Why Do People Quit Church Going ?

by Robert Brow   (web site -  www.brow.on.ca)

Chapter 9 - Church Music

In churches of every country of the world Christians sing. "Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts" (Colossians 5:18). And good or bad music makes a huge difference to a service. It can be a powerful attraction for outsiders. It can also drive people to distraction. More people seem to be put off church going by unacceptable music than for any other reason.

C.S.Lewis hated hymn singing. He found the poetry unbearable, the theology faulty, and the music distracting. Rather than quit church going, he survived by attending a simple Anglican communion service with no music. He also wanted the Book of Common Prayer exactly as written with nothing changed.

But many others want the traditional service of their denomination interspersed with three or four familiar hymns. In the previous chapter we noted the importance of ritual. We defined it as something that we do on a regular basis without needing to think about it. And that is exactly what many people want their hymns to be. But even those who reject the idea of any new music cannot cope with singing a few favorites every Sunday.

Most congregations find that they need a hymn book of sufficient familiar tunes to provide variety throughout the year. But the repertoire needs constant updating with the gradual introduction of new tunes. A pond without running water become stagnant. A sudden change of musical style is too traumatic, but a constant input of new music allows a congregation to discard what is dated and irrelevant. This might avoid the complaint of one respondent whose experience was that . "The music is ancient, has undecipherable words, and lacks life."

The problem (or perhaps we should call it the opportunity) is that humans delight in a huge range of musical tastes. In one sense Christians all over the world sing similar songs of praise, love, and commitment. But music varies even more than cooking from one country to another, Vegetables, steak, chicken, fish can be enjoyed as Indian curry, Chinese sweet and sour, or with French sauces. There is no such thing as the right kind of cooking. And there is no such thing as the proper kind of church music. Africans like to jump and dance out their hymns. As the Lord builds his church, he delights in a rich variety of styles.

Not only does each nation have different forms of music, but the beat changes every generation. Young people groan if they have to put up with the dirges their parents seem to appreciate. This sets up a vicious spiral. Young people keep away from dated music. The oldies that remain in church want the nostalgia of their childhood hymns. They work hard at raising funds for the building, sit on the committees, and run the choir with the old familiar hymns. As the congregation dies they call a young minister who is charged with "bringing in the youth." But that cannot happen without disturbing the peace. Meanwhile the musical talent that could have changed the situation has long quit attending church.

Jesus foresaw this and told us that each vintage needs new containers (Luke 5:37). This is especially true of what we sing in our churches. The music of the next generation cannot be contained in the dried up old wine skins of their parents. The older generation is right to enjoy a matured form of musical expression. "The old is better to my taste" (Luke 5:35).

What they must not say is that "the next generation must sing to our beat." Nor should they immediately brand the music of their children as satanic in origin. That is a certain recipe for losing the next vintage of young people in our churches. Having said that, we also recognize that some middle aged people will quit church going if they are forced to endure the latest rock groups. Musical vintages should not be mixed. An electronic guitar at full volume does not go with organ music. Better provide the new wineskins of a different kind of service at a different time.

When I was at St. James Anglican Church in Kingston we had an excellent organist who did his best with the existing hymn book. But there was a group that enjoyed meeting together at home to learn the new charismatic songs. When Faye Koshel asked if they could try an evening service, I asked her to begin the next Sunday evening. The gathering soon attracted talented musicians with a variety of instruments, and it quickly grew to a hundred people of all denominations who found just what they had missed in the formality of regular services.

Our city of Kingston, Ontario, is a retirement community with many who like the old evangelical hymns. There are also 10,000 Queen's University students who find that kind of music deadly boring. It would be an embarrassment to bring their friends. Offer them a service with modern rock music and the opportunity to play a variety of musical instruments, and they will come in droves. This occurred for example at Bethel, a downtown Associated Gospel congregation. They began a service for the new generation at a different time. It had to be freed from the control of the organist and choir of the regular service. At first the older members found this very upsetting. "Who do they think they are? Why can't they come and worship with us." But when the mod service brought in three hundred enthusiastic young people, some continued to complain but most settled down to rejoice in what God was obviously blessing.

