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Congregations Join Rising Chorus in Call for Updated Music : Hymns: ‘Why do we insist that North American worship be 19th-Century Northern European?,’ one church official asks.

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from Associated Press

Roll over, Handel. Take a step back, John Wesley. Make room in the choir for Hank and Dolly and Whoopi.

In the world of church music, where it is difficult for living composers to break into denominational hymnals, a growing chorus of voices is being raised for incorporating contemporary music into worship.

United Methodist scholar Tex Sample, in a speech last month at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said country music is the soul music of millions of working-class people and should find its place in liturgies that reflect the lives of people in the pews.

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At St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Novato, Calif., anything from reggae music to a selection from the musical “Les Miserables” may be heard in the Sunday family service.

“Why do we insist that North American worship be 19th-Century Northern European? What if we were to use some authentic trappings of American culture?” the Rev. Philip Lyon Rountree Jr., the church rector, asked in an article last year in the periodical Congregations.

Proponents of contemporary music say most church music, even such hymns as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” had their origins as folk songs. If you want to reach today’s audiences with a religious message, this generation should be given the same freedom to adapt contemporary music to liturgical uses.

The theory works well in the movies. In “Sister Act,” neighborhood people flocked in off the streets after the character played by Whoopi Goldberg livens up the music at the Catholic church she is hiding out in.

Even critics agree that church music should not be entirely other-worldly. What they insist, however, is that music directors choose the finest of the liturgical tradition, not rush out to perform Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” in the processional because it is at the top of the charts that week.

“You have to take the best and the most noble in a culture, and just not go to the least common denominator,” said Thomas Day, author of “Why Catholics Can’t Sing.”

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Day, chairman of the music department at Salve Regina College in Newport, R.I., sees in the rush to contemporary music “a hidden agenda” that has more to do with the “tremendous egos” of clergy and soloists than liturgical reform.

In traditional worship settings, with the organ playing and the congregation singing, the song is a form of communal worship that plays an important part in the service.

“Now, when they’re up there singing ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ or even a nice song like ‘Amazing Grace,’ there’s always someone up there with the spotlight on them and to hell with the congregation,” Day said.

But proponents of contemporary music say it is the traditionalists who have turned a deaf ear to the pews.

“It’s not a question of giving up ‘the word,’ if you will. It’s a question of ‘the word’ being indigenous,” Sample said.

Just as religious leaders can find valuable teaching material in biblical accounts of killing, lying and adultery, so can they find “great grist for the mill” in country music amid the contradictions of suffering and redemption, hope and hopelessness, Sample said.

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For example, he said, Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” talks about the suffering of people who keep jobs they hate in order to pay the bills. Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” speaks about the need to have enough meaning in one’s life to make it through the night.

Satisfaction does not come through a job or casual sexual relationships.

“That makes love pretty important,” Sample said.

In his Episcopal Church near San Francisco, Rountree found one reason young people were not regular churchgoers was that they considered church music morose and depressing.

Rountree observed that there was something amiss in efforts to attract worshipers in California with services dependent on British culture and several centuries of Northern European organ music.

“Frankly, the people were simply not coming to church, or they would come once,” he said. “I began to think, ‘What’s more important here, preserving the culture or giving people access to the Gospel?”’

The church added a third service on Sundays featuring contemporary music from folk, contemporary Christian, gospel music and other sources, including some traditional hymns. Within six months, he said, the service was full or nearly full every Sunday.

When he started the service in 1987, the service was considered a daring experiment.

Seven years later, he said, “it’s very much like their traditional religion right now.”

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