Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Bridging the Church Music Gap: There's a Rich Middle Ground between Organ Lofts and Praise Bands

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Bridging the Church Music Gap: There's a Rich Middle Ground between Organ Lofts and Praise Bands

Article excerpt

At a seminar last year, composer and liturgist Marty Haugen led clergy and church musicians in portions of a new Lenten liturgy he composed with Susan Briehl. He noted dryly that after years of hearing from people who use his Holden Evening Prayer for midweek Lenten services, he thought it time to compose an actual Lenten piece, one that drew from the appropriate texts and themes. Guilty as charged, I glanced at my pastor; others shifted uneasily in their chairs.

That Haugen's Evening Prayer (GIA Publications) should be a popular choice for Lent--the season during which many congregations hold their only regular evening services--is logical. It's a lovely vespers; its combination of traditional texts with reverent and fresh settings has struck a chord with many.

What is less clear is why more American churches don't include a good deal of music like this in all their services, particularly since its engaging mix of tradition and innovation gives answer to the relentless "traditional" vs. "contemporary" debate. Churches expend tremendous energy discussing the relative merits of ancient hymns and radio-ready choruses, and compromises--when they exist at all--are usually problematic. "Blended" services designed to please all the people some of the time are often jarring in their stylistic hairpin turns. And holding two separate weekly services with substantially different music segregates churchgoers based on cultural comfort zones and, especially, age.

Haugen's new Lent-specific That You May Have Life otters both traditional liturgical elements--antiphony, chant, reading responses--and contemporary, singable melodies. He's among a number of composers and editors offering church music that is tradition-grounded yet accessible, contemporary but not pop. Their music challenges the basic assumptions underlying blended and style-segregated services--the idea that there are just two fundamental stylistic categories of church music, and that the best solution is merely to embrace both, as equally as possible.

MANY RESOURCES ARE available to those who want to look beyond simply balancing the narrowly defined traditional and contemporary. Supplementary hymnals, commonplace in denominational publishing, offer both praise choruses and older hymns left out of the corresponding primary hymnals. But most also include music that bridges the gap between "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" and "I Can Only Imagine."

Many contain African-American songs and selections from the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere. Music from various cultures is useful to churches situated in diverse communities and pursuing racial reconciliation and justice; it is also one way in which U.S. congregations can engage the global church. What's more, it sounds new and fresh to a huge variety of Americans--the songs "belong" neither to the proponents of a by-the-book organ liturgy nor to those of lyrics projected on a wall behind a rock band.

A lot of these songs come from folk traditions and are livelier and easier to learn than the bulk of European and North American hymnody. While not doctrinally overstuffed like a Martin Luther hymn, they tend to be meatier and less self-focused than many American choruses.

Global music is central to the growing canon of material that, in the United States, resists easy, this-or-that classification. Also in this category is music from a number of U.S. and European faith communities. Glenn Kaiser of Chicago's Jesus People USA has published many songs that are essentially praise choruses but with a simplicity, gentleness, and scriptural grounding that lend them wide appeal. The beloved music of the Taize community in France--most of it by Jacques Berthier features stark, contemplative settings of scriptural and liturgical texts.

Haugen's Evening Prayer came out of time spent at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in Washington state. Like Haugen, John Bell and Graham Maule of Scotland's Iona Community have channeled their compositional energy into liturgical music as well as stand-alone songs. …

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