Monday, July 07, 2008

"Contemporary" music isolates elderly

This past weekend I went on vacation to Grand Haven, Michigan with my family. Grand Haven is a lovely little jewel on the coast of Lake Michigan that is well known within the state but that I'd imagine many persons outside Michigan don't really know about (click here for a pic of the lighthouse in the Grand Haven park). It was a very nice time, despite the fact that the tiny lakeside town was stuffed to the brim with teething masses of humanity there for fourth of July.

Since we were gone, we of course had to go to a parish other than the one we usually attend. I looked a few local ones up on the web, but nothing seemed appealing. One was advertising classes for guided Buddhist-influenced meditation. Finally, we settled on a pretty normal looking NO church near where we were staying.

The music was "contemporary." This parish had a big beautiful choir loft, but it was being used for storage. The "choir" sat down to the left of the altar and consisted of a keyboardist, two guitarists, a drummer and three female singers. They processional song was a cover of a song by the Protestant band Newsboys (click here to see the music video of the song they played and then try to imagine it in Mass). All the rest of the Mass music was contemporary rock as well, with drums, keyboards and everything.

Now, my intention here is not to write another horror story of abuses; we have enough of those! I want to emphasize something about the nature of "contemporary" Christian rock used in liturgical settings. The whole reason this music was introduced in the first place was to facilitate greater participation by the congregation. The idea was that this type of music was more "in touch" with what people were listening to out in the world, and so it would be more "relevant" and thus make the liturgy more meaningful. The modern Church is very sensitive about not isolating people or giving the impression that they are not inclusive enough, and this is part of the reasoning behind the use of contemporary music.

Yet in doing so, the Church is actually isolating a huge demographic of people, many of whom are some of the most faithful Mass attenders. I am speaking of course of the elderly. The elderly are horribly isolated, marginalized and ignored when parishes choose to adopt a contemporary format. I watched with discomfort as many old people stood there downcast while the rock music jammed on, not even attempting to read the lyrics from the provided "worship aids." Even had they tried, contemporary Christian rock music is usually orchestrated to that the words are forced into the music, often resulting in added verses or phrases to familiar Mass prayers, in addition to rhythms that are too complex for the uninitiated to pick up on their first hearing.

Why would the Church, who is so understanding about not being elitist or unwelcoming, persist in isolating one of its largest demographics? I argue that it is because in this manner the Church is buying in to the modernist-Americanist "cult of youth" that dominates so much of how our nation views age.

Traditionally, children were brought up to be nourished on the wisdom of their elders, to sit at their feet and imitate them. In most cultures, it was believed that the highest thing a person could do was to live up to the great deeds perfomed by ones ancestors. Youth learned at the stool of age. Now, it is turned on its head. It is the elderly and the old who are expected to conform their standards and lives to the fads of the young. The technology, music and pop-culture of the youth are put forward as role models, and everybody is supposed to adapt themselves to them.

This is, I think the fundamental error of adapting contemporary music to liturgical settings (besides all of the theological and canonical difficulties). Instead of bringing the youth to learn from those before, and thus exalting and honoring the old, the old are shoved aside with arrogance. Perhaps some think (in classic, utilitarian mindset) that the future belongs to the youth and that the elderly do not contribute anything anymore. I tell you, they pray more rosaries than the young, I guarantee! Also, we should keep in mind the words of St. Paul:

"The parts of the body which seem to be weakerare indispensable" (1 Cor. 12:22).


Kate said...

"...rhythms that are too complex for the uninitiated to pick up on their first hearing."

Much the same could be said about chant. (ok, Chant doesn't have complicated rhythms so much as it has a lack of rhythm which is jarring to try to sing without training).

Not that I have any reason to point that out except some twisted joy in teasing traddies. ;-)

...on a more serious note, I think it's true that sometimes churches use so-called 'contemporary' music because they think it will speak to youth. There is heavy irony in that motivation, since *most* 'contemporary' church music is at least 10 years old and sounds even older. The genre is influenced primarily by music of my father's generation (and not the good music, but the 'faux-folk' stuff). Weirdly enough as well, in most of the parishes I've attended, it is older parishioners (in their 60s) who were most attached to these forms of music and young parishioners who were most disenchanted by one more chorus.

There is newer stuff which borrows from CCM and more recent praise and worship music, but even that falls far short of being good music by contemporary standards, being inherently derivative.

Personally, I'm a big fan of the hymnody of the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the most singable hymns and such like come from that era. The good stuff is mostly protestant, since Catholics came late to that party, but we were starting to get the hang of it before the guitars took over. We still have a lot we could learn from the Anglicans on this front.

Boniface said...


