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Teens and Church Music: What do they really think?

How do we keep our young people in the church? What is it about our congregations and our worship services that make young people leave? How do we transform our worship to make teens and young adults feel they are part of the body?

Those questions probably sound familiar to most adults. For years we've been aware that the adolescent years are among the most turbulent in the life cycle. More recently we've begun to understand that the emotional, physical, and intellectual changes of these years may be especially difficult for Christian teenagers, who often begin to question their childhood beliefs and allegiances, including their relationship with their Lord and his church.

No wonder adult church members today are concerned about "the young people." We see them as the future of the church, we worry when they're absent from church services, and we look for a pastor who is known to be "good with youth." One such pastor told me, "I don't want to lose 'em, and I'll do whatever I have to do to keep them in church."

Such good intentions have sometimes resulted in questionable assumptions about teenagers. One such assumption with ramifications for worship and music is that teenagers will be most open to hearing and receiving the Word of God when it is accompanied by their favorite musical styles of rock and pop music, with the scriptural text "redeeming" these musical styles from their associations with secular entertainment. In fact, a shift to a contemporary approach in congregational worship and music is frequently justified by claims that this is what will attract and keep young people in church. "[Young people] will go to a place where the beat and the music resonate more with their lives" (VanderBrug, RW 20, p. 22).

I recently investigated the validity of these assumptions as part of a national research study of teenagers' attitudes about music. Going into general education classrooms in public and private high schools, I played a tape of forty musical excerpts representing the range of music used in American churches today, including chant, hymn arrangements, anthems, contemporary Christian songs, oratorio choruses, and gospel music. Students indicated on a seven-point scale their level of agreement that the piece was appropriate for church services, whatever that context meant for each of them. They were not asked if they liked the music or would like to hear it in some other context. Rather, we suggested that they picture themselves in a familiar church setting and decide how appropriate this music would be if they heard it there. Since the five hundred teens we talked to represented thirty-three different religious groups—including the world religions, cults, nonde-nominational churches, mainline Christian churches, and 12 percent who were unchurched— that imagined church setting obviously took many different shapes.

A computer-run statistical analysis of the patterns of the students' responses revealed that these musically-untrained teenagers formed discrete categories of church music based on a combination of different factors, including style, sound source, complexity, and musical elements like tempo and dynamics. In other words, unlike adult musicians who would group pieces according to learned knowledge about the music, including its period of composition, these musical novices apparently made their judgments of appropriateness apart from whether the piece was written in 1690 or 1990 and qualified as an aria or vocal jazz. The six categories and their characteristics were as follows:

  1. Traditional choral music sung by unison or mixed choirs, a cappella or accompanied unobtrusively and spanning historical periods from Gregorian chant to twentieth-century anthems. Musically these pieces are rhythmically regular and primarily in major keys. Two examples of organ music were also included in this category.
  2. Religious easy listening, including contemporary Christian music, gospel, jazz, and folk. Most of these pieces are soft and slow with simple textures, accessible performances, and a small number of performers.
  3. Improvisatoiy vocal genres: African American gospel hymns, jazz, and rock music, with highly embellished vocal lines, complex textures, and irregular rhythms.
  4. Traditional instrumental music, including virtually all of the instrumental music in the study except pipe organ music.
  5. Solo performances, representing very diverse periods and styles (vocal jazz, classic aria, country gospel), with the common feature being performance by a soloist with a small but important instrumental backup group.
  6. Rock and twentieth-century instrumental music, characterized by high dynamic levels, fast tempos, per-cussiveness, and irregular rhythms and including Christian rock.

What Teens Told Us

We undertook this project with the hunch that most teenagers would declare rock and pop music to be appropriate church music sounds. Virtually every published study has indicated that rock and pop are the types of music teenagers prefer for their leisure listening, regardless of their religious background, musical training, or gender. And we had assumed that this preference would carry over into every context.

The findings showed, however, that this large and diverse group of adolescents gave the highest ratings of appropriateness to traditional choral music and the lowest to Christian rock music. The responses to contemporary Christian music (CCM) were clearly divided into two groups, expressing either stron; approval or strong disapproval. Apparently these teenagers were able to separate a judgment of the kind of music they liked to listen to in some settings from that which they considered appropriate in the context of the church service.

Analysis showed that the strongest effect on the decisions about appropriateness was membership in a particular religious group. Each of the seven denominational groups used for analysis emerged with its own musical standards, including the unchurched group. There was also a definite link between the perception of appropriateness and how often students said they heard that type of music in church. Therefore, it is clear that the music young people consider appropriate for worship is likely the music they already hear in the context of the church service. Rather than bringing an external set of standards from the world of leisure listening to the church situation— which is what we have assumed teenagers are doing—the church situation itself seems to determine what teenagers feel is right for that setting.

