And our mouths shall show forth thy praise
I wrote in my church newsletter column this month about the idea that “Religion must sing or die,” as Martin Luther put it. Music has always been part of worship. And there has always been a push-and-pull about what kind of music is best in worship. In our day, the back and forth between “contemporary” worship style with its use of P&W (“Praise and Worship”) or CCM (“Contemporary Christian Music”) songs and “traditional” worship style with hymns and gospel songs continues to stir passions. (One friend recently referred to “contemporary” worship style as “wahoo church.” Meanwhile, my old evangelical compatriots used to refer to “high church” worship style as “bells and smells.” Those of us in between sometimes have our worship style referred to as a “hymn sandwich.”)
Now, I like all kinds of music, and don’t think we should have to be limited in what we use to express our worship. And you all know how I like to push a bit to expand our repertoire of songs, and not just from our two hymnals. But when I look back over the history of music in worship, what I see is a constant tug of war between styles of music that we might, for convenience, call “popular” versus “professional.”
Early Christian music was mostly chant. And chanting is actually pretty easy to do. Anybody can pick up the knack. It lends itself well to doing as part of a group. But eventually, the plainsong used all over western Europe was developed by monastic musicians into what we call Gregorian chant. This kind of chant is very melismatic – that is, it stretches syllables over more than one note – and highly ornamented. It takes a lot of training to do Gregorian chant well, and only monks had the time and resources to learn to do it well. So chanting became a thing done by the choir, and ordinary folks stopped singing. Even ordinary clergy went from chanting to reciting, since not all priests had the voice or the training to do it well. (This is the difference between a “high mass” and a “low mass” in the Roman Catholic Church: one is chanted, the other recited.)
Meanwhile, ordinary people were discovering melody. The church decided songs with melody were okay every now and then: carols were sung in church around Christmastide, for instance. This opened up all kinds of possibilities. What did the guardians of church music do? They trumped the single melody line (monophony) with polyphony. Choirs were now singing parts, with multiple melody lines overlapping. It was gorgeous. But it wasn’t capable of being done by ordinary folks.
With the Reformation, Protestants began to develop a new kind of hymnody. Martin Luther introduced the chorale, with popular tunes. Scots Presbyterians made the psalms over into metrical poems in order to sing them to simple tunes. Eventually, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley and many others standardized the typical hymn. It said what it said in easily understood words, and it was very singable by a typical congregation. So professionals invented the choir anthem.
Eventually, people began to think that hymns were stodgy. They introduced new popular forms, such as the gospel song (highly influenced by Stephen Collins Foster’s music) and the gospel chorus. These were taken up into Protestant hymnody – not with a fight or two. The latest form of popular music to be used to express worship is the pop/rock song form, which forms the basis of P&W and CCM. Unfortunately, the hunger of some people to be pop/rock stars tends to make “contemporary” worship services into pseudo-rock concerts. A lot of “contemporary” church music is actually very difficult to sing. It has accented rests, musical interludes between verses, and other characteristics more typical of music we could call “performance” music. It may not be high-brow, but it’s still elitist after its fashion.
I grew up singing in camp dining halls and around campfires. I grew up listening to my mother sing at home. I am (just) old enough to remember singalongs in public gatherings. My prejudices are with songs – of whatever type or style – which can be sung by ordinary people. I admire what trained musicians can do, but I am always leery of anything that reduces the congregation to a mere audience. Trained musicians add a lot to our worship services, but their primary function is to lead the congregation in voicing its own worship of God.
Years ago, a small church I was pastoring was worrying over what would happen when their aged organist was no longer able to play. Nobody else knew how to play any instrument to accompany services. I said, “Well, I could pick hymns that don’t require accompaniment, but doing without an organ would just reveal the fact that nobody’s singing.” My comment wasn’t appreciated much, but it was true. And it said a lot about the spiritual vitality of the congregation – or lack thereof. Ol’ Martin Luther was right. Religion must sing or die.