Brooks channels the ‘worship wars’

3065Let’s take a break from the Anglican wars for a moment, shall we (even though the battles keep raging on)?

Remember that New York Times feature the other day about pop-music trends in modern megachurches? Click here to return to the original post and the comments on it. However, I think it’s crucial to revist a chunk or two of that excellent, although a bit behind the curve, report about worship at High Desert Church:

“When you start a church,” said Tom Mercer, 52, the senior pastor, “you don’t decide who you’re going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who’s going to come.” …

High Desert Church holds three different large services over the weekend for three different age groups, with music tailored to each audience: Seven (so named for the number’s positive associations in the Bible), the 18-to-30-year-old set that made up Mr. Day’s audience; Harbor, the 30-to-55 group; and Classic, for people 55 and over. The church also maintains even more bands for services at the junior high, high school and elementary school levels. Each band carefully calibrates its sound toward the pop culture disposition of the target age group.

Welcome back to the “worship wars.” I have been digging into this topic for about 25 years now and it is very rare to see a journalist truly grasp how important all of this is to the future of Protestant Christianity in this culture. We are talking about FM radio-dial faith, with musical styles serving as the live connector between people and faith, as opposed to old-fashioned things like creeds and traditions.

But — please — hear me say that music has always served this purpose in worship. Art has always served this purpose in worship. The question is what the music and culture of today are doing to the content of these worship services and how all of this is shaping the believers in these concert hall-sanctuaries.

This brings me to the amazing piece by David Brooks on the Times op-ed page, a column that comes right out of the turf he defined in his best book, Bobos in Paradise. This column, I need to stress, does not mention churches. I am making the link — but I think GetReligion readers will see the news connection. The key personality in the column is E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, a man whose roots — like those of Bruce Springsteen — dig deep into all kinds of music. Thus, we read:

The 1970s were a great moment for musical integration. Artists like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drew on a range of musical influences and produced songs that might be country-influenced, soul-influenced, blues-influenced or a combination of all three. These mega-groups attracted gigantic followings and can still fill huge arenas.

But cultural history has pivot moments, and at some point toward the end of the 1970s or the early 1980s, the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.

People have been writing about the fragmentation of American music for decades. Back in the Feb. 18, 1982, issue of Time, Jay Cocks wrote that American music was in splinters. But year after year, the segmentation builds.

Last month, for example, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote an essay in The New Yorker noting that indie rock is now almost completely white, lacking even the motifs of African-American popular music. Carl Wilson countered in Slate that indie rock’s real wall is social; it’s the genre for the liberal-arts-college upper-middle class.

Technology drives some of the fragmentation.

Later on, Brooks adds this haunting passage:

[Van Zandt] describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots. And as he speaks, I hear the echoes of thousands of other interviews concerning dozens of other spheres.

It seems that whatever story I cover, people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. …

If you go to marketing conferences, you realize we really are in the era of the long tail. In any given industry, companies are dividing the marketplace into narrower and more segmented lifestyle niches.

Like I said, Brooks is not writing a column about a trend in religion news. Or is he? And, I might add, this topic doesn’t have anything to do with the struggles of modern newspapers and news magazines, either. Right?

One more time, let’s read that quote from Pastor Mercer:

“When you start a church … you don’t decide who you’re going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who’s going to come.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Terry, Mercer’s statement is as misguided as they come. I agree that music can serve as a live connector between people and faith and that music always has served this purpose in worship. But Mercer’s statement is much, much stronger than that. He says that music style is not just a key part of the worship service but the essential determining factor in starting a church. That’s because far, far too many of today’s churches have dumbed down the worship service and made it a “show” consisting of some praise songs, a high-level prayer or two, and a seeker-friendly message.

    Am I the only one out here who challenges Mercer’s statement?

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “…there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.”

    First of all, Springsteen and U2 are both “post-fragmentation” bands. U2′s roots are firmly in the post-punk tradition (Joy Division weighed heavily on their early career), and Springsteen rose to mega-stardom on the populist wave of “rockist” backlash against the “New Wave” and pop (and disco) groups of the late 70s and early 80s. “BoBo” Baby-Boomers like Brooks often ignore that periods of fragmentation and unity are normal within popular song. A quick look at the pre-rock musical landscape (which many Boomers seem to forget existed) will show dozens of small “niche” genres that appealed to certain cultural and geographical segments of the American population. The elite in New York weren’t listening to the same stuff as the poor in the South were, and they weren’t listening to the same music young bohemians were grooving to in California.

