Music in the PCA

My denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), celebrated its fifty year anniversary at a meeting of the General Assembly last month. I attended as a delegate and served on the Overtures Committee, the committee that reviews proposals from sessions (local congregation leaders) and presbyteries (the regional church above the congregational level) for actions, changes to official documents, etc. I enjoyed serving on the deliberative body and I really appreciated the care of the men involved in the work of the assembly. All week, I couldn’t shake the constant feeling that fifty is pretty young; we’re just 16 years older than The Simpsons.

Prior to the assembly, I received an email announcing tickets for sale to the “PCA 50th Celebration Concert.” I was puzzled. The invitation said nothing about the genre of the music or the content of the concert. It would have been like buying a ticket for a time slot at the Fedex Center in Memphis without knowing if one would be enjoying Weezer or suffering through some random K-Pop band.

I wrote to the folks managing the concert and asked “what genre will this be?” and, at that point, found out that it would be “Indelible Grace and Friends.” If you’re not familiar with Indelible Grace, it is music that emerged from the ministry of Reformed University Fellowship. The texts tend to be Christian hymns of various vintages along with modern songs written by the “and friends” – many of whom are Nashville artists. The music emerged from the informal acoustic guitar driven early days of RUF, was mixed with Nashville Christian singer-songwriter style, folked-up by O Brother Where Art Thou style rootsiness, then stripped down by Bon Iverish introspection. Think a lilting, vaguely Irish happy-clappy without a lot of happy. Some of the music feels a little morose and introspective, especially when paired with the more romantic texts written between 1880 and 1920. Occasionally this music engages in war crimes, such as replacing an excellent tune like “All Saints Old” in “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder.” Some of them literally sound like theme songs for 80s television shows – check out the demo for “A Debtor to Mercy Alone.” Most of the Indelible Grace songs are alright – appropriate for informal use, but not up to the Sunday-morning register.

I get it. Not everyone likes the same kind of music, but if you think of Christian psalm and hymn singing as part of the church’s warfare in the world, it is very hard to hear many of the Indelible Grace tunes as being appropriate accompaniments for storming the gates of hell. It’s the kind of stuff that invites our getting squashed flat.

Music in the PCA partakes of the same cobbled-together character of all our liturgical endeavors. We have no official hymnal. Most of our churches, if they use a hymnal, borrow the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Trinity Hymnal. We have no psalter. Everything we sing is metrical and there is no chanting. We don’t celebrate the church year officially and some ministers and seminaries have principled objections to the church calendar as a whole. Naturally, because of this, there is no lectionary. We have no prayer book and every church structures its service with a different order of worship. All of this constant reinvention churns up valuable time that could be used for ministry and taking the next steps toward kingdom duties. It’s like washing the dishes by hand when there is a machine at the ready. Every church spends time inventing words to use in confession, choosing methods for handling absolution, deciding whether to have weekly communion, whether to offer wine at all, what kind of bread to use, whether to take communion at a rail or in the pews, whether to use intinction or keep the species separate, how to structure its year together, etc. We don’t even share a single theology of the eucharist; I was really surprised that a minister at the General Assembly treated partaking as an optional activity – that if you don’t feel spiritually connected to Jesus in the moment it’s okay to let it pass. I hadn’t heard that kind of advice before, and I was thinking of how odd it would be to apply that kind of piety around the table with Jesus and the twelve! (I need to write and ask him if I heard that advice correctly. Update, 7/21 – see below.) We are essentially still experimenting liturgically like amateurs in a free-for-all every Sunday, in every church, in every town of the United States.

Thus, it is no surprise that RUF, our excellent and gospel-oriented college ministry, that has a single playbook from campus to campus, a common training manual for all its ministers, and a similar music style nationally has rolled over whatever is happening in the cobbled-together liturgies of the denomination’s churches. Students are being formed in appreciation of these Indelible Grace style tunes and those tunes have now migrated from the informal weeknight large group RUF meetings to Sunday morning when we should be storming the gates of hell with thick tunes that cause the demons to shudder, the magistrate to snap to, the hearts of God’s people to quicken, and the knuckles of God’s people–young and old–to tighten around the handle of the plow.

The churches that do not use Indelible Grace tunes might be represented musically by the very different worship on the first night of the assembly. There, we had “traditional” hymns, yet there were gauche key changes and other aesthetically embarrassing flourishes that made the hymns less singable, less predictable for congregational singing, and less suited to accompany the king into battle.

Now, I will stop with this. It is easy to get mean about these things and I’m a Gen-Xer who gets cheesed out really easily. Someone on Twitter posted this quote from Bonhoeffer recently and it stung me where I needed to be stung:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly.”

I have been praying lately for God to help me love the church as she is. That’s the church Jesus loves and the church for which he died. I suspect, though, that Jesus’s love for the church partakes of that eschatological vision for what she is in him and what she will be at the resurrection. I hope for better things for the PCA. I hope that we can pair our strengths in so many areas with maturity in worship.

The discouraging thing about the 50th Anniversary Concert is not that it contained Indelible Grace music, but that the organizers considered Indelible Grace to be so commonplace that it didn’t need to be made explicit in the initial announcement of the concert. It just adds to my feeling of being continually basted in waves of alienation by contemporary life.

Update 7/21 – I wrote to the minister mentioned above and he clarified that he certainly didn’t mean to imply that believers should let the supper pass. He replied, “I usually urge believers who are struggling, whether with sin, their emotions, or other issues, to come to the table. There we are enabled to grasp Christ with our whole hand.” I must have misheard his comments that evening, no doubt befuddled by the excellent food I’d been eating in Memphis.

One thought on “Music in the PCA”

  1. Thank you so much, Jon, for sharing these thoughts.

    For the first time in years, I didn’t livestream even a tiny bit of the GA. (Partly because we have a houseful of people getting ready for a wedding, and partly because we’re attending an OPC church.)

    I appreciate the tension of what you shared about “This could and should be better!” and yet loving the church as she is.

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