COMMENTARY: Strike Up the Band, Er, Organ

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) On Aug. 7, several thousand young people will gather on the grounds of St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio, for The Fest, an annual feast where the music is their own.

They will hear the pounding rock of the Christian band Skillet, and the Latin sound of another nationally popular band, Salvador.

The question then becomes: What do these thousands of loyal and energetic Catholic youth hear the next week when they go back to their parishes?

A little organ music, please. Perhaps a guitar or two next to a piano.

But often hardly anything to rock the souls of generations X, Y or Next.

Few topics can arouse the savage beast inside people in the pews as much as church music.

Change too much and you risk alienating the stalwarts of the church. Change too little and you will not even hear the doors being closed behind them as young people leave for more meaningful experiences.

It is a difficult balancing act, and churches are often behind the times.

Yet many of the most successful houses of worship have been among the first to adapt their music _ not their core theological message _ to the culture in which they find themselves. Many megachurches and new religious movements such as Calvary Chapels and Vineyard Christian Fellowships have found contemporary music to be a powerful aid to evangelization.

More slowly, contemporary music is working its way into mainstream houses of worship. Some of the more adventurous churches are offering venues for Christian rap. There are emerging forms of Jewish and Islamic rap.

What change requires is an expanding sense of the transcendent, a realization that people who share the same faith have different musical tastes and experiences. The form of music that helps one person experience the divine may not be as effective for another person.

“Truthfully, Jesus embraced the people and the culture of his time,” said the Rev. Robert Stec, the guiding light behind The Fest.

What he experiences in listening to Christian hip-hop, rock and contemporary praise music are many different styles and voices, “but one message, one faith.”

Music animates the soul, Stec said, and the experiences of all the people who gather at the Communion table need to be respected.

“The challenge is really for us to keep ourselves open and respectful to the diversity of persons … and by extension the diversity of music, that each person will bring when we gather together at the table of the Lord,” Stec said.

Personally, the AM dial in the car I drive is preset to two kinds of stations: sports and gospel. My CD collection _ admittedly not the most extensive _ is dominated by one performer: the legendary Mahalia Jackson.

But I know there are other people who find an experience of the divine in traditional choral music, or rock, folk, classical or jazz with spiritual themes. I can appreciate the power of all those forms of music to touch the soul.

I can even understand there are some people who do not consider the term “country music” an oxymoron.

Perhaps, as church leaders consider how best to serve their congregations, they would find some value in first listening to the heartfelt words of Mahalia when she sings:

“If I have wounded any soul today, if I have caused one foot to go astray, if I have walked in my own willful way, dear Lord, forgive.”

KRE/JL END BRIGGS

(David Briggs writes about religion for The Cleveland Plain Dealer.)

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