    It was the slow cross-pollination of these diverse scenes and elements (well outside the “mainstream” I might add), that eventually lead to that thing called “rock”. But even when (the second wave of) rock ruled pop-culture in the 60s, it was hardly a musical monolith, and the vaunted “cohesion” Brooks mentions hardly lasted ten years before fragmenting once more. The huge followings were never sustainable (for a variety of reasons), and were destined to collapse as people started looking outside what “rock radio” was promoting.

    As for longevity, I’m not sure what he is talking about. Bands break up (and reform) all the time, and it is rare in the history of “rock” for any band to last more than twenty years. For every Rolling Stones (who, creatively speaking, should have hung it up years ago) there are dozens that hardly lasted a few albums, let alone ten or more years. There is no way of knowing now which new groups will show longevity, since they are, well, “new”.

    Brook’s rock-utopia when we as a nation all listened to The Doors never existed, it is revisionism, the sort of self-mythologizing that “BoBos” like Brooks have been engaging in for years. The truth is that broad cultural unity around a certain creative movement is often manufactured, it is a mile wide and an inch deep. After the initial explosion of rock, the “big business” aspects that Brook’s equates with cohesion stepped in to make as much money as possible, leading to a bloated and fossilized industry now in decline and unable to react to the new technology and preferences of the music-buying public.

    I wonder very much who these people are who long for a new cultural cohesion. What does that even mean in that context? What religion would we be? What music would we all listen to? What would be the unifying factor? Like it or not, people across the political and social spectrum like the new diversity. They like that there is a “niche” targeting their specific desires, aims, and spiritual choices. Whether they are conservative evangelicals rocking out to CCM at Cornerstone or affluent hipsters buying vinyl singles and awaiting the next Burning Man.

    You can’t unring a bell. Our (American) culture may someday become more unified due to strife or a political/social revolution of some sort, but the sub-cultural niches will remain. People will never again be satisfied with only a few choices in what they listen to and experience. That may lead to some crappy music, or “worship wars” over music included in the service, but people like being catered to, and like belonging to a tight-knit “family”/”tribe” all their own.

  • Jerry

    Terry’s linkage of Brooks’ column to religion is very accurate.

    From a musical perspective, the growth of satellite radio and cable music channels which only play a narrow range of music very much echoes his musical point.

    From a broader perspective, I think Brooks’ more general point is spot on, reflecting the current American zeitgeist:

    It seems that whatever story I cover, people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. This is the driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates, behind worries of polarization and behind the entire Obama candidacy.

    This is obvious in the political sphere where right and left both look at each other as almost wholely evil; as attempting with great success to destroy the American ideal.

    This, of course, carries over into religion. The virtual “ink” that has been spilled on this topic within a religious frame-of-reference is immense. Whether it be due to doctrine as in the ongoing Episcopal train-wreck, whether non-denominational mega-churches are a positive or negative development, music used in worship or whatever; this theme is echoed in one way or another.

    I suspect we’re going to enter a time where thesis and antithesis will merge in a new synthesis, but time will tell.

  • tmatt


    You have to ask the Eastern Orthodox guy (that would be me) if I accept Mercer’s statement? LOL

  • Julia

    Does everybody forget about Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night show where people saw every type of music you can imagine. People became familiar even with opera stars like Laritz Melchior and Lilly Pons and the best-loved arias, as well as Elvis and the Beatles. And up until well into the rock era, the same radio station played the Beatles, Dueling Banjos, Elvis, Glays Knight and the Pips, Hugo Winterhalter, Fabian, Patti Page, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, Frank Sinatra, The Girl from Ipanema, Johnny Cash and Christmas music (in season). Of course, we had to search the dial to find Dr Dimento to hear Frank Zappa – he was never mainstream. It’s not that we had one kind of music for everybody – it’s that we all heard all different kinds.

    It’s technology that has fostered the niches which can fine-tune their playlists to their audience. More’s the pity. My kids’ exposure to opera (other than from me) was Saturday morning ancient cartoons and even that is gone now.

    Not surprising that churches would try the same niche programming. Too bad.

  • Cameron

    As a past student of Terry’s, my question is where should the line be drawn for Christian music?

    Sure, if “we” decide the play lists the masses will follow; but just what part of the music is Christian? Singer, lyrics or notes?