The music most enjoyed by workers at the large aluminum and nylon plants in Kingston tends to be Country and Western. That is what you hear played on their car radios. But strumming is anathema to the Royal College of Organists and the musical elite who frequent symphony concerts. Strangely there is not one congregation of any denomination that offers Country and Western for public worship. The net result is that workers at Alcan and Dupont feel excluded and ill at ease if they come to our services. Class prejudice also exists in the church's musical offering. It is time we had at least one congregation in the city that sang in the musical idiom of the people. General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army used raunchy music hall rhythms, and when people objected to such frivolity he used to say "Why should the devil have the best tunes?" We could do with his musical courage.

The Charismatic movement has produced thousands of new songs. We might complain that the words major on repeating the believer's feelings and sentimental love for the Lord. Only a few of the new hymns have the theological depth of a classic like "Praise my soul the King of Heaven." But before writing off this new musical offering we could remind ourselves that Charles Wesley wrote over 3000 hymns, but only a dozen or so are still sung. As the new hymns are tried out in hundreds of gatherings all over the world some of the new hymns will also become classics that enrich the church..

Even if we enjoy the style of music used in our congregation, a service can be ruined by the way the singing fails to blend with the preaching of the good news for that day. The art needed to put a satisfying service together is as skilled as a chef charged with preparing a banquet for visiting royalty. I refuse to eat at a place filled with smoke, or where raucous music makes it impossible to talk. People soon quit going to a restaurant that serves up uninspired food. And undoubtedly large numbers have been put off church going by finding our music unappetising. If a minister lacks the skill or the time to work at enriching the music of a congregation, better get others to take on this creative task.

In many countries of the world music tended to be a solo performance. The only people who sang in groups were soldiers marching into battle or lines of harvesters in the field. One of the exceptions was the orchestra and choir that David gathered. Later it led the worship of Solomon's temple (1 Chronicles 15:17-24, 2 Chronicles 5:12-14, see Psalm 150). But elaborate choir singing did not flourish in Christian churches for the first fifteen centuries. Rather than congregational hymns, Eastern Orthodox services and Jewish synagogues still use a cantor. In monasteries the monks sang plainsong.

Roughly beginning with Bach's cantatas there was a huge flowering of Christian choirs. Musical people enjoyed learning to sing in harmony and the organ was the perfect instrument to accompany them. But the professionalism of brilliant organists and choir directors soon left ordinary Christians out in the cold. One congregation in Vancouver had a superb choir attended by only a dozen worshippers. When Harry Robinson began preaching there and insisted on congregational singing the organist and choir resigned angrily and moved away. St. John's Shaughnessy was soon packed with young people, and it still enjoys their enthusiasm today.

Cathedrals take pride in their choirboys. But when local congregations try to compete with them the results are usually dismal. Perhaps it is time to recognize that professional organists and highly trained choirs belong in Cathedrals and places where people like to worship in the context of a musical performance. There are many older congregations valiantly struggling to have their own choir. One person objected "It seems to be part of the Anglican liturgy (and in the United Church also) to have an anthem every Sunday. In one service we had two anthems and no sermon." In many cases people with a good musical ear find it unbearable to sit and listen to what is inflicted on them. They would rather get quality music from a CD at home.

Where great care is taken to offer a mix of well known hymns, and perhaps a new one each month, good congregational singing is usually acceptable. Most people enjoy singing three or four hymns during a morning service. But with musical tastes differing so much, we may need two or three kinds of service with music to suit the older and the younger generations, and another for those whose musical taste is quite different.

That does not solve the problem of good tunes conveying bad theology.  Every hymn writer takes the opportunity of giving his or her slant on the good news of the Bible. Victorian hymns had a depressing emphasis on our sinfulness, the awful agonies that our poor Jesus suffered, and the imminent prospect of death. Others use words we no longer understand, strung together with cliches. Very few manage to breathe the fresh air freedom of the New Testament. But that is also true of preachers. Too many imagine that their task is to moralize. "Repent, be devoted, and try a bit harder to improve yourself." Very few hymns capture the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to do in us what we could never achieve alone. A sprinkling of such quality hymns in a modern idiom would make church going an experience that touches our deepest needs. It is a tragedy to force people to give up on church going because we have not done our musical home work.

Chapter 10  ......