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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Quality Of Worship In Church Doesn't Mean Jazzing Up The Music

by Paul Blaum

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, Paul Blaum, at The Pennsylvania State University.

Churches who trade in their hymnals and traditional liturgies for Christian rock and mantra-like praise music may actually be spiritually shortchanging their own congregations, a Penn State historian says in a new book.

"Music is at the heart of the current debate over the 'reform' of worship," notes Dr. A. Daniel Frankforter, professor of medieval history at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. "Critics of shrinking mainline churches place most of the blame for their declining popularity on their stodgy, outdated worship customs. The innovations urged most vigorously affect the work of the church's musicians."

Frankforter is author of the book, Stones for Bread: A Critique of Contemporary Worship, published recently by Westminster John Knox Press, a division of Presbyterian Publishing Corp. The book covers a variety of topics, including the elusive quest for the early Church and its rituals; the varieties of idolatry, ancient and modern, all of which confuse the Creator with creation, including the self; the mixed legacy of revivalism; the importance of respectful quiet in worship; and the necessity for churches to have a sense of purpose and a charitable heart.

According to Frankforter, the current emphasis on music in American churches is not entirely misplaced, since it is the primary medium for expressing the hopes, fears, values and aspirations of the secular world.

"However, fans of rock who want to employ it in worship tend to underestimate grossly the power of their music as music," he notes. "They assume that simply by tweaking lyrics and dedicating performances to Christ they can make rock Christian. The situation may not be quite that easy."

Such is the power of rock and roll that it has transcended almost every cultural boundary in only a few decades and attracted a colossal worldwide audience. No other music has matched its ability to mobilize mass social and political movements and revolutionize human behavior, says the historian. While church leaders should avoid demonizing rock music, neither should they tinker carelessly with such a potent, seductive force, says the Penn State historian. By filling their sanctuaries with the sound of guitars, amplifiers, drums and assorted theatrics, churches may indeed increase membership and for a time show the semblance of vitality, certainly in terms of loudness. In reality, they have succumbed to the temptation to offer entertainment ("stones") in the guise of worship ("bread") and thus catering to what Frankforter calls "the world's insatiable lust for distraction."

Sadly, the efforts of churches to appear contemporary generally fail to bear lasting fruit, with the result that people leave more spiritually hungry and biblically illiterate than before, he adds. This is especially true if the preaching of hard scriptural truths is replaced by pop psych sermons that stress feel-good anecdotes and the wonders of "positive thinking."

"The church seldom converts or transforms popular culture, including its music. It merely cleans up popular culture's artifacts enough to declare them 'safe' and Christian. As a consequence, church leaders are likely to be led by popular culture than they are to lead it -- and they fail to notice how much they cause the sacred to capitulate to the secular. Moreover, popular music, especially rock, is poorly designed to mediate the experience of awe that is essential to Christian worship," Frankforter notes.

"If a congregation's worship seems listless and meaningless, the solution is not to bring on the clowns and magicians to make the corpse dance," he adds. "It is not to raise a clamorous storm of intoxicating praise-noise to cover the death rattle. Hope lies in taking the Holy Spirit seriously and allowing it to transform church into a sacred place where the focus is on God, not self."

Paul Blaum
Science, Engineering and Research Communications
Department of Public Information
The Pennsylvania State University

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