Confessions of an Ex-LifeTeen Musician
Music is a very, very dear thing to me and I think I was born with rock in my bones. In my most tender years and onward, my siblings and I were not allowed to listen to anything other than religious music. I tended toward a few select tracks by Michael W. Smith, Rick Cua and Petra. Now, I realize that I must have been yearning for Peter Gabriel(?), Led Zeppelin(?) and AC/DC(!). As I eventually grew my own music collection (almost exclusively Stevie Ray Vaughan and Christian contemporary through high school), I found it important to correct the errors in musical taste that I found in the people around me. I quickly discovered that a general gluttony for Texas blues did not exist in the populace. Regardless, my best friend and I dedicated ourselves to learning to play blues on the guitar and progressed on parallel paths; he became proficient on the electric guitar (he owned only an electric) and I on the acoustic guitar (my dad owned only an acoustic). This is the only thing we did during high school. With the additional plus of a friend teaching me how to sing, I became an entertainer (Old evidence here… if you dare).
A musician who loves to play for a crowd will adapt to whatever crowd is available to listen. When my musical high school youth minister moved away from Plano, I took over playing the praise and worship music that had been a regular part of the Wednesday night youth group. This eventually led to the forming of our high-school band, Opus Dei and the Knights, comprised of a few friends, my brother Matt (on bass) and the LifeTeen worship leader, Joe (on drums).
It was awesome. Our setlist comprised mostly of acoustic rock, Christian contemporary and blues – Dave Matthews, Breakaway Ministries, Jackopierce, Deep Blue Something, Cowboy Mouth, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, SRV, Hendrix We played church fundraisers, birthday parties and, eventually, the 6pm youth Mass. Granted the setlist changed from venue to venue, but the style of music stayed pretty much the same. No, we didn’t play Hendrix for Mass.
Before all of this, while I was yet a musical fledgeling, it wasn’t difficult to notice the popularity of the youth Mass. If you wanted a seat (or a parking space), you’d have to arrive 20 minutes early. The sanctuary at St. Marks seated over 1,500 people (the parish currently has over 8,000 families) and an on-time Mass-goer would probably find themselves standing against the wall for lack of available seating. Of course, none of the other 11 weekend masses at St. Marks were attended in such numbers (though they were full enough justify every one of them). Naturally, I enjoyed the songs and acoustic style the high-caliber professional (and nearly all Catholic) musicians provided week to week. Something had to to have been done right.
Rewind a bit further. I remember sitting in a movie theater next to my father in 1992 (I was 10), watching Sister Act and absolutely marveling at two things 1)How the filmmakers got JPII to be in the movie (the back of the actor’s head looked just like him) and 2) How much the Pope LOVED the music (it didn’t occur to me that the final scene isn’t actually within the context of Mass). The movie’s empty church filled to capacity once Sister Mary Clarence took over the music program and brought in those hip tunes. I think the contemporary movement can be summed up in one scene between Delores and Mother Superior:
Reverend Mother: Girl groups? Boogie woogie on the piano? What were you thinking?
Delores: I was thinkin’ more like Vegas, y’know, get some butts in the seats.
Reverend Mother: And what next? Popcorn? Curtain calls? This is not a theater or a casino.
Delores: Yeah, but that’s the problem. See, people like going to theaters, and they like going to casinos, but they don’t like coming to church. Why? Because it’s a drag. But we could change all that, see? We could pack this joint.
Reverend Mother: Through blasphemy? You have corrupted the entire choir!
Delores: How can you say that? I worked my butt of with these women! They’ve given up their free time to do this, and they’re GOOD! I mean, sister, we could, we could ROCK this place!
What you have here are the three parts to the contemporary music argument:
- Getting butts in the seats
- Church is a drag
- The musicians are GOOD!
What I saw happening at my parish’s youth Mass addressed all of these things and so the logical conclusion was that it was a solution to a widespread problem of people having to endure Mass because of awful music; awful in tone, text and execution.
I’d like to address these three points in turn.
First: Attendance is not a gauge of whether or not a Mass is successful. Please, read that again, especially if you happen to be a priest or a liturgist. Sure, high attendance and participation certainly add to the Mass-going experience, but it does not do a thing for the validity or, ahem, profundity of what actually occurs. Church musicians aren’t the only ones falling for this. Ever heard a homily flatly condemning the sins of contraception, pre-marital cohabitation, pornography, grave matter and mortal sin? Further still, Joel Osteen, pastor of insane-O 20,000 seat megachurch in Houston, TX doesn’t even talk about JESUS (if you can find ANY reference to the Son of God on his website, let me know in the comments). Whether it be the nitty-gritty details of sin or the inconvenience of Christ’s preaching against them, the avoidance of those topics do seem to keep a certain population morally comfortable enough to return the next week.