I agree with you on several points, but I feel we have to acknowledge a few things:

1) Chant does have rhythms difficult to master for the uninitiated, but then again, chant in the old Mass is not meant to be sung by the congregation, only by the choir, which is trained to do it. This contemporary music, on the other hand, is meant for the entire congregation to sing.

2) I have also noticed what you said about people in their 60's (ie, the V2 generation). When I say the elderly are isolated, I mean the 70+ crowd, not the aging yuppie crowd. I find that this music is distasteful to all but a small, devoted cadre of supporters, usually people in the 50-60 range.

3) I agree with what you said about 19th century hymnody, which was actually what I was contrasting the contemporary with when I said contemporary had difficult rhythms. Even some one who has never come to Church can figure out the melody to "Faith of Our Fathers" after hearing one verse: these hymns are simple, repetitive and memorable.

Anonymous said...

ooow,,, ooow,, I can comment. I'll try to make it short.
First, I am not Cotholic, though I have someexperience in Catholic Churches. I AM 65 years old [ ELDERLY?]. Although WE, yes Me and YOU, Boniface, did not bring OUR Rock an' Roll music into church much your comments sound like my Grandmother.
I have recently returned to attending church, after not attending for many years.During those years, I attended many different churches with friends and relatives, Mostly Evangelical, and I have relatives with a Christian Rock band. BOY,, are they GOOD. I learned and RECIECED much from those visits. The MUSIC was the LEAST of the lesson.
getting back to my grandmother, one day while I was staying with her, I found her humming a tune. Beach Boys , or somthing.We smiled, and hugged, she never did say much about MY music after.
So,,, next time you are in a church with music you don't like,, SMILE, HUG the person next to you. Then go back to your closed minded additude, OR, next time you are ine YOUR church,with nice quiet hymms, say GEE they had a nice rendidtion of that.

in West Virginia

and please comment on this, BUT, I will most likely not see it. I just stumbled across this site. And hoped to give someone the LIGHT that is out here.

Unitarian,,, so Boniface can discount this whole message.
also part blind, excuse any Errors.

Anonymous said...

OK,,, I'm back. [WOODY]
As I said in my last comment, I stumbled on this site.
I had been looking for "Elderly Music" , a music store. In Michigan, by chance.
Go to Google,,, Type in "elderly music". You will see this web site. NOW look beyound ,see all those Help the ELDERLY sites?? They are wanting to bring MUSIC to Elderly people.
Boniface, or anyone else listening, if you play music, go and play for the people as my wife does. I know that they will enjoy it, no matter if it's contempory or ????.

WOODY [again]

Boniface said...


Ironic...I bought my current guitar from Elderly Instruments in Lansing. It is a wonderful store.

Regarding your comments, I like rock music. I am a musician. I like Christian rock. I have CD's of it in my car--but the purpose of this post is the very specialized issue of whether or not Christian rock should be utilized in the Catholic Mass, and I say it ought not, for a variety of reasons. It is not to say Christians shouldn't listen to it or that it does not help us, but it does not have a place in the Mass, where the focus is on the august Sacrifice of the Mass which occurs on the altar in which Christ is offered to God in an unbloody manner, and NOT on what we are doing or "getting" out of it.

But, I'm not going to argue with you about it. As you said, you are Unitarian, so nothing you say counts anyway.


Anonymous said...


If we both shop at Elderly Music, are we so different after all???

Here's a challange for you. attend a UU
church 3 times. Listen very closly. look through the hymnal. Sit back and enjoy the experiance. Remember, some around you belive in GOD, some do not. BUT all will welcome you as you are.
[and, have coffee and chat after service, we ARE human.]
When Pope John-Paul died I want to go to a catholic church, but did not because I was not sure
about all the strict worship. It is one reason I began going to church again.

WOODY { yup,, still here ]

?? Do I believe in GOD ??? YOUBET I DO. I would have died at birth if not for
[ his/her/their ] action. And I have scars on my ankles to prove it.

Boniface said...


Thank you for your ever, you must understand that the situation is not whether this music is soothing or enjoyable...that is not the point. It can be the most enjoyable music in the world, but the question is whether it is suited to the Catholci liturgy, which is unlike other Christian services. I don't expect you to understand this if you are not Catholic.

Music in Church for a Catholic is not about feeling any experience, but about adoring God, regardless of how we feel.

Anonymous said...


Hey, after all those years of not going to church, I'm doing pretty good at this.

I just realized, in the time I have returned to going to church, I haven't heard ANY Christian Rock at our UU services. At little jazz though.
Today, I will first give thanks to OUR God for both of us being here. No matter what the music. [ or no music at all ]


I guess my point is ,, we should not NEED music to have faith in GOD.