Inspirational songs can make us want to cry or make us want to run away from church. I remember once upon a time I used to attend the mega-church called "Agape" headed by Michael Beckwith in Culver City, California. This church was so big it had about three services a Sunday. The aisles were packed, and ushers would have to take people to overflow rooms. The sermon could be heard outside on speakers if you were waiting in line for the next service. There may have been three thousand people at each service, there may have been five, it was hard for me to tell as the location was upsized twice during the time I was attending.
One of the reasons, surely, that this church was so popular, was that the music was so great. It was very upbeat and many of the singers were professional. There was also the very famous "Agape Choir." Interestingly, one did not have to be professional to join this huge choir. It probably helped to be a good singer if you wanted a solo, but they were take all comers. The main criteria was that you had to make all the practice sessions. This egalitarian policy enabled them to have a very diverse choir. It was heartening to see people of all colors, sizes, and both genders participating.
Their music was so popular that this choir even released its own CD's. The music director wrote much of the music, and Mr. Beckwith collaborated on some of the songs. The words were very inspirational. The church itself began as a church of Religious Science and eventually became popular enough to leave the franchise. The New Age vibe of the place meant lots of the songs were about liking yourself, loving yourself and being one with God. Some of the songs were probably appropriate in any religious setting, some with lines like "God needs us" (emphasis mine) would tick off a fundamentalist Christian.
That's the power of inspirational music. It can really bring us home and it can also drive us away. After I got tired of driving down from the mountain to attend church, as gas in California was nearly five dollars a gallon at one point, I started attending a very tiny church in Frazier Park. The pastor and his wife, bless their hearts, couldn't for the life of them understand why they couldn't grow their church. One reason without a doubt was their karoke style, very amateur sounding music. The gal who sat in front of the keyboard couldn't even read music. She would set the drum beat to something she liked and one finger plink out such favorites as "Amazing Grace."
They meant well. The congregation would close their eyes and sway to the music. Fundamentalists aren't supposed to be so shallow that they would judge a church by its musical director, and yet, Fundamentalists are people too. When the church right up the street has a five piece band, the choice is sort of a no brainer. The church up the street in fact would pass out streamers and tambourines to anyone in the audience who wanted to get in the spirit. I thought that was nice. The only problem was the congregation of baby boomers had a strong penchant for "classic" rock songs with "inspirational" new lyrics. I was a little bit too young to sincerely appreciate the heavy metal beat.
I found another church in my area that split the difference. They had live music and passable musicians. The inspirational music wasn't inspiring though, it was corny. Week after week of "My savior, my personal savior" et cetera can really try a person's nerves, especially if you are wont to feel closer to God. I pointed out to the music director that inspirational music doesn't have to be lousy. Eric Clapton did a fine version of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," which I believe would not offend a fundamentalist. He used the original words. I believe other artists have recorded "Amazing Grace. "
When one hears someone with a voice, for example, as fine as Whitney Houston, on a good sound system, Christian or not one can feel closer to God. A voice like that is superb gift. Most people, even other professional singers do not have the same range as Ms Houston. A minister I knew in Honolulu explained to me that when he picked out music for the congregation to sing he chose pieces within a narrow vocal range. He chose pieces that had a repetitive, thus easy to learn, chorus. Lastly, he chose things that his piano player could play. Fair enough, he had a membership of 80 in his little church. I think though, if he were willing to pick pieces that really inspired he could have built a mega church like Agape. He was certainly every bit as good a speaker as Mr. Beckwith.
I went for a short period to a church in Honolulu where members of the Honolulu symphony would play on occasion. The whole issue of if the congregation can keep up is obliterated once you introduce music without words. It's an awesome idea. So much of Mozart and Beethoven and other recognizable instrumental only pieces are very moving and very inspirational. In addition listening to Mozart can raise one's IQ! What a public service, people would actually learn something at church!
I attended just once or twice a very small church in my area that did not have music at all. They had found some verse in the bible that was anti-music and used it as an excuse to ban instrumental music completely from their religion. I thought that was interesting as I believe even King David of the old testament fame knew how to play on a harp. This local church owned their real estate outright. They even provided their minister with his own home, rent free. And yet the congregation just couldn't seem to grow. The last time I heard they had only one member. After much thought they decided to go out of business.