The Last Waltz:

how the Church never made it past 1967 [part 2]

At first the churches dealt with the 60s cultural shift by making room for some of its music. This approach was valid because music was the major carrier for 'baby boomer' culture and had a central role in its creation and dissemination. Specifically, it was the folk or soft rock aspect of counterculture music that was taken up as a vehicle for Christian worship. At the time this made good sense. It was the idiom of protest, of Dylan and Baez, socially conscious and literate. It seemed a more natural vehicle for Christian sentiments than the love'n'lust of teenage pop. Being song-based and melodic it could be accommodated into the existing church culture as a new form of hymnody. Aesthetic gentleness and low technology [acoustic guitars] cushioned the culture shock, although notions of propriety of behaviour still had to be [sometimes fiercely] renegotiated.

But even this gentle new hymnody struggled in many places to win acceptance until the late 1980s. And acceptance often came through fencing it into a space marked 'for young people' - where a jolly song would be accompanied by a guitar before the organist resumed his tour of the 19th century. Since the new worship culture could at first be located primarily in its songs, it could be incorporated as a section of songs in a particular style to satisfy the needs of those who wanted that kind of thing, while leaving the rest of the worship structure intact for those who didn't.

This partial resolution took 20 years, often waiting for the young people of the 1960s - those that had stayed - to be old enough to gain some power within their churches. But by this time the wider culture had moved so far that its incorporation was no longer possible at all within traditional church structures. The young Christians of the 80s had grown up listening to the full range of post-1960s musics - metal, punk, disco, rap. Many had found personal and spiritual meaning in such musics and were disappointed to find them given no place or worth by their churches. Hippy soft rock and folky protest musics were now rather despised, as genres, and their Christian outgrowths came weighed down with extra saccharine and sincerity. It seemed that the Church had chosen the wrong musical route out of the 60s. We should have got into the groove, or built our church upon the rock.

Unfortunately such musics are largely unacceptable to the 'Easy Listening' generation. Faced with the choice between Humperdinck and Hendrix, the Church has always plumped for Humperdinck. And in a church culture that equates quietness and reverence with worship, what chance ecstatic dance or sonic dissonance? Most post-1960s musics are quintessentially postmodern in their insistence on emotion and the body as primary sites of meaning. But to many 'Easy Listeners' emotion and the body are suspect, both in a Christian context and in the social context of their own upbringing. To use post-60s music is to impose postmodernity, if only for the duration of a song. Of all the idioms of the 1960s, the church chose to work with the one that was most about reasoned words.

Popular music, while not being so dominant a generational unifier as it was in the 1960s, remains one of the most powerful determinants of how people construct their identities and social positions in contemporary society. But the forms of music they deploy to do so have remained largely unacceptable to those who run churches and now dominate their congregations numerically. If music is a key component of social identity, then to exclude or criticise a particular music is to exclude or criticise the people for whom it is important. It does not, therefore, seem wrong to invoke music as the most telling battleground, the battleground that stands for all the other battlegrounds, in the contemporary Church. The problem of post-1960s church culture is not that it is wrong but that it is far too narrow, too limited in its options and too far from the cultural mainstream in those few options that it does offer in most places. There is a fundamental impasse, in that the scale of change in worship culture and idiom necessary to connect with the wider contemporary world is beyond not only the resources but the wishes of most congregations.

<< The Last Waltz part 1 / top / The Last Waltz part 3 >>