Church Growth Through Music?

I hope to discus this issue without reawakening the Inquisition but if I get you to think or maybe a little perturbed, I’ve done my job. That’s what troublemakers do, they get you to think and if it is a worthy thought process, it might inspire you to try to change something.  It is usually the troublemakers of the world who get things started, done or changed.  Where would any of us be today if it wasn’t for a troublemaker speaking their opinion, voicing a concern, sitting in the front of the bus or defying authority? Issues of sexuality, peace, gender and race equality have all been moved forward by troublemakers.  The world needs more troublemakers.  Jesus himself was a troublemaker and he was arrested and sentenced to death for his crime.  I find it funny that people don’t realize that by today’s standards he would be considered a convicted felon.  And don’t whine to me about him being innocent.  We don’t have innocent people locked up in our prisons?

So, on topic, there are many clergy and traditional liturgical churches who have or are deliberating the issue of adding a contemporary music group as a worship resource in an effort to attract young people to their declining populations. One must consider that upbeat, hip or contemporary music will not necessarily attract young people back to church and you wouldn’t want them there to be worshiping the music anyway.  Music worshipers can be deadly for a church.  Music worship is one of the many battlegrounds found within our churches.  While it is good to be fluent in the musical vernacular of our communities and try those of others, anyone in search of that type of music can easily find it on the radio, the internet or on TV.

In addition, much of the contemporary Christian music is more user friendly for soloists or highly skilled performers.  Those sweeping melodies, out of range high or low notes and tricky rhythms are often difficult for a congregation let alone an amateur soloist to sing.  Hearing it performed anemically is not much of an attraction, either.  If the church has to fear something, it should fear mediocrity which is often present in many of our churches.  Whether the music is “performed” well or not, just visit a church that has contemporary music and look at the young people.  Are they participating?  Do they appear to want to be there?  Music should be a symptom of a vibrant and active congregation.  Pastors who have failed, musicians trying to justify their jobs or those who worship music, may disagree.  People of all ages should go to church to worship, pray, wonder, seek, find, to learn how to walk the walk comprehensively instead of in seeking divided assemblies and being lured in by yet another golden idol.  If the people are not singing, maybe they don’t have a reason to sing. Give them something to sing about.  If a church is not the hub of our week, the space of our regrouping, a place where we have a transformative experience, a place where the Sabbath day is holy, then what is it?  A concert venue?  Music should not be the reason we go to church but it is important on the list of programs and activities which can help inspire a congregation to walk the walk.  As I said, it is good to be fluent in the musical vernacular of our communities, but as a symptom of our “with-unity.”

Another flaw with much of our contemporary music is that it is based upon poor theology.  There is a difference between the inspired words of Scripture and “me and Jesus” songs which are at best suitable for private devotional exercises.  I recently accompanied a small choir who sang a song with the text – only if you beleive will you receive the blessings of God.  I know quite a few atheists who live blessed lives.  Like the sun, God’s blessings shine upon everyone, not just believers.

When you go to a birthday party, you don’t go because there will be drums and guitars accompanying the song “Happy Birthday.”  You don’t go because there is going to be a choir or soloist singing “Happy Birthday.”  You simply don’t go to sing “Happy Birthday.”  You go because you admire and love the person celebrating the date of their birth and because of that admiration, you sing “Happy Birthday.”  The song accompanies the ritual action of blowing out the candles and making a wish and, is usually performed with full and active participation.  The participants are not concerned about being judged by others because everyone’s focus is on the person they are there to admire, not one another.  The music is not the reason why people go to these types of celebrations but it is an important part because they have something to sing about.  People shouldn’t be going to church because of the music or any other gimmick, they should go for another reason.

The fastest growing population of Christians are the disenfranchised.   People leave the church because it doesn’t work for them.  Re-inventing what doesn’t work won’t bring them back.  Maybe the church needs to get the people out of the pews (apostle = apo [away] + stellein [send]) to simply share the wonderful things God is doing in their lives and nothing more.  If people who are seeking something greater than themselves return with those from our churches who have gone out and shared their love, great.  If not, the world is still a better place for their going out.

Churches shouldn’t be focused on growth or the making of more money.  Churches need to stop worshiping their music but worship God whom those actions point to.  They only need to share the love of God through action, not tricks and lures of false gods and golden idols such as music, pizza, sewing clubs and the latest in multimedia technology.  Those are all great tools and we all want and may have them but in today’s technologically accessible and socially active society, we don’t need the church to fill those needs anymore.  In addition, if we want to serve the poor, there are organizations outside the church where we can do that and they are usually doing it much better than the church.  I know many people who volunteer and actively make a difference in their communities and they have chosen to opt out of organized worship life.  Lady Gaga has probably saved countless gay teen lives from suicide.  The church has probably lost many gay teen lives to suicide.  So, why church?

Christianity has survived 2,000 years and we don’t need to fix it now unless we have wandered from the path.  The church is answering questions that young people are not even asking.  Go back to comforting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, healing, feeding and clothing.  As the song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” not our music.  I want to remind you that I previously said that music is a great tool and should be a symptom of a vibrant church which can also help inspire a congregation to walk the walk.  I personally harbor no musical prejudices.

