Little Drummer Boy Blues
Think new ideas split churches? Try introducing new music.
By William Whitehead
One of the older ladies in church said she didn’t like the band. She said it was too loud. I said, “What? I can’t hear you.”
“I said the band is too loud.”
“Well, do you think the organ is too loud when the stained glass is rattling in the windows?”
“No, I don’t mind when the organ is loud.”
“Well, what is it about the band that seems too loud? Is it the guitars?”
“No, I like the guitars. My daughter plays the guitar. Have you heard her? She’s really good.”
“Yes I have heard her play and she is really good and I wish she would leave her church and join my church. Oh no, I didn’t say anything; I was just clearing my throat. Is it the piano? Is the piano too loud?”
“No, I like the piano. The organist plays that all of the time.”
“OK. What about the bass guitar?”
“Bass guitar? We have a bass guitar in the band?”
“Right, that leaves the drummer. Is the drummer too loud?”
“That’s it, the drummer. I hate the drummer. All of that banging and crashing. It’s too much. He should be strung up by his toenails.”
“Well, I guess my son does get a little loud on occasion.”
And there you have it. Entire churches have split apart because of loud, raucous contemporary music. And it’s entirely the drummer’s fault.
Well I don’t think that it’s fair to complain about the band just because one doesn’t like the drummer. Not when there are lots of other things a pastor can poke fun at. After all, music in church has been a gathering place for every talent level imaginable. I have had choirs with a fabulous singer on one side and a tone-deaf singer on the other, and no one criticizes or complains.
Let me tell you, I have heard some really interesting not-quite-right sounds over the years. There was a service at my church in which a guy set up an expensive keyboard and amplifier to accompany his sister, who was singing a hymn. He turned on the drum sound—that boom-chick-a-boom-chick-a-boom rhythmic accompaniment—and then proceeded to play the melody one finger at a time! You don’t have to have a shred of talent to play today’s keyboards because they will accompany the melody with a chord. The chord progression didn’t work, the drums sounded weird, but it sure beats learning how to play a real instrument.
And nobody seemed to mind. I’ve discovered that when it comes to the tried, true and familiar, people are amazingly tolerant when a good old hymn rages off-key, or even utilizes a certain amount of brazen new technology. But ask people to embrace a new song and things get a bit testy.
“I didn’t know that song, Pastor.”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything.”
“But I didn’t know that song.”
“‘Amazing Grace' was new once.”
“But Pastor, that song we sang. I didn’t know it.”
“Let’s go have some coffee with everyone else. The cinnamon rolls are terrific.”
And the music itself isn’t the only challenge. For instance, there’s the labyrinth of power and microphone cords that always envelop amplified musicians. Every Sunday I am desperate to save my elderly choir from tripping over and/or being strangled by the power cords. It’s like maneuvering through the Amazon rainforest. An Anaconda is going to drag one of my older ladies off into the bowels of the sound system never to be seen or heard from again.
I also live in mortal fear of my parishioners having their eardrums burst. One band had to have a special breaker/plug connected to the main electric panel in order to run their equipment. The fact that my church has sound reflective surfaces like plaster walls and a wooden floor and ceiling did not satisfy the extreme volume demands of this group. They were so loud that the sound exploded through the front doors, reflected off of the house across the street and shot like a missile to a house half-way down the street, knocking knick-knacks off of the mantel and causing the owner’s cat to fly out the window in yowling terror. Paul says in Romans; how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they hear the preaching when they’ve gone deaf from the music?
So, maybe we should just stick to the trusty old gut buster organ, with its comforting myriad of reedy and flute-like sounds, weird banging when changing registers and horribly out of tune Vox Humana. Ok, so my kids say it sounds like a funeral every week. But what if we bought an old theater organ? We could have a guitar, a train whistle, and various animal sounds during worship. My kids would love that. And of course, theater organs have a mechanical drummer. Now there’s a percussionist even the ladies in the back pew could learn to love.
All of which, when you come right down to it, is shamefully beside the point. As churches try to keep up with the hottest new tunes and technology, we seem to have forgotten the real issue—worshipping our Father in Heaven. The real challenge isn’t the music or the sound; it’s giving all of our people the wonderful experience of being in the presence of God, who knows that the true music of praise comes from the heart and soul, instruments that can never be off-key.
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William Whitehead is pastor at First Baptist Church of Rahway, NJ. His last essay for SoMA was Big Church Envy.
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