Open up the doors: Music in the Modern Church by Mark Evans

Mark Evans is a Christian who is also part of the Department of Contemporary Music Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. (He’s also written articles for The Briefing on subjects relating to his area—see Briefing #236 and #263). His book Open up the Doors: Music in the Modern Church (Equinox, London, 2006) is useful, but be warned: it is not for the musically faint-hearted. Having had piano lessons in my child- and teenager-hood, I didn’t mind too much the occasional sentence like this one:

Tonally centred in A major, the song opens with a vi7-Vb-I-IV- vi7-Vb-IV progression which clearly keeps the tonal centre at bay, causing the song to float and anticipate passionate heights to come. (p. 126)

But some will find passages like that a bit daunting. In addition, an ability to read music doesn’t hurt as Evans regularly quotes fragments of music scores in the written equivalent of bursting into song (which is fine, but once again, not for the faint-hearted).

That said, if you are prepared for small challenges like this in what is, essentially, a scholarly work from an evangelical perspective, there are some useful ideas, research and observation that will help push along the thinking of biblically minded musicians—especially those who have some responsibility for the music in their church. Rather than review the whole book, let me pick one chapter (Chapter 7: ‘Corporate Worship gets personal’) and highlight a few observations that I personally found useful.

Responding to the observation that many songs today are of the category dismissively labelled as ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’, Evans notices that Christians have, for many centuries, sung songs that compare God to a lover—for example,

Feel soft as downy Pillows are
while on his Breast I lean my Head
And breathe my Life out sweetly there

(an Isaac Watts hymn, quoted on p. 137)

However, Mark goes on to write, “What does appear valid in today’s argument is the sheer quantity of [contemporary] songs in this ilk, not their existence.” (p. 138) He continues: “In a 2002 survey of over 150 contemporary songs, I found that the use of individual point of view in contemporary congregational song is customary. It appeared in 71 per cent of songs surveyed” (p. 137)

There is a lot of useful, empirically tested generalization along these lines. Mark gives plenty of examples and analyses of what he means by songs of ‘intimacy’, ‘dedication’, ‘confession’, ‘thanksgiving’ and ‘eschatology’. On this last category, he has a good observation about why we now sing so little about the final day of judgement and salvation:

… some Christian musicians have proposed that modern life in the Western world is far more affluent and enjoyable than previous decades. If so, then Christians’ desire to see the return of Christ, or to take their place in heaven immediately, might have diminished. Combine this with modern teaching on the abundant life that can be experienced by the believer, or the general positivism present in many contemporary churches, and it’s easy to see why thoughts of the ‘end times’ have been pushed further back in the collective psyche. (p. 148)

Evans goes on to mention other categories of songs, and with somewhat scholarly understatement, says of his contemporary song survey that “It is concerning that no songs declaring the judgement of God could be found” (not, as the book reveals, through want of trying!). He comments:

Now to be sure this is not the most uplifting topic to sing about—but it is a major theme of the Bible. To ignore it is to pick and choose our theology. As with Eschatology songs, hymns dealing with the judgement of God were a common feature of older hymnbooks. The ‘fear of the Lord’ was often the source of musical deliberation, with a strong rhythm and urging organ the perfect accompaniment. (p. 152)

This is a reference book for people with a particular interest. Theologically literate evangelical musicians who want to think through why we sing what we sing in church are going to find this a useful publication to consult. And as the number of books in the ‘useful’ category are vanishingly small, it is worth knowing about this one!

4 thoughts on “Open up the doors: Music in the Modern Church by Mark Evans

  1. Thanks for this post Gordon. To be honest it’s one of the few Sola Panel posts so far that I’ve bothered to read all the way through!

    Great to have a book like this pointed out to us and shared. The comments about old-school ‘boyfriend’ songs and the lack of eschatology in songs today were very thought-provoking.

  2. <i>To be honest it’s one of the few Sola Panel posts so far that I’ve bothered to read all the way through!</i>

    Gaa! Don’t say that! We’re trying to power up a blog here!

    All the rest of you out there in comment-land, see how free and easy we are with our moderation policy?

    ; -)

  3. Love sometimes hurts…. : -)

    I wanted to hold off my negative comment until I had a big positive thing to say. I find your current postings more like articles than blog posts. I’d like more bite-sized articles, shorter paragraphs, more bullet points…

    I’m really happy you’ve all got this off the ground, and I will keep skim-reading, don’t you worry.

  4. No worries at all Mikey.

    That sort of feedback is more than welcome. We are learning as we go, and we would be delighted to hear from more people about similar perceptions. Too short? Too long? Just right? etc.

    If you want to give us feedback but don’t want your comments to appear on the blog, just put NOT FOR PUBLICATION right up the top and we’ll make sure we do the right thing with it.

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