Sunday, May 31, 2009

Church music today

You can hardly go into a church anymore and not hear the influence of modern music. Even my conservative old First Baptist Church in Charlottesville includes an electric guitar and a horns sections in its services alongside the pipe organ. I can't really complain about this, as their is nothing in the Bible restricting worship to pipe organs and pianos (though I could have sworn I read something in Leviticus...). I do love the sound of organs, but other instruments don't detract from worship in any way. Maybe they make it a little less grave and awe-inspiring, but one does not depend on those emotions alone.

Churches have also widely adopted PowerPoint for displaying the lyrics to hymns. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, and a lot of advantages for churches. They can expand their repertoire to newer songs without having to add new songbooks or bulletin inserts; they can even do away with hymnals altogether, which I'm sure is a significant cost savings for many churches that are on tight budgets. The probably also appreciate the fact that the audience gets to look up, rather than burying their faces in the hymnals.

I do have one complaint about these PowerPoint songs, however: they invariably include the lyrics only, and not the music. Now, my musical ability is pretty limited, especially my vocal ability, but at least the hymnal gives me a hint how high the pitch is and how long to hold it. Having just the lyrics gives me no clue, which means that I just can't sing the hymns that I don't already know. It seems that a lot of other people have the same issue, because I usually don't see many people singing the newer hymns. Could they at least make an effort? It wouldn't be as easy as typing in the lyrics, but there are plenty of music notation programs that they could use, or they could just scan in the songs.

Here's the other problem with the trend to the new: Churches tend to have a lot of older members who remember the traditional hymns and want to hear them. At the same time, churches want to attract new, younger members who are more interested in contemporary music. So as not to offend the one group while attracting the other, churches include old and new hymns in the same service. That wouldn't be bad, but they tend to string the old and new hymns together, one after another. Anyone who has stood through old hymns knows that they tend to be a little slow, and singing all four verses can take a while. The new song immediately follows, with the congregation still standing. It has fewer verses and is usually more upbeat, but it more than makes up for this by repeating the same lines over and over and over -- I haven't actually counted, but I would swear I've heard the same line 20 or more times in a row. (You can read my opinion of musical minimalism here, if it isn't already obvious.) I suppose this repetition allows people who don't know the music to join in eventually, but it also means that the congregation has to stand up for going on ten minutes in a row. I have to confess that I've never liked standing up (and still) very much, but now that I have a bad back, I can legitimately say that it is not only an inconvenience, but a detraction from the worship that is supposed to be going on.

Why do they do this? I imagine that the church only has so many slots for singing, and they don't want to double the number in order to accommodate new songs. I have a suggestion, if any music directors or preachers happen to be reading this: allow the congregation to sit down during one of the songs. I've seen in done, rarely, and I assure you that people can sing equally well from a seated position.


  1. I was a member of the "old" First Baptist Church of Charlottesville-BEFORE the move to Park Street and certainly before the conservatives took over the church and chased most of the moderates to other congragations. I can tell you, Mrs. Renfro rocked out that organ on Sunday mornings with the old hymns. Nothing staid, nothing slow. Having moved on to other churchs both Baptist and Episcopal, I can tell you, she could really make those old hymns jump to life!

  2. I remember the "old" FBC, but just barely. Mr. Renfro was my choir teacher. My more vivid recollections begin when the church burned down and we began having services at Jack Jouett school.