Last week I put up an extensive history of what I would call my "Golden Age" of worship music. Actually, it was not extensive at all, but only the tip of the iceberg—oh well! 1994-2004 was my personal "good old days", when worship music was done right and not like the garbage they are putting out today! (said like an old man sitting on his porch with a shotgun across his lap, a scowl on his face, and an old dusty hymnal open to his favorite song).
The fact of the matter is that there are any of a number of "Golden Ages" of worship music, depending on who you talk to. My hope is to briefly document a number of those "ages" here.
Over the years I have gotten involved in numerous online debates regarding the validity, fittingness, or utter illegitimacy of certain forms and styles of worship music all the way down to specific composers of worship music. The vitriol and unrelenting self-surety present in some of these conversations is astounding. Some people just know the "correct" or "superior" form the Church's song should take and no compromise shall ever be undertaken. Close-mindedness runs the gamut from "traditionalists" to those who think no worship music was composed before 1998.
I will tell you right now where I stand, which might aid your reading of the rest of this article. I follow two basic principles when it comes to selecting worship music for my church to sing:
1.) The music and lyrics should be fitting for worship and the people of God. This is certainly subjective on many levels, but my concern is a.) for the music to be appropriate for worship, that is, that it be reverent or joy-filled music which leads people into prayer and worship, and b.) that the lyrics be Biblically and theologically sound and aesthetically excellent and clear.
2.) The music and lyrics should be culturally fitting and accessible. Based on the concept that music in church is "the people's song", church music should be reflective of the people's culture, while not pandering to it.
Combining both these principles, my aim as a music leader in church is to create a unique musical culture that is both "in-but-not-of" our overarching culture as a society. It should feel familiar and be artistically accessible, while also feeling like it is a culture unto itself, a culture coming from another place. A "strange mixture", I would call it. It assumes that our cultures are redeemable and part of the New Creation, while also assuming that worship should be transcendent and reminiscent of the spiritual realm of which we only know a part. Simply put, our worship should strive to be Incarnational. Like Jesus, it is fully enfleshed and yet mysteriously otherworldly.
Now that you have my principles in hand, consider what is to follow as something of a crash course in the history of Church music. This is not a comprehensive nor exhaustive list but instead an attempt to capture those times in history when people have tended to say "now that's true church music, that was a Golden Age." The "ages" get more frequent and bunched together in modern times as they are more recent in our collective memories and that cultural movements come and go more quickly in our times. If you want some excellent more comprehensive Church music surveys, I recommend checking out: The Story of Christian Music, Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective, A Panorama of Christian Hymnody, and Te Deum: The Church and Music.
All along, please feel free to play the game "Which one of these is my "Golden Age".
Age #1: Gregorian Chant
Depending on who you talk to "Gregorian Chant" is still the music of the Roman Catholic Church. Not all catholic dioceses maintain strict regulations on the type of music their church's sing during the mass, but it is basically unofficially official that churches should only sing the mass using chant. If you do not believe me, read this incredibly thorough and well-reasoned article about (not) using Contemporary worship songs in Catholic churches: "Sacred Music vs. Praise and Worship (Does it Matter?)"
In the early church and the middle ages, a number of different types of chants were developed in various geographic regions, but eventually Gregorian Chant won out in the West. The idea of solely using chant tones in worship is that it creates a universal musical culture, where anyone can sing during the mass anywhere in the world. There is also the belief that there should be a separateness in our worship, where the profane does not mix with the sacred and thus the music of our worship should not reflect our fleeting culture(s) but instead reflect the mystery and transcendence of God.
For some reason many within Roman Catholicism think chant is the only type of music able to do this. I have a number of quibbles with this, but it would take too long to get into here.
Age #2: The Anomalous Hymns of the Middle Ages
This "age" really is not an age because it is so spread out in terms of composition dates, nonetheless there are so many glorious Latin hymns that have made their way to us down through the ages. Some of them had to be rediscovered and translated, such as "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," but there are numerous other hymns that would fall into this category, such as "All Creatures of Our God and King", "Oh Come All Ye Faithful", and "Of the Father's Love Begotten". They have all been adapted, rearranged, and added to over the years but hail somewhat indistinctly from the time before the Renaissance.
Age #3: Polyphony—including Renaissance, Baroque, and all High Art Church Music
Church music did not stay simple for long. This category is too broad to get into at any length (and again, does not cover a particular "age" of time), but whether we are talking about Palestrina's sublime masses, Bach's magisterial oratorios, or Morten Lauridsen's soaring choral pieces there are many "Golden Ages" to polyphonic sacred music. Take your pick: which "age" or composer is the pinnacle for you?
There is no doubt this is superior Church music, but is it the "people's song"? Art Music certainly has its place in church, but in my opinion it should not come at the expense of the whole congregation singing together. So let's move on to the more congregational Golden Ages.
