The Problem With Our Church’s Music

I am not musical, but I dig music.

Maybe because I am so lacking in talent, I have an especially keen appreciation for it. Lots of different kinds—folk, rap, hip hop, electronic, pop, Eastern, indigenous.

In church Sunday we sang some sorry hymns in a manner that can only be described as uninspired. Which got me thinking.

Instead of singing, or whatever you call what I do, I went into participant observation mode. And I noticed other people not singing. Who knows, maybe our church is filled with closet sociologists.

More and more people are choosing not to attend church, especially young adults. There are many reasons, but I can’t help but think that church music being so mind numbingly predictable, so Western, and so traditional, has to play a part. It’s like we’ve decided to only use one or two letters of the alphabet.

The continuum of groovy, inspiring music stretches across many, many genres and traditions from every region of the world, and yet, our Lutheran church, like most I suspect, routinely draws from the same 1% of the world’s musical variety. We tiptoe on a musical balance beam Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Which is exasperating for people with eclectic tastes.

So why the utter lack of creativity? Why is the Western traditional church music status quo so engrained when congregations are struggling to entice people to attend? Why isn’t there more risk-taking? More experimenting? Some risk-taking? Some experimenting? Some flavor flav?

A theory. Increasingly, in mainline Protestant denominations (and probably Catholic churches too) the vast majority of members are retirement age. Add to that the fact that the world is chaotic. Familiar music is integral to older member’s sense of church from days long past. To many of them, what I too flippantly call sorry hymns is a musical history that provides them with structure, and as a result, helps them create some semblance of order out of chaos.

But here’s the problem. The exact music older, long-standing church members find most helpful in making sense of the world, younger potential church members often find uninspiring. The incredible predictability and familiarity comforts older longstanding members who are in the last chapters of their lives while it simultaneously alienates younger more diverse people who do not share the same musical history and who have more eclectic musical tastes.

A decree. Every church leader should watch at least one NPR Tiny Desk concert as a part of their work week.

But maybe resistance is futile. Maybe churches will cling to the exact same church music as they spiral down without daring to ask whether the familiarity is playing a part in their decline?

All I know is if this post gets picked up by any of the traditional church music stalwarts at my church, I am likely to be tarred and feathered at a service early in the next calendar year. So if the humble blog goes dark, you’ll know why.


8 thoughts on “The Problem With Our Church’s Music

    • Thanks, but I wonder, would a contemporary service be a form of avoidance? Versus enlivening the main service by gradually introducing musical variety. Is a contemporary alternative an admission that the issue is just too tough to tackle?

      • Well, I agree with you on the unsingable music. I’m not sure about the contemporary service, but I do remember seeing mixed ages at that service. Mainline churches have a lot of work to do.

  1. St. Mike’s new musical director has brought in some new songs and arrangements. Also, Sunday evening mass is the teen mass and is rocking! Agree better music helps make mass more enjoyable along with a good sermon.

  2. I used to go to the youth mass at St. Louise in Bellevue. While designed for teens, who did seem to attend in relatively good numbers, there were a lot of middle aged folks there as well. The homily was timely for the younger crowd as well. The youth mass, simply said, seemed to be effective (and enjoyable)

  3. My challenge to you is to attend a few churches outside your own. Hopefully by doing so you’d be pleasantly surprised by the fact that many churches are branching out musically. I believe churches are becoming more aware of the need to meet the younger generation and are doing so by offering fun, inviting, yet spiritually moving worship.
    We’d love for you to join us any Sunday ;)

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