Brooks channels the 'worship wars'

3065Let's take a break from the Anglican wars for a moment, shall we (even though the battles keep raging on)? Remember that New York Times feature the other day about pop-music trends in modern megachurches? Click here to return to the original post and the comments on it. However, I think it's crucial to revist a chunk or two of that excellent, although a bit behind the curve, report about worship at High Desert Church:

"When you start a church," said Tom Mercer, 52, the senior pastor, "you don't decide who you're going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who's going to come." ...

High Desert Church holds three different large services over the weekend for three different age groups, with music tailored to each audience: Seven (so named for the number's positive associations in the Bible), the 18-to-30-year-old set that made up Mr. Day's audience; Harbor, the 30-to-55 group; and Classic, for people 55 and over. The church also maintains even more bands for services at the junior high, high school and elementary school levels. Each band carefully calibrates its sound toward the pop culture disposition of the target age group.

Welcome back to the "worship wars." I have been digging into this topic for about 25 years now and it is very rare to see a journalist truly grasp how important all of this is to the future of Protestant Christianity in this culture. We are talking about FM radio-dial faith, with musical styles serving as the live connector between people and faith, as opposed to old-fashioned things like creeds and traditions.

But -- please -- hear me say that music has always served this purpose in worship. Art has always served this purpose in worship. The question is what the music and culture of today are doing to the content of these worship services and how all of this is shaping the believers in these concert hall-sanctuaries.

This brings me to the amazing piece by David Brooks on the Times op-ed page, a column that comes right out of the turf he defined in his best book, Bobos in Paradise. This column, I need to stress, does not mention churches. I am making the link -- but I think GetReligion readers will see the news connection. The key personality in the column is E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, a man whose roots -- like those of Bruce Springsteen -- dig deep into all kinds of music. Thus, we read:

The 1970s were a great moment for musical integration. Artists like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drew on a range of musical influences and produced songs that might be country-influenced, soul-influenced, blues-influenced or a combination of all three. These mega-groups attracted gigantic followings and can still fill huge arenas.

But cultural history has pivot moments, and at some point toward the end of the 1970s or the early 1980s, the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.

People have been writing about the fragmentation of American music for decades. Back in the Feb. 18, 1982, issue of Time, Jay Cocks wrote that American music was in splinters. But year after year, the segmentation builds.

Last month, for example, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote an essay in The New Yorker noting that indie rock is now almost completely white, lacking even the motifs of African-American popular music. Carl Wilson countered in Slate that indie rock's real wall is social; it's the genre for the liberal-arts-college upper-middle class.

Technology drives some of the fragmentation.

Later on, Brooks adds this haunting passage:

[Van Zandt] describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots. And as he speaks, I hear the echoes of thousands of other interviews concerning dozens of other spheres.

It seems that whatever story I cover, people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. ...

If you go to marketing conferences, you realize we really are in the era of the long tail. In any given industry, companies are dividing the marketplace into narrower and more segmented lifestyle niches.

Like I said, Brooks is not writing a column about a trend in religion news. Or is he? And, I might add, this topic doesn't have anything to do with the struggles of modern newspapers and news magazines, either. Right?

One more time, let's read that quote from Pastor Mercer:

"When you start a church ... you don't decide who you're going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who's going to come."

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