Age #4: The Hymns & Psalters of the Reformation
When the Reformation hit in the 16th century there was a veritable explosion of hymnody and the composition of various Psalters (that is, the Psalms set to music), all in the vernacular language of the European people. The hymns to come out of the Reformation are too vast to list, but many churches still sing hymns like Luther's "A Mighty Fortress" and Joachim Neander's "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty". Of all the Psalters, the Genevan Psalter, coming out of Calvin's Geneva, is the most infamous.
Age #5: The Hymns of the 18th Century (Mostly British Writers)
For many, the Golden Age for Church hymnody took place in the 18th Century. I am pretty partial to this age myself. This time period includes hymn writers like Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, and John Newton. Often, when people say "We need to get back to singing the great hymns of old," they are referring to this time period (or just a little before or after it). Personally, I believe Charles Wesley has shaped my faith more than any other hymn writer. From "Love Divine All Loves Excelling" to "And Can it Be?" his hymns are rich with theology and Biblical imagery.
Age #6: Shape Note Singing
I will admit this is an age I know little about, but whenever I have heard the shape note (Sacred Harp) singing of 19th century America performed I have always found it deeply stirring and heartfelt. It is robust and stark in its style and it offers a clear method for a congregation to sing together. While I could not claim this "age" as my own, I can see why there has been a resurgence of shape note singing and why some might call it a "golden age".
Age #7: Gospel Hymns of the 19th Century and Early 20th Century
Some of the most famous and beloved hymns were written in the 1800's and have come to be called "Gospel Hymns". Well-known authors include Fanny Crosby, Robert Lowry, and Ira D. Stankey, and famous hymns include "It is Well With My Soul", "What a Friend We Have in Jesus", "Blessed Assurance", and "The Old Rugged Cross".
Growing up in the Pentecostal tradition, hymns from this era were some of the only hymns that ever made it into our times of worship. For us, these were the classic "hymns of old."
Age #8: Whenever "Your" Hymnal Was Published
If you grew up in a church that exclusively used hymnals for singing during worship (and if you are old enough, you most certainly did) then chances are your "Golden Age" of worship music was the use of the hymnal itself. Those songs became your songs, even though they were a collection of hymns throughout the ages and (most likely) from various traditions.
Anglicans point to the publishing of Hymns Ancient and Modern as a milestone. Personally, The Hymnal 1982 has been pretty influential to me. Feel free to look through this list on hymnary.org to find your hymnal.
Age #9: Black Gospel Music—Early to Middle 20th Century
I am a white guy going to a mostly-white church, and have little experience as to what black congregations sing on Sundays, but one thing I know is that Black Gospel has been a huge influence in my life, even if tangentially. I also know that the music of black church culture was influential enough to actually fuel a vast majority of pop music in the 20th and 21st centuries. Did you hear me? Almost every form of pop music in the past 100 years owes something to music that originated from black culture. Think Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye to start with. But then there is blues, R&B, rock & roll, disco, and hip-hop.
I do not know enough to say when a Golden Age of Black Gospel music might have taken place, but a number of its songs are ubiquitous in our culture, as this article points out: "10 Famous Gospel Songs". To me "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" is a standout. Mahalia Jackson, Donnie McClurkin, Fred Hammond, Shirley Caesar, and Andre Crouch are some of the more famous singers and artists, but I have no idea when a Golden Age might have taken place, which songs are actually being sung in churches, and if a Golden Age is presently occurring within Black Gospel. Someone feel free to educate me.
Age #10: Southern Gospel Music—in other words "white" Gospel, in other other words: Bill Gaither
Growing up there was a certain section of my church to whom Bill Gaither was a legend. Also growing up I remember spending many a Saturday night stuck at my grandma's house watching TNN and listening to The Statler Brothers. Finally, I remember a few sporadic times when Southern Gospel groups would visit my church and put on a performance. For a lot of the Pentecostal and Baptist people in my church circles, South Gospel was worship music. I still think Gaither's "Homecoming" concerts are goofy, although listening to them now basically makes me want to tear up. As a kid I hated this stuff, but have since come to respect it and like it and come to think Gaither is an excellent songwriter. Gaither is a Golden Age unto himself, but he represents a much broader Southern Gospel repertoire that has been highly influential.
Age #11: The Taize Community
My worship music world exploded when I went to seminary. It began by learning the "great hymns of old" but was completed when I learned about the music that had come out of the monastic community of Taize France. This meditative, cyclical and therefore relatively simple music became a bedrock of prayer for me and my wife. "In the Lord" and "Jesus, Remember Me" are a few of my favorites.
I consider Taize a Golden Age due to how influential it has been. Numerous churches over the years have actually started their own "Taize Prayer Services" or meditative prayers services that feature primarily or solely Taize music. I think that sounds as silly as starting a "Chris Tomlin Only Worship Service", but I understand the appeal. To me, the music of Taize has become the song of my heart to God.
