***JUST A SIDE NOTE! What’s written here is my very personal opinion. I understand there are varying schools of thought on this and I am open to discussion. I don’t intend to offend anyone or sound preachy. Enjoy!***
“Why Cant We Just Sing the Fun Songs?”
This is a question I receive 1-2 times a year. And on the surface, it’s almost fair. It’s 8AM on a Sunday morning. I got out of bed and to the early mass just to trudge my way through, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name?” Yuck! I should’ve slept the extra hour!
This is a reality that most music directors may not be keen on facing. And the questions are:
- What is the purpose of music in the liturgy?
- Why not do newer music that keeps our attention rather than the old, played-out standards?
- Why should I sing?
This is something I’ve been privileged to speak on many times. This is also a blog that I am not very comfortable writing, because engaging the topic invites many criticisms. Each one of these questions have had entire books written about them, so I will try to be concise and hit a few points.
I won’t drag you through the entire history of music in the church from Judaism to now, but I will say that there has been a huge paradigm shift in what Christian music is to the average churchgoer. This, in turn, affects how we view the music we listen to at mass. Thomas Day, in his fantastic book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste” lays a lot of the blame on changes after The Second Vatican Council (1963). But what is happening in the wider culture?
As a child, I could always tell the difference between church music (even pop radio church music) and the secular mainstream. As I got older, and more musically aware, I noticed these lines beginning to blur. The sad thing was, the Church was no longer setting the standard for the World. The World, for the first time in history, was setting the standard for the Church. This has led Contemporary Christian writers to:
- Adopt formulas and rhythms that are catchy and can sell
- Adhere to feel good lyrics. Most tunes rarely acclaim God’s greatness and majesty, talk about Christian life, teach, or make us think deeply
- Rarely discuss great theological truths. I’m thinking here: The Doxology, The Resurrection, The Second Coming
That is a short list that I think gives us a constructive lens to peer through. I also find a lot of modern music turns inward on the author rather than outward on the transformative power of Christ. There’s typically a feeling of denigration towards the physical world that God created and called good. A lot of these values conflict with music in the past. Consider Maltbie Babcocks hymn “My Fathers World”
This is my Fathers world, and to my listening ears,
all nature sings, and round me rings, the music of the spheres.
This is my Fathers world, the birds their carols raise, the morning light,
the lily white, declare their makers praise.
Here the author does a great job of glorifying God because of his creative work, and describing how full of song creation is in giving worship to their Creator.
Saint Paul tells us in Ephesians 5: 15-21, “ but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and
spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”. Whatever the song is at mass, we should be singing, not because we like the song, not because it has a good beat, but because we are filled with the Spirit. The Bible tells us if we draw night to God he will draw night to us. By raising our voices in song up to him, we become filled with the Holy Spirit.
The current day phenomena of writing music that sounds secular (with a purpose to entertain/turn off our mind) has set the stage for our youth to be influenced by the world, and drawn back into its vices. According to a recent study, 80% of college students lose their faith the first year. Where I direct music for UMASS Catholic Campus Ministry, I see worse than that: 2% mass attendance. Instead of having a kind of Nicotine Patch music industry “I like Yellow Card (secular), so now I listen to Relient K (Christian)”, our music needs to be written to evangelize the relevance and reality of the Gospel, and to help ground our faith.
This is why I am very careful of the music I pick for mass, because I see it as a means for teaching, instruction, relating, and inspiring one to live the Christian life. I am not against “fun” songs per se, and I do let a few slip through the cracks. You’ll know it when I break out the drum machine!
I will close by saying that all music that gives praise to God is good, and I’m not knocking down any of the songwriters who have taken their ministry worlds farther than I have at the moment. I would like to see the days again where people like Elvis were looking to Gospel music for inspiration, rather than bands doing songs that you wouldn’t know were Christian if someone didn’t tell you.
What is your take on Christian music? Will you choose a church based on the music? Do you have favorite artists that you listen to for any reason? Please comment below!