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.