Confessions of an Ex-LifeTeen Musician

Confessions of an Ex-LifeTeen Musician

Photo by shaunanyi

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:

  1. Getting butts in the seats
  2. Church is a drag
  3. 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.

FirstAttendance 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.

ThirdI 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.

Photo by millicent_bystander

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.


  1. For the record, if you use the ‘search’ bar on Osteen’s website you do find references to Jesus. Not front-page as far as I can tell, though.

    • I can appreciate that. Didn’t use the search bar, just browsed for a while…

  2. Reference to Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence: WIN.

    Most awesome non-Latin hymn ever!

      • A very good friend of mine grew up going to St. John Cantius. I hear great things!

        • They’re well deserved. I attend seminary with the Cantius guys, and they bring so much to Catholic worship that makes the heart soar to God. Their church in Chicago is truly spectacular. Would that modern Church architecture would take a lesson.

          • My friend had a brother who was a Cantius seminarian at Holy Apostles! Such a small world!

  3. As a chaplain at a university, I wonder where all the “Life Teen” college students are. Most Catholic university chaplains have known for many years that the majority of those who were active in Life Teen in high school drop away from their faith when they leave for college. The problem is that the focus is on Teen and not on God. It is the deceptive worship of the worshiping community (see the story of the Golden Calf and Cardinal Ratzinger’s assesment of modern liturgy). The Life Teen liturgy may bear fruit but not the “fruit that will last” and that is why there should not be separate “teen Masses”.

    • In fairness, my alma mater, Franciscan University, has a disproportionately large group of LifeTeen alum. Nevertheless, it’s certainly not enough to make up for the lack of LifeTeen alum in other programs.

      • True story: Our friends are very pro-life, very NFP promoting and head up a life teen group that has over a thousand kids—roughly 120-140 11th graders confirmed each year. One girl went through life teen and then went off to a state school. She didn’t have much of a faith life beyond life teen and her parents weren’t much help in that dept either though they dropped her off for life teen. Her sophmore year, her non Catholic roommate in college gets pregnant out of wedlock. Father of the unborn wants it aborted. Mom and Dad of college kid wants her to abort. Roommate from life teen doesn’t know what to do. She is not formed well enough in the faith but knows abortion is wrong. She calls her old friends who headed up life teen at church and starts a prayer chain as well as gets wisdom on how to counsel this young woman into keeping the child. That child is now 5 years old. That is fruit. That is fruit from life teen being headed up by good solid Catholics.

    • Father,

      there should not be separate “teen Masses.”


      • *to qualify, there shouldn’t be a separate ‘teen mass’ on Sunday… I have no issue with a special mass for teens on a weekday, say to commemorate something specific in their lives or with a homily particularly addressed to their situation.

  4. I work in diocesan youth ministry. I’m looking for a good balance in music for our 2 day high school youth rallies which includes gathering, pump up, and liturgical sections. Put 800 teens together from all different backgrounds- what do you think they are able to “receive” during the closing Mass? 100% organ and gregorian chant? 20/30/50 chant, classic hymns, and praise and worship? your thoughts are appreciated!

    • You make a good point, though it’s important to recognize that you’re using a mix, not just contemporary praise music.

    • Jon, I don’t know what the solution is (e.g. your proposed 20/30/50) but I do think you have mis-phrased the question. It’s not about what they are willing to receive, but how they can be assisted in uniting themselves to the Sacrifice of Christ – how they can give themselves to God.

      And I offer a personal story. This past year I brought a group of my junior high children to a diocesan event and they where shocked by the irreverence in the music (other kids quite literally *shouting* while the music leaders performed Matt Maher’s “Alive Again”) which was included during the closing mass. Perhaps that’s what other churches are playing and other tweens wouldn’t be shocked…

  5. I’ve often wondered: Who chooses the hymns? Is it the cantor/music minister, or the pastor, or the two working together? Probably it varies from place to place, but is there a typical answer?

    I have the same question about the prayers of the faithful.

