I recently attended the National Worship Leader Conference in Centreville, VA, an annual event in which those who are involved in Christian music (and other arts) gather for two days to interact, share, learn, and listen together. Last year’s conference was energizing and edifying. This year’s was downright depressing.
The conference was plagued by some logistical and production-related issues. In particular, the musical performances (the “worship gatherings” in church parlance), which serve as centerpieces for the conference, were marred by poorly-executed presentations: lighting cues were haphazard; video projection (e.g., of song lyrics) was inconsistent; the musicians and speakers onstage were plagued by a seemingly endless series of technical problems. But none of those issues would have ruined the event for me had the content not been so anemic and utterly lacking in diversity.
I will grant that the church I work for is unusually diverse. A few months ago we held an event in which we asked members of our congregation to showcase the cultures of their countries of origin. Over 40 countries were represented. On a typical Sunday morning, we don’t simply hear so-called CCM (“Christian Contemporary Music” — the backbone of Christian radio), but also gospel, rap, reggae, country/roots music, and blues, as well as lyrics in Spanish, French, and other languages in addition to English. But our church is not typical. What is typical?
To understand the state of Christian music as it currently exists in mainstream Protestant churches, one must first understand that CCM originally emerged in the 1970s and gained prominence among Christians during the 1980s and 1990s, during which time its basic characteristics developed. It is now 2017 and Christian artists are still cranking out huge volumes of music that would have sounded perfectly at home in 1991. Christian music has, in other words, become highly stagnant.
There is a great DVD (by which I mean illustrative of the problem just alluded to) by the drummer Carl Albrecht in which, after analyzing the top 100 CCM songs, he identified seven basic drum grooves which, taken together, cover pretty much all CCM. (Hint: That’s not a good thing.) To be perfectly blunt, CCM is the music of white Christian America. It largely consists of slow and mid-tempo soft rock songs in straight 4/4 or 6/8 meter which tend to follow set patterns of verse, chorus, bigger verse, bigger chorus, climactic bridge, and some sort of “cooling down” ending. These songs frequently sound like warmed-over U2 outtakes. And while I would never question the sincerity of those who write and sing such songs, it is certainly safe to say that the genre was played out at least 15 years ago. And yet the ageing artists who pioneered what was, at the time, a fresh, new sound, are still stuck in the same old groove. Obviously, this cannot continue. For one thing, the artists who did pioneer this sound are now senior citizens. It’s time to hand the keys off to the next generation.
And this raises a second point which became apparent at the conference: There was a paucity of younger artists. There were, to be sure, one or two, but for the most part the musicians who were actually leading on stage were in the forty-and-over demographic. What’s more, some of the younger artists had clearly been “groomed” in a style which is now, for all intents and purposes, perfectly moribund and should rightly be abandoned.
Although the house band was reasonably racially diverse, this was in no way reflected in the musical choices made. There was very little, for example, by way of the vital musical influences coming out of the African-American church community, which encompasses gospel, soul, rap, and hip-hop. Nor was there any nod at all to Latin American music or to the significant segment of the American Christian community for whom Spanish is a primary language. In short, the music was selected by old white men, written by old white men, and delivered to a target audience of old white men. Please bear in mind that I’m an old white man.
If this conference was indicative of the future of Christian worship music, I believe that Christian worship music does not have much of a future at all. This is an untenable state of affairs. If churches in this country expect to counter the widespread attrition which is gutting mainstream Christianity, the single most important factor will be diversity. This does not simply apply to racial diversity, although that is, indeed, a key component. But it also applies to age diversity, gender diversity, language diversity, socioeconomic diversity… in short, diversity of every kind. This is not to say that there is no place at the table for old white men like me. But the days in which the table is set for us, and us alone, have passed us by, although many of us are blissfully oblivious to this fact. The danger is that we’ll wake up some Sunday morning and play to an empty room. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Revelation 7:9 speaks of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.” Those who believe that Christianity can remain insulated within white suburban communities are welcome to render themselves irrelevant. But in doing so, they will perform a grave disservice to the spirit, health, and well-being of the Gospel. Just one old white man’s opinion.