Assessing Your Musical Style by Rev. Leigh McCaffrey

For years, music was the hook that kept me in church. I grew up in a large and rather conservative Congregational church with a decidedly classical bias. We seldom sang anything later than the eighteenth century, but we sang it with gusto. And once in a while, usually on Youth Sunday, we got to sing the songs we really liked, and "shock" our elders, who in fact, rather enjoyed the whole proceeding.

Now, as the pastor of a mid-size suburban church, I use all sorts of music in the creation of weekly worship. I am blessed to work with a musician who loves both music and heart-felt worship. We lean a little more towards "traditional" church music than contemporary, but the goal is that we have everything, from Bach to boogie. Our style has evolved over about seven years, but a key component of my learning process was the realization that I needed to have a clear understanding of how music functioned for my particular congregation.

For most Americans under the age of fifty, "church music" is a genre unto itself. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to the music they listen to at home, on television, or live. This is less true for African-Americans and Hispanics, whose worship music often uses the same rhythmic and harmonic patterns as popular music. But for most of our worshipers, what we sing in church is not "the music of your life."

This has some advantages. Classical church music, with its even measures, and major key tonality, is a good way to learn about music in general. These tunes have endured through the generations because they are good! For beginning choristers of any age, learning to sing classical hymns is an important learning tool. The music of the late eighteenth century is a link to our forebears, and a comfort to long-time church members.

But it still feels alien to people who were not raised in the church. Two of my parishioners, who are semi-professional rock musicians, have told me that they have a hard time seeing traditional church music as anything but a relic of a former time. The lack of any discernible beat, the four-part major harmony, and the poetic words [apparently not aware that Bob Dylan strongly advocates using perfect rhyme in song lyrics, whenever possible] just don’t feel real to them.

One of the most helpful questions a pastor or music director can ask members of the congregation is "what kind of music do you listen to at home (or on the car radio)?". The results can be quite revealing. For example, the number of Americans who listen to "country music" is staggering. Yet, few churches use music in this genre because it is regarded as being too unsophisticated. In fact, the conventions of the country music style (refrains and catchy lyrics) make it very singable.

In order to plan music that will move a congregation in worship, you need to know what moves them elsewhere. Maybe they’re folkies who like guitar-picking and meaningful word play. Maybe they love Big Band music and all those horns. Old rockers tend to assume that the music they love could never be played in church (surprise them!). Mellow jazz fans may be longing for a few really rich chords. And how many of your folks go nuts over Phish or Green Day?

I pastor a large number of former Catholics. Their perception is that Protestants make too much of music in general. It’s frankly not a very important part of worship for them. So you might be in the midst of a congregation that just can’t get too excited about singing, but could resonate to drumming or handbells.

Pay attention to the ethnic traditions within your congregation. English and Irish folk song tunes are a staple of most Protestant hymnals, but if your folks are Russian or Chinese, there might be tunes familiar from their childhood that could be used in worship. Not all music has to be sung by the whole congregation; an Indian raga would be beautiful during Eucharist or as an invitation to prayer.

You won’t know until you ask. But in planning ways to expand your congregation’s musical repertoire, start with what you’re currently doing, and move it out toward the kind of music that your folks listen to when they’re not in church. Use the instruments appropriate to the genre, make sure the music is high-quality and consonant with your theology. And keep asking the questions, because in coming to know what moves them in worship, you will hear what God is doing in their lives. Those are the stories that make planning worship a blessing.

Ed. note: Rev. Leigh McCaffrey is pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, UCC, in Bethany, Connecticut. Her e-mail address is : lmccaffrey@snet.net.