On what has happened to North American Christian congregational singing

The one thing I  personally found valuable about the churches in which I grew up, apart from the very few friendships that have lasted since then, isn’t part of any church I’ve visited in the last thirty years.  They used to have hymnals in which the music to the songs was written out in proper notation, in four part harmony.  Most people who grew up in that tradition absorbed by “osmosis”, if not by study, the concept of harmony and gained some idea of what is signified by those funny marks that aren’t letters of the alphabet.  In many cases, there was intricacy and beauty to the music.  The singing of such hymns could sound glorious if the choir or congregation was motivated to put some oomph into it.

The lyrics of many of the hymns had some poetic value.  Granted, the actual message conveyed by those words would be obviously disgusting and/or ridiculous to any freethinking individual but at least the evil and absurdity was couched in intelligent language.  Like the music, they engaged your mind somewhat.

Enter the mid-late ’70s and the ’80s, at which time I was still a “good” church-going Christian.  The classical hymns are replaced by catchy choruses which, for the most part, made “Jesus Loves Me” seem like Mozart by comparison, both lyrically and musically.  Songs that used to be taught to four-year-olds as a way of introducing them to a highly simplified form of congregational singing are now regularly sung by adults in the Sunday morning “worship service”.   Is this just part of the dumbing down of North American popular culture or was it a movement unique to Christianity?  I’m not sure.  Maybe some of these people are taking Luke 18:17 a little too much to heart.

I was dismayed by those changes and I suspect that they contributed significantly to my declining interest in going to church.  So, for me, perhaps it was ultimately a good thing.  In retrospect, it seems to me now that the moral and doctrinal themes of both the classical hymns and the pop chorus are pretty much the same, despite the stylistic and artistic differences.  Maybe it’s better for Christian doctrine to be stripped of its finery so that it can be displayed more baldly.  Maybe it can then be judged more accurately and, then, more easily dismissed.  If so, that would be a good thing.

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