Making the Music Work

By: Dennis Bates

As I have said here before, one of the problems I have with contemporary Christian music is that it doesn’t lend itself to a Sunday morning worship service. The great hymns are written in parts and meant to be sung together; at least that’s the way I learned them growing up.

Their words weren’t just flashed on a large overhead screen assuming you know the melody already. Most people my age and even those younger don’t know the melodies of contemporary Christian praise music, but we can read music, so show us the words and the notes. We will jump right in, even if the song is unfamiliar. I suspect that the real problem with that is the fact that many of the modern songs have no parts, only a melody and possibly a single harmony part.

There is nothing wrong with that. I could go to a concert and get caught up in the moment, just as many of the younger people appear to be. But therein lies my problem. Much of contemporary Christian music is made to perform in a concert setting, not sung in Sunday morning worship bya congregation.

Its emphasis is on a steady beat, syncopated rhythms and layers of different voices almost singing like a jam session of  rock and roll musicians. Some of it is exceptional, but try to get an average group of fifty-something Presbyterians to join in. To put it bluntly, it just ain’t happening.

And those of us who were trained to read music and usually try to sing a little louder to help those who have trouble carrying a tune in a wheel barrel , can’t help much. We have nothing to work from. Loose leaf sheets of words and/or overhead screens don’t help. Even if we can listen to a couple of choruses and pick up the melody, the words that are provided aren’t always enough.

Choruses are repeated, but not shown; repeats are frequently assumed, but nowhere in the music provided, and keys are changed but not reflected. There are tried and true ways to show repeats and extra choruses. Flats and sharps let us know that the key has changed, but it they aren’t there to see, we are almost as lost as Johnny One-Note sitting next to us.

In addition, there are lot of inspirational hymns with great words in the books. Some are centuries old, some are relatively new. We seem to shy away from those more and more in our quest to become relevant. Relevant to what? Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever?

I think somebody is missing a fantastic ministry opportunity. Take some of the truly good Christian music that is available and write it so it can be sung as a congregation. Put in parts, key signatures and clearly marked verses.

Bill Gaither’s music is hardly contemporary anymore, even though it is new by most standards. A lot of the newer hymnals include some of his classic songs such as “There’s Something About that Name,” “Because He Lives,” and “Let’s Just Praise the Lord.” They work. There are melodies and notes.

I would love to see a haunting song like “Completely” written for congregational use. That song, which comes from the sound track to “Facing the Giants,” moved me like few new songs have. What a blessing it would be in a morning worship service.

Music has always been one of the most crucial parts of any worship service to me. Frequently, I couldn’t tell you what the sermon was about, but I can tell you what songs we sang…or didn’t sing. And I can assure you that they spoke to me. Sermons and liturgies serve one function…a vital one…in Sunday services, but few have moved me to tears like a lot of the old and new songs have. I would miss them if they disappeared.


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