Mad About the Music
May 28, 2014

Dear Theo,

This seems petty but I really hate the music in church. A few years ago we were told we needed new hymnals and the Pilgrim Hymnal was out of print so we got different hymnals. 

I have tried but I really hate most of the hymns. They are usually difficult to sing, are in some minor key and have no beat. People used to sing but now they just kind of mouth the words. No one really addressed the reason for this but I think the new music is supposed to be PC. 

I as a woman have no problem singing hymns like "This is my Father's World" for example, or songs with Lord in them. I wish we could sing songs with a military beat. Many people have relatives in the military but our minister would not let me use the naval hymn at my father's funeral (he was a veteran). We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder=no good! 

I do not mind using new imagery and welcome Mother imagery and some new songs (just not the extremely boring toneless ones). I feel that the old hymns are part of my culture and they and I are no longer welcome in my own church.  

p.s. I used to like singing Amen at the end of a hymn. I was taught that they were like musical prayers. It just makes me sad every Sunday. Sorry I have gone about this so long and thank you for listening. We still use the PH sometimes but never sing my favorites.

Mad About the Music

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Dear Mad,

I feel for you. I really do. They say that when we sing, we pray twice—and certainly, music, for many of us, is the moment in church when the space between us and the Holy Spirit seems to close up to nothing, and we can really feel God instead of just thinking God.

So when the hymns are clunky, hard to sing, deeply unfamiliar, or when the theology or tune grates—it can feel like anti-worship. Like you would have done as well to stay home and play old records or a curated Spotify playlist, something guaranteed to move you.

The problem is: a seamless, tailored, bump-free worship experience is not what real church is. Real church is, as Martin Copenhaver once said, the place where we are stuck with each other—a reminder of the God who is stuck with us all.

Maybe one of the problems is that we have created a false dichotomy when it comes to music: the Pilgrim Hymnal versus the New Century. Traditional versus contemporary. The reality is: there's good music and bad music from every genre, every hymnal, every century.

Further complicating the matter, there are very different opinions about what constitutes good music and bad music. Perhaps that inclusive-language hymn that gave you the heebies yesterday made a woman down the pew from you weep—because she grew up in a much more authoritarian, conservative church where she never, ever heard God referred to as a Mother, and for the first time in her life felt herself on the spiritual map, so to speak.

Perhaps that funky new tune from the new Sing Prayer and Praise hymnal made the kids just confirmed last week say to themselves, "maybe I'll keep coming to church even though I just 'graduated'…" Still others find militaristic songs a disturbing distraction from their worship of a God who they believe does not recognize national borders, because He is a God of all the nations.

So, we give up a certain amount of our own privileges and predilections for the people down the pews who need something very different from us.

That said, for your own musical and spiritual needs: if you can't make any headway with your pastor, here are a couple other ideas you might try:

~Can you ask your music director/accompanist to hold a quarterly hymn sing, after church in the sanctuary or some evening, with a potluck, during which anybody can shout out hymn requests? If your director's time is tight, you could offer to do a task for them in exchange to free up those hours.

~Hold a goods and service auction at church for a justice organization you care about—and ask the pastor or music director if one of the items auctioned off can be the privilege of choosing the hymns one Sunday.

And finally, Mad, every rung goes higher, higher—can you pray to God to open your heart to the new songs, practice them at home until they become more familiar—and perhaps discover that some of the new clunkers have, mysteriously, become old favorites?

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,

Theo

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