Lessons from the Churches of Christ

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.

15 Replies to “Lessons from the Churches of Christ”

  1. A very fine analysis.

    The one thing that makes me a little uncomfortable is a certain logic that is easy to fall into — I fall into it myself from time to time: the "either/or syndrome." My wife puts it this way: It's a mistake to think (or imply) that "everyone is either a Democrat or a Republican," just because those are the only camps out there. Someone might be something quite different, e.g., a monarchist distributist.

    In the context of this article we have "those who think liturgy is infinitely malleable and subjective" and "those who think there are unchangeable elements of Church music and who resist change as a rule." In reality, it's surely always been more subtle than that — there has always been musical development, but there has also always been a corpus of music connected specifically with the sacred liturgy (Eastern or Western) — definite texts and melodies. We see that in Gregorian chant as well as in Byzantine chant in its many varieties.

    In short, the problem is not "new music"; if that were a problem, I'd better stop composing motets and Masses. The problem is the abandonment of the native music of a particular apostolic ritual tradition. The Eastern Churches have almost never done that sort of thing, and they are right to be so forcibly committed to their heritage of text and melody. Although the West has fostered a huge amount of artistic creativity over the centuries, we Roman Catholics should be as absolutely committed to our chant heritage as the East is to theirs. This is not to be a stick in the mud, an inflexible ideologue, or any such thing; it is simply to belong to a definite, historically embodied tradition that isn't broken and doesn't need fixing.

    (Of course, the elephant in the room is that, in some ways, the liturgy IS broken and needs fixing, and that makes all the musical questions a thousand times more complicated…)

  2. I'm suggesting that that the either/or thinking is too common, and that the third way really is the best way.

    What I really think is that we need to think about EVERY liturgical decision through a theological lens. Projection screens, amplification, choir placement, etc. We can neither go along to get along, nor resist every attempt at improvement as a diabolical novelty.

  3. Yes, I should have been clearer in saying that your article didn't have the problem that I was describing, but that many people out there assume a person is at one extreme or the other, and that makes it impossible to think theologically about decisions — one thinks only politically (at best).

    The worry I had was in speaking as if there are not certain elements, traditions, or practices that are, in fact, unchangeable and not subject to new decisions to keep them or discard them, even for the best or worst of reasons. I realize that in the context of the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite we don't have much of this left anymore, which is a real tragedy — there is not much that isn't up for grabs, and so one is confronted by the pressing need to "think about EVERY liturgical decision" — ideally "through a theological lens."

    What I'm suggesting — and what the EF world has to offer at its best — is an understanding and practice of liturgy that doesn't have to "think" about every decision, because so much is set in place that is never subject to decision; it is given to us and we rather let <it> shape our thinking. In that scenario, what the faithful need to do is study and internalize the rationale for the unchangeable — fides quaerens intellectum — but not feel that this tradition always needs to be defended against the next liturgical reformer who comes along with his novel ideas.

    I feel that the point I'm making is probably not very clear; do you see what I'm getting at, though?

  4. I do – and I agree.

    In the EF relative to the OF (and in the OF relative to Protestant practice) there are less things that have to be decided: but of course there are still decisions to make (otherwise all EF celebrations would look precisely the same).

    Generally, my article's advice (which is my constant advice) is: think theologically before making decisions. This goes whether you have one or 100 decisions to make (and the decision of which Form of the Mass to use is a decision, too).

    More specifically to this article – I think the example of the CoC practice sheds light on typical post-Conciliar Roman Rite problems, as the same set of cultural trends were at work in both cases.

  5. Yes — that's a fantastic way of putting it: any decision should be grounded in theological reasons, not something political, sociological, whimsical, emotional, etc. (not that these can be entirely avoided, but they have to be decisively secondary).

    You are quite right that the music at an EF Mass can vary tremendously, and sometimes it's plain awful, saccharine, sentimental, 1950s garbage. Sorry to be blunt, but some of the old hymns make me feel nauseated. So clearly, the EF world has plenty of theological thinking to do as well!

    I often think the huge divide in the Church is between those who think and make decisions based on principle, and those who think and make decisions based on politics. It's true that the latter have their own principles, but the very principles are subject to bargaining depending on the circumstances.

  6. Thank you for such a thoughtful article. As part of the Church of Christ tradition, I'm troubled by the move away from the four-part harmony tradition. I have been working with churches (providing workshops and training materials) to help re-train and renew the commitment to this unique approach – not because of the beauty of the sound, but because of the participatory aspect. In other words, we view the entire church as "the choir." Our web site explains it here: http://PraiseAndHarmony.com

    Having been involved in performance and concert-oriented music, I'm highly sensitive to make sure to avoid the performer stance as a song leader. I understand the important role of song (worship) leader to encourage active participation among all parts and all voices, including those who consider themselves non-musical. The larger the number, the more important the leader is (and amplification) to keep everyone together in beautiful congregational harmony. I view the song leader role as much more than musical, but one who has an opportunity to model worship (through body language in addition to directing).