MTV defines what’s cool (at least, they used to). If you’re not defining cool, you’re playing catch-up and will always look like an imitation. What’s the answer? Don’t try to compete. Rely on the vast depositories of what the Church has to provide in terms of music (make sure you read #3 below). Similarly, if a person’s conscience isn’t comfortable watching a TV show, they probably won’t return – and so television attempts to sooth the moral apprehension of the viewer (through relativism) for the sake of ratings. If a overly sinful person wants to feel entertained and morally comfortable, let them watch ABC Family. The truth is not a comfortable thing for someone living a moral lie, yet every sinner needs to be led, not only to grace, but from their sin by those who preach to them week after week.
Second: Contemporary music at Mass does a good job of attracting a certain type of crowd (though, this is highly contingent on #3) because it is most similar to the music that a congregant listens to during the week. Vertical Horizon’s song “You’re a God” was hot on the radio in 1999 and I… I… (God help me) switched the lyrics to Psalm 8 so I could play it for Trinity Sunday Mass. I was also bummed that I couldn’t get the Pentecost gig.
Mass is a drag when people are asked to participate in a musical movement that should have died 35 years ago instead of being propped up by OCP and GIA like a bank that was too big to fail. If the music isn’t meaningful, moving or entertaining, people will seek one or more of these things elsewhere. Even in high school, I saw Marty Haugen and David Haas tunes as a sort of darkness that surrounded us, waiting to fill the void once the light of contemporary music was extinguished. Truth be told, even with my current membership in the Cathedral chant schola, I’d still be willing to play an occasional contemporary Mass if the certain alternative is a Haugen/Haas hippy-jam-fest. Stopgap though it may be, I think Just War Theory permits it.
Solution? Reverence. Where else, but Mass, can a person find reverence in such an irreverent culture? Chant, solemnity, smells and bells are unique to a singular place and experience of receiving the Eucharist at Mass. People seek meaning and reverence, even if they do not realize it. People seek to be transformed from a life of darkness to one of light and can most tangibly find that the source of that transformation in an experience that illustrates the dramatic shift from an earthly to a spiritual reality.
Third: I actually believe musical goodness to be one of the most important aspects of any public, musical ministry, show, display – whatever you want to call it. Like shame, there are actually two types of musical goodness: Physical and Emotional. Or talent and taste.
The fact that the musicians should be fantastic seems obvious, I know, but it is more often the case that other things, such as scholarship, longevity, age and tenure lead to the hiring or sustained employment of musicians that really have no business having their own YouTube channel, much less being utilized for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Of course, there is another side to the coin. I have occasionally visited a parish whose music program is absolutely top notch; strong choir, solid harmonies, well-played instruments. The issue is that the fantastically-played songs are all those congregationalist songs that are about me, me, me and maybe God if we get to the 3rd verse; We Are Called, Anthem and Let There Be Peace on Earth, you know. Honestly, the last time I was there, it hit me that if SNL was going to mock the Catholic Mass, this is how they would do it – the absolute worst songs played amazingly well.
I think the general solution to a lack of musical goodness is education. If a musician lacks talent, they should (be made to) take music lessons. If a musician lacks liturgical taste, they may need instruction as to how to avoid hymns containing heresy as well as some education on the role of music during the first 1,960 years of the Church. If a musician has near-zero talent and can’t figure the good from the bad… maybe it’s time to move on. Music ministry is a ministry to the congregation, not those involved in the music program, yet I have heard this used as a reason for keeping around those who are incapable, insubordinate or both.
My experience as a praise and worship leader (within the context of Mass) lasted for about 10 years, ending in 2007. The high school years were marked with pride and a minimally restrained desire to rock it out during the “closing song.” The college years matured into a great desire for musical reverence at Mass (learned at Benedictine College), greatly tempering my music selection and execution. Post-college, my desire for reverence led me to the vast depository of Catholic hymns (such as Alleluia, Sing to Jesus and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence) that I began to select over the surfacey offerings of my protestant counterparts – each youth group was closed by singing Salve Regina. In these last years of my role as a music leader, I actually began to feel sorrow at my own inability to utilize the organ sitting 6 feet away from my guitar stand. As of late, I still play praise and worship for a handful of kids at school once a week. And there’s always room for a bass in any church choir – no guitar skills necessary.