Rich Kirkpatrick

Relevancy and Worship Music Styles: It’s Complicated

We want to be relevant with our worship music and need to have spiritually vibrant worship. A church itself is described by many leaders by the musical “ style” offered. There is traditional, gospel, contemporary, and modern as some words to describe just a few of the menu options. Music itself appears to how we brand our worship. If we brand worship as a music style what message does this send? I may have bad news for those who would be so pragmatic. We want something that works. Would we rather have something dumbed-down that we can control, or something that actually is culturally relevant, powerful, or engaging? In a discussion about styles of music in worship, we have to ask about the intent. Why do we want to be “relevant” with our music? My point is clear. It’s complicated.

I am a professional musician. Having been trained in music with classical, jazz and modern music, I would say that any “style” or genre of music is more sophisticated than simply cutting-and-pasting the most visible elements of the music. You can add a rhythm section, but you can’t add the authentic feel with only a surface mimicry. Trust me, it takes immersion to learn the languages of musical styles–truly a worthy task for any musician wanting to grow beyond comfort zones. To learn the swing of jazz you have to live with it a bit and make it your own. If your musicians don’t feel it, do you? Music is best when it is indigenous–locally grown produce. And, when it is it is most authentic. Should not our worship live in this indigenous to authentic zone rather than plastic, pandering trendiness? Is this indeed what is truly relevant?

If something is new does that make it a relevant musical style? We often say, “Out with the old, in with the new.” But wait there’s more! The oldies and the comfortably known sounds may be more than zombies. They are indeed trendy at the moment. Here is a wrench thrown in the logic of chasing after what is novel and next. Why is it that kids are rediscovering vinyl LPs, Johnny Cash, and 1980s techno? It used to be that before the 1960s, pop music was limited to one sound at a time. Now, popular music can literally be any genre. An a cappella group called the Pentatonix received one of only two certified platinum selling albums in 2014. And, it was a Christmas album. We observe the beast of music style now becoming more than just “not your momma’s songs” into something undefinable, unpredictable and occasionally unattainable. Church music is way behind when we employ the “what’s next” formula. Obviously, it’s more complicated than finding the next thing. Perhaps it’s in creating music rather than copying a style that allows us to stay fresh. But, that is complicated, too.

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