(October 2009) Now we know how Rip Van Winkle felt. Emsworth has just retired from a long stint as a church musician in a small, mainline congregation where things changed very little during his 16 years of service. Emerging this fall as if from a long sleep, he has found an evangelical church scene that he hardly recognizes.
Yes, we’ve been church-shopping. Freed from Sunday morning duties, and keeping out of the way of our successor at our old church, we’ve been visiting potential new church homes.
Our goal is simple: a congregation somewhere around Rochester where we can warm a back pew in well-deserved obscurity — a haven of rest where someday Emsworth might be able to hear “let us pray” without experiencing an involuntary reflex to get up and slide onto the organ bench.
Going to church without any responsibilities! That’s what we want. Being able to sing parts during the hymns! The luxury of actually being able to pay attention to the Scripture reading, instead of using the time to check our tie and our fly and to sneak one last look at the beginning of the choir anthem to think about the tempo!
We know now what a fantasy that all was. A back pew? Hah! Most of the new churches don’t even have pews anymore. They don’t even have “sanctuaries,” just stadium-style auditoriums with gently reclining, consumer-friendly padded seats.
Or hymnals either. They don’t even sing hymns anymore, unless they slip a verse of one in as part of a medley with a contemporary Christian song that half the congregation doesn’t know.
Scripture reading? Hah! Several of the churches we visited didn’t even have a part of the service devoted to reading Scripture (notwithstanding our Lord’s example (Luke 4:16-20)).
It would have been satisfying to see someone else fretting over his choir. But where have the choirs gone? We hardly heard any since we gave our choir a final cut-off last June — mostly worship bands and soloists with pre-recorded accompaniments. The churches we visited were surely big enough to have choirs every Sunday — all at least five times larger than our former haunt. But they don’t.
At least we won’t have to worry about ties anymore. The last two Sundays, at two different churches, no more than half a dozen men besides Emsworth sported coats and ties. And the other men had lapped us by at least 15 years. We won’t miss wearing ties.
No reason not to name names. Here are some of the Rochester-area churches we’ve visited over the last several months, some more than once: Hope Lutheran Church, Browncroft Community Church, North Baptist Church, Open Door Baptist Church, First Bible Baptist Church, and Pearce Memorial Free Methodist Church. Each one soundly evangelical, each prospering nicely in its own way (with two or three different Sunday morning services), each focused on getting bigger, each with a full line of spiritual growth products in the form of women’s Bible studies, home fellowship groups, and so on, and each obsessed with being fully contemporary and consumer-friendly.
Most even have coffee shops. Even though we’re not very strict sabbatarians ourselves, nothing has been more jarring about the “new churches” than seeing coffee and pastries sold inside the house of the Lord. Emsworth’s parents, who took the fourth commandment very seriously indeed, would have been appalled.
We started counting the references to contemporary pop culture in the pastors’ sermons. One pastor alluded to two different movies and a vintage TV show during his sermon. Another message, in which Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and the chain of Ikea stores were all mentioned, actually began with the music leader’s pounding out the opening riffs of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the piano.
Some of these churches try to tap different components of the market by having both “contemporary” and “traditional” services on Sunday morning. (We were especially amused by Hope Lutheran’s Coca-Cola-like name for its traditional service: “Classic Hope.”) The main difference, as we take it, is that contemporary services use worship bands to lead congregational singing. That’s assuming, of course, that leading people in singing is really their goal. Truth is that one can almost never actually hear any congregational singing over the bands.
Mostly, the people don’t even try to sing. They don’t know the songs, whose syncopated rhythms are a lot more complicated than, say, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” And the people don’t have any music to look at to see how the melody goes — just lyrics up on projection screens.
Despite these disappointments, there weren’t any of these churches we couldn’t settle down in. We heard thoughtful, well-delivered messages from pastors (in several cases assistant pastors) at each church on the core subject of becoming better Christians. (Tom Hauser, at Open Door Baptist, gets our vote as the most gifted natural speaker we’ve heard in a while.) All these churches are sadly committed to “contemporary Christian music” (the style is 1980s soft rock, with bland, theologically fuzzy lyrics — think Bryan Adams and Toto); nevertheless, the quality of the musicianship was high wherever we went. (The worship band at North Baptist, which we have heard both in mostly-acoustic and more-electrified configurations of instruments, gets our nod as having both the best overall sound and the tightest arrangements.)
Still, we can’t help regretting intensely what’s been lost in the new evangelical and updated churches, especially with church music. The hymnody of the last 250 years, some of it very good, has all been tossed in the trash. The gospel songs of the first part of the twentieth century that we grew up with — some of them weren’t that good, perhaps, but at any rate they aren’t even on the radar anymore. So many Christians will never sing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” or “In Shady Green Pastures”! Small congregations are already becoming “collateral damage” of the new-style churches. Congregations that fail to achieve a certain critical mass won’t have the resources to field respectably contemporary worship bands, or to build worship spaces big enough to contain the sound.
As Spanky MacFarland used to sing, back in the day:
Sunday will never be the same
I’ve lost my Sunday song — it’ll not be back again