28 August 2011

Trends In Church Music From A Denver Perspective

The Muser

Timothy J. Krueger is the choirmaster at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Denver, the artistic director of the Saint Martin’s Chamber Choir, an affiliate music faculty member at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and if the truth were told, has any number of additional musical positions. He is certainly a notable figure in the church music community in Denver, at least among "high church" Christians.

He also issues a regular e-mail newletter called "Musical Weekly" that I read when I can which recently featured an interesting several week series of musings on trends in church music which I reproduce below with permission.

The Musings and Reactions

Part 1 (August 1, 2011):

Regarding the state of church music (musing alert!), I was fascinated recently to read the following paragraphs in an article put out by the Episcopal News Service:

"The ongoing struggle to get young people in the pews at churches across Brooklyn is motivating some clergy in the Diocese of Long Island to develop new ministries that challenge the popular way of how churches reach out to 20-somethings.

Predominant tactics -- a rock band, projector screens and altars stripped of traditional decors -- have failed to resonate with 20-somethings. Instead, it's the traditional aspects of the Episcopal faith and its liturgy that young people are now drawn to, clergy say.

(…) "It's not that they aren't interested. What they are looking for is the traditional -- silence, reflection, candles," Griffith said."

I have been observing similar things in my admittedly non-scientific survey of young adults. I remember hearing of an Episcopal Church that refashioned their 4:00pm Christmas Eve service to appeal to young adults and families with children, adding the above-mentioned rock band, projector screens, etc. The service was an abysmal failure because young people wanted to hear traditional carols and music, and flocked instead to the 10pm or Midnight service, despite the inconvenient time for their children. “We want real church, not something we can witness on the street or on TV,” one person reportedly said. The church returned the 4:00 service to a traditional one the next year. I’ve also heard it said (since I am no judge of this) that what passes for rock bands in most so-called musically progressive churches are actually aging 1960’s-style folk bands, and come off as even more dated and old-fashioned than a traditional music program, and having far less integrity to them. There’s also the now-famous example of the traditional Compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, where 20-somethings flock in (and lay on the floor with eyes closed) to hear the all-male choir sing Gregorian Chant, Tudor anthems, and more modern Anglican repertoire, saying it sounds “timeless” and “New Age” to them, rather than “old fashioned.” I find in my Intro to Music courses at Metro State College that the students are like blank slates when it comes to classical music. Previous generations rebelled against their parents’ tastes, like classical music; but that generation are now the parents of college-age students today, and since they don’t listen to classical music, their kids don’t know anything about it, don’t have any negative associations or stereotypes, and are therefore are open to it.

So I predict that the next “wave” of evangelizing young people will not be to “reach them where they’re at,” as has been the watchword for the last 50 years; but to give them something that seems timeless and ancient at the same time that it is modern and relevant. The hunger in young people for the traditional, as evidenced by their depiction in Harry Potter books and films (school uniforms, gothic buildings, ancient traditions, a reverence for that which fills us with awe, the Latin language as imbued with a sort of power beyond the vernacular, etc.), will be more successfully met by pipe organs, vested choirs, liturgies rooted in ancient traditions, powerful age-old symbols, etc., than by any attempt at pandering to an age group by appearing to provide familiar settings and sounds.


Here’s a link to the entire article(http://www.episcopalchurch.org/80263_129223_ENG_HTM.htm) although I’ve quoted the bit most relevant to my “musing” already.

Part 2 (August 8, 2011):

I got a great number of interesting replies to my musing on the article I cited about church music and young people, and my claim that I see a sea change happening in the thinking about what attracts 20-somethings. Three or four people replied regarding theological issues, which I found interesting, and I chatted individually with them; but my intention was to focus on musical style; and since there are a number of theological positions represented by the members of this list – from conservative Evangelical to liberal Protestant to agnostic to atheist, and with a few Jewish and other faiths sprinkled in – I will confine myself to quoting those comments about music.

