Top-down or bottom-up: restoring the balance

An invited paper to the World Church Music Symposium, London, 1998

Small is beautiful: the example of Christ

Coming as we do from a wealth of backgrounds, we bring many gloriously different emphases and interpretations to bear on the life, example, passion and resurrection of our Lord, ranging from fundamentalism to liberation theology and radical social action. Most Christians, however, seem to agree that the life of Christ and of his church is essentially lived out in "the small", as light in that particular corner of the world in which God has seen fit to place us.

The Magnificat of the incarnation springs from the small scale world of a simple, teenage, peasant girl, with subversive dreams of the mighty being cast down and the humble and meek being exalted. The gospel of salvation, which we are to live out in the world, is of the suffering and crucified servant. The first become last; the last become first.

But is this gospel order reflected in our church life? Church conferences, influential Christian rallies, are driven by big names and big organisations, perhaps with a flying visit from a big-name bishop or worship leader. As we praise the Lord of lords, do we drown out the small-time carpenter from an obscure backwater, far removed from the centre of empire?

Likewise the music of our churches seems dominated by the big. Do we recognise this? Why do the big do it? Why do the small allow this imperialism? What harm does it do? Christian integrity requires that we at least investigate. This is a "view from the pew" developed from experience in a few small, struggling churches and a few larger ones.

Yet another debate over church music?

Our debates over church music should be recognised as being not so much (if at all) about music itself (despite surface appearances) but rather about how we "do" church in an often perniciously hostile world.

It is easy to see why a small church may struggle in any aspect of its life, service and mission. But might those of us in the larger churches, especially in today's climate of commuter-belt Christianity, be in some part responsible for their struggles? Might our "big church" way of "doing" church, and in particular for us of doing church music, be demoralising and harmful to the small church?

"How", one may ask, "does an excellent choir in a Cathedral or a strong worship band at a major charismatic rally, so imperil the life of music in the local church, and thereby the life of the local church itself? How could an apparently successful music programme at a large church possibly harm the smaller churches in its locality. Ridiculous, surely?" Let us beware complacency and worldly measures of success.

Let it be clearly understood at the outset that this will not be a denigration of the Cathedral choir nor of the charismatic rally, both of which provide a valuable service to their constituents. Neither is it an argument against excellence. Indeed, it is my argument that we need to recover a respect both for mind and intellect, especially in charismatic circles, and also for the dynamic leading of the Spirit of God, especially in the more traditional churches.

What is the problem?

It is tempting to regard music as merely passively reflecting the health or otherwise of wider life, in both the world and the church. But music, including for us church music, is much more active, playing a major role in shaping our everyday lives. It is there explicitly on radio stations and CDs, in concert halls and rock stadiums, and implicitly and powerfully in background music to films, television, theatre and advertisements. It exerts influence, even control, over almost all people, irrespective of whether they regard themselves as "musical". Therefore we, as musicians in the service of Christ, must constantly be aware of this alarming power God entrusts to us, and be thinking through its implications.

To its intended audience, present-day secular music is almost always of the highest quality in its relevant aspects. We want big name symphony orchestras with sophisticated music and high standards of performance. We idolise "mega" pop artists with invariably excellent standards of technical production (that much of pop's content is mere "spice" rather than nourishment is not directly relevant here). All the time, the message is "big, big, big": a subliminal drip, drip, drip that, without our realising it, undermines what little confidence we, the "small" people, may have in our own ability to do and to achieve in our own sphere, however humble that be.

We readily spend large amounts of money, time and effort to see a big name symphony orchestra. What is our attitude to the local primary school scratch band? At which event might we be more likely to find the carpenter from Nazareth? Was he ever that interested in world-class gold medal achievements? On the contrary, is not his concern passionately about "personal best" on our more lowly foothills of local life and community?

The incessant message of today's world is of big-scale, impressive presentation: the problem is that today's church sometimes unthinkingly mimics the world.

The big charismatic rally is promoted, where we are presented with the latest fashionable worship songs, as chosen by big-name worship leaders. We covet those songs, equipment and style. But do we distinguish the first-rate presentation by stand-up performers from an implicit and dubious "feel-good" theology? Do we even claim that the resultant induced emotional state is automatically a work of the Holy Spirit? We return from this emotion-filled event with the implicit message "This is what we must imitate".

Similarly at the big Cathedral we find a technically excellent presentation of sophisticated organ and choral music. But do we distinguish the quality (both presentation and, usually, content) of this specialist music from its questionable cultural relevance to our local mission and service? Again, we return with the implicit message "This is what we must imitate".

This copying, we persuade ourselves, is how to "sense the numinous" or achieve "real, Spirit-filled worship". The error is easy to see in the other denomination, not so easy to recognise in our own. We have been seduced by the "big" mentality of the world's hollow artificiality. Back home, where Christ has chosen that we should serve him, there is a congregation of 20, perhaps 30. Anyone with big-time musical ability has long since departed. Our copying is disappointing. We begin to crave our next "fix" at the big event. Is this craving a spring of living water welling up within us, or does it rather resemble addiction, eating away, denied and unacknowledged, inside us? Does this proclaim the gospel on the housing estate or to the needy affluent in our executive residential development?

