FM Radio Reality in Church

The clock is ticking and soon Jeff Crandall will face the challenge of selecting the right music for the Christmas services at High Desert Church.

This will be tricky, because Christmas is what the 70-member staff at this megachurch calls a "federal" event. This means that these services will unite worshippers from the three radically different services that are held week after week at this booming congregation in Victorville, Calif., about 90 miles outside of Los Angeles.

"Christmas may be the only time when people want to hear traditional music, no matter what age they are," said Crandall, the church's 46-year-old "worship pastor" and the former drummer in a rock band called the Altar Boys. "Even kids who are totally into hard rock want to hear a few carols, which makes it easier to put together a service that pleases everybody…. We try to do the same thing during Holy Week and Easter."

In recent decades, many churches have been shattered by the intergenerational strife that researchers call the "worship wars." If you want to split a national church, change its teachings about sexuality or salvation. But if you want to split a local church, you toss the hymnal, hire a drummer, unleash the teen-agers or make some other musical change that rocks the pews.

But High Desert Church is the kind of church that has turned this equation around. Its goal is to build a multi-flock ministry that unapologetically offers all rock, all the time, but with bands that appeal to different packs of young people, as well as bands for believers from an earlier g-g-g-generation or two.

Now, this nondenominational flock is poised to become the poster church for this FM-radio-dial approach to worship, after being dissected in the hallowed pages of the New York Times.

 "When you start a church, you don't decide who you're going to reach and then pick a music style," senior pastor Tom Mercer told America's newspaper of record. "You pick a music style, and that determines who's going to come."

On one level, the music divides this church. But on another level, the music is at the heart of worship services that create zones of comfort for people who have been raised in a culture in which consumers define themselves by their musical choices.

Thus, High Desert Church offers a "Classic" service for Baby Boomers and others who came of age during the "Jesus rock" explosion in the '60s and '70s. This service offers a softer brand of acoustic rock — think Byrds or the Eagles — that is easier on the delicate and even damaged ears of older worshippers, said Crandall.

Meanwhile, other musicians focus on the "Harbor" service for people between the ages of 30 and 50. It features the kind of soaring, inspiring rock that most people would associate with U2 and classic bands from the 1980s. Then the "Seven" service cranks things up another notch, with what Crandall described as a "dark" and "moody" mix of postmodern music for the young.

The bottom line: Church leaders use different technology to create different music for different generations who choose to attend different services.

The music unites and the music divides. The challenge for church leadership, Crandall said, is to unite these flocks around a common vision when doing evangelism and missions — primarily through 18-person cell groups that focus on fellowship and prayer. Then there are those "federal" events that take place several times a year.

There are still Protestant and even Roman Catholic churches that are trying to create "blended" worship services that appeal to all ages at the same time. "Blended" is the term used to describe a mix of traditional hymns and rock music, switching back and forth between a pipe organ and those electric guitars.

Their intentions are good, said Crandall, but the results are guaranteed to offend people whose musical tastes are simply not compatible. Thus, he believes that "blended" services drive people away rather than pulling them together.

"This is reality," he said. "Everything is about the music. When you go to the mall, you can even tell what kind of people are supposed to be shopping in the different stores just by listening to the music that is playing. Can you imagine kids wanting to shop in a store that is playing the music that their parents listen to? No way."

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  • Guest

    Some people just don't get it.  Whoopi Goldberg's character in Sister Act is one of them.  Crandall is another.  The purpose of the liturgy is to bring our hearts and minds closer to God.  Anything that helps do so, such as the unmistakably sacred nature of Gregorian Chant and hymns accompanied by a pipe organ, is good.  Anything that fails to do so is suspect, at best.  And something that distracts us from thoughts of God — say, an act that sounds like MTV — is detrimental. 

    If Joseph Howard, the writer of Sister Act, had wanted to accurately depict the traditionalist mindset, then Mother Superior would have made this point after Goldberg's character 'rocked up' Salve Regina, rather than merely scolding.

    Even so, I have to admit that I Will Follow Him works a lot better as devotional music than a silly love song.

  • Guest

    Hey, never mind the "blended." Give me a Mass undiluted, pure, devoid of trendy foolishness. Are we really sure that's what our Catholic youth want anyway? I've been hearing that they are very drawn, not to drums and guitars, but Gregorian Chant and a very reverential setting. 

    And BTW, attending a church service (Catholic or non-) should not be compared to "go[ing] to the mall." Pimple-faced kids who can't distinguish a visit to the mall from a visit to church need to be taught the difference. Badly.

