This was originally submitted for the upcoming issue of Secular World.
Having grown up in the Roman Catholic milieu of Long Island, New York during the 1960s and 1970s, worship was and always had been the Mass. Vatican II changed all that. Gone was the Latin mass and news ways of doing things were being introduced. The Ecumenical Movement in the Catholic Church, among other things, brought what was considered ‘new and daring’ ideas into the Liturgy. One of the biggest changes was the addition of the ‘Folk Mass’ into the Sunday cadence of services. Gone were the hymns accompanied by the ubiquitous pipe organs. In their place were several of the younger parishioners strumming acoustic guitars and belting out Kumbaya and other quasi-religious folk tunes. All in all, it was rather tepid although it did improve the attendance numbers of the younger demographic in the parishes.
My wife and I moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn from Long Island after we were married. Not soon after, our new neighbors invited us to attend a service at their church. They, like us, were raised Catholic and told us about the wonderful services at their church which was just a few blocks away. What I did not know is that the church, Christ Tabernacle, was part of the Brooklyn Tabernacle family of churches. The main church is probably best known for its choir, The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Their information page can be found here. They have recorded numerous albums and CDs, winning five Dove Awards and six Grammy Awards. At the time, the main choir in Brooklyn consisted of a number of singers both from the main church as well as singers from Christ Tabernacle and the other churches in the fold. Christ Tabernacle’s music ministry was led by a Julliard-trained pianist and consisted of professional NYC musicians. The choir was about 100 strong and it was well rehearsed. The sound system was state of the art and the people that manned it were professional sound engineers. The performance that day was incredible and you left with the overwhelming desire to go back and hear it again and again. In between the musical offerings were various ‘words’, or sermons, first by elders and then by the pastor. These consisted of expositions of various passages of scripture all centering around a common theme for that Sunday with each followed by one or two songs by the choir. After the pastor’s sermon four to five rousing numbers by the choir ended the service. The most moving musical experience I had up until that time was seeing the Rolling Stones live in West Berlin in 1982. This was just as moving.
That desire to hear more of that music was the driving force that kicked off a two-year stint of me and my young family attending that church. For a brief while I played bass during the morning service and got to know the musicians and choir members well. As time went on and I read the scriptures for insight, doctrinal issues started to rear it’s ugly head. Questions directed to church leaders about different interpretations of scripture were met with, “This is what we believe. If this is not what you believe you are welcome to find another church.” This presented a dilemma. Finding a church that aligns more with one’s reading of scripture is the easy part; walking away from that music was not so easy. There were a number of people who stayed in the church for exactly that reason: for the music they would hear every Sunday. Most would attend both the morning and evening services. It wasn’t the gospel or the various ministries doing ‘the Lord’s work’ that kept them there; it was the music.
Not soon after we stopped attending Christ Tabernacle we moved to North Carolina, a place which has been described by some as the buckle of the Bible Belt. Over the past two decades, I have seen the complexion of religion change from the traditional Baptist churches that dotted the landscape to the new mega-churches. I’ve seen these mega-churches grow in number and watched friends who attended the old fashion Baptist churches leave them and start attending these new houses of worship. A few of the larger traditional churches saw the writing on the wall and, like the Catholic Church did decades earlier, yielded to the modern trends and began having services with a worship band and professional sound systems. In the local music paper you will always see advertisements for musicians to join these worship bands interspersed with the regular ads by secular bands looking for musicians. These days, if you are looking to open a church, music is what is going to get people in the doors and music, more than anything else, is going to keep them there.