My best friend and his wife (my wife’s best friend) grew up in and worship in the Church of Christ tradition, a Christian denomination popular in the Southern U.S., with roots in the Second Great Awakening. For theological and historical reasons (which are not the focus of this article), the Churches of Christ developed a culture of unaccompanied congregational singing. This singing style, heavily influenced by the Shape Note (Sacred Harp) tradition, is one of the core identifying characteristics of this religious tradition.
If you have followed much of my writing over the years, you know that I am quite enamored with the musical tradition of the Churches of Christ (and other “Primitive American” musics), and it has influenced my own thinking about congregational singing, the primacy of Gregorian Chant within the Roman Rite, and the transmission of culture across generations.
I am deeply concerned about the long-term viability of the musical heritage of the Church of Christ tradition, and I also think there are lessons to learn about the preservation of musical culture.
The Churches of Christ are not immune to the trends of popular religious music, and never have been throughout their two-century history. Old traditional strophic hymns, Sacred Harp music, popular “Gospel” songs, and (now) the latest pop Christian praise music have all found a place within their worship gatherings. Songs which were considered new-fangled a generation ago are now defended as “traditional,” while the latest generation of devotional music slowly but inevitably finds its way into the Sunday service, despite the occasional grumblings from the curmudgeons and defenders of the faith.
The ability of the CoC to bend and reshape each new wave of popular music to fit the denominational requirement that no instruments be used in worship has created a situation where these diverse styles and genres become unified, and can coexist without any sense of aesthetic discontinuity. This continuity is particularly interesting because almost no Church of Christ musician would consider aesthetic continuity, in a Catholic liturgical sense, to be a requirement of tasteful and dignified worship. All the same, I am of the opinion that aesthetics have a strong psycho-spiritual impact, even when your explicit theology says otherwise.
This strength of the CoC musical tradition suggests (to me, at least) that one of the keys to maintaining (or reclaiming) a truly Catholic and Roman musical culture in the Roman Rite might be a stronger sense of aesthetic continuity, even when (or especially when) local requirements dictate use of music other than Gregorian Chant and Renaissance Polyphony. It goes (more or less) without saying here on the Chant Cafe that “contemporary” (that is, pop-styled) music creates some artistic dissonance within the Mass. But I have also experienced “traditional” liturgy that seemed as much a hodge-podge as any Folk Mass I’ve attended. Just because several things are in Latin, or just because several things are old, does not mean that they belong together in the liturgy. At the same time, careful adaptation of style can bring more contemporary music into aesthetic alignment with more traditional selections.
Though the Churches of Christ have seemingly been able to absorb and unify each new wave of popular devotional music over the last two centuries, there is one trend within contemporary “Praise and Worship” culture which threatens severe disruption within this tradition, and which has already begun to wreak havoc on Catholic liturgy: performer-oriented music.
This “performer orientation” seems to be an artifact of the mega-church phenomenon, imported (as far as I am aware) somewhat unthinkingly along with other detritus such as projection screens and microphones.
In an average Church of Christ congregation, it is common for a “worship minister” or “song leader” to sing the melody of a song into a microphone, from the front of the assembly area. This leader is supposedly helping the congregation to sing, but is, in fact, doing no such thing. Rather, this practice is a serious threat to the integrity of congregational singing, for a number of reasons which should be obvious but apparently are not. Three in particular stand out:
First, the presence of a song leader implies to the congregation that singing is something done by a particular person with a particular set of skills. The congregation’s job, then, is not to sing, but only to “sing along.” Inasmuch as singing is no longer the domain of the congregation, it becomes optional for them. You might sing if you want to, or if you think you are good at it, but you no longer sing out of necessity. Since it is no longer essential that every person sings, it will of course become the case that not everyone sings.
Additionally, the artificial amplification of the melody over the other vocal parts destroys the aural texture of congregational part-singing, making it impossible for newcomers and children to learn to sing in harmony. People who grow up within the Church of Christ tradition learn to sing in four-part harmony without any formal training. The major enabling factor for this ability is constant exposure to it, in a context in which each individual part can be clearly heard by anyone within the assembly. When a song leader sings the melody into a microphone, the other parts are covered in such way as to make them nearly impossible to hear individually. Anyone who does not already know a harmony line has very little help in learning one. This problem is made infinitely worse by the use of words-only projection slides, which provide no musical information or formation.
