What Kind of Music do We Use?

In all of my years as a pastor, my favorite service was the late evening candlelight service on Christmas Eve. It somehow combined all of the best things about church for me. The sermon was short and the evening was always festive, moving and deeply spiritual. But over the years I realized there was one thing about that service besides the candles that was special. It was the music.

Admittedly the music did not match the grandiose music performance of our amazing choir, guest soloist and visiting orchestra during Easter services. It may not have been quite as exhilarating as the music of the combined choirs and instruments during the Thanksgiving service we held with the Synagogue that shared our space for nearly 15 years. But a minor disaster that occurred one Christmas Eve made me realize what had made the music so important.

We had never used a hymnal for this particular service. But one year, shortly after we had purchased the new UCC hymnal, we decided to use them for the service. The worship committee printed out the first and second verses of over a dozen familiar Christmas carols. Frankly none of us had looked closely at the words or noticed they had been altered in the denomination’s attempt to make the hymnal gender neutral. From a philosophical standpoint I have always appreciated these efforts. But in this case it did not work out well.

It started at that magical moment when we turn down the overhead lights, light our individual candles and begin to joyfully sing the carols together. It was not long before grumbling could be heard. There were not many changes to the words but enough to throw people off. Some were using words from memory and others were following the hand-out. The singing began to sound like any congregation trying to sing new hymns—nothing short of awful. Fortunately most of the people in the pews only needed the music for the second verse for most carols. When I finally realized what was going on, I suggested that everyone put the paper sheets down and sing from memory.

A week or so later when our planning committee was reviewing our experience we all agreed we would go back to the old slides we had used for years. They were projected onto a screen for those few visitors who had not memorized the carols. I was surprised, however, how upset some people continued to feel about the loss, as one person put it.

A few years later, while I was doing research on the growing mega-church phenomenon, I began to grasp what really happened that night. Over time, I have become clearer why so many people felt such a loss that night.

I believe any truly spiritual path must understand its main function is to provide the opportunity to experience genuine Unity, or a Oneness with all Creation. There are many ways to say the same thing but every church, religious, or spiritual gathering is trying to help the attendee experience that Oneness. I am convinced one of the places we can do that is with music. The mega-churches, in large part, figured this out decades ago. But go into a typical church today with sixty members and listen to them try and experience Oneness or sense of Connectedness as they stumble through a difficult hymn or unacceptable theology. At some point in that experience, most people are just hoping for the hymn to be over.

I do not care if you are a fundamentalist, a conservative, or an evangelical mega-church, the music should be designed to offer an opportunity to experience that connectedness with the Divine and each other.

I get tired of hearing my scholarly friends make fun of the silly praise music common in so many of the mega churches and even in smaller evangelical churches. We may hold our noses up in distain but those churches continue to attract young people. I have attended many of those services over the years and watched the faces and expressions of those participating attendees. They are experiencing something few people do in our intellectually sophisticated mainline services. Forget the fact that most of our mainline churches are singing songs with music that no longer fits our Christology. The music does nothing for most people. Simply changing the words and correcting the theology is not necessarily going to make it any more palatable or experiential.

That is why most growing churches from all perspectives now include music with drums and with simple lyrics that can easily be memorized. This kind of music allows you to feel the beat. It does not have to be rock music but still something you can feel. Some churches encourage dancing in the aisles. People in general and young people in particularly want to feel some connection to the sacred, the divine through participatory music.

When I say participatory I don’t necessarily mean everyone has to sing or dance, although these can be positive spiritual activities. What I do mean is the music is something that touches the soul at some deeper level. It can be an action that helps someone recognize they are connected to something greater than themselves. For some it might mean sensing deep connection with other participants. For others it might truly be a path to the experience of the Ultimate Divine. For a few it might be all of that.

A few years ago I attended a Compline service at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in downtown Seattle. The Cathedral started this service in the 1950’s and it is still going strong. The service is held every Sunday night at 9:30 and is attended in large part by people between the ages of 15 and 40 years old. The time I attended, there were several hundred people nearly filling the large sanctuary. I was told attendance ranges from 200 to over 600 hundred depending on the time of the year. http://www.saintmarks.org/Worship/Music/Compline.php

The Compline service comes out of the monastic tradition and is primarily made up of chants and meditative music sung by a small choir. The attendees can sit, lay down or walk around anywhere they feel comfortable in the Cathedral.

