Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
The Future of Congregational Song
“What do you think the future of congregational song will be like?” This question was posed to me recently. Though the future is difficult to predict (I was hoping for flying cars by now), there has been no shortage of attempts in popular TV shows and movies–especially ones that seem less-than-ideal. Will wars and rumors of wars transform society into a dystopian, post-apocalyptic wasteland a la Margaret Atwood? Will advances in technology deliver us from this blue sphere by shipping us off onto other potentially habitable planets (thanks Elon Musk)? Why are these such popular themes today? Is general anxiety about the future and our world at fever pitch? The U.S. also has midterm elections on Tuesday, so there’s that.
I’m guessing the question of the future of congregational song came to me with a similar sense of anxiety: how might aspects of congregational song that I have known and cherished in the past be challenged or lost in the future? Given the general uncertainty about the future, I want to offer some hopeful and challenging aspects about what might be the near future of congregational song in a broad swath of American evangelical settings.
Some Hopeful Observations
- I have seen an increase in songwriters working from within their local churches, likely reflecting an increasing interest in local church musicians and worship leaders in writing their own songs for their own congregations.
- Due to advances in streaming and sharing technology over the internet, local songwriters are able to ‘get their music out there’ beyond their local context for a wider community to enjoy and employ.
- Because recording technology has become much more affordable, local congregations can produce their own music in-house to an impressive level, minimizing the gap between the recording industry and the local artist/church musician.
- Attention has been given to songs and collections that lend themselves to specific extra-liturgical contexts and themes, especially in the prophetic mode (e.g., songs of protest, lament, and immigration).
- The whole church has been blessed by an increase in accessibility to songs from across social and political boundaries in this increasingly globalized–though polarized–world.
- Leaders of all genres of congregational song leaders should be encouraged by the ever-increasing attention given to music as a primary and vital aspect of congregational worship life.
Upsides and Downsides:
- Recorded albums have become the primary way in which music is transmitted, aligning with the more aural musical culture of many settings and learners. This helps overcome some of the challenges that plague the transcription of certain music styles, including contemporary praise and worship, so-called “global song” (or non-western music), as well as music from Black church traditions that looks more complex on the page than it sounds.
- Whereas music from aural cultures was passed through direct contact with other persons at gatherings, the recording and distributing of music does not require such human contact and face-to-face sharing. Likewise, the recorded artifacts may not do justice to the bodily practices that can or should accompany the music–as is the case in many non-Western musics.
- Music production requires a higher emphasis on the quality of the performer(s) to attract listeners to the song.
- Popular performers have a greater influence on song choices for better or worse based on their celebrity status rather than on the merits of a song alone.
- The slow demise of printed materials for congregational worship should provide a richer bodily engagement in worship and may provide opportunities for a deeper internalization of songs and song texts.
- The general increase in the last 60 years of the elision (or altogether collapse) of the words “music” and “worship.” If worship is expected to feel positive and encouraging, this precludes more nuanced and Psalm-wide affective engagements with God through music.
- The increasing “celebrity” of the worship leader or church musician (and pastor, for that matter) is a detriment to lay participation in worship leadership.
- The grey-out of tradition-specific or denominational accents in regard to theological, liturgical, and pastoral emphases will come at a heavy cost. Though these have been places of conflict in the past, they have also been reflective of the beauty of the incarnation and any one community’s capacity to fully articulate God’s ways in the world.
- Congregational song styles and repertories that mirror and reinforce the divisions in the rest of society, especially socially and politically (even if the community is racially/ethnically mixed) will make unity in the church increasingly difficult.
- On one hand, the hyper-localization of a particular community’s song and resident song-writer(s) can inhibit unity beyond the local body. On the other hand, a generic use of song from significant, CCLI-mediated, music-branded mega-churches and mega-performers (e.g. Hillsong, Bethel, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Chris Tomlin, etc.) can be detrimental to the local congregation’s voice and artistry. Both of these parallel contemporary practices of church organization and leadership, especially in the use of branding and marketing techniques employed in consumer, capitalist culture.
Given some of these reflections, what should congregational song leaders do? How are you negotiating some of these pressures and changes in your own context with wisdom and discernment? What potential futures do you see from your standpoint in the midst of the congregation? What do you feel are the most important and pressing issues?