A few weeks ago in a closed FaceBook group, I had a lively discussion on church music. It was a discussion that really bridged the generational divide and it was an honor to be a part of it. What sparked the discussion was an article entitled, “Why I have stopped singing in your churches,” in which the author lamented the excesses of contemporary worship music, and pined for the olden days of the hymns. This person refused to sing in church because his expectations were not being met, and after a great deal of pent up frustration railed against current trends in worship music with an emotionally charged critique. At the end of our conversation online—much of which seemed to pour out of me—I looked at all I had written and thought “healthy churches should be able to talk about these things.”
Many of the tensions that came out in the discussion are at work in every church in America, but the issues involved have proved so divisive many churches have stopped talking about them out of fear it will do more harm than good. The musical worship preferences across generations have proved to be one of the major obstacles to church unity, and clearly a healthy balance, rather than one generation getting its way should win the day. I see great harm in the current trend of splitting people into two styles of service, one traditional and the other contemporary. This is not a compromise that values relationship over preferences, and it is fracturing the church. Still, what is often missing from the conversation is the perspective of a young person, so it is with as much humility, grace, and tact that I can muster that I want to lay out what many young people would never dare to say.
Music changes in the church a great deal more than many people are willing to admit. Case in point the hymns were once a radical innovation from canticles (singing parts of the Bible). When hymns first came out, people in the church openly questioned their validity. They asked, “how can we set the highest thoughts of theology to simple drinking music, the music of sinners?” Charles Wesley, the most prolific hymn writer who ever lived wrote tens of thousands of hymns and yet people today know only a handful of them. A few have lasted, but most have not. The truth is this should show us that there really isn’t that much staying power in worship music. It is ever changing with the times and that is mostly a good thing.
Every time a new hymnal is created it is a snapshot of popular music at a given time. Some things last, but lets not forget that Amazing Grace was once a contemporary song. Just as our modern songs, it was once popular and new and touching people’s lives. Expecting young college students to “sing the old hymns the old way” can be very unrealistic at times, as they may know a hymn only by way of remix off the radio and not from ever hearing it in the church they grew up in. Yet young people dusting off an old hymn and sharing it with us in worship should be praised, not unappreciated. It may even be the very new life that adds staying power to an old hymn that might otherwise just fade into obscurity.
Music is a bridge to the present and the past
People changing musical styles to connect with and encounter God is a healthy and natural thing. No less than six times in the Psalms we are told to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Charles Wesley might not have appreciated the musical stylings of today’s Christian recording artists, but he would salute their attempts to connect with people at the popular level. Luther new his Reformation would not last without the help of poets and songwriters capturing the hearts of the common people, so he actively pursued them. We should think more like missionaries, and like Wesley, be willing to adapt the Christian message in a way that is accessible to people who