Church Music

While in seminary I attended Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. It was (and still is) a unique church in many ways. One aspect of the church that particularly intrigued me was the musical selections. On any given Sunday the congregation may sing an old Americana hymn, like “The Old Rugged Cross”, and then listen to a soloist sing a hit song from a current Broadway musical (and this being Judson it was possibly the star from the show was doing the singing) and then we might also sing a contemporary Christian song like “God of Grace and Glory” (written by former Judson minister Al Carmines) and conclude with a standard hymn such as “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” You never knew what you might hear or sing on any Sunday. The musical range reflected the Texas roots of Senior Minster Howard Moody and the church’s location on Washington Square Park. The music, its diversity and quality, was one of the primary attractions for me of that church.

Many people have strong opinions about what kind of music is appropriate for church. Our Puritans forebears would only sing the Psalms, and then without musical accompaniment. On the other end of the spectrum are the big churches with complete orchestras, professional soloists and record deals for praise music.

I’ve never understood the restrictions that some people place on church music. To me, sacred music causes me to feel closer to God. Sometimes this happens while listening to Bruce Springsteen on my car stereo and sometimes it doesn’t happen while singing a hymn in church. Not that is it completely arbitrary. The testimony of people of faith through the ages has left with a huge of body of religious music that has been effective in helping them to deepen their faith journeys. These hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs hold a special role in worship. But we need to be open to the movement of the spirit that may come in completely unexpected ways.

These musings are due to my anticipation of Willie Steele’s appearance in church on Sunday. I first heard Willie play the blues at a smoky bar in Huntington. I had gone to hear Jim Uhl’s bass as he accompanied Willie. Since then I have had the pleasure to listen to them play in several places around Huntington—including at my own wedding reception. I am thrilled to have Willie as a guest in church. His soulful interpretation of the blues, bluegrass and traditional roots music has often moved me to contemplate the divine. I’m glad we will hear some of his singing in church. I hope you will be there with me. If you are, let me know what kind of music you think is proper for church.

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