  • Guest

    It's great to be informed of such trends.  It goes to show that the influence of music on personal choices is often overlooked.  When we're honest with ourselves about music, we realize we would come away feeling much differently after listening to folk, baroque, pop, or goth metal.

    The question is how does this relate to us as Catholics?  Appealing to popular musical tastes should be very limited within the Liturgy because of the greater need for the music to suit its sacred character–for the glory of God and the edification of the faithful.  For us, it's also a matter of obedience to the Church.

    Maybe what High Desert Church has to teach us is the need to redouble our efforts at evangelization.  The "springtime of evangelization" of the late Pope John Paul II is our responsibility in union with the Holy Spirit.  In such efforts, it's key to meet non-believers "where they're at", and a big part of this challenge is evangelizing through the media.  Besides, who is to say that groups of parishoners with varied musical tastes can't gather outside of Mass to sing praises to God?

    If someone with a heart for ministry wanted to organize it, extra-liturgical services like that could be a great tool for evangelization.

  • Guest

    We must from an early age teach our children that worship is about pleasing God, not about entertaining us.  We worship God as He has defined worship, not as pop culture defines it.  Still, if the Vatican realizes that different cultures geographically have varying music which is acceptable in their liturgies, at what point does culture within a country give rise to varying music styles that should be acceptable in liturgy?

  • Guest

    In our parish, which is second to none in faithful holy priests and laity, we have 5 Masses in Spanish with varying styles of Mexican music (mariachi is one) 4 in English with varying styles (but no Rock and Roll or silly love songs) and one Latin Mass (no music yet but working on a scola). Once the Latin Mass has music, there will be 10 different styles of music. Time of the Mass and the music style are probably the most important factors in the choice of Mass. So we have far more choices than that warehouse in Victorville. Now tell me again why is this a bad thing? Oh did I mention the Tagalog choir that sings once a month or the children's choir that sings occasionally.

    "He who sings, prays twice." St Augustine


    Try it you might like it.

  • Guest

    From the Calvins of no music to the Crandalls of all music; there is no salvation and no balance outside the Church.

    Spiritual music has always been in the culture and tradition of the Catholic Church. Let's have a revival of that music which is beautiful, uplifting and interesting to all ages. "Worship" as they would call it by age groups is adolescent.

  • Guest

    Maybe the evangelical churches are an RCIA program? They reach out to the unchurched, give them a smattering of the truth, jazz it up with some music, and hopefully the people then begin to desire more. Then they can make a true profession of faith and be initiated into the true Church and its sacred mysteries.

  • Guest

    In scripture we read that everyone in heaven continuously sings praise to God. But that is not all they are doing.

  • Guest

    The beauty of the universal church is that it has always shown different cultures how their own understanding of God is good, but can be made complete with the understanding of Christ as their Saviour made present in the Holy Eucharist.  By doing this, the Catholic Church is only truly 'diverse' organization on the planet that still functions without paralyzing itself – that's because all of the different members of the 'Body' of Christ unite to give Him glory and receive Him in the Blessed Sacrament.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with a musical 'service' to praise God outside of Mass.  However, the sweetest music is always heard silently in your soul when you receive the Eucharist! 

  • Guest

    It strikes me that there really is something to the notion that nothing should be adopted in the liturgy until it has aged at least a few decades and preferably a century or two. Such an approach would avoid the twin evils of the seemingly random choices of music that sometimes get made at Church and the copyright oppression imposed by liturgical music publishing houses. Who anointed OCP and GIA anyway? And why do we have to pay through the nose (remember, those collections come from us) for copyright permission on what ought properly to be the timeless inheritance of the Church? The beautiful music is all free because it all falls outside the scope of copyright (because any such have already expired), except with respect to a particular arrangement, which anyone who knows music can do himself if he likes. If not, then let us instead pay the arrangers of beautiful music rather than being forced to pay the composers of suspect music. And I don't mean suspect because it isn't beautiful. Rather, I mean suspect because the music being written now and the music written in the last 100 years or so has not yet really been through the trials of time that can toss out the chaff. Our great grandchildren will know what music of this generation is truly beautiful because only the truly beautiful music will survive. The rest will be forgotten, and thank God for that.

    Incidentally, this leads me to ponder other issues of, shall we say, liturgical presentation. What, for example, is the difference between an entrance procession of Mexican matachines dancers and a similar entrance processional of modern dancers? It is exactly the same as outlined here with respect to music: the former have undergone the decisive judgment of centuries of time and the latter have not. Let us never forget the wise words of Chesterton: tradition is the democracy of the dead. If we really want more democracy in the Church, we will choose more tradition (from the Latin tradere, meaning to bring up, as in to bring up from out of the past) and not less.

