by Matthew Raley
Reset the scenario of the folk singing dynamic: A diverse congregation gathers in a space that is resonant, so that they create a corporate sound. They have a shared memory of songs, a bank of tunes and lyrics that they draw upon together.
What you have so far is an intensively local group of worshipers, who have a strong sense of community and identity. That’s an edifying combination, but there is a problem.
What’s going to prevent the congregation from stagnating in the familiar? People need fresh musical expressions for their faith. Churches need to participate in the high interactivity of our culture, just as 1st century churches participated in their culture’s interactions. This is less a need to retain “the young people,” and more a need to nurture those who are older, keep their strength from becoming rigid.
The ability to interact with other cultures from a strong identity is a sign of health.
So, how does a congregation stay open to a current of new music? Christian pop is the default source for new songs. Is it the right source? If so, how can it be used without destroying the folk singing dynamic?
I think a Christian pop song can refresh a church if it passes my “Bob the Trucker” test.
Bob the Trucker is not musical. Ask him to sing a solo and he laughs at you — and it’s not a merry guffaw, more like a threatening rumble. Bob enjoys listening to country (I’m not equating “not musical” with “country,” I’m just saying …), but at church, the singing time for Bob is entirely dispensable. He not only doesn’t expect the church to sing what he likes, he doesn’t see why the church needs to sing at all.
Bob the Trucker — here’s the crucial point — sees most church music as fluff. And — also a crucial point — he’s right. If you want him to sing, you have to give him songs that are solid. He needs the third fundamental of the folk singing dynamic: a stripped-down melodic style.
Think about the style of much Christian pop in relation to Bob.
Bob cannot sing songs that make him sound like a girl. The breathy, whiny tone of much Christian pop music is something he will never identify with. This means that the selection of Christian pop songs that we can use to unite Bob with a congregation just shrank.
The style I’m thinking of is elaborately ornamented (think Whitney Houston’s “Always Love Yooo-eeeooooooo-ahhhhh,” taking a tune that is utterly devoid of interest and adding the sonic equivalent of whipped cream from a spray can). Lyrically, the style is heavy on the first-person singular. It has to be: the drive to communicate comes from how passionately I feel.
Strip out the breathy production values and the fancy solo ornaments of much Christian pop, and see what’s left. Is there a melody underneath it all that stands on its own? Not usually. Unless there’s a compelling, solid tune, I can’t think of any reason to ask Bob the Trucker to join it.
More broadly, Bob cannot sing songs that are written for soloists. Have you ever heard a congregation trying to sing “Voice of Truth” by Casting Crowns? The chorus goes fine, but the verses are written for a soloist to sing/talk through, semi-improvised. When a church tries to sing it, they sound like a bunch of soloists auditioning for American Idol all at the same time. A song written as a vehicle for a pop soloist will not work for a congregation, because as a practical matter, a group cannot sing it together.
This is not just true of pop songs. Churches sometimes try to sing the famous setting of the Lord’s Prayer by Albert Hay Malotte. But the melody requires substantial breath control. It also has triplets that are meant to be interpreted freely, and are difficult to feel as a congregation. It’s a solo.
Bob the Trucker can and will join songs that are lyrically and melodically solid, not interpretively soft. He will sing a tune that uses formal repetition, not improvisation. In other words, he will sing songs that are meant to be sung by untrained groups. And there are new songs by Christian pop artists that meet these criteria.
The reason a song like the Gettys’ “In Christ Alone” has become popular in churches is that the tune is solid and the lyrics are declarative. It is constructed so that a group can sing it. The tune has phrases that are motivically linked and repetitive for easy learning. The syncopation in the melody is natural to the rhythm of the words. The lyrics narrate the gospel story, giving the congregation truths that earn an emotional response, rather than merely telling the congregation what to feel.
The song is not great for listening, nor is it a favorite of mine. For it to work as a solo, the singer would have to vary the repetitions and make them do something compelling. Harmonically, the song is dull. But the emotional power of folk singing is in the participation of the group, not the music itself. “In Christ Alone” has the stripped-down style that meets the need.
So here’s the unpopular reality of the folk singing dynamic, the quality that has driven it from favor in churches. Folk singing expresses and welcomes the emotional lives of men.