Why Is Church Music So “Poppish”?

Why Is Church Music So “Poppish”?

Somebody asked me that question this week, so being a paid purveyor of church pop, I really ought to have a run at it.  Fiat lux.


The best thing pop music ever gave us.


On this question, one could take a dark view.  You could say that we (ie the church) sound like pop culture because we are like pop culture;  self-centered, intellectually truncated, ignorant of history, ruled by sentiment, and the like.  Talking like this makes you feel like a prophet.

On the other hand, one could take a brighter view.  You could say that we sound like pop culture because we are supposed to sound like pop culture.  Is not gospel for the populace?  It is.  Did not Jesus our Lord come to the common people?  He did. Has not the church always tried to express itself in local idiom?  It has.  Talking like this makes you feel like Rick Warren.

Or there is my favorite:  the hopelessly muddled view.  I think this is the only realistic option.  How else can you explain a situation that includes everything, excludes nothing, and, like all art, is infinitely arguable?  I would say there are no answers, but somebody would hotly contest that point too, so I won’t say it. Better to listen and nod.

If pressed—which I was this week—I would retreat from specifics and talk general principles.  Hey, it works for Stephen Harper, and beside that, I don’t think there is any other alternative.  Our own church is a grab bag of everything under the sun, just like the rest of life.  Only an idiot—or masochist—would even attempt to sort all that out.  General observations are more useful, generally speaking, so here’s five of mine.  They are incontestable.

  • Just like there are three primary colors, there are three components of music. Not four, not two, three.  Melody, rhythm, and harmony.  This means that artists have infinite freedom and strict limitations, all at the same time.  Take that, you anarchists.
  • Art is emotion.  It has to do with the condition of being, the condition of the soul.  Good art can’t come from bad souls.
  • Faith, hope, and love are better than cynicism, despair, and hatred. One tends to produce good art, the other does not.  (In that connection, what kind of music do you think Hitler preferred, or Pol Pot, or any other of those truly bad guys?  What kind of music did they produce?  Were they capable of making music? Just wondering…)
  • Church music will always have a “poppish” aspect.  It has to.  Not to say that the church can’t do everything else (it always has), but if there wasn’t some kind of common denominator, there could only be either cacophony or silence, neither of which can last. We know that because it’s all been tried.  Repeatedly.
  • Art is necessarily re-creation, unless somebody has come up with a fourth primary color or a fourth element of music.  That being the case, maybe we need to understand the laws of creation as well as we can so that we can re-create as well as we can.  Just a thought.

And if that is the case, maybe we should start at the beginning.  The first commandment of the Decalogue, for instance.  In principia Logos, as from St. John.  Or, in the case of the church, from the founder Himself: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

That might or might not make “poppish” church music at any given time, but I’m betting it will always make good art.  Generally speaking.