As a musician of over two decades, I have performed numerous Easter cantatas, Christmas programs, and music specials both as a professional and as a church patron. Though I would hate to say it, I have to admit that the overall quality of the contemporary church musical repertoire seems low, with songs and cantatas riding the line between unimaginative and silly. I am not questioning their effectiveness in their overall purpose, but musically these works pale in comparison with the incredible masterpieces of Bach, Handel, or even contemporary composers John Rutter and Eric Whitacre.
When did the church stop being the patron of the arts? And why?
Historically, the Catholic Church remained one of the primary patrons of the arts until the Age of Enlightenment took hold. During the Middle Ages, the monks and nuns remained the educated class, penning both notes and sacred texts with amazing speed and anonymity. Over the next several hundred years, the Church hired the most talented classical composers and musicians in the region. Composers such as J.S. Bach and Frederic Handel composed sacred masterpieces.
However, by the 20th century, the Church no longer held the honor of being primary patron of the arts. Even the monarchy did not hire the majority of composers. Instead, composers in the 20th century found that wealthy patrons, educational institutions, governments, and professional music institutions were much more likely to pay the bills than a temporary post as a church minister (though many still took such posts).
The 20th century church no longer attracted the most talented musicians and composers. Instead, religious institutions in general needed to rely on the talents of amateur choirs, poorly trained music arrangers (who relied on software to churn out hundreds of mediocre songs), and the cannibalistic music industry.
The music publishing monster encouraged the created of substandard praise songs, poorly constructed cantatas, and mediocre anthems which attempted to copy more popular secular songs. By the end of the 20th century, the music industry had managed to copy nearly every major secular musical style, from Christian rave music to sacred hip hop. Not all of the artists shared the same monetary motivation as big the big music giants, and many fell into the hands of eager music executives desperate to church out the next Christian version of Britney Spears, Jonas Brothers, or Hannah Montana.
Fortunately, sacred classical music is alive and well, if outside of the church. Talented composers like Eric Whitacre and John Rutter continue to make musical masterpieces using sacred texts. Whether the church will ever again be home to truly great music remains to be seen. Hopefully the tides will change soon, and the next Bach or Hildegard von Bingen will rise up from the masses.