    • Typically, the person who selects hymns and intercessions varies from place to place.

  6. I liked the line about needing reverence in an irreverent world. This is why more and more people are being drawn to the traditional Latin Mass. You will not generally see folks in shorts, flip-flops, spaghetti strapped tight tops, or skirts way up the thigh. They find they can worship GOD and not be distracted by such things.

    Bad lyrics are more than a distraction and some are heretical. I wrote up a page of reasons why a certain song was heretical and our music liturgist just laughed. We do not need the bad songs after Communion when we should savor that precious time with God within.

    The TLM is going to grow and many youth will be attracted to it. But first people need to be exposed to it!!! I would go exclusively if I had the option. I am there to worship the Lord and not sing about myself.

  7. I’ve been a priest for 39 years. After 19 years in the central city and 7 years in small towns, I became the pastor of a rural, almost solid German Catholic parish with a bi-weekly Life Teen Mass, and was apprehensive about what I was getting into. I’m not a devotee of rock music (I lost track of rock music shortly after the Sergeant Pepper album). I’m more into Ave Verum and Salve Regina than into Awesome God. (You see, we Vatican II priests can’t all be labeled as exponents of bad taste and orthodoxy lite.) And yet I find a certain genuineness in the music that our youth singers lead us in that I don’t find in a lot of the OCP and GIA composers. I go away from the Mass feeling that I have genuinely worshiped God. The Lutheran music teacher who leads the youth musicians says that he never feels more at peace than when he has prayed at a Life Teen Mass. I’m starting to conclude that not all LifeTeen Masses are created equal. Maybe the difference is the celebrant, the youth group leader, and the music leader. Maybe there are Life Teen Masses out there that lean too heavily on egotism and trendiness. But I think it’s wrong to paint all Life Teen participants as goofy high-schoolers and almost-geezers who are trying to re-live their high school years.

    • Amen, Father. I agree.

    • You are so right in all that you say. It’s not just the music; it’s everything. I have experienced firsthand the difference a good priest makes; everything (yes, even rock music) can bring glory to God when handled right. You are right that people like the pastor and other leaders make a difference. You are also right to point out that it’s the focus that’s important. If the focus is on egoism and trendiness, we are doing our teens a huge disservice. Focus on God, as we are always called ot do, and the rest will come.

  8. Great article. It’s always useful to hear from those who have been involved in, know, and used to enjoy the whole “youth Mass” show…you’ve got experiences and insights that can add a lot to the criticism from us older cranks who hated it from the start. Thanks.

    It’s also a revelation to me that someone in the praise-n-worship crowd would have seen himself as standing against the encroaching darkness of Haugen & co., rather than simply doing something different for the young people until they grow up and into the “regular” Masses. But I suppose it makes sense if you view the OCP “folk” Mass as one generation remaking the Mass in the image and likeness of itself…and further view Millennials as having the right to now go and do likewise.

    (Yes, I’m conscious that I’ve just gone and done something I’m prone to rant about: speaking as if nobody at all were born between the Boomers and Millennials. Why it seemed unavoidable to do so here is a tangent for another time.)

    Anyhow, thanks again for the excellent post. I may have to print it out and staple it inside the back cover of my copy of Why Catholics Can’t Sing.

    • I can attest that many times at Mass, I cringe to hear praise and worship, but then rmind myself that a well-placed P&W song is better than the OCP alternative.

  9. I found the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” on the “About” menu item of the Joel Osteen site. The main page doesn’t really indicate that it’s a Christian ministry (there’s a cross in the church image for the podcast banner, oh wow!)

    For music, I’ve found a lot of Catholic hymns in my book for Liturgy of the Hours that I’ve never heard of… the music is provided, but I’m not very musical. Do you know of a place to listen to some old Catholic hymns?

  10. I get the impression a lot of Catholics have not read Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict’s book “Sacred Liturgy”?

    • “The Spirit of the Liturgy”?

  11. I had the same musical journey. From want to ‘ROCK’ the mass to just making music an aid to help people enter into a beautiful worship time.