A number of people simply said “I agree,” or “Good to hear things might be changing,” etc., and those were naturally much appreciated (two of you said you’d even forwarded the article and my musings on to your own ministers). Of course, given the make-up of this list, that was the most likely response. Here are a few personal stories I received from young(ish) people, and by which I was quite moved. Here’s Lisa S. (a St. Andrew’s member and acolyte):

"Interesting article on reaching out to youth. I come at this from several points of view, so perhaps you won't mind my sharing. I grew up in the Roman Catholic church and absolutely hated the Masses where the "old ladies" sang (can it be called singing?) hymns! On the other hand, I loved going to the guitar Mass (no bands, just guitar, maybe piano, maybe a string bass). This probably had something to do with the fact that, when traveling across country with 4 kids in the car, our parents would play folk music to keep us entertained. Once I started playing bass, then guitar, participation in the music kept me even more involved. Even so, once I started singing in the high school choir with a director who favored sacred choral music, I developed a love for the traditional music as long as it was done well. Once I left the Catholic church, and started exploring other avenues for my spiritual needs, I heard many of these "bands" and found the music quite distasteful. When the instruments are too many and too loud to really hear the message, then I think there is no message. I still love the music I used to play (which was very intentional in its liturgical relevance) but, when it comes to meditation, the beauty of a well-sung choral anthem is really unmatched for me.

So, to some degree, I owe my young growth and interest in my faith to the St. Louis Jesuits. But I must agree that I do not see the young people I know running from tradition. To the contrary, the fact that it is timeless, that there is purpose and meaning behind it and that it draws the spirit of the Mass together, makes the musical tradition very appealing to those who are seeking solid ground. I am glad to hear that this is not just true in my little world. Of course, there will always be those kids who will be reached by the bands, and there will be those who find the mega-church atmosphere appealing. But, it is nice to know that there is always a place where one can be drawn in by the sheer beauty of the human voice and the majesty of the organ (with an occasional violin or cello). And, if I may say so, the choir and space of St. Andrew's are the perfect couple!"

Here’s Dan C.:

"I have had conversations with several people lately, friends and strangers, about a movement in church towards Tradition. I have been to the [Compline] service at St. Mark's in Seattle, have attended Emerging Churches (which focus on a return to what the early church looked like), and now find myself at a Catholic church rather than the Evangelical one that I was raised in. While I would be far from saying that the Evangelical movement should be completely tossed out, there is obviously something that has been forgotten/missed/misunderstood about the "contemporizing" of our services. The use of contemporary music and media served as a connection point between church and culture, and allowed people to see religion's relevance. However, as we have seen with countless pop artists, the ones that lack substance fail to stick around. Churches who struggled to bring substance into their relevance struggled to understand why lights and loudspeakers didn't have the sustaining draw that other churches seemed to find. The newness of technology and culture has worn off and for many even become over-stimulating or intrusive. Today, we are surrounded by so much abrasively up-front stimuli that we aren't even conscious how commonplace it is. People are becoming burnt out and lost in a society that supposedly panders to their every need or desire.

Here is where the church has an incredible position to offer something very unique that, I believe, more and more people are becoming painfully aware they are in need of. People are getting to a point where they are ready to turn on their laptops and iPods, but are unsure and uncomfortable with what will fill the space. Meditation and reflection are about as counterculture as you can get these days, but I believe it is something people are hungering for (I know I am). I'm excited for the possibilities this brings, but at the same time know some churches will still miss the point. (…)"

And here’s Ross J.:

"Young people (and I still count myself among them because I’m pretty involved in the local music scene) can go out in Denver any night of the week and hear more cutting edge, more dynamic, more interesting, and more passionate popular music, than anything I’ve ever heard in a ‘contemporary’ service, whether Catholic, Anglican, or Protestant. [In church,] a song that doesn’t grate on the nerves is considered a success!

The misguided move to ‘draw more young people’ into the church, starting for Catholics after Vatican II, was because the traditional music (when there was any) lacked a fine quality, and passion. What person, young or old, is inspired by music performed half-heartedly by a poor choir accompanied by a poor organist playing a poor organ?

The answer, then as now, is not to start over again, but to go back to the musical roots of the church and ‘get it right’. Then you’ll inspire and draw in new composers who are ‘getting it right’ and not writing drivel!

Not once in my years at Holy Ghost [Catholic] or St. Andrew’s [Episcopal] have I heard a young person after the service pine for more ‘contemporary’ music. Quite the opposite."

