Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Thinking About Church Music” in Kroeker, ed., Music In Christian Woship

My fourth principle for your consideration – one I regard as extremely important – is that the character of the music fit the liturgical action it serves – and fit the theologically correct understanding of that action. – Nicholas Wolsterstorff, “Thinking About Church Music,” p. 13, in Charlotte Kroeker, ed. Music In Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, Liturgical Press, 2005

It was, to say the least, an odd experience reading this particular essay – which starts off Kroeker’s marvelous collection, culled from a 1999 conference of church musicians, theologians, clergy, and others – while listening to an Arch Enemy concert.  The specific juxtaposition of Wolterstorff insistence that we be more thoughtful in our approach to church music while all the time blaring, screeching death metal played in the background created a context for my own thinking about church music that made me wonder if, just perhaps, even more thought is needed not only about how music serves the liturgy, but how we as a Christian people must and should adapt to the changing musical environments in which we live.

After offering some anecdotes demonstrating the thoughtlessness toward music in worship offered by otherwise thoughtful people; then setting to one side the ridiculous musicological idea of “absolute” versus “functional” music, Wolterstorff makes several important points, not the least of them being what he calls “fittingness”, a concept he developed in another work, and which he sketched out beginning with the quote above.  At the heart of the idea of “fittingness” is the notion that the music should serve not only the theological and worship needs of the congregation; it should also reflect the theological and liturgical needs of the particular moment in worship in which it is used; finally, it should fit within the comfort zone of the congregation.  As Wolterstorff mentions elsewhere in the essay, if the music director loves Palestrina and the congregation does not, it does no good to have the organ overpower the congregation because the music director insists on playing Palestrina.

Wolterstorff also has unkind things to say about Contemporary Christian Music, which tends towards the simplistic, insipid, and overplayed.  This does not mean, however, that it cannot and does not fit, as Wolterstorff defines the term, the liturgical needs of the moment.  This is, rather, a matter of taste as well as choice.  We have yet, I think, learned how to integrate contemporary musical styles in traditional worship settings, usually setting apart a “contemporary” service with a band with electrified instruments replacing the more common organ/piano/choir.

I would further add that our churches are in desperate need of music education when it comes to contemporary culture and society.  As any record company executive or A&R person will tell you, the two biggest-selling styles of music are hip-hop and country; very often bought by the same people.  Rihanna and Reba McIntyre, Blake Shelton and Kanye West usually sit on the same shelves or within the same playlists.  While hardly a musical anthropologist, I think the reason for this is simple enough: as a society, we have yet to integrate, successfully, two important cultural strands, namely rural white (or those who yearn for a rural life) and urban African-American.  The best we can do is have separate styles on offer for people to play in order to suit their particular needs of the moment.

So, too, with music in church. Wolterstorff notes a common complaint: few things are more divisive in churches than musical selections.  These divisions become even more destructive when generational preferences become the focus around which the debates circle.  Those who prefer the same hymns with which they grew up because they are a source of solace and joy are angry that young people find these same songs meaningless, while a more contemporary – perhaps even not titularly Christian – song, might well speak to a spiritual, theological, and even liturgical need.  With the desire of most churches to attract young people, offering stale, cookie-cutter “Contemporary Christian Music” cannot be enough.  We have to be willing to open ourselves to the possibilities that many – perhaps most – forms of music “fit” in Wolterstorff sense.  The trick, of course, is integrating a variety of musical preferences and styles within a single worship experience and liturgical cycle of action.

It was The Who who said it the best, at the point in their career where it was about to come true in ways they couldn’t imagine: The Music Must Change.  We in the churches must be willing to allow these changes to occur, if for no other reason than we should be willing to sing in our own voices, instead of those of our grandparents, the Reformers, or the Church Fathers.