  12. For those who are saying that LifeTeen bares little to no fruit after high school, I would like to point out that the majority of young men entering the seminary were involved in LifeTeen at some point in their teen years. I can’t remember the exact number, but I believe the statistic I saw was around 80%. Obviously they are doing something right if they have that much of an impact on these gentlemen.

    • I was involved in LifeTeen in my high school years, majored in theology and youth ministry, ran a LifeTeen youthgroup for 3 years before becoming a theology teacher. The LifeTeen program itself is solid and I think it’s a great program for any parish with a youth program (assuming it’s being run after the redesign 2004-present). The topic of my post was simply about the music aspect within the context of mass. I have had some very moving experiences playing at and attending non-mass XLT Lifeteen worship events and I have no issue with them whatsoever. Again, my own LT experiences have borne much fruit in my own life.

  13. I think it depends on the parish and the youth. At my parish, it works for the benefit of the entire community… the “youth Mass” isn’t just for the teens, but they know they have a place there. In fact, I know many adults (myself included) who don’t plan to “grow up” to more traditional music. I enjoy and appreciate the timeless beauty of more traditional sacred music, but I enter into worship more fully with contemporary harmonies and lyrics.

    The Mass is a celebration! And while there are groups of people who prefer Mass to be more solemn and reverent, there are other groups who want it to be a place of welcoming, excitement, and enthusiasm. At our parish, the reverence and profound respect for the liturgy is NOT lost in the midst of the upbeat, celebratory atmosphere. I think of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem… our youth Mass welcomes the Lord with shouts of joy and great expectations! There’s a place for solemn hymns and a place for contemporary music… and the variety of spiritualities, even in music, is evidence of the beautiful diversity of our Church.

    • >> the “youth Mass” isn’t just for the teens, but they know they have a place there

      And I would hope the teens know they have a place at every Sunday liturgy, even the 7:30 ‘silent’ Mass. At my parish there are four dedicated high school altar boys (in addition to the eleven in elementary school)who take turns serving our early Sunday mass. And they aren’t ever the only high school teens in the Church. I don’t believe in segregating the parish community during our Sunday Masses.

      > I think of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem… our youth Mass welcomes the Lord with shouts of joy and great expectations!

      As a Church we do celebrate Jesus’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem with a procession on Palm/Passion Sunday. Yet when the Church *celebrates* the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross is made present.

      We have to think, does the shouting and high expectations foster within us that intellectual act by which we unite our wills, minds, hearts, souls, all that we are, to the salvific action of Christ?

      If we are refusing to leave the base passionate music behind and enter into the harder, more mature intellectual music, we have to wonder if we are maturing as Christians as St. Paul speaks about.

      • Of course I don’t disagree, but I think there’s something to be said for meeting people where they’re at. The Lord changes our hearts to desire something deeper, more majestic, more timeless and beautiful… but a lot of people aren’t there yet.

        Passion, enthusiasm, and excitement is what drew the crowds to Our Lord… commitment, discipline, and endurance is why we continue on. There’s a place for both — and I don’t think we do ourselves or the diverse spirituality of our Church any justice to slam one as “base” and praise another as “mature.”

        This kind of music is necessary to my prayer life; the Lord uses it for His glory. It isn’t about the words or composition, the depth and maturity of the prayer depends on the person. And if it’s a means to help people enter into deep and authentic prayer, it’s just as valid as anything else.

        Just IMHO. I don’t think it’s all shallow water or ‘smoke and mirrors.’

        • Meeting people “where they’re at” is certainly something good when it comes to Catechisis. The Church has prescribed standards for the liturgy including the music, and to disregard them is disobedience. The appeal at a youth mass should be a homily tailored for young people and their struggles or understanding of scripture. It is not to remove the musical standards and orders (including those in Sacrosanctum Concilium aka “Vatican II”) and replace them with whatever gets butts in the seats.

          I too speak as a former Life Teen musician now helping to put Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony back at “pride of place”.


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