Visiting several parishes recently has been an excellent re-acquaintance with the style and substance of parish life in our diocese. Fourteen months as priest in charge of one parish was a wonderful experience but left me out of touch with the rest of the parishes.
Not for the first time, I have been struck by the importance of music for the character of Sunday worship. One difference between parishes faithfully following the prayer book as the substance of the regular liturgy is in the music used in the service. Here is 'choral eucharist', there is 'eucharist with hymns', over the way is 'Hillsong eucharist' and down the road is the eucharist with 'Belfast mod hymns'. Of course within some parishes such differences may apply to multiple services.
Each form of service has arguments in its favour, not least that each service actually takes place since that means that a body of people are willing to gather, and some instrumentalist or a group or choir are committed to making the music. There are arguments against each service, not least that some parishioners make it very clear that "8 am" or "9.15 am" or "5 pm" are "not my cup of tea."
But what interests me, reflecting on the big picture of Christian life in our country, statistical trends re belief and commitment is which services are populated by younger generations: children, youth, young adults, parents with young families. The under fifties, in other words. By 'populated' I mean that the dominant presence in a service is the presence of younger generations.
On that score there is simply no doubt, not a scintilla of evidence otherwise, that the younger generations are in services where the music style reflects the general music style of the younger generations. Whether we love it or loathe it, Hillsong/Belfast mod hymns/Matt Redman and the like supply the music for the services where the present younger generations gather and chart the direction of the future services for the elderly (those who are 53 years old and rising). There will be no choral eucharists on Sunday mornings when I am in a rest home.
In the services I have visited, from a church growth perspective many aspects have been done well and are uniform in standard across the parishes: warmth of welcome, hospitality offered after the service, relevant preaching, quality of service leadership, provision of programme for children.
The measurable difference in respect of services with many rather than few younger generations has been the style of music. Already stated here in the past and worth stating again: the age profile of a congregation reflects the music style of the service. It is the inexorable law of congregational life today.
Extension (Wednesday): I am delighted to have what I said above subject to critique in comments below. I also enjoyed a reflective conversation yesterday on my main idea. All of which leads me to add a few words, hopefully clarifying what I am trying to say.
(1) First and foremost I am proposing a law which is descriptive of congregational life in NZ parishes rather than prescriptive: this is the way things are, where there is a congregation well populated by the under forties, the music is appropriate to younger generations. There are no congregations so populated in which most of the music sung is from the English Church Hymnal or the Book of Common Praise, led by organ or piano.
No comments made thus far have provided counter evidence to this law as a matter of description of our life.
(2) Secondly, I am happy to then make a certain amount of prescriptive recommendation based on this law. Here are a couple of examples, relevant to our local situation in post-quake Christchurch.
- a congregation seeking renewal of the generations gathering for worship should address the question of the music style of its service. Preach your heart out. Add cream buns and cheerios to the morning tea. Train welcomers. Bring every aspect of the service such as readings and intercessions up to an excellent standard. Establish a children and youth programme. A certain advance will occur. But my hypothesis is that if the style of music does not change to the style appropriate to the younger generations, full congregational renewal will not take place.
- when we establish new congregations in new housing areas we should aim from the start to provide services in which the music is in keeping with the younger generations. This means, for instance, that if we are planning on appointing a church pioneer to establish a new congregation with a staff which includes a youth worker and a children's worker, we should also be recruiting a music leader, a guitarist, keyboard player and drummer.
(3) Comments herein focus on services of worship as elements of congregational life. I am making no comment about how to plant a church from scratch. The way forward there might include many steps before a service of worship is formed (e.g. praying, forming a group for prayer and Bible study, surveying the area, visiting people, social events for meeting and greeting people). Nor am I commenting in respect of existing congregations seeking renewal in respect of the first steps to take which could be, say, prayer and developing the preaching; or prayer, developing the preaching, reconfiguring the building. But only so many steps can be taken before the question of music needs to be addressed if we wish to see a change in congregational profile.
(4) Something which came up in conversation yesterday: the importance of music style being advocated here is an importance in its own right for any church seeking to be a church with which younger generations can identify. There is an alternative approach in which Anglican churches seek to imitate the music style of the 'successful' church down the road with the hope that similar 'success' is achieved: I am NOT talking about that. I am not talking about that, not least because in my observation, Anglican churches which set about such imitations are somewhat poor at doing it. No, what I am talking about here has nothing to do with the music which is being played at another church (save that one might gain some great songs by listening in) and everything to do with making the connection between church culture and general culture.