June 5, 2012

Church Trends

Music is an important part of Seventh-day Adventist worship, and almost all Adventist congregations include singing or some form of music in their Sabbath gatherings. But survey data show that it’s becoming more and more difficult in many local churches to have much of a music ministry. For one thing, the median number of people in attendance at Adventist churches is only 55, the smallest number for any of the major denominations in America, according to a recent research report.*
The majority of Adventist local churches (58 percent) never have a choir performance, and another third (31 percent) rarely have a choir performance. Only 3 percent have a choir performance every Sabbath.
We live in a time when there is a significant shift under way in Christian worship music generally. For several centuries organ music has played a central role in Christian worship, although historically Adventist churches have more often used a piano or some other instrument. Only since the middle of the twentieth century have a significant number of Adventist churches been able to afford the purchase of an organ. More than one third (35 percent) of local churches in the United States still report that they never have organ music on Sabbath. Another quarter (22 percent) have organ music only occasionally.
2012 1516 page30Electronic music, guitars, and percussion instruments have become much more widely used in Christian churches throughout the past decade. It’s significantly less likely to find them in local Adventist churches. Fewer than 10 percent of local churches in the United States report that they regularly use guitars, electronic music, percussion instruments, etc. Only 8 percent say that their worship is “contemporary” or “innovative.” Where many Protestant churches have found a correlation between new styles of music and church growth, research in the Adventist denomination has found no such connection.
Another innovation in Christian worship today is the introduction of projection equipment for videos, the words for congregational singing, Bible texts, and other graphics to illustrate the sermon, for silent announcements, etc. For a few people this is as controversial as new styles of worship music, but it’s a trend that has been widely adopted by Adventist churches. More than 60 percent of local churches regularly use projectors of one kind or another. The General Conference and many other Adventist organizations produce regular video mission reports and educational materials that depend on churches having this kind of equipment in order to be used.
What Do These Data Mean?
Some church members find the changing trends in Christian music to be very threatening. One person told me that “God intended for His people to sing from hymnals, not words projected on a screen.” This would come as a surprise to historic Adventist leaders. In fact, the publishers of the first Adventist songbook could not afford for music to be engraved, and instead provided only the words with suggested, well-known tunes, including folk music. “Magic lantern” slides were adopted early by Adventist evangelists to share prophetic images and the words of Bible texts and songs.
There are guidelines and books on the topic of worship music that the denomination has published. I expect, however, that it always will be a topic on which there is a wide range of opinions, simply because God made His people with varied personalities, cultural backgrounds, and music preferences.
“Make a joyful noise,” a pastor friend of mine often says. After all, it is the harmony of our hearts with the Holy Spirit that is the sweetest music in God’s ears. My prayer is that our congregations will continue to find music the blessing it was created to be, and not a reason to hurt one another or screen out interested people.
* Marjorie Royal, Faith Communities Today, “FACTS on Music: 2010,” available online at http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/sites/faithcommunitiestoday.org/files/FACTs-on-Worship.pdf. Much of the data cited here are from the Faith Communities Today survey of Adventist churches conducted for the North American Division by the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University.
Monte Sahlin is director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference and a senior consultant at the Center for Creative Ministry. Questions and suggestions can be sent to him at [email protected]. This article was published June 14, 2012.