For those churches who see this light, your challenge is to sleuth out the reasons people don’t see church as relevant and address those issues.  According to some biblical scholars, most people have only a fourth grade knowledge or understanding of religion and biblical history.  Our Sunday School programs tend to teach bible stories as fundamental isolated facts and truth while failing to point to the bigger picture of the canon.  It is hard to admit that some stories are just stories aimed at conveying a message especially if it is engrained in our DNA since childhood that every word is unadulterated truth.  Personally I am not a fan of atonement theology and see the task of the Christian church is to no longer rescue you from your sin but to help you grow beyond the barriers of your insecurity into a new understanding of what it means to be human.  I know a priest who admitted that to me once but he said he would never tell the congregation because he would lose his job.  Education is the key to solving most of our societal concerns and it could build a thriving church unless we get mired down in the stories.

For instance, many of our fairy tales are about witches, big bad wolves and vampires.  Those stories were not designed to teach kids that those entities necessarily exist, they were designed to teach kids to not go alone into the woods and to be wary of strangers, to stay on the path and to know that nice is different than good.  They are not fundamental stories.  Here are a few more reasons that people see the church as irrelevant:

The bible focuses on a history and culture that most people don’t know anything about so the readings are meaningless and boring to the average listener who knows nothing about first century Jewish culture and history.

The bible is male dominated.  There are no voices from women nor people of color.  It doesn’t address nor give voice to our current demographic.  Did God stop speaking 2,000 years ago or does he still speak through people today such as Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen or the Dali Lama? I beleive that the Unitarian church includes readings each Sunday from our contemporary mystics, prophets and assorted troublemakers.

Church demeans our humanity when it tells us we are terrible and sinful people from birth and that that process defiles our mothers. Instead of trying to make us fearful religious people, it should focus on making us the best people we can be.  God is love.  I don’t know any parent who comes home and then tells their children that they are wretched sinners nor do I know anyone who enters a room and announces the same.  When we go to church, one of the first things we do is ask God for mercy and forgiveness.  What did we do over the past six days?  Christians don’t need to be born again, they need to grow up.  In becoming human we enter the divine, we step beyond all limits beyond ourselves, and when we move beyond our sense of inadequacy and learn to give our lives away in love to others we experience life at a depth not previously known.   We all make mistakes but we don’t define ourselves by those mistakes.  We grow from them and move on.   The church doesn’t want that because it is in the forgiveness business and would go out of business if you started to grow up.

All denominations teach some degree of fundamentalism whether they realize it or not, or, they make no attempt to correct past errant beliefs.  We get our skewed theology and disbelief from bad childhood Sunday School programs, poor preaching and the greatest and most believed interpreter of the bible of all: Hollywood.  Most of what people think happened in the first century, for instance, is derived from movies.  For example, we think that when the curtain was torn in two, we envision what movie producers have taught us, that there was indeed an earthquake, rocks split, the sun disappeared and the walls of the temple cracked and people fell to the ground.  Did that happen literally as in the movies or was it really intended to be a deep and poignant poetic description?  Most people don’t even know what the “curtain” truly was but Hollywood “showed” us in the movie.  While I stood at the bedside of my mother the moment she died, when she took her last breath, I could describe it as a quake and eclipse too, and the curtains which divided my family were torn in two, but it wasn’t literal.  Oh Charlton Heston, you’ve done more damage to biblical scholarship than any devil ever could.

We can not nor will not twist our 21st century minds into first century culture and understanding of the world.  2,000 years ago, if someone fell to the ground and started shaking, they were thought to be possessed by demons.  Today we would say they were having a seizure and get them medical care.  Fundamentalists can consult a priest but I’m going to consult a doctor.  The church has a lot of damage to undo before it can reclaim credibility and it should not preach on first century beliefs.  As the Gershwin song states about Jonas living in the belly of the whale, “It ain’t necessarily so.” The people recognize this. It took the Roman Catholic Church over 300 years to admit that it was wrong for imprisoning Galileo about his belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  How weak was their faith if they couldn’t handle a little speculation from a scientist that they had to arrest him?  Remember the advice given to the Sanhedrin by the high priest Gamaliel in the book of Acts when he was asked to solve the problem of this new Jesus movement.  He said if it’s of God, there is nothing you can do to stop it and if it is not God, you don’t need to oppose it because it will eventually die under it’s own weight.  A biblical scholar once opined that most of what is written in the bible didn’t actually happen and he later received 16 death threats and a bomb scare. I bet that none of those threats came from atheists.  Our faith is weak if we must protest too much.

