If you’ve made it through the first two articles, you must be wondering if the issues with Catholic Church music are simply unsurmountable. I know I beat my head against this issue for a long time, but I had an experience around ten years ago that helped move me in a different direction.
Back then, I was a backup guitar player in a very good choir that specialized in “modern” hymns from the 1980’s (irony intended) with a strong soprano line and decent instrumentation. During the summer months, I would fill in as Director with a small group while the choir took their August break. However, that year we were in for a shock. Our loved and respected Director got into a deep disagreement with the Pastor and halfway through the August break, we all received notice that she was resigning immediately. The rest of the choir members ran for cover, but I was one of two fill-ins that were left holding the bag, so I kept at it.
It was a rough start. Suddenly, I had to pick up all the work that the Director handles in the background. I had no idea how much work was involved to really pull things together, but I started to learn. Shortly thereafter, while chatting with one of the regulars after Mass, I finally figured out what I needed to do. It was a simple conversation. I had mentioned that it was difficult trying to bring choir members back in after the big break up and he said “Don’t worry about it. This Church is full of elderly parishioners and no one new is coming in. It will probably close in a few years. It’s not worth the effort”.
So that was it. God put me into a position I would never have imagined and then threw down the challenge. With a background like mine (twenty years in rock bands – no classical training), no Church would have given me a second look, yet somehow there I was. God has a wonderful sense of humor.
The challenge was clear. We had an aging population with an average of four to five funerals a week. No families. No young adults. No money. Nothing to lose. Our Pastor announced he would find a new professional Choir Director and started the search, but had no takers. His requirements (classical experience) and insanely low pay scale shut out everyone. I didn’t care. I have a strong belief in stewardship and did not need the money, so I kept on playing. Eventually a few brave members felt sorry for me and came back. It was’t bad, but I still had that conversation in my head about the parish closing and it felt like a challenge. So I asked my pastor: “What if we play music for the people we want to bring in instead of the people that are here already”. Somehow, he agreed. I suspect he felt he had nothing to lose at this point as well, but I had an ally. I had a vision of a Church full of families with kids and starting thinking about how to make that happen.
This introduces the first and second concept for successful Church Music.
Concept #1: Christianity is an evangelical religion. We are all asked by God to reach out to others and spread the Gospel, so reaching out with music that would be appreciated by young families is a critical part of the process. Most young people who listen to any Christian music listen to Christian radio. It’s good, modern, upbeat and focused on Jesus.
Concept#2: Get support from the Pastor. I knew that our entrenched congregation would hate anything new and would immediately bring it to the Pastor. It was critical to get his buy in before getting in too deep. I knew it would be a struggle, but had no idea how nasty it would get. I was blessed with a Pastor that ran interference with the angry mob, but not all Pastors are brave enough to support this type of change, even in one Mass.
The book “Rebuilt” talks about this concept with much more than music. They considered their parish to include everyone in their zip code and put their focus on reaching out to the families in their geography. It’s a great book and highly recommended if you want to embark on a journey of growth.
I had a direction and a sponsor, but the traditional choir types were not fans either. This led to the next step in the process:
Concept#3: Get the best musicians you can in the area. Musicians who spent time in rock bands tended to be flexible and are used to playing by ear. They usually had a strong appreciation for the new Christian music on the radio and were not afraid to give it a try. Most also had experience with harmonies, which broke us out of the traditional charts with parts and put us into more natural harmonies that modernized even the most traditional hymns. Some parishes are blessed with a large number of good musicians with rock band experience, but most do not. I am a firm believer that God gives us the tools we need to do the job, even if we don’t consider them optimal. My recommendation is to start small and work with what you have. I started with just my guitar and a few singers, but eventually, we expanded to include drums, piano and lead guitars, along with additional singers. Just don’t expect it to happen right away and recognize that people come are not always in it for the long haul. Changes happen (a lot).
Now you’ve got a start, but the toughest part is waiting.
(Next up: Picking the music)