Supply and demand

PeopleSeemToLikeItI'll never forget hearing how my best friend's little sister frowned upon seeing their uncle arrive at a function in his chosen get-up of women's clothing. "It's not that you're wearing a dress," she said. "It's the dress you're wearing." That pretty much sums up my feelings about Contemporary Christian Music. It's not, obviously, that I have any problem with the idea of new Christian music. Indeed, I have friends who have written beautiful hymns in the past few years. It's just that most of what the genre turns out is such a horrible assault on the mind and ears. But in a culture that throws out Dürer woodcuts for PowerPoint sermons and Bach's "Mass in B Minor" for "Shine, Jesus, Shine," it appears I'm outnumbered by the legions of poor taste.

Which is why I smiled a bit when I read Sam Hodges' piece Saturday in the Dallas Morning News. He found that some megachurches, which ceremoniously burnt their hymnals decades ago (I kid), are bringing them back:

A funny thing happened last summer at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall. A shipment of hymn books arrived, and not by mistake.

Lake Pointe is a megachurch with contemporary-style worship. Years back, it dissolved its choir and got rid of its hymnals in favor of Christian "praise" music, played by a rock band,with lyrics flashed on big screens. That style still dominates at Lake Pointe. But in August, sensing demand, the church debuted its "Classic Service," an early Sunday morning alternative service with choir, piano, organ and lots of congregational singing -- out of those shiny new hymnals.

I thought it was perceptive that Hodges characterized the church as responding to demand. It's such an American way of doing worship. You want coffee? We'll get you coffee! You have Attention Deficit Disorder? We'll make sure to hop around on stage and shout a lot! You like Peter, Paul and Mary more than Isaac Watts? No problem -- we'll give you Contemporary Christian Music! Oh, now you miss Isaac Watts? Okay, we'll bring him back! It's not that Lake Pointe thought that doing traditional worship was the right thing to do -- it's just that they were responding to consumer demand.

On that note, it would be interesting to explore whether some of these big music companies behind Contemporary Christian Music were behind the hymnal these contemporary worship congregations are buying. I'm not trying to pick on them, even though my personal biases are beyond clear. And at least in these Protestant churches the worshipers actually seem to like the music offered. Unlike in Roman Catholic churches where, as Amy Welborn noted last month, parishioners around the country were subjected to a less-than-stellar praise song because it seemed to match the pericope.

But some students of the contemporary style say that much of its music lacks the melodic sophistication of enduring hymns, or the poetry and doctrinal depth of lyrics penned by such writers as Charles Wesley ("Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"), Isaac Watts ("When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"), Fanny Crosby ("Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine") or Thomas Dorsey ("Precious Lord, Take My Hand").

And while traditional worship can be stiff and uninvolving, the contemporary experience -- music, big screens, mood lighting -- is often derided as "church lite."

"When done incorrectly, contemporary services are all foam and no root beer," said Nathan Lino, Northeast Houston Baptist's pastor. "They are entertaining, fun and high energy, but you leave with no sense of having had a meaningful time of worship. ... I do think churches are beginning to realize that there is a growing desire for a shift back toward a more traditional style."

I hope all the other drinkers loved Pastor Lino's modification as much as I did. I think it's also interesting -- as the piece makes clear -- that when these churches are bringing back traditional worship, they're bringing back traditional Protestant worship from the very recent past. I mean, if we sang those hymns mentioned above at my church, the congregation would wonder if we were moving to contemporary worship.

Anyway, this piece is a great example of how to do local religion coverage. It's not a puff piece, but just a great look into how decisions are made at the congregational level and what the ramifications of those decisions are. It also has a bunch of nice sidebars with further information. Good work.

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