Season after Pentecost, 2023
Yesterday evening I attended a conversation with other church musicians about the future of congregational song which was thought provoking, but mostly depressing. Things aren't as they once were, and largely, they're about to get worse.
It seems to me that the future of congregational song is inextricably linked to the future of congregations, and congregations are in a steady, sustained decline.
It's true. Don't take my word for it. Read the first few chapters of Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass. There is enough data from different sources that to deny the decline of church attendance is like to deny the reality of global climate change. It's just bad science, and if you live near the coast you will drown.
The Episcopal diocese in which I live has seen a 25% decline in church attendance in the past decade. This doesn't necessarily correspond to a decline in membership of the same magnitude in the diocese, but it does point out changing patterns of worship attendance. Bass points out that someone can come to church on Sunday morning once every couple months or so and consider themselves an "active member".
This poses enormous challenges for liturgy and music, and church staffs.
Just some thoughts off the top of my head in light of this new reality:
But the more immediate question, and one which I think is already being borne out in the pews is this: the core repertory of congregational song is being lost.
All of this takes place against a backdrop of severely depressed musical literacy in American culture, and the embarrassment many people face when expected to sing during liturgy - and their staunch refusal to do so.
People who don't even open hymn books in church tangent: I have to admit, I don't understand these people, and I lament that they are largely ignorant of the words that the rest of the congregation is singing. It's liturgical rudeness. But more frustratingly, I have no idea how to help them.
Coupled with the added reality of church shoppers being equal opportunity employers when it comes to denomination, many of the younger members of our churches have no familiarity with our particular "brand" of hymnody.
The core repertoire of denominational hymnody, I think, is lost first with hymns like "Praise, my soul, the king of heaven", "I bind unto myself today", "All my hope on God is founded", "Come down, O love divine", and "Lo! he comes with clouds descending" all falling into the realm of the unfamiliar. Hymns like "Abide with me" and other evening hymns don't stand a chance given how sparsely Evensong is attended in this country.
What was once part and parcel of Anglican hymnody is now no different than the more ecumenical choices in the hymnal: the Lutheranism of "A mighty fortress" or the Methodism of
"The Church's one foundation" "O for a thousand tongues to sing". None of the origins seem to matter, and the number of hymns that are familiar to an infrequently attending population will continue to dwindle.
All of this can shake out in one of two ways.
The first option is an optimistic one: all of this is ripe for rediscovery, reclamation. We, as church musicians and clergy, can intentionally reintroduce this material to our congregations. I think we absolutely must do this.
There's a liturgical component here too. With local congregants who have come from other denominations and others who have never been taught, or who have simply forgotten, there is probably not a lot of understanding about many elements of our liturgical theology and practice. Some teaching might be in order, and musical teaching could be a natural part of this.
There could be a winnowing of the chaff as certain parishes (dioceses, denominations, the Church as a whole -- dare we hope?) reclaim Christian discipleship, and not Christian "membership". But key to this model is that somehow the trend toward increasingly infrequent church attendance is not slowed or stopped, but reversed.
Despite even a wholesale effort to help the church fall in love with its hymnody all over again, I think a second path is unavoidable. While enclaves of denominational and traditional hymnody will continue to exist for some time, the marked changes of the face Christian congregations will need to make some musical tectonic shifts. We've already been dealing with shifts of this type (post-Vatican-II-Disneyism, praise choruses) but I don't think these were results of the kind of Sunday morning demographic change that we are now seeing. They are just chunks of the iceberg for which we are headed.
Instead, I think that the "hymn explosion" and a diversity of congregational singing options that we've experienced in the last half century or so will actually be detrimental as the Sunday morning attention span wanes, and the liturgical memory grows ever more foggy. There will always be a "market" for new hymn texts and tunes, but these may find residence in self-selecting boutique congregations. I think by and large the trend of hymnody in church will be one of decline and diminishment. First the denominational repertoire loses prominence and significance. As it is subsumed into the broad swath of classic ecumenical Christian hymnody, this too ceases to be held in cultural memory due to irregular attendance patterns. Finally, all of this material is equally forgotten and unfamiliar, and in many places replaced with another mode of congregational song.
Don't get me wrong, I don't believe that we can reverse demographic trends through any one approach to congregational song. These forces are larger than our denominations and certainly uninfluenced by the musical practice of the local congregation.
What will a new model of congregational song look like? I think the Music that Makes Community movement shows us the first strokes of what this could be. These "paperless" styles of music are more effective in smaller settings, and do not require a sustained cultural memory.
There is some irony in the name of this movement. The community that is being made through this music is an incarnational one, made up of those few who give up on the New York Times, Starbucks, and their favorite brunch spot for 75 minutes on a Sunday morning. The new community being made is one being formed in the moment, but not one that is graced by the past or offering anything the future -- at least in any kind of musical sense.
Though this "incarnational" model or one like it may evolve and take hold in some places, many churches, however, may give up on singing, or on music altogether.
It seems that these are the two paths of song that lie before the church today: a small "discipleship" or "faithful remnant" path that would necessarily buck the trend of larger church attendance patterns, and more visible "incarnational" path in which the de facto hymnal becomes music "for about 25 panicked singers."
This is the future of congregational song as I see it. The questions remaining are how will our existing church structures (local, regional, denominational) and complementing professional organizations facilitate these transitions?
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