Church Music in Turmoil . . . Searching for Answers

Marvin L. Roberstson


"The issues being debated today are as far reaching in their consequences as the issues relating to liturgy and the music were during the Reformation."

Throughout my forty year career as a choral conductor, church musician, and teacher I have had the privilege of dealing with the challenges presented by changing musical styles within the church service. There are those in the congregation who are comfortable only with the "familiar" and "traditional" forms of music and worship while others want only the "new" and "nontraditional." The dilemma created for the church musician by these diverse positions is greater now than at any time in my career.

I am reminded of the lady who wrote recently to her pastor complaining, "I have been a member of this congregation for the past twenty years and we have sung the same unfamiliar hymns each Sunday for all these years." She then proceeded to transfer her membership to another congregation.

In the November 1994 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music in Boston, a two hour session entitled "Open Forum: Future of Sacred Music" was conducted. The moderator, Dr. Jack Schwarz of Biola University, introduced the forum with the following remarks, "The impact which the church growth movement and the rise of the mega-church have had ... is a phenomenon which seems to have crossed all denominational, theological, and cultural barriers in this country. The concept of consumer-oriented churches, it seems, is increasingly being received with open arms by some, while being vehemently disdained by others."1 He concluded by stating that as 'practitioners of church music... Our goal must be to arrive at a reasonable response, one which is informed by biblical principles and applied in light of cultural and societal realities." Following this introduction, professors from Centenary College, Norfolk State University, Gordon College, and Moody Bible Institute presented their views on the subject. A lively discussion from the floor then followed.

I came away from the meeting feeling that the issues being debated are as far reaching in their consequences as the issues relating to liturgy and music were during the Reformation. (This feeling is reinforced also by the number of books on worship and music which have been published in recent years.) There is no doubt in my mind that our current choices of worship music will affect our worship patterns for years to come. In addition I realized that Seventh-day Adventists are not alone in this dilemma.

The rise of the consumer-oriented, market-driven mega-church is not inconsistent with the philosophy of our consumer-oriented, market-driven society which affects almost every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. Market-driven popular culture which seeks to provide instant emotional gratification and ever new and increasingly novel experiences is not isolated to the world outside the church.

An almost constant emphasis on instant gratification has a numbing effect on the ability to reflect on and grapple with issues which take more than thirty minutes to solve. Music which reaches both the emotions and the intellect becomes more difficult to absorb. The great hymns of the Church which tie the past with the present are often rejected on the basis that they have lost their relevance.

One cannot discount the fact that from the baby-boomer generation forward to the present time the music and entertainment industries have used the market-driven economy of the mass media to develop the musical tastes of the young. When applied to sacred music, some of the styles of popular music send mixed messages to the listener. The music speaks one language and the words another. Psychologically it is all but impossible to negate the message of the music no matter what the words.

Add to the above the technical explosion in electronics which gives individuals the ability to operate their own bands from their own synthesizers or computers, and the equation becomes even more complex. The young find it exhilarating to be able to express their emotions through this new medium. Those who are older find it hard to share this same enthusiasm and are afraid of the new technology which they will probably never understand or master.

Reality strikes home when, as the Minister of Music for a 2,400 member college-community church, I am confronted with maintaining my commitment of providing the best possible musical offering to the Lord, while at the same time leading all age groups in the worship of an almighty and loving God.

Scripture provides me with guidelines which I believe must be interpreted in the light of our time. I find the following texts particularly helpful:

1) Psalm 149:1-3, "Praise the Lord, Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise His name with dancing and make music to Him with tambourine and harp."

2) 1 Corinthians 14:40, "But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way."

3) Colossians 3:1-2, "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things."

4) Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things."

I have concluded that as a church musician I must recognize the following:

1) Differences in worship preferences will develop as the church reaches into the world to include people of diverse backgrounds, races, and nationalities.

2) We may have to provide a variety of worship experiences to meet the diverse needs of our congregations.

3) College churches influence churches which support the college.

4) There is a difference between entertainment and worship.

5) Aesthetic and moral "goodness" are not synonymous.

6) There are many styles of both popular and "classical" music which are acceptable, but not all may be appropriate to use in the worship service.

7) Whatever style of music may be performed, it must be of the highest quality possible.

8) As a college church we have a responsibility to help students stretch their worship experience.

9) It will always be a struggle to find answers to the questions being raised on this subject.


The quotes in the paragraph on the National Association of Schools of Music meeting are from Proceedings, The 70th Annual Meeting, 1994,107.

This article was written by Marvin Robertson while he was serving as chair of the Southern Adventist University department of music, a position he had held since 1966. During that time he also served as minister of music at the Collegedale Church. He has degrees from Walla Walla College, the University of Washington, and Florida State University.


This article was printed in the Spring/Summer 1995 issue of IAMA's magazine, Notes