    Is it still a x-ian song, sung by Russ Taff, even though used in the movie The Lost Boys with death metal riffs and hobo fires in barrels? just asking…

    Music in worship is always a sticky subject, but are we really surprised that the seeker sensation has divided a church service this much?

    I’m not, but it is sad the division among some congregations.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I wasn’t asking just you, Terry, but no one else seems to care (enough to comment).

  • Chris Bolinger

    Oops. I typed too soon.

  • Roberto Rivera

    I wasn’t asking just you, Terry, but no one else seems to care (enough to comment).

    As Eric said in The Crow, “I care.” But, the “worship wars” are exhausting and I’m an outsider looking in so I’m reluctant to say more.

    Still, I agree with you: music is only the most important thing if your point of reference is, well, entertainment.

    Music, like so much else, is a kind of proxy in this fight: it’s a marker for larger attitudes about what it means to be a (never mind the) church vis-a-vis the larger culture; the role, if any, that tradition and liturgy play in defining a church, etc. I’m not saying that people don’t truly like traditional hymns or “praise songs,” but the energy — mostly in the form of heat — generated by and fueling these conflicts doesn’t derive from musical preferences — it comes from the attitudes I described.

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  • C. Wingate

    I’m not as bummed out about the notion of niche churches as a lot of people are, but then I’m a Damned Protestant. I am alternately peeved and bemused by claims from EO partisans that Byzantine chant is some sort of perfect church music, especially since it’s really based on alien space telemetry. But I digress…..

    It’s the second paragraph that has the real questionable stuff, and it’s particularly pernicious because it seems to be so widely accepted. Considering how horizontally fragmented the culture is, it’s questionable at this late date to claim what age groups will be attracted to which music. Expecting the (clueless of course) adults to be able to accurately guess what the kids will want to hear is particularly dubious, but of course that’s the subtext of all this. The thing is that the kids grow up, and the adults grow old, and what does one do when people move on?

    All in all the NYT article in question is pretty fluffy. It lacks any kind of historical context, as though nobody had ever thought of any such thing before (when we all know that it’s very old news). One thing I would like to see is a story which examines how the music evolves at a church like this, since after all there are plenty of them that have been around long enough to be investigated.

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  • Dale

    I hope my grandchildren will someday be singing Rock of Ages (to Toplady), Isaac Watts, Wesley, and all the other classics of hymnals 100 (or 200 or 300) years ago.

    200 years is the limit. One of the controversies that separated the “Old Light” and the “New Light” Presbyterians in the 1700s was that the New Lights would use the shockingly innovative songs of Isaac Watts in worship. So the “classics” are 200 year-old Christian contemporary music. Time acts as a filter, and the worst hymnodal excesses of that age have been (thankfully) forgotten. As it stands, there are some old hymns that are still exercises in mediocrity.

    As tmatt noted, the “worship wars” are nothing new. Although tmatt claims non-combatant status, we all know his church is appealling to the 1500 year-old Byzantine iconophile patrician niche market. ;-)

  • Alexei

    Still, I agree with you: music is only the most important thing if your point of reference is, well, entertainment.

    Music is a reflection of life, and then it goes back and influences it all over again. It’s easy to see in big cities–chaotic life, chaotic music. The worst period of spirituality in Russia influenced, and was influenced by, church music that sounded like the opera.

    As tmatt noted, the “worship wars” are nothing new. Although tmatt claims non-combatant status, we all know his church is appealling to the 1500 year-old Byzantine iconophile patrician niche market.

    That’s a good point. But we appeal more to iconography (and thus to the Incarnation) than antiquity to explain our music.

  • Alexei

    That is to say: appropriate music for the Orthodox doesn’t really get ‘old,’ since it must reflect eternity.

  • Dale

    But we appeal more to iconography (and thus to the Incarnation) than antiquity to explain our music.

    I know, Alexei. I was joking. There certainly is a lot more to the Orthodox liturgy than the fact that it was aesthetically pleasing to the Byzantines.

    Although I do think people can be rather dismissive of contemporary music by describing it as market-driven, when much of American pop music is derived from old African-American church music. In a way, Christian musicians are reclaiming art forms that were “borrowed” by the world. Some artists are more successful at it than others, but that’s always the case.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Guys, I encourage you to read Mercer’s quote one more time. Mercer is saying that people select a church based solely on the style of music.