Age #12: Folk Mass & Charismatic Renewal Music—1960s, 70s, & 80's
Alright, here is where things start to get dicey. Sometimes one person's Golden Age is another person's Age of Abomination. The next two "ages" in my article could definitely fall into this category. The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church made a way for more "folk" or "pop" oriented music to have a place in the Mass. This led to a onslaught of music that some have come to love and others to deride mercilessly. Peter Scholtes' "They'll Know We Are Christians" and "Holy, Holy, Holy", "I Am The Bread of Life", "Here I Am", "On Eagles' Wings", and "One Bread, One Body" are a few of the more well known songs. To some worshippers these songs are timeless classics they never want to stop singing, even 40-50 years later, while other worshippers hate these songs with an undying passion that will never be quenched. To them the music is too banal and fruity and often awkwardly composed. Their hatred takes on even higher levels of vitriol when it comes to the songs of composers Marty Haugen and David Haas. Just to add fuel to the fire, here are some more songs that have become the aim of people's scorn: Are These The Worst Hymns of All Time?
No matter how you feel about it, Renewal music has had a lot of staying power in Catholic, Episcopal, Anglican, Lutheran, and even more Evangelical churches and therefore it is most certainly a Golden Age—at least it is for somebody.
Age #13: Contemporary Worship Music—1970's to Present or 1990's to Present
The penultimate "Golden Age" of worship music is the Evangelical and Pentecostal contemporary worship of the past few decades, starting either in the 1970's or 1990's, depending on when you think the Golden Age Started. I would view the age as coming in 2 waves, starting with the Jesus Music of the 1970's and ramping up again in the 1990's. The entirety of my previous article focuses on the 1990's wave. I am not going to say anymore about it as most readers know enough already. I should say that to many more "traditional" Church music folks, contemporary worship music of the pop/folk/rock variety is as equally maligned as the Catholic Renewal music. I stand somewhere in the middle, where this music is my music and I love much of it dearly, even if I have many reservations about it.
Age #14: The Hymns Resurgence and Re-Tuning Movement
Finally, some would say we are currently in another, somewhat more modest Golden Age of worship music. There is a vast and varied movement to re-discover and re-arrange (or re-tune) both forgotten and well known older hymns. From Indelible Grace, to Cardiphonia, to Bifrost Arts, to Sandra McCracken, to many, many other artists and churches there are hoards of people intentionally uncovering and re-presenting the great hymns of the Church.
Other than the Shape Note, Southern Gospel, and Renewal "ages", all of the Golden Ages I listed are very dear to me as a church musician and worshipper. There are so many songs, hymns, and works represented in all those ages that have shaped my life, have brought me into God's presence, and served as a means of worshipping and communing with God.
But the question remains: Where does the true Golden Age lie?
If we want to base our conclusion on the authority of Church hierarchies then the Roman Catholic Church has the trump card with Gregorian Chant. If we want to talk about musical superiority how can we even compare the Church's elaborate polyphonic art music to simple congregational song? If we want to make a case for deep and robust theology as all-important, then we might claim it was the hymns of either the Middle Ages, the Reformation, or the Great Awakening that constitute a Golden Age. But then, if want to talk about people passionately singing, or the anointing of God, or people being led in meditative prayer it could be any of the more modern ages represented.
In other words, it is nearly impossible to lay a claim on any one age being the Golden Age, the Age of Ages. For me, all the ages are catalysts of worship and are vessels of truth, beauty, and goodness, even if all the ages have their own limitations. I have long ago come to acknowledge the inadequacies of my worship music and have sought out a number of other forms to inspire me and draw me in to worship God. In the past decade I have been greatly challenged to expand upon what I perceive as worship music. My hope is to inspire and challenge others as well.
Note: Please be merciful and remember my list is woefully incomplete and possibly ignorant! Note that I have not mentioned any of the music from the Orthodox traditions. Note that nearly all of my "ages" consisted of music from white cultures. Note the lack of music from around the globe, for example music from Asia, Africa, or South and Central America. I do not know enough about the Church's song in those places to be able to say when their "Golden Ages" might have taken place. If you know of any, please recommend them.
Recent Articles on Worship Music:
Worship Music's "Good Old Days": Featuring Vineyard Music, Delirious?, Revival Generation, and Darrell Evans.
Chasing the Ghosts of Worship Past—a worship leader's lament
Past Articles in the "Worship in Full Spectrum" Series
Will it Endure? The Search For a Canon of Contemporary Worship Music
I Don't Care If the Church Will Sing It In 2065
Worship in Full Spectrum: An Introduction
Hymnals = Vinyl: The Case For and Against Hymnals in Worship
Confession: I Am An Irrelevant Worship Pastor
Worship Music Should Be Radically Contemporary