The responses of unchurched teenagers, on the other hand—those who lacked a context from which to judge appropriateness-—lined up with typical teenage music preferences, with the highest ratings going to soloistic styles and rock music, lower ones to traditional choral and instrumental music, and their lowest to CCM. There was, in fact, a large gap in the distribution of ratings on that category: the nonde-nominational, Holiness (Pentecostal), Reformed, and Baptist students were all far above the average in their approval of CCM, and the Lutherans, unchurched, and Catholics were all far below the average, with no group in the middle.

Ironically, CCM is the style most often utilized in evangelism with teenagers. But the truth is that an adolescent who follows pop music considers Smashing Pumpkins and  The Cranberries contemporary and recognizes, as John Ferguson has pointed out, that "much CCM is not contemporary at all, since it was written, say, twenty years ago, and even if written more recently, sounds like pop music of twenty years ago.... CCM is really the musical style of the baby boomers" (Cross Accent: Journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, June 1995, p. 24).

Readers of Reformed Worship will be interested in knowing how Reformed teenagers responded in contrast to members of other churches. Fifty-nine students, a little more than 12 percent of the total, were classified as "Reformed," which included members of Christian Reformed, Presbyterian, and Covenant churches. More than 40 percent of the Reformed students were from one school, but several were found in each of the five schools nationwide. Questions that measured degree of spiritual commitment had Reformed students scoring about the same as other Protestant groups, but of all the religious groups represented, Reformed teenagers had the greatest unanimity on spiritual matters.

Of the six categories of church music, the Reformed students gave their highest ratings of appropriateness to instrumental music, followed closely by CCM and praise music. Their perception of the appropriateness of traditional choral music was slightly favorable, and of Christian rock music slightly unfavorable. They considered the improvisatory vocal and soloistic genres inappropriate for church services.

What may have prompted these responses? Despite the common wisdom that religious belief affects religious practice, the converse seems to be true as well: religious practice apparently influences belief about religious matters. For all categories of church music except rock music, distinctions among judgments were closely related to membership in a particular denomination. For most pieces, ratings of appropriateness also corresponded with how often that musical style was heard in the student's own congregation.

Reformed students' high appropriateness rating for traditional instrumental music may be related to another feature of locale: the fact that the school attended by more than 40 percent of them has a very strong instrumental music program in which student ensembles frequently play in church services. Several students there said that they had played music in church that was similar to examples they heard on the survey tape, and therefore they considered those pieces fitting for church. One might assume, then, that Reformed teenagers also deemed praise music appropriate because they have heard it often in church.

What the Survey Means for Church Music Leaders

A theme that emerged during informal conversations with the students in each school concerned the common purpose of the group of people gathered for worship. Several students mentioned that they themselves might be comfortable with a certain musical style, but that they knew others in the congregation would not be. One girl said that she kept thinking about the "little old ladies" in her church and called inappropriate anything that would upset them, because, in her words, "People shouldn't get upset in church."

Pastors and church musicians bear the responsibility for making well-reasoned musical choices that are appropriate for their entire worshiping congregation, not just one segment of that population. Many teenagers in this study indicated a mature understanding of the corporate nature of worship and a willingness to set aside their own personal musical preferences for the sake of a more inclusive musical language. In addition, the study shows that church-going young people accept as "right for church" whatever they are currently hearing in church, whether that means Anglican chant or Amy Grant. Responses also suggest that CCM may not be an effective evangelism tool for reaching musically savvy unchurched teenagers.

What does it all mean? At the very least, musicians and other church leaders who establish music policy in church ought to take a careful inventory of their previous assumptions. It may be time to reexamine our justifications for including certain types of music in church—especially if we are doing so for the sole purpose of "keeping the young people happy."

 

Excerpt

Rather than bringing an external set of standards from the world of leisure listening to the church situation— which is what we have assumed teenagers are doing—the church situation itself seems to determine what teenagers feel is right for that setting.

HOW TEENS RATE CHURCH MUSIC
Traditional
Choral
Religious Easy
Listening
Improvisatory
Vocal
Traditional
Instrumental
Soloistic
Genres
Rock and
Twentieth-Century
Instrumental

Lutherans nondenominational nondenominational Reformed unchurched nondenominational
Catholics Holiness Baptists Lutherans nondenominational unchurched
Reformed Reformed Holiness Holiness Baptists Holiness
nondenominational Baptists unchurched nondenominational Holiness Lutherans
unchurched Lutherans Reformed Baptist Catholics Reformed
Baptists unchurched Lutherans Catholics Reformed Baptists
Holiness Catholics Catholics unchurched Lutherans Catholics