Finally, the nature of individual singing performance is intrinsically different than congregational singing performance. Musical phenomena such as rhythmic content and melodic ornamentation simply work differently with a soloist than they do with a congregation. The placement of a single singer at the head of the congregation inevitably draws that singer toward a solistic style of singing which is musically incompatible with robust congregational singing.
Part of the reason that these developments have been allowed to take place is that, much like with many customs and rules in Roman liturgical practice, the heart of the Church of Christ’s congregational orientation - a theology of community derived from the Acts of the Apostles - has been reduced in common practice to a mere legalism: “No musical instruments.” Once a theological proposition has been reduced to a legalism, there are two inevitable consequences: circumnavigation and abandonment. Circumnavigation happens when the question becomes, “How can we do whatever we wanted to do anyway, without ‘technically’ breaking the rules?” Abandonment happens when the pretense of technicality is dropped and the rule is simply ignored or removed.
The history of the Roman Rite, particularly through the late modern period, involves many cycles of legalization, circumnavigation, and eventual (de facto and then de jure) abandonment. One example of this is the replacement of Propers with hymns. Another is the change in liturgical orientation from the East toward the people.
In the Churches of Christ, this process has meant that mega-church Praise Band culture was simply imported into unaccompanied, heavily microphoned soloists (circumnavigation) and now, in a small but growing number of cases, congregations have simply added “Instrumental Worship” services (abandonment). I get the sense, from my friends in other Christian traditions, that this process is universal and inevitable.
There are two typical ways of reacting to this seemingly inevitable evolution from law to legalism to disregard. Most people go along with whatever trend is currently in vogue, whether actively supporting the change or simply allowing it to happen without comment or resistance. A small minority oppose the change, but usually for spurious reasons having to do with legalism and habit.
Philistines and Pharisees. Progressives and Prudes.
In both cases personal comfort seems paramount, and neither “side” is really right. In fact we all find ourselves identifying with one group or the other, and this is a matter of temperament, not maturity.
As an outsider to the CoC tradition, it’s easy for me to back up, ignore the messy details, and offer some thoughts on a solution. I’m not hopeful that many Church of Christ congregations will take up my suggestions. I am, though, hopeful that the benefit of distance will provide some clarity into finding similar solutions to similar problems within the Catholic tradition of liturgical music. For this reason, I will only offer a few thoughts and a lot of questions. It seems to me that these questions are relevant to music ministry in all Christian traditions.
It seems to me that the best way forward for preserving the Church of Christ musical tradition is not to embark on a destructive reactionary campaign of strict rule following, but to embrace the spirit of the original rules and to evaluate new developments against their purpose, rather than against their technicalities. That is - to ask whether something is helpful, not just whether it is allowed.
On a practical level this means first re-evaluating both the need for and the nature of “Song Leaders.” Are they really helping the congregation to find their own voice? Or are they allowing the congregation to become more passive during worship? Do they need to hold microphones? What is the optimal volume for microphones? Should there be multiple singers on microphones (one for each vocal part), or just one, or none at all? Whether there is one Song Leader, or a choir full of them - what is their placement relative to the assembly, and what does this placement imply?
For those congregations which have decided to add instrumental worship - Is there a way to use instruments as an enhancement to congregational part-singing, rather than a replacement for it? Can decisions like placement of musicians, repertoire, and performance style be made in such a way that the congregation retains an active role in music-making, rather than abdicating that role to a small group of performers?
Another thing to consider is church architecture and acoustics - building worship spaces which either enhance congregational singing or which require extreme amplification. Additionally, the use of projection screens could be evaluated with an eye toward those practices which enhance congregational participation and long-term viability.
Critically - and this goes for all of us, in every tradition - we all must develop the habit of thinking theologically about our actions.
What belief is being expressed when a congregation sits back in padded chairs and sings-along with a performative soloist? What belief is being expressed when a people stand together and sing together? What belief is being expressed by choosing to worship in an acoustically dead, unattractive space? What belief is being expressed when one person’s voice is amplified over the voices of everyone else?
Historically, the people in the Churches of Christ pray a certain way because they believe a certain way, and that prayer life in turn forms them into that way of believing, and into a way of living. It is the same, of course, for us - for all of us.
We cannot import and capitulate to every new trend that comes along, but neither can we become reactionaries against all natural change and progress. Even our approach to change signals something about our beliefs: showing on the one hand that the forms of our worship are completely changeable and thus completely meaningless, or on the other that worship is a history museum with little relevance to human life.
This is the essence of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. If we wish to form people into a way of believing, into a way of living (a Lex Vivendi), we must take care with the way we pray and worship.