Michael Van Horn, an associate professor of Worship & Theology at our denominational seminary, North Park in Chicago, relates a story of discussing the worshipping community of her church. Were they organized around a common theology or common mission? The Creeds? The Bible? She didn’t think that sort of unity was possible with her church – too much variety of belief for that. What brought them together, then, Van Horn asked? After some thought, she offered that her church was held together because they all liked the same kind of music. The professor accurately identified that these services were a concert, and the attendees concert-goers, not a worshipping community.
My mind goes immediately to the large highschool youthgroups that my sons went to for a time, and the churches that sponsored them. That is not entirely fair on my part, but the extremes of this problem tend to come from those who seek churches because of their praise-song or Christian-rock music as the main attraction.
Yet there are certainly churches of many musical styles at which the quality of the musicianship is a big draw. That is not just a seeker church phenomenon, and also comes perilously close to being a concert rather than a worship service, for some percentage of the congregation, at least. At a minimum, most Christians have churches they would not attend because of the musical style or quality.
I imagine one of the early church fathers, perhaps the Apostle John, writing “My children, this should not be so.” But it is, and I see parts of it as getting worse instead of better.
Because of electronic reproduction and the internet, music is increasingly a scalable phenomenon. We do not have to rely on local musicians for our entertainment, but have the world’s best brought into our homes – and churches. As Taleb notes in The Black Swan, we can live within a mile of a Russian émigré who is only marginally less talented than the great pianists, but he will remain an impoverished instructor who gives few paid performances because we can listen to the best with little effort. The very few who are at the top of the heap will make a fortune, while everyone else gets little. This holds true in other arts and design as well. There is some extra juice in being at a live performance, but this only partially compensates.
We are quite spoiled, all of us in America, in what we expect when we come into church. A small congregation like mine will not sing powerfully and well – by the world’s standards – even if we were devote hours a week to musical training and rehearsal. Yet our ears expect that power and that quality. Few churches, even large ones with well-trained choirs, eschew all amplification. We are concert-trained, and headphone-trained. It gives us the impression, whether we like it or no, that our singing is a poor and weak thing unless we have a great many of us together or electronic amplification. To unconsciously conclude that we are spiritually weak and ineffective hardly seems a stretch.
Singing in worship is now different from nearly all other singing. A hundred years ago, the singing one did at home, church, and school, or at festivals, pubs, and parties was not that different a musical experience, though the choice of music would be different in each. Worship singing did not stand out as qualitatively different. It was just singing. Piano volume and familiarity of the songs covered a lot of ills in all those situations, and there was an important result: people participated much less self-consciously than now. The energetic and pentecostal-style churches hold up a higher level of participation and flat-out gusto, but even with those, cut the power to the amplification sometime and see how suddenly reserved and uncomfortable everyone is.
We have become dependent on quality, amplification, and niche style. We didn’t have to – we have the same genes and the same scriptures as our ancestors – but it is easy to see what a natural result this is. We stood on ladders and now even tall people look like midgets.
We have unwittingly dug ourselves a hole that will take some effort to get ourselves out of. One must do one’s own worship, and listening to others perform is a permissible, but weakening part of this. Communal singing carries its own earthly pleasure, but a different pleasure than the appreciation of musical power and excellence. Though we have let some spiritual muscles atrophy, we must nonetheless soldier on. Paradoxically, the church-camp music which drove so much of our move to praise songs in worship is now one of the last footholds that communal singing without a lot of assistance has in the rising generation.
Related: you know whether you really like something if you like even poorer versions of it. If you like a style of music only when it is done exceptionally well, then you don’t really like that type of music. You can’t say that you like reading mysteries, or science fiction, when there are only a very few examples you can stand to read.