I interviewed some of the young students I met in a nearby coffee shop after the half hour service. I discovered that few of them attended church nor did they think of themselves as religious. But they seldom missed a Sunday night. The common expression I got from them was that it helped them feel connected and they liked the way it made them feel. A couple of them were able to articulate a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. But not one of those I talked to had a theology or Christology they were willing to share with me or the group. They generally agreed that they love the experience and miss it when they do not attend.

I have sat at the edge of drumming circles for an hour or more on many occasions. I admit I never interviewed the participants but I do know most of them gather at least once a week. I believe they would have echoed much of the same comments the young folks expressed who attend the Cathedral services. It helps them feel connected and part of something larger than themselves. Others have found that same connectedness by attending Taizé services on a regular basis. Most of who attend do not necessarily see themselves as religious. I suspect many of them might be uncomfortable with the actually language of the chants if they were translated but I doubt if that would stop them.

Like the young people who attend the Compline services, they are not concerned with the words or worried about the religious implications. They are doing something together and experiencing Oneness or connectedness they seldom experience in our disconnected, competitive and sometimes downright callous world. Few of these, I am sorry to say, would find this connectedness on Sunday mornings in most of our mainline church services.

For over 20 years in my former church, we sang the same closing song. It was the word alleluia sung over and over, often with lovely harmony. We changed a lot of things over the years in that church, including buildings, bulletins and music. But I think I would have put my career and possibly my life in jeopardy if I had insisted on changing that one thing. It was rare when I did not notice tears of sadness, tears of release and tears of joy during that very short time in the service. No theology, no Christology, no sermon could have done more than those couple of hundred people holding hands, often with eyes closed, going someplace into themselves yet connected to something much larger.

So I go back to the question. What is the place of music in the progressive church or gathering? I would suggest that we have to start with a clear understanding of what our goal or purpose is for our progressive churches. From my perspective that means using and creating music, chants and meditations that bring everyone together. We want to create an opportunity for our participants to have an experience of Union or Oneness. That means a union with others in the room, with the creation and all sentient beings and with the Ultimate Mystery we call God.

We need to give consideration to things like: is it inviting, simple, does it have a beat, is familiar and/or joyful? If it is difficult to learn, to sing, to play or understand, I suggest we leave it to the professional or volunteer musicians for their special performances. It seems to me we should be looking for an experience that deeply connects us rather than concerning ourselves about echoing the sermon or the theology of the day. Maybe then we can sing or chant our way into the Infinite Mystery.


Review & Commentary

  • I enjoyed this article. I attend a progressive Christian church so I have the opportunity to experience both old liturgy lyrics and contemporary music with more progressive lyrics. I find myself “zoning out” when the lyrics get too “washed in the blood”. I have to admit I love some of the old gospel music, but I struggle with the message contained in some of those old hymns. Good “old” church hymns do create a sense of connection…..but I suspect much of the “connection” I experience comes from the fact that everyone in the congregation knows the words and the melody. I hope, as we move toward a more progressive Christian liturgy that emphasizes wholeness, unity, and non duality, the music that connects us can spiritually lead us toward a more progressive Christianity.
    Good article! Thanks.

    • Fred Plumer

      Thanks Dick. I think the real challenge facing the mainline and progressive churches is re-establishing the purpose of the Christian communities. Ever since we gave up the substitutional sacrifice of a savior and forfeited the sole keys to some place we go when we die, we have been wandering in the desert so to speak. Once we can agree on the purpose of our gatherings, (to experience connectedness, oneness, godness?) then the kind of music we create and the words will fall into place.

  • Appreciate the insights in this article. I would truly appreciate more meditative music in our worship service.

    • Fred Plumer

      Thanks Sherri. Let some of the leadership in your community know that you would like more. I always felt that every gathering should have some kind of meditative music and silence.

  • Jamieson Spencer

    A very incisive article which addresses important matters. I have to pose the question, if we are gathering primarily for connectedness, and our varying Christologies are not organically relevant, why not dispense with Christ and go for fellowship?

    • Jo

      Why don’t we just say “Jesus” instead of “Christ” since, I assume we come together to acknowledge , not the person, but Jesus’ teachings of “Love” as our grounding. I think the term “Christ” came later.