The centrality of the small, dispersed church

Our Lord was and is Lord of the small. The sparrow that falls, the lily in the field, five loaves and two fishes, the hair on the head, a mere and motley twelve disciples sent out two by two. The church, likewise, functions as many interlocking small groups in its work of service and mission, of compassion and challenge, dispersed into the world, but not of it.

Should not our music then positively reflect this, despite the contrary pressures from the big, anonymous world around us? Should it not be both nourishing and achievable within our own small community of faith?

What might be the responsibilities of the big church?

For the majority of Christians the music in our church worship (for it is ours, not the minister's, nor the organist's), whether traditional or modern, Cathedral or charismatic, is the element that involves us directly. At the office desk, at the kitchen sink, at the bus stop, in the school yard, our recall of our worship and faith is most likely not the sermon, prayers or Eucharist, but the hymns, songs and music. In joy and distress, it is this that permeates our hearts and minds, speaking comfort and challenge at best, sentimentalism, triumphalism and pietism at worst.

Rightly or wrongly the small church will inevitably look towards the "big" in the wider church: the writers, performers and interpreters of its music, hymns, songs and psalms. So the big must know how to respond, not as the world, but as Christ.

Thus a frightening responsibility is entrusted by God to us, the writers, composers, interpreters, directors and enablers of this keystone of faith. Should a preacher make an error of theology, few will notice and only for a short time. But should we get wrong the creation, choice and interpretation of hymns and songs, this can and does have long-lasting detrimental effects on the faith of the faithful. The more subtle the error, the more insidious is the effect. Witness the superficial and triumphalist imbalance in the range of contemporary worship songs. Witness also the banal sentimentality in some of our cherished traditional Christmas carols, such as "Silent Night": more the embodiment of some trite slushy fairy tale than the incarnation of our suffering servant and Saviour in the back yard of a noisy, overfull ale-house.

The big church, Cathedral and rally can fulfil an excellent role in setting relevant standards to which those of us in the smaller churches can aspire. But corresponding care is required. What is the implicit message that is conveyed, however unintentionally, to the small church? Too often, it is that our big way of doing music (full choir and organ, or computer-sequenced sound systems) is what we supposedly need back home in the small church. Likewise, do we properly consider whether the choice of music at the big event (whether choir festival or charismatic rally) is the most appropriate example to set to the small church?

Does the big church listen to, or better learn from, the small? Or rather do we, however subconsciously, adopt the worst excesses of bygone imperialists, handing out glittering trinkets to the grateful, needy unfortunates, so that they look up to us? (I said "subconsciously"!)

The small church needs to be encouraged and given confidence by the big to discover its own appropriate life of faith, liturgy and supporting music, realistically achievable within its own limited and peculiarly varied resources.

Where might we go from here?

Our church music constantly needs the inspiring breath but also the refining fire of God's Spirit to enrich and challenge our hearts and minds. More to the point, however, we, its creators, exponents and practitioners, continue to need this breath and fire ourselves.

How do we encourage each other to think "small", to serve the church in the local community in ways that are appropriate, realistically achievable and stimulating to heart and mind? How can the big church cultivate a "can do" spirit in the local small church? Can it devote resources and engender attitudes that encourage her musical practitioners in appropriate ways?

Do we need to discover afresh the joy of the simple, avoiding both the alluring quicksand of the simplistic and also the beguiling labyrinth of sterile sophistry? (The music from Taizé and Iona begins to do this, although its leading often requires much competence and confidence.)

What is the composition of our regional church music structures, if any? Are they dominated by, or even worse exclusively comprised of, big-name, proficient achievers? Dare we let them be widely representative of the small church?

Do we rely on groundless and outdated assumptions? For instance, are our Anglican diocesan music structures still centred on organ and choral performers even though the majority of our potential musicians and singers are not organists and choralists? Is the bias towards organ-training schemes largely patronising and anachronistic? Should we not emphasise much more a continuing in-service training of musicians in liturgy and a wide range of church music?

Do our music choices, priorities and structures reflect the demands of today's suburban mission field? Have we forgotten that Elvis Presley, had he lived, could now qualify for his old age pension? Today's grandmas are not so much blue-rinse and hair-rollers, more blue suede rock-and-rollers. And what about those in their 40s, 30s, 20s and teens?

We desperately need relevant, small-scale means to recover the Psalms, perhaps responsorially: how ironic that scripture's own songbook is the very one that we in the pew have lost.

We need music for the contemporary small church in a wide range of appropriate styles, discovering afresh the principles behind the great, quality hymns and their tunes and applying them in contemporary ways. Its creation is a demanding task, just as much if not more so than for the large church, especially if excellence and integrity are to nourish both heart and mind when the musical resources are strictly limited and widely varying.

To conclude: as church musicians we are incredibly fortunate that our role is so pivotal to the life, service and mission of the people in our churches. The accompanying responsibility to serve our church and her Lord in ways appropriate to that local work and worship is one we need to take seriously and joyfully, open to the vast range of possibilities set out before us.