My husband and I once attended Mass at a church that had the most gorgeous pipe organ. We were all set to enjoy some fine sacred music, but the hymns – or should I say pop songs? — were accompanied by the tawdry tinkling of a piano.
Pianos are fine in secular settings, but when it comes to church, give me the majestic tones of the organ any day. As for guitars and tambourines, they’re just dandy at rock concerts, but using them at church is like wearing tattered jeans to a big meeting with the boss.
People go to church to worship God, and the instruments and lyrics should reflect this goal.
In “Holy God We Praise Thy Name!” the words emphasize God’s everlasting power. The images in “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” remind us of divine compassion.
Unfortunately, these hymns are giving way to folksy, feel-good songs with lyrics that often shine the spotlight on people, rather than God.
One particularly heinous song has the congregation proclaiming, “We are the light of the world,” even though this biblical description applies to Christ. The lyrics of “We Are Called” are liberally peppered with self-congratulatory references to the people in the pews.
In my book, bad church music is a sin. It can annoy people and make them angry, which is never a good thing. It also drives some people to avoid Sunday services altogether.
Traditionally, sacred music in the Western church has meant the sonorous tones of the organ and hymns composed by the likes of Bach, Mozart and Ralph Vaughn Williams. Today, though, sacred and secular are being sadly confused.
Some music directors seem unaware that “sacred” means something holy, and quite different from the everyday. This is one reason churches have stained glass and uplifting works of art.
Yes, it’s possible to worship God in a dingy auditorium, but a soul-stirring sanctuary and truly sacred music give us a little glimpse of heaven.
Eating a gourmet meal on china plates is radically different from gobbling down burgers housed in Styrofoam. And to me, that’s the difference between traditional church music and the feel-good ditties played in many churches today.
And I’m not alone. A Facebook page called “I’m Fed Up with Bad Church Music” has nearly 4,000 members, including evangelical Christians, Anglicans and Catholics.
There’s a vast treasury of traditional sacred hymns, which are prayers put to music —so why not sing them at church? If you like folk music, you can enjoy it on your back porch.
But when it comes to church, let’s have music that offers a foretaste of heaven.
After all, the choirs of heavenly hosts surely are not strumming banjos and singing “Gather Us In” and “We Are Many Parts.” At least I hope not.
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Lorraine writes about the deadly effects of insipid church music in her mystery “Death of a Liturgist” (St. Benedict Press). Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org