And finally, Sue K.:

"As for your thoughts on church music and young people, I agree. I think that, if there was any authenticity to Christian “rock” music, people might feel differently (at least with respect to the music – not necessarily the rest of the trappings of the “modern” service), but most of what’s out there is just derivative schlock. That said, I think you’re right that the timeless quality and genuine beauty of the traditional service and music are what actually have the power to connect us to the divine. Although it’s true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” I tend to think some things are beautiful in a more universal way. Those things give us a little glimpse of the divine, and anyone who openly encounters them is drawn in. I suspect the traditional service and music have survived because of that. In a world full of cheap imitation and creative endeavors that are more about trying to make a lot of money than true creative expression, the traditional service and music offer young people something real, and I’m not surprised to learn that they prefer, even yearn for, that."

Many thanks to these and others for sharing their thoughts.

Part 3 (August 13, 2011):

One reader sent me a very interesting item about an Episcopal church in Lawrence, Kansas, and its attempts at reframing the traditional liturgy in order not to put off youth, etc. First, here’s a link to an article that talks about the service in a general way (disregard the photo caption – it says the priest is using incense – he’s clearly asperging the people [holy water, not holy smokes, Batman!]):


Second, I copy a Q-and-A sheet that I like even more about this service. I’ve deleted things about where to find parking, childcare, post-service reception, etc., but retain the things about liturgy and music:

"FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS about the 6 PM Solemn High Mass at Trinity Episcopal Church

Q. How long is the service? A. A little over one hour.

Q. What style of service is provided? A. The service is sometimes called Solemn High Mass which is a celebration of the Eucharist (Lord's Supper or Holy Communion) that has a rich offering of ritual including singing, chanting, and incense.

Q. Who is welcome at this service? A. Everyone is welcome but college students are especially invited. The time of the service also intentionally provides an opportunity for those unable to attend church on Sunday mornings. This who might find an evening service more compatible with their schedule include some health care workers, fire fighters, police officers, real estate agents, those traveling or those who like to sleep late on Sunday mornings. We have also discovered that many are attracted to a more traditional form of worship. As far as we know, this is the only service of its type offered in the area. We expect all "sorts and conditions" to be a part of this community.

Q. What style of music does the service offer? A. Our Mission in Music: The Solemn High Mass has resulted in the formation of a new liturgical choir at Trinity Church under the direction of Henry Heller Smith, our Associate Music Director and doctoral candidate in choral conducting at the University of Kansas. The singers are students at the University. The choir's hymnody, psalmody, plainsong, Gregorian chant, and anthems represent the finest tradition in the church's repertoire of ancient and modern sacred music. The celebration of Solemn High Mass reminds us that liturgy, music, and ceremony are woven together from a common catholic thread. Individual performance is not the essence of what is taking place. Rather, individual efforts are shaped and formed into a sacramental whole, a mystical unity, transcending place and time, which focuses the utmost devotion and prayerful attention to the worship of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is, indeed, an offering of worship in the solemnity and beauty of holiness.

Q. Why aren't we doing a contemporary service if one of our primary purposes is to reach college students? A. Many churches in Lawrence, including St. Margaret's, already offer contemporary worship on both Sunday morning and evening. They also do this very well. It is not our strong point and those who desire a contemporary experience have ample opportunities to do so. There are, however, no churches in the area that offer anything like we do. Not every college student, or person of any age for that matter, is attracted to a contemporary form of worship. We offer an alternative for those in the city who seek to connect the concerns of daily life in the 21st century with our ancient faith.

Q. Do I need to be familiar with the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal to participate? A. The service should be familiar to those who attend Sunday mornings but we also have the entire service printed out in a booklet so one need not juggle books.

Q. How can I be involved? A. Come and worship. Bring friends. We also have many leadership opportunities: Musicians, readers, prayer leaders, ushers, hosts (greeters), nursery workers, chalice bearers, acolytes, Altar Guild and even an audio technician to record the sermon."

And finally, a link to a page I found on the website of St. Paul’s Church, Carroll Gardens (Brooklyn, NY), that was mentioned in the original article I cited from the Episcopal News Service. Again, I like the way traditional and ancient worship form and style is reframed so as to be unintimidating to the uninitiated:


My Own Personal Reflections

My background in Christianity is in the liturgical tradition. I grew up in and was confirmed in the Lutheran denomination called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (which despite the name, is a "mainline" rather than "evangelical" denomination as that term is generally used), which was formed through the merger of denominations including an ethnically German mainline Lutheran denomination and an ethnically Scandinavian mainline Lutheran denomination, both of which were natural outgrowths of the legally established churches of the respective homelands.