  • Guest

    When I was in college, I left my Catholic faith for a non-denominational church that played rock-style worship. I was driven by materialism at that time so I see very much why these services have been compared to shopping at stores in the mall.

    I soon realized how dumbed down the message was and later realized the depth of the Catholic Liturgy. I also noticed that my love for material things had lessoned when I returned to my Catholic faith. The Catholic Mass is centered around Christ and less about the music. Some of the greatest Masses I've been to had no music. Our old parish has an amazing choir and orchestra that compliments the Liturgy like no other Mass I've participated. And the Mass is a participation. Have you ever noticed that when the Dad sings at Mass the boys in the family also sing. If you are a parent, I encourage you to participate in the Mass (as we are all called to do). The very word liturgy means "work of the people". Those who aren't getting anything out of the Mass are usually not participants of the Mass. Sing, pray, listen, receive, and love; these are ways to worship, but it needs to come from the heart. We continue our worship when we go to love and serve the Lord (after we leave the Liturgy).

    A great book that deals with this very topic of Music and Worship is by a Lutheran author titled "Reaching Out without Dumbing Down" by Marva J Dawn. Add it to your list of books to read.

    Merry Christmas Smile

  • Guest

    In our parish, which is second to none in faithful holy priests and laity, we have 5 Masses in Spanish with varying styles of Mexican music (mariachi is one) 4 in English with varying styles (but no Rock and Roll or silly love songs) and one Latin Mass (no music yet but working on a scola). Once the Latin Mass has music, there will be 10 different styles of music. Time of the Mass and the music style are probably the most important factors in the choice of Mass. So we have far more choices than that warehouse in Victorville. Now tell me again why is this a bad thing?

    It's not a bad thing. The very omission of rock and roll and silly love songs suggests that proper attention is paid to tradition at your parish in making musical choices. The worst thing that happens at parishes in terms of musical selection is that traditional European music, such as Gregorian Chant, organ music, medieval music, and the classical masses of the master composers of European history, is excluded completely. This is a serious flaw and should never be allowed. Incorporating these traditions alongside equally venerable traditions (such as mariachi) from other Christian cultures seems to be exactly what Sacrosanctum Concilium is referring to when it states:

    Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship (No. 112).

    The ancient traditional roots of mariachi cannot be questioned, and its emergence as a popular art form was within the confines of the strong Catholicism of nineteenth century Mexico, when culture itself would have been immersed in the teaching of the Church.

    The same cannot be said of rock-and-roll. The Christian expressions of rock-and-roll are now only in the very early stages of co-opting the form for the purpose of sacred expression. Moreover, the unsacred use of the form is far more prominent, lending question to the decisions that include it in liturgy. It is possible that after several more decades or longer, there might be a sufficiently powerful thread of rock-and-roll that evokes only holiness when it is heard. At that point, it might be acceptable to include it in the liturgy. Until then, however, including it seems a dubious choice.

    There is a beautiful mariachi song entitled, "A ti virgencita," which is roughly analogous to "God Bless America" as a Mexican anthem that captures that country's Catholic sensibilities (towards the bottom of the linked page, which is from the Archdiocese of San Luis Potosi and is only in Spanish, sorry). We have included it in liturgy at our parish.

    Tradition clearly does not mean Gregorian Chant only. But just as certainly, it does not mean that we can properly excluded it completely – or offer it only as a token on rare occasions. What a beautiful parish you have.

  • Guest

    I attended a mariachi Mass once and have mixed feelings. The music was very nice but overpowering. It drew too much attention to itself. Just as a lot of the "modern" priests draw too much attention to themselves with gestures and ad lib language. Everything should be pointing to and supporting the Eucharist in an inconspicuous and dignified manner.

    I like the idea of letting rock music age before gaining acceptance. Who knows, it might age out of existence.

  • Guest

    goral: I agree with you on the attention grabbing. Would that we might construct a few choir lofts, well up out of the way, and behind the gathered faithful, so that only our music might mingle with the assembly, and not the garishness of our instrumentation. That way, it becomes much clearer that our sung prayer is a true offering. Not that it isn't whether the attention is pegged on us or no (and unless we can re-do some architecture, we are limited in what we can do to prevent this). But sung prayer, I think, echoes far more clearly the offering of self at Mass when attention is exclusively on Him to Whom we make our offering.