless “traditional” vs. “contemporary” debate. Churches expend tremendous energy discussing the relative merits of ancient hymns and radio-ready choruses, and compromises—when they exist at all—are usually problematic. “Blended” services designed to please all the people some of the time are often jarring in their stylistic hairpin turns. And holding two separate weekly services with substantially different music segregates churchgoers based on cultural comfort zones and, especially, age.

Haugen’s new Lent-specific That You May Have Life offers both traditional liturgical elements—antiphony, chant, reading responses—and contemporary, singable melodies. He’s among a number of composers and editors offering church music that is tradition-grounded yet accessible, contemporary but not pop. Their music challenges the basic assumptions underlying blended and style-segregated services—the idea that there are just two fundamental stylistic categories of church music, and that the best solution is merely to embrace both, as equally as possible.

Many resources are available to those who want to look beyond simply balancing the narrowly defined traditional and contemporary. Supplementary hymnals, commonplace in denominational publishing, offer both praise choruses and older hymns left out of the corresponding primary hymnals. But most also include music that bridges the gap between “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and “I Can Only Imagine.”

Many contain African-American songs and selections from the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere. Music from various cultures is useful to churches situated in diverse communities and pursuing racial reconciliation and justice; it is also one way in which U.S. congregations can engage the global church. What’s more, it sounds new and fresh to a huge variety of Americans—the songs “belong” neither to the proponents of a by-the-book organ liturgy nor to those of lyrics projected on a wall behind a rock band.

A lot of these songs come from folk traditions and are livelier and easier to learn than the bulk of European and North American hymnody. While not doctrinally overstuffed like a Martin Luther hymn, they tend to be meatier and less self-focused than many American choruses.

Global music is central to the growing canon of material that, in the United States, resists easy, this-or-that classification. Also in this category is music from a number of U.S. and European faith communities. Glenn Kaiser of Chicago’s Jesus People USA has published many songs that are essentially praise choruses but with a simplicity, gentleness, and scriptural grounding that lend them wide appeal. The beloved music of the Taizé community in France—most of it by Jacques Berthier—features stark, contemplative settings of scriptural and liturgical texts.

Haugen’s Evening Prayer came out of time spent at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in Washington state. Like Haugen, John Bell and Graham Maule of Scotland’s Iona Community have channeled their compositional energy into liturgical music as well as stand-alone songs. These communities seek to root themselves in Christ and church tradition while exploring new ways of corporate worship life, and one result has been innovative liturgical music, much of which is available in several denominational supplementary hymnals.

This emphasis on liturgy is an important one. A frequently unexamined assumption in conversations about high-vs.-pop-culture church is that the typical complaints about hymns (wordy, boring, no cool drums) apply also to liturgy. Perhaps even more than with hymnody, the inaccessibility and irrelevance of liturgy are often not demonstrated so much as taken for granted.

What can be off-putting to the uninitiated is a rigid approach to liturgical texts and music. Fortunately, there is no shortage of contemporary liturgical resources available to church leaders who want to explore new interpretations of content without abandoning ancient forms.

The psalms are one area that has received much attention. Plainsong psalm tones are not necessarily the most accessible settings for many of today’s churchgoers. Neither are the old praise-chorus versions that cram King James texts into four-chord rock songs. But the psalms proclaim deliverance for the oppressed, condemnation of the unjust, and God’s compassion for all. They are as doleful in lament as they are ecstatic in praise—their original function as songs of communal worship affirms the dignity of humanity in all its duplicity and helplessness. Christians of vastly different backgrounds continue to share an appreciation of the psalms as texts specifically relevant for worship.

In last year’s Voicing God’s Psalms (Eerdmans), Calvin Seerveld offers bold, contemporary translations of 37 psalms for liturgical reading. About half of these he also pairs with lovely Genevan and Welsh melodies. Seerveld’s work highlights well the psalms’ intense and diverse emotional quality.

The two-volume Psalms for the Church Year (GIA) finds Haugen, David Haas, and Carolyn Sternowski presenting new psalm antiphons and canticles organized by the lectionary. The translations are natural and fresh, the tunes simple but memorable.

Charles Pettee and FolkPsalm have released two independent albums of adapted psalms convincingly set to progressive bluegrass music. This makes some sense, as the bluegrass genre, like the psalms themselves, expresses joy and sorrow with an equally startling baldness.

House of Mercy , a church in St. Paul, Minnesota, plans not just psalmody but a whole weekly service of music around a house band that plays bluegrass, country, and classic American hymns with equal stylistic integrity. Recently, House of Mercy commissioned and premiered a complete service liturgy, and its band released an album of songs and hymns, Songs of Mercy (Mercy Recordings).

Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan sets both traditional and deeply rooted original texts to music that ranges from simple, graceful hymn tunes to upbeat pop songs. His Worldmaking (River’s Voice) offers several songs and hymns and enough liturgical music for a complete service. Bruxvoort-Colligan’s more pop-oriented material is particularly noteworthy for its merging of liturgical form and praise-band style.

Self-contained liturgies of new music are exciting because they encourage use in their entirety, creating complete services of music simultaneously traditional and contemporary. But it’s unrealistic to expect congregations to simply abandon the poles of the music continuum, to never again sing “Shout to the Lord” or a Bach chorale.

It’s also true that a number of churches that approach music from one pole or the other also dabble in less familiar material. Organists gamely plod through choruses, and praise bands rock out on old warhorse hymns. Many of these churches also draw from some of the more centrist resources discussed here.

But too often, this sort of music is programmed as an exception to the dominant pattern of whichever polarized model. Thus the overall tone of a service’s music—a deal-breaker for many people—is not really changed. For music both tradition-grounded and accessible to function as a uniter, it needs to comprise the main pool from which weekly programming is drawn—with sufficient space reserved in the margins for rock songs or plainsong.

This is a difficult goal. It requires diversely skilled musicians, especially pianists—as this versatile instrument perhaps does more to authentically bridge the style gap than does any other element.

Another hurdle is the fact that primary hymnals of most denominations include little, if any, of the sort of music described here. Supplementary hymnals offer more, but many churches don’t have them in their pews. The books are small, many are paperback, and they include none of the more obvious choices already published in the primary books of worship.

One recent hymnal that breaks this model is Gather Comprehensive, a Catholic volume from GIA. It’s designed not as a supplement but a primary hymnal, stylistically diverse but favoring the contemporary—which here is not crudely reduced to “pop.” Gather offers10 complete Mass settings, dozens of psalms and canticles, an assortment of additional liturgical music, and a vast array of hymns and songs. The hymnody leans toward newer material but includes a solid assortment of familiar older hymns, many of Protestant origins.

Gather also includes an unusually thick selection of good songs on social justice themes. Justice is a major concern in the writing of Haugen, Haas, and other major contributors; it is of course a pivotal one in the cultural contexts surrounding African-American spirituals and music from the developing world. The core value of justice is as central to meaningful worship as are cultural relevance, reverence for tradition, and stylistic integrity—all values reflected by this “third way” of church music.

This Lent, a number of congregations will program Haugen’s That You May Have Life. Holy Week will feature much Taizé music, and congregations that observe only a skeleton of the church calendar will join liturgical churches on Good Friday in singing the spirituals “Calvary” and “Were You There?” Some churches will even continue to do a significant amount of this sort of music throughout the year. The more congregations give preference to music that is both centered in fluid tradition and centrist in focus, the closer we will get to a truce in the peculiar sort of cultural debate that pervades American church music.

Steve Thorngate, a church musician who has worked in Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Covenant Church, and nondenominational congregations, was editorial assistant at Sojourners when this article appeared.

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