Our Utmost for His Highest

In a recent book, 20th Century Church Music, Erik Routley devotes a lengthy chapter tracing the progress of the new style of “popular” hymn in England and our country. He sees it as part and parcel of the cur· rent questioning of all traditional idioms which may very weB result in the disuse of all existing denominational hymnals. In their place may come a general song-book with denominational supplements. The man in the pew will have been brainwashed for it will no longer be a question of what he wishes to sing but of what he has thoughtlessly consented to sing. Some of Mr. Routley’s thoughts have been freely used in writing this article. I am doing so because they are worthwhile. Hopefully, others may be stimulated to read his excellent book.

Two specific points are posed by the material in the chapter referred to above, namely, the nature of this new style of religious “pops” music, and its place in the church music of the future.

First of all, what is this new music like?

It really needs no introduction, for it literally gushes forth to its hidden audiences via radio, TV. and records, powered by a commercial designed to make immediate impact much like a toothpaste ad. Its singers are like matinee idols, their personal traits magnified and lauded. Its emotional content is greatly exaggerated to the point, often, of being ecstatic. While musically it may not be described as jazz, it has something in common with it. Its rhythmic idiom stimulates all too often the identical feelings of its secular cousin. It Jacks sophistication. It is music that the average man can enjoy with little demanded of him, an “easy-come, easy-go” kind of music. New arrangements, roving melodic decorations and interludes provide for tickling or soothing the ear, whatever is preferred. This man-centered music has invaded the halls of our churches and religious youth gatherings, and can be called “evangelistic popular music.”

It is this music that threatens to become a real part of the church music of the future. There looms the possibility, according to Routley, that sacred and secular music styles will again Dow in a single stream as they did in the 16th century. It is true that Luther and Calvin, sensing the need of congregational singing in the language of their constituents, borrowed secular tunes for some of their hymns. It was expedient for their people to have familiar tunes to which they could immediately sing their new hymns and metrical Psalms after their break with the Catholic Church. But it was an emergency situation. Furthermore, a sharp line of demarcation did not then exist between sacred and secular styles of vocal music. Choral music was primarily controlled by the church. There was not, either, the counterpart of the modem dance orchestra and its music where such music today is born and thrives. The history of music testifies to the steady growth of Protestant church music in a stream of its own making from those meager beginnings of the reformers, culminating in the 18th century chorales, masses, and oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach down to the present. Will this once mighty stream become parched?

The substance of music today, Routley reminds us, is tradition. Music is a function of the memory. The appreciation for a piece of music depends not only on being able to comprehend the various sounds in their tonal structure and design but it depends as well upon one’s familiarity with all of the music that went before it. This wasn’t always so, simply because it was not possible. Until the end of the 19th century the music of everyday life with which musicians were main1y concerned was new and contemporary with only a sprinkling of music belonging to a very recent past. The composer was one who belonged to the present, necessarily so, because the business of printing, publishing, distributing and recording music had not yet been developed. Today, music sacred and secular centers around the whole history and tradition of music.


The present trend of countless church musicians to use and condone a style of music no longer unique in its style and mood and which Haunts tradition can only bring musical chaos. There is no doubt that the church in its music must speak in an idiom intelligible to the world of today. It must be admitted that tons of choral music have been dumped on the gullible church music market in the past decades which were dull and uninspiring to the ears of man and not even worth the time to prepare for performance. How much more so must they have been to the ears of Him who gave us music not to exploit for human purposes but to offer as praise in our worship of Him? On the other hand, there are composers today who are writing choral music that sounds and looks different than the traditional 19th century product. It is an honest attempt to cultivate a new understanding of the relative place of music in the church’s life. It is music that has unmistakable qualities of being “peculiar to the Lord.” It is music that is useless for any secular purpose. It is not music that can be classified, as Routley says, “nursery songs of the Gospel.”

It is music, about which Paul wrote, that can be sung “with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” It is music that seems to emphasize separation from the world. Nothing was further from the mind of Paul than that Christians should make concession to the “normal” and “everyday” standards of the non-Christian world.

Routley maintains that good music, church music included, is that which can catch and hold the attention of cultivated musicians. But it may also have qualities that enable it to catch and hold the musically uncultivated. Every church and denomination should periodically take inventory of its musical stock to determine its musical worth. The Christian Reformed Church did it officially through its Synod. In 1953 they adopted the following principle; the music of the church should be appropriate for worship. That is, the music of the church should be liturgical. In spirit, form and content it must be a positive expression of Scripturally religious thought and feeling. It should serve the ministry of the Word. Furthermore, the music of the church should satisfy the aesthetic laws of balance, unity, variety, harmony, design, rhythm, restraint and fitness, which are the conditions of all art.

Surely, here is a guide for thinking musicians to consider!

The schools of our land are doing a magnificent job of training our youth in choral music. Their hard-working college-trained leaders are introducing them to good choral music much of which is sacred in character. Are we encouraging our youth and their devoted leaders to bring this kind of choral music into our churches? Are we likewise preparing our youth who will be the church leaders of tomorrow to learn and love the Psalms and spiritual songs found in our denominational hymnals? Or are we content to let them be exploited by their singing of easy-come, easy-go, paper-back religious nursery songs, or the rollicking rhythms of the world, in their youth church meetings? Will your church of the future be paging through a supplement or through its very own warmly cherished Psalter Hymnal?

In Psalm 96, the nations of the world are commanded to; “…give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name, give unto the Lord glory and strength,” and to “…worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” This means our utmost for His highest!

Professor James De Jonge, for many years connected with the Department of Music at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., urges his readers to escape the “brainwashing” which is going on in this field.