The church tries to get us to see life through stained glass windows.  It teaches us that pain, suffering, death, hate, discrimination or persecution can be conquered and prayed away.  Many people only go to church when they are suffering or scared.  Pain and suffering are inevitable and can’t be conquered.  The church can however teach us that those things, with the help from one another, can be endured.  Henri Nouwen said “Blessed are those who suffer, not because suffering is good, but because they shall be comforted.”  Every condition of our lives, good or bad, wonderful or horrible, is merely the support system for the journey.  If I fall and break my leg, don’t pray for me, call 911.  Then together we can pray and rejoice for the gift of friendship, caring, sacrifice and the healing process. I know a Christian Scientist who fell and broke his hip.  He went to the hospital and had surgery.  Several weeks later he came back to church and praised God for his healing. I don’t know why Christian Scientists get a bad rap for believing that God heals them.

Religious institutions and denominations teach that theirs is the only one true religion or institution.  Many do not allow the cross pollination of Communion. A Hindu who rejects Christ hasn’t found it.  A Christian who rejects Buddha hasn’t found it. This is why more people are identifying with being “spiritual, not religious.”  They don’t know what they don’t know but they recognize tunnel vision when they see it.  I am a Christian because I was raised in the Christian tradition but if I were born to different parents I could easily have been a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist.  People travel the pathway to God that is available to them, usually by birth.  Is the pathway holy or is the goal to which every path is pointed to holy?  If one walks their pathway deeply and with integrity they will walk beyond boundaries of their human and church created pathways.  They will then escape the limits of religion and be able to sit down and talk with their Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim friends.  That is the essence of the Christian faith, where we can share in the treasures of the of the faith journeys of other religions.  That is important, a Christian is one who walks the Christ path into a deeper and fuller expression of their own humanity.  The opposite is that I am right, you are wrong and you won’t be right until I fix you.

Our society is more enlightened and knows more about issues such as the origin of the biblical canon, when the books were actually written, who actually wrote them, why they were written, the phenomenon of oral tradition, psychological warfare in scripture, scientific or logical explanations of supernatural events, etcetera. When a more enlightened person hears fundamentalist preaching they just walk away.  But, people need to realize that if they are not part of the church, they can’t fix it.  Not to act is to act.

The church has been on the wrong side of public opinion for centuries; where is the center of the universe, sun/earth relationship, Inquisition, Crusades, witches, homosexuality, women, equality of women, Manifest Destiny, the Magna Carta, slavery, married priests, gay marriage, and so many other issues.  The church doesn’t continue to believe or support many of those issues nor does it rehash them.  It doesn’t have to.  But, it doesn’t address issues of today.  If it does, it doesn’t do much more about them. A homily should inspire action, then the church should act.  Mostly people just go home until next Sunday and that is the fault of the church.  If the church does inspire people to action, it should provide the opportunity and tools for them to act. A church shouldn’t just tell people to visit those in prison, it should also tell them what time the bus leaves.

When the church cherry pics data and scripture to live by but then is judgmental, persecutes, abandons and hates, young people see, they hear, they listen – then they walk.  They may not know why but they sense something is wrong or hypocritical and that this hypocrisy doesn’t feed their souls.  And yes, churches can hate; are the penitent actually welcomed joyfully back into the community, reconciled both to God and their fellow Christians?  Ask a drug dealer, murderer or sex offender if they feel welcome even though they paid their debt and reconciled.  Churches now run background checks on its membership.  Note: Jesus would not pass.

I once had a drummer join my contemporary music group.  He told me privately that he just got out of prison and I simply congratulated and welcomed him.  He was phenomenal and added much to our sound and energy.  The choir loved him.  He played with us for about five weeks when my pastor asked me who he was and I accidentally blurted out that he just got out of prison.  The pastor said he had to have a meeting with this wonderful musician and after the meeting, without a word he never returned.

Our actions and inaction’s belie much of what is preached on any given Sunday.  It is interesting that the bible belt is screaming for the death penalty of Dylann Roof.  Does your church beleive in and demand the death penalty?  Not to act is to act.  Which church would you like to belong to, a blood thirsty vengeful one or one that forgives?  We don’t need to set Dylann free but we do need to forgive him, love him, visit him and support him if he is sentenced to live out the rest of his natural life in prison.  How powerful a witness Dylann could be if love were to transform him – as it did that other murderer, Saul/Paul, and Dylann then traveled to speak out against hate and prejudice.  Eh, let’s just kill him.  How quickly the church forgets that many of its saints and holy men were first murderers, rapists and thieves.

As children grow up and break laws, we lock them up in places where kindness is rare and considered weak.  Most inmates leave prison and re-enter society hating society for turning its back on them.  Wouldn’t it seem more reasonable to put law breakers in a place which cherishes kindness, reminds them of how important it is and affords them opportunities to develop and express it? Which church would you like to belong to? With or without religion, good people do good things and evil people do evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. Not to act, is to act.  Does your church act?  Is it a troublemaker?  Does it condone state murder?

In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person commits a crime, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is welcomed back into the tribe.

So if people don’t come to church because they find its teachings, actions and inaction to be hypocritical, outdated, ineffective, meaningless and poorly executed, do you honestly think guitars and drums are the answer?  Have your tried fog machines and laser lights yet?


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