So, Evangelical Music Is Stuck

by Matthew Raley

In working on the problem of how evangelical music can unify people in corporate expressions of God’s glory, I have covered a lot of material (first, second, third, forth, and fifth posts). Today, I’ll summarize my argument and frame the questions I will address in the coming weeks.

I believe that the problem of unity in worship must be addressed. When churches fail to bring people together in an emotional appreciation of God’s character, then an essential spiritual reality is inactive. The unity of the body of Christ, locally expressed, is the engine of growth in Christ’s image (as Ephesians 4 says, a teaching I’ll examine in future posts). The fact that many churches not only fail to bond people together in the Lord Jesus, but even are the cause of people’s depression and alienation, is a shame on our life and culture.

There are two reasons evangelical music fails to nurture this bond today. First, the evangelical reliance on pop music is divisive. Second, evangelicals’ lack of engagement with Western art music leaves them blind to basic problems of community and artistic expression, problems that composers have been wrestling with for more than a century.

Pop music, as currently consumed by churches, has demonstrably failed to unify believers. It has produced segmented churches along demographic lines, and the pursuit of this segmentation is a pastoral surrender to people’s selfishness. This means that churches reinforce the consumerism of believers in every single worship service, when churches should be calling believers out from the consumer’s life — calling them not just with preaching, but with artistry.

Further, while pop music has demonstrated effectiveness in speaking to people where they are, it has not shown an ability to take people somewhere else. The music industry is predicated on sales, which can only be reliably produced when the music has been engineered to flatter or shock the buyer. The Christian music industry, in particular, must engineer its music this way. It does not have something that will become increasingly important to this discussion later on: it does not draw from vibrant local music scenes.

The reliance on pop music leaves most churches either with a narrow style of expression, or with vanilla sound. The music can unite the worshipers with a narrow style if the worshipers are all from the same demographic. If not, then the style becomes whatever is not objectionable.

In their fixation with pop music, evangelicals miss the way these same problems are playing out in the rest of Western culture.

Art music that continues in the tradition developing from Gregorian chant through J. S. Bach to modern expressionism has lost its intellectual reason for being. The philosophical strains that nurtured musical development up through the first half of the twentieth century are now in various stages of decay.

As I sketched from Reinhold Niebuhr, Thomas Mann, and Theodor Adorno, the specific problem that sickened bourgeois industrial society was how the individual relates to the community. The less freedom the individual felt in the modern period, the more the composer became the priest of alienation, the keeper of individual expression the only ways it could be maintained in an industrial world, through primitivism and insanity.

While the contemporary world of composition has by and large rejected Adorno’s exacting dialectic, it has no worldview with which to replace it. Composers today either serve a commercial audience or strain to balance their individual expressiveness with the need to be “accessible” to others. Many succeed in finding this balance, as I believe a composer like Philippe Hersant does in his Héliades (2006), without resolving problems of community.

So, evangelical music is stuck. It is fully invested in pop music styles that do not unify believers, while being ignorant of how the problem of community has plagued composers throughout Western culture in the last century-and-a-half.

How can we get this music moving? Here are three directions I will explore in the coming weeks.

1. Reassert a rationale for individuality-in-community. The worldview of the body of Christ can serve once again as the intellectual basis for a unifying art, a function it did in fact serve in the New Testament church.

2. Sketch the basic materials for a new art music. What current artifacts might prove useful if they were abstracted using some of the tools of Western art music, like counterpoint?

3. Sketch some of the materials and tools I plan to use in creating some new music for corporate worship.

I believe musicians need to resume a role God has assigned them in His Church: the nurturers of unity. I believe that we musicians need to reengage with our craft so as to escape the formulas of style. And I believe that God will bless this labor if we adopt the posture of musicians used to have, that of servants.

In this way, evangelical music can be unstuck.

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