Church Music Through History

For many people caught up in the worship wars, the history of church music is presumed to look like this: Generation A comes to faith, grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes that preceded them.  Then Generation B comes to faith, grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes of Generation A, who have in the meantime become a bunch of obstructionist old geezers.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

It is assumed that each generation’s music is the popular music of its youth, and it is assumed that this pattern has gone on since living memory, or at least since Pentecost.

Both of these assumptions are wrong.

In truth, the pattern is only about 200 years old.  For the preceding 1800 years, the church drew on a rich heritage of singing that was consciously shaped, not by the Top 40, but by the needs and demands of worship, and was made consciously different from the music outside the church.

Now, I’m not saying the early church had the whole thing knocked, and if only we’d forget the last couple of centuries everything would be fine.  Maybe our fathers were right, and maybe they were wrong.  But it seems telling to me that we’ve so thoroughly managed to forget what they did that we just assume the way it’s happened since the 1970s is the way that it has always been.  We’ve forgotten 1800 years of the music that nurtured our fathers, and it seems likely that they knew a few things that might benefit us.

I’d love to go off on this subject at great length.  I am preparing to do so.  But I am still in the midst of the preparations.  In the meantime, I would like to recommend a little audio set you’ve probably never heard of.

Some while ago, Duane Garner did a little four-lecture series titled “Church Music Through History.”  The lectures were delivered as part of a ministry training program run by a church down in Louisiana, and but for the miracle of the internet, very few people would ever have heard them.  I would certainly never have heard them.

Thank God for Christendom 1.0, which gave us modern science, a ridiculous degree of wealth, and, in its death throes, the internet.

Garner walks through the history of the church’s music from the beginning right on down to today.  Of course, four lectures is barely enough to give the big picture — we’re talking about millennia here — but he does a masterful job of synthesizing.  These lectures are designed for musical laymen, so don’t worry about getting lost in a tangle of clefs, modes, and dotted sixteenth notes. By the same token, if you want to go further, Garner mentions a number of other resources in the course of his lectures.

Prepare, by the way, to be offended.  As Garner turns the spotlight on poor worship music from the last couple of centuries, it’s highly likely that he’ll be criticizing something you like, something you grew up with.  (His analysis of “There’s Just Something About That Name” was sobering, but hilarious nonetheless.) Don’t feel bad; he did it to me, too.  I was irritated to hear him picking on a song I used to sing when I was a worship team member…for about two seconds.  Then I realized that he was rather clearly right.  I would have wanted to argue more strenuously, but when the weak stuff was being presented cheek-by-jowl with the strong stuff, the comparison was so revealing that I didn’t have the heart to try.

That’s the value of big-picture historical survey.  In C. S. Lewis’ words, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds… by reading old books.”

And listening to old music.  As another friend put it to me a few years ago: “Musicians that aren’t conservatory-trained are pretty much trapped in their own century.”  We are Christians; the pilgrim citizens of the New Jerusalem.  Our culture spans the millennia, and we are a singing priesthood.  We, of all people, should not be trapped in our own century, musically or in any other way.

These four lectures are not a conservatory-in-an-ipod.  Not close.  But they’re a good, good place to start.

So get on over to Auburn Avenue Media Center and buy them.  They’re about a third of the way down the page, and at $1.99 a lecture, you’ll get the whole set for less than $8.

Not bad for a ticket out of your own century.

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