Americans who attend church say the sermons – not the music – keep them coming back.
In fact, music finished in last place among every category of church life – from volunteer opportunities to children’s programs – in Gallup’s April 14 survey “Sermon Content Is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers.”
No doubt there are a lot of church coaches, music ministers and praise band members out there scratching their heads over this one.
And Jon Miltmore is a little surprised, too.
But he is neither a pastor nor congregational consultant. Nor is he a music pastor or the writer of books about the Millennials and faith.
Rather, Miltmore is the senior editor of Intellectual Takeout, a Minnesota-based think tank that seeks to promote rational discourse on topics such as media, politics, education, culture and religion. That makes him interested in trends that shed light on Americans’ behavior.
And he is also a lifelong churchgoer, attending Pentecostal, Baptist, Lutheran, non-denominational and other churches through the years. So while surprised by Gallup’s findings, they also confirmed a gut feeling he’s had about church music.
“The experience at some level always feels a little formulaic,” he told Baptist News Global.
So Miltmore tackled the subject in his April 17 article, “Gallup asked Americans why they go to church. It’s not for the music.” He expresses curiosity over how music can score so low in a culture where entertainment is king. And he shared his thoughts on the issue with BNG.
Why did you want to write about the survey?
A colleague sent this to our group because it might make a good article. I said I could identify with that so I jumped on it.
What styles of church music do you prefer?
Probably the older hymns. I went to one Baptist church in Iowa for several years. It was very simple. Some 19th century classic hymns. There is modern music I like, too.
What’s the response to the article been like?
My point in the article was the musical experience seems, to some degree, to overshadow the spiritual experience … This one prompted a lot of emails and messages on Facebook and mostly it was all positive. There were some who thought I was missing the spiritual aspect to this. But I just wonder if music sometimes overshadows the worship, or the intellectual aspect, of church.
I thought there might be just a little less focus on it as far as length and maybe a little bit more spontaneity to it. It starts to feel a little formulaic: This is the song that is supposed to get us excited, and this is the one that is supposed to make us feel introspective. But I also understand that they need to keep things structured (during worship).
Were you surprised that music came in dead-last?
Yes, because it’s such a large component of the church experience. I thought churches were simply responding to people’s desires to feature music so prominently. And now I wonder if churches are only assuming people want this much music in their service.
How is our culture’s emphasis on entertainment influencing this issue?
Churches feel they need to keep entertaining people in the pews to keep them coming. We’re a culture that likes to be entertained. Neil Postman wrote about that 30 years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death. And I’ve been seeing that more and more and more in my own life. I commented to my wife that we have a lot of entertainment in our lives. It can be a part of our lives but it shouldn’t be what we live for. I think churches are probably responding to modern man’s need to be entertained all the time… It can feel like we’re watching a talent competition instead of answering deep meaningful questions about our God.
Are churches caught in a pickle here, between the demand for good sermons and the desire to be entertained?
It comes down to the ultimate purpose of the church. It shouldn’t be to see how many people we can have into your buildings. It’s providing answers to fundamental questions and guiding a flock. If Gallup is right, and if I’m running a church, I would not be jumping and reversing my whole strategy because of one poll. But among my own congregation I would try to find out if they feel they are getting the spiritual nourishment they want and need.