I was having doubts of the existence of God by my teens, but decided to give Christianity a shot in another denomination while I was in college, where I spent all of my undergraduate years as an active member of the local Episcopalian parish (Christ Church), participated in the youth group, and was even a Sunday school teacher for a while. A minor in history that included a large helping of the history of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and of the early years of the churches that arose out of the Reformation, provide that experience with context.

I was not church going in law school, but did attend evening vespers services at a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest mainline Presbyterian denomination in the United States, for quite a while when I lived in Grand Junction, Colorado, and I also attended the Korean Presbyterian Church in which my wife grew up in greater Buffalo, New York while we lived there during my wife's graduate school years.

The fact that my college was known for its music school may have played a part, but I remain convinced that the Episcopalians have the best church music, by far, and I've toyed in near future science fiction that I've written for the desk drawer with the notion of just the sort of neo-traditionalist youth movement that Tim envisions. In a lot of ways, this is a natural extension and moderation of the Goth subculture.

The meditative, solemn, serious and pure musical and artistic contributions of the church have their own deep attractions. I can understand perfectly well why someone who does not actually want to be a monk or nun might enjoy a few weeks or months of reflection in a monestary. Indeed, many of the loudest voices in the secular humanist movement bemoan the loss of the institution of the church even as they disavow its theology and worldview.

There is a substitute, the Unitarian Universalist Association, which my wife tried for a while here in Denver, but it is an institution in the right theological space for the humanists that leave more traditional churches, but one that isn't quite sure enough of its own cultural identity to attract much of a share of those who are hungry for an institution in that theological space. It is trying to find appropriate music as fast as it can, but is still in the experimental stage. It must tread ever so carefully in how it says things during services to accommodate its very big theological tent, and hasn't had so much practice doing so that its rote application is easily attained by an unsophisticated newcomer. It is so far, a promising direction but is embryonic in its development and struggling to grow as fast of the community of people who are like minded does.

I am certainly not someone who left the folds of Christianity because I found church music or the liturgy stuffy or outdated. Indeed, those were the things that kept me going to church many years after my theological faith had crumbled under the weight of science and history and bible reading that disclosed a biblical moral order that is foreign to the point of being repugnant, and a scripture with more rough edges than I had supposed that it held when I was in ignorance of it. I have more in common with the sensibilities of the urbane pagan Romans and Greeks that Christians replaced, than I do with the religion rooted in the ideals and legacies of the Semitic herder people whose religion that replaced their pagan cults.

John Shelby Spong, the former Anglican Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is the ultimate exponent of that trajectory of religious life, suggesting an entirely metaphorical reading of the Christian tradition and suggesting a kind of Christian life that is focused on preserving this tradition for tradition's sake.

While Spong is the most visible exponent of that approach, he certainly isn't alone. The inside joke is that nothing undermines one's innocent faith more than the academic lessons one learns in divinity school.

The early efforts to integrate folk music into Christian liturgy preserved much of the emotional sense of it, but I'm certainly not alone in having a critical view of the later rock era music that has infused it, although the quality of the musicianship in rock era sacred music has greatly improved over its early days. One of the more successful approaches is to slightly twist love song forms into songs about love for Jesus.

The modernist trend in sacred music started with evangelicals, and was really mostly confined to the black church as recently as thirty years ago or so, but has gone much farther these days. My father reports that the Lutheran worship service at the Congregation in his college town that features a modernist leaning "praise band" has much higher attendance than the more traditional service featuring off key renditions of the old homophonic hymns converted from beer drinking songs in Martin Luther's day that is favored by a much older component of the Congregation. Rock era music is likewise the norm in the Pentecostal and megachurch settings favored by my inlaws (their own church, while officially Presbyterian, as an immigrant church, had always had strong evangelical leanings in any case). Grand Junction's Presbyterian church was similarly shifting strongly towards modernist music with the support of younger Generation X and Y members at the time I left it and Grand Junction generally, around 1999.

One of the mysteries for someone coming from a high church leaning mainline church direction is why there hasn't been more of a neo-traditionalist or Unitarian Universalist surge as a cultural movement for just the reasons that Tim has suggested. These denominations, institutionally, haven't seen that happen, even though it seems like an entirely possible cultural direction and has some seeds in high church environments that make all sorts of sense.

