Music in the Divine Service as the Work of the People — CT Book Review


Christianity Today reviews a new book by sociologist, Gerardo Marti, examining the musical preferences in successful, multiracial congregations.  You can read the whole article here In Worship Across the Racial Divide, Marti found that the style or musical preferences of individual ethnic groups within the congregation did not matter.  In fact employing a buffet style approach to music to be inclusive of the musical tastes of various groups within the congregation was not conducive to unity in the congregation :

The end result? Instead of bringing people together and transcending racial boundaries, this approach reinforces boundaries—boundaries built on gross,oversimplified stereotypes.It unwittingly even assumes that somehow we have inborn preferences for certain styles of music, rather than tendencies to prefer the type of music we most often hear those around us enjoying. Fact is, musical preferences are learned.

And the musical-buffet approach can rarely succeed, says Marti. People simply are not trained or skilled in the abilities to perform such a wide range of musical styles. Even if a church finds an incredibly gifted worship leader who can do so, the worship leader will not be able to find enough volunteer choir members who can do so.

Marti found that what worked for successful congregations was the participation of the people — the congregation has the opportunity to sing the hymns/songs, be a part of the choir, or play an instrument during the course of the service.

What “succeeds” musically in multiracial churchesisnota certaintypeofmusic or how well it is performed. Rather, it is: (a) people of various backgrounds all practicing together, spendingtimetogether, singing together, worshiping together; and (b) the fact that it is “our choir, our people.”

To get downright sociological, it is the transcendent experience in which worship becomes at the same time a celebration of the group itself and of Godwhohas brought the group together. At its essence, then, what matters is the network of relationships of the people in the congregation,not the type or even the quality of the music.

This conclusion runs counter to the trend of contemporary worship that takes the people’s work of praise and puts it into the hands of a few musicians and singers in a band singing songs that most people cannot and relegating congregational participation to a bar or two of a refrain.  It also runs counter to our politically correct sensibilities that elevates the celebration of diversity to an idol even in our churches.  CT reviewer, Michael O. Emerson, professor of sociology and co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, observes:

I must admit, when I first read this book, the conclusion did not seem right to me. I had previously been in a multiethnic congregation that played only what is stereotypically white music. While the congregation was diverse, with people from several dozen nations, the music was not. I felt distressed by what I thought was insensitivity, and even—to use a fancy term—the musical imperialism of this church.

It proclaimed itself diverse, and it wanted to be a place for all people, but anyone who came had to conform to only one musical style. Sometimes I became so upset by this, and by my participation in it, that I had to leave the service. But what truly confused me is that, as I talked to people in the congregation, almost no one seemed bothered by the one-dimensional musical style. I could not understand it.

The church is the gathering of the people around Word and Sacrament, the ekklesia.  When this people gathers together in a local congregation for the divine service, it gathers to receive Christ ‘s gifts.  While the reception of gifts is a passive activity, there is action required of the people in this gathering in the confession of sin, confessing the faith once delivered, and returning thanks to the Lord.  This returning of thanks is done in our songs of worship and praise.  This praise is the work of the people,  their leitourgia.  It is the exercise of fellowship and community,  the koininia that binds the people together.  That joyful noise we hear in church sounds much better when the entire congregation joins with the faithful company if heaven.  The music in the church of yesterday and today is the work of all gathered.  It is ironic that we need a study and a sociologist to draw this conclusion for us.


Posted on June 24, 2012, in Worship. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Nice article. I would add that not all music styles are equally suited to church music. Some styles are geared toward the sensual. There is a danger of lowering worship from heavenly thoughts to carnal ones. One must be cautious at all times to lift people out of the world in worship and not help them to revel in worldliness.

  1. Pingback: Work and Play | Right Wing Nuts and Bolts

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