    Here is a video clip in an arena taken a few weeks ago. What you cannot see is the large video screen, projection bold musical notation in shaped notes in four part harmony. http://youtu.be/HC1rSoKmvXU?list=UUgMNzjiaLOpnjG2

    I appreciate your article.

  7. Speaking as someone from the Churches of Christ (born, bred, degrees, and all), I found this to be a very accurate and interesting assessment. I really appreciate the outsiders perspective, which is something we don't tend to get a lot. My dad has been a song leader since I can remember, and it was only during the MDiv process that I started really thinking about a lot of the things you spoke about here. We've had a fear of Catholicism for a long time, and many of the things I was learning about liturgy (a term I had never heard until I was 21) seemed like they would be so beneficial to our Sunday morning services. Lately, I've been more on the same wave length of your observation, wondering what our praise teams and other mega-church imports do to our collective worship. I had not gone so far as to even question the song leader, but I will certainly be pondering that now. Again, thanks for your thoughts. Many of my CoC MDiv friends are reposting this on Facebook via DFWCatholic, so, it is making the rounds among CoC leadership!

  8. As a song leader/worship leader in the CofC for 60 years, I've learned that we must always start with the congregation. Don't start with the music, don't start with the traditions, don't start with what you are told is what "the kids want." You can use chant if you wish. My congregation does, both single line Gregorian/Ambrosian/Sarum/whatever, including a morning hymn from the Mexican frontier, plus a few harmonized chants. We also have our own 87 page hymnal of newer hymns that have been edited so they can be sung by experienced amateurs. Several of our new single line hymns have one or two new stanzas written by members of our congregation. But if we end the service with anything other than the Old Hundredth Doxology, I can expect a bunch of the under-30 crowd to give me some serious backlash. That's our tradition, and that's what they demand. That's because they know that regardless of the variety of the music used in the service, ALL of the music is for them. It's about the congregation. Start there, and the rest will fall into place.

  9. My upbringing in the CoC has some truly memorable moments. My family of 5 siblings all sang a capella, and the preacher's kids – there were 6, all had strong well-harmonized voices. It was them other fellas in the church that couldn't sing!
    One aspect I'd hope to encounter in becoming Catholic, was beautiful a capella singing. It isn't always there, and at least on the first Sunday of the month we have to share with the slide guitar. (Unthinkable in my youth)

  10. Thank you, Keith. Your music and your ministry has been a blessing to me and my family for many years. Thank you for what you do.

  11. This is a very insightful piece. It is spot on about the Churches of Christ. I wish that more of our fellowship had had the benefit of this perspective over the years – maybe we could have avoided some of the "worship wars" that have torn apart many of our congregations. Having experienced this, these are very hurtful experiences. I especially appreciate the author's point about focusing not so much on the technicalities of worship, but the purposes of worship. I think that focus on the technicalities is the Pharisee approach – getting so focused on following the law that they lost the purposes of fulfilling God's law in the first place.

  12. I appreciate your comments and I hope you don't mind if I share my own. First, I am a long time COC member and I have led singing as such on many occasions, though not in recent years. You mention concerns about the aesthetic of the music, should we have a song leader, what about a praise team, should we be concerned about the acoustics, etc. My thought is that you are asking the wrong questions here. I am a song writer, Christian songs of course, and I play the guitar. I also record my music and add other instrumentation as I see fit. But at church we sing a Capella. Seem odd? Not really. The issue here is really worship. The aesthetic value of the music is important only to our little ears that here it. But worshipping our God is not something we so for ourselves. And you are right that the problem of performance is an issue, but ultimately all praise is due to Him for His glory and the quality of the music, the intonation, the major thirds, the minor fifths, the whole "musical experience" is completely beside the point. I can worship God a Capella, with instruments, with gregorian chants… And I can worship God in complete and utter silence. Our worship of the almighty to create an experience that will be pleasing to Him, but to pour out our hearts in praise and devotion of the Father in heaven. Frequently I sit quietly by myself in my room with my guitar and sing to The Lord, and on Sundays I join with my church in praising him in song. I don't care if we sing one part or 4 parts, because no matter how beautiful it sounds to us, or if it sounds like fingers on a chalkboard, our praise and worship of the father is beautiful to him. So you can't carry a tune in a bucket. That's okay. He is not limited as we are by our critical ears. This is why I think that a Capella singing such as in the COC is so wonderful. Because everybody sings, no matter what your ability or musical limitations. Yes, some churches of Christ may develop a spectator mentality over time, but I hope that we keep the focus on where it should be… On God and not our feeble attempts to create beautiful music. I have a feeling that when we see Him in heaven, and hear the angels singing it will be the most beautiful thing… And it really won't matter to Him or us.

  13. I think you are missing my point.

    The fact is, SOME decision has to be made all the time. Whether or not to do this or that, to sing this or that, whatever. To many people in churches of all kinds do not think about the EFFECT of these decisions- what they communicate, how they strengthen or hinder community, what theology is being taught by them.

    My essay is about thinking through the repercussions of various decisions.

  14. i LOVE that you just backed off and let the people sing. Wonderful.
    I wish more song leaders had that kind of faith.

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