Places like the Dakotas have seen something of a resurgence in religious involvement, but not from the revitalization of the region's historically dominant Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches. Instead, they have seen mass exodus to new more Evangelically leaning churches. Some conservative liturgical churches, like the Missouri Synod Lutherans, have received new members from this exodus, but they certainly haven't benefited to any greater extent than other theologically conservative historical Christian denominations, and post-denominational megachurches have left even conservative historical Christian denominations in the dust.

Rather than recommitting to neo-traditionalism, the ambiguous non-religious world that I and many of my cousins have ended up in has seemed to be a stronger draw. Classical music remains popular (even in teen literature). But, the classical music loving, elegant dressing, poetry embracing people who would seem to be the most likely to embrace neo-traditionalist sacred music, don't seem to be connecting with and embracing the mainline churches that would be their natural homes.

In part, I think that the issue is that the culture that the churches embrace is not threatened. Religious institutions thrive when they protect a threatened culture. Irish Catholics for whom the church was a culture preserving refuge against the Protestant English for centuries are more fervent in their support of the church than Italian Catholics for whom their faith has always been unquestionably secure. Immigrant churches are frequently more vibrant than those of the immigrant's homelands, since they preserve a cultural heritage threatened in the new country until enough generations pass for the immigrant descendants to almost fully assimilate. I think the vibrancy of evangelical Christianity is best explained through its role in the preservation of Southern culture in the face of the dominant establishment culture of the United States as a whole. Mainline Christian churches, in contrast, largely embrace the dominant establishment culture of the United States and so there is no need to call people to defend them against some cultural threat if their members are to retain their own culture in tact. In the absence of this cultural imperative to call youth to action, the hair color of the congregants in the pews increasingly trends to white, attendance dips, and the members of the younger generation who have kept the faith have awesome institutional resources and awe inspiring traditions to maintain with very few people to carry them out.

Most of the people in church on a given Sunday in England are immigrants.  Empty Anglican churches dot the countryside and even those that are used are often filled to nowhere near capacity.  The surge in non-religious identification in Europe preceded that in the United States by several decades, but ultimately, the Vatican isn't wrong to identify secularization as one of its deepest and most profound challenges. Immigration and the cultural divide between the American South and the American North have concealed the shift, but the trend towards non-religious views among whites in the American North has been stronger than even the rapidly growing ranks of those who identify that way suggest.

Mainline churches have also been slow and late in putting distance between themselves and the evangelical churches in the tradition of the American South. Rather than successfully portraying themselves as culturally threatened by Southern conservative religion, they have found themselves swept up in a broad brush characterization of all Christians with the most vocal Southern conservatives.

A Footnote On The Disappearing Generation Gap

I also have to concur with Tim on the shifting nature of the generation gap. While I don't pretend to be a "cool dad" and regularly embarrass my children with my outdated sense of fashion and music and literature, the generation gap that drove the cultural revolution in the Western world of the late 1960s and early 1970s has largely run its course.

The music my children listen to and the television and movies they watch, and the books they enjoy reading, are not incomprehensible, if not always precisely to my tastes. The Beetles are a generation neutral musical force. The younger generation's values don't seem that different from mine. We watch opera and ballet together, while also listening the Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez together now and then.

When I was a kid, I was part of the first generation to really embrace soccer over more traditional American sports like baseball and football. Now, my kids are playing soccer just like I did, but with a generation of adult mentors who don't have to read a book to learn the rules and understand the strategies and techniques that go into it.

The most stunning shift in fashion for the next generation is that blue jeans, t-shirts and sneakers are apparently no longer the de facto uniform of the American public schools, where a blend of athletic clothes and very casual business casual seems to prevail instead, and the declining level of concern about school uniforms as a means of controlling youthful freedom of expression.

Today's parental experience is well captures in cable TV dramedies like "Weeds" and the "United States of Tara." It is a drama of parents learning how to deal with a new generation that is reproducing closely the life choices that their parents made, only when their parents made them, their parents were rebelling against their parents and making choices dramatically different from those of their own parents. We are shocked at times at how little independence and rebellion they seem to show. The classic dilemma of the modern parent is not to convince a child to make the choices you did, but to convince your children that your choices don't all bear repeating.

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