  • Fred Plumer

    That is a good question and it is being answered in many ways with different ideas today. Many of those ideas are being tested in the field. My own bias is that our gathering services are only one component one’s journey into Awareness. Our large community gatherings should primarily play the part of celebration, I believe. However, the celebration has little value unless we have done the work that is required to open ourselves to that Awareness and to experience that Oneness. Most of us in community need some agreed upon values and a path, or kerygma. I personally have found the core teachings of Jesus to be life forming and life giving. I could easily dispense with the Christ concept but will always be a follower of the mystic and sage Jesus. I like to be around people who also chose to follow his path of compassion, forgiveness and non-judgment. I think we need that kind of glue to hold the larger communities together.

    • Jo

      Fred, thank you for putting so succinctly what I have been trying to put into words when I discuss Progressive Christianity with friends.

  • John Page-Davies

    I am now an old man, and one with Welsh blood in my veins. This means that there is a particular kind of music that moves me, amongst which is the four-part and rather Victorian harmony of much old liturgical and secular music. Though I agree with the need to be rid of much of the theology of the traditional hymns. Unison singing is alien to my tradition and music in the current pop idiom is simply outside my grasp. This doesn’t mean that I object to worship songs — it’s simply that aesthetically they don’t work for me, they set my teeth on edge: I have to accept that I shall never be quite comfortable in the sort of worship you describe, even while I agree that it may be the necessary coming thing. Perhaps it is right to ignore old gits like me and make a worship world fit for the young. How to get there from where in Britain we are now is the difficult thing.

  • Bob

    Yes, I echo the thanks for this wonderful and timely article as we approach the coming Advent season. Although a part of the Progressive Christianity movement, I am currently working for a parish in Manila, Philippines that is, as we well know, largely a Catholic country from the remote province to the top recesses of government. However, the concept(s) of this article are easily carried over into such a strongly conservative religious environment. There is a coming generation and some of the older generations that are seeking music, and a return of music, that distinctively marks the liturgy as something other-worldly, sacred, and a sense of stepping into eternity, as one youth put it, “a deeper sense of spirituality,” using chant to modern music that is distinctive in character, which enables the people to make conscious contact with God or Being, when engaging the liturgy–the liturgy of the Roman and Episcopal rites makes clear sense to me and has been my spiritual home for 60 years; with just one “small” change–I can no longer embrace the majority of the belief systems, and therefore, I am SO grateful for Progressive Christianity helping me reinterpret this faith journey rather than just walking away from it, and as such enables me to help younger generations enter something new, even if in a covert way, i.e., I guess I am the wolf (a good one) in sheep’s clothing. Much of what has existed has been largely sentimental and echoes too much culture such as karaoke, cocktail lounges, and other venues that are too “familiar” and associative with anything but sacred, mysterious. There is a clear hunger for music that is set aside for spiritual purposes and music that is for social purposes, the sacred and the “profane.” Youth are finding the current Roman liturgy almost meaningless and more a “moral” obligation to “family” and culture, devoid of any real spiritual nourishment.

  • Thanks Fred, for helping me step forward in my reflecting on this very concern for worship music. I have listened too long to voices who want only what they heard since childhood, and am ready to open us further into music speaking into the heart. Your “keep it simple” in words, music, chant message guides me forward.

  • john ramsbottom

    All music has a beat – but this does not necessarily mean it is thumped out by drums or bass guitar!

  • I too struggled with the words used in the UCC New Century Hymnal but it led me to realize that what I was experiencing was not a reaction to the words or their meaning but rather it was a “nostalgia attack”. Your article has helped me to realize at a deeper level that using these words, rather than being more ‘inclusive’ to those who may be offended or put off by gender-specific references, actually served to alienate those who, like me, sang these hymns from memory and used them to connect with the past. Most important though is the realization that music in a worship service acts as an “inclusion activity” and helps attendees shed their roles outside the service and reach what some psychologists call an “equity norm state” with their fellow attendees, enhancing everyone’s experience.

  • Linda Gasparovic

    Thank you for this article! For me the importance of using those simple songs is accessibility. My sister is partially sighted, and cannot participate with the multiple versesfound in traditional hymnals; I’ve observed the same issue for those for whom English is a second language. While studying at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey (Switzerland) I found using the type of music you describe allowed students from around the globe to experience oneness through music, and by selecting songs with fewer words, we could attempt songs in the native tongues representative of our global community. I think it’s time to recognize that much of our traditional Eurocentric music reflects a form of snobbery that excludes all but those who are privileged to read music and come from Western European roots. My theology tells me God is bigger than that, and learning multiple styles of making music gives us a richer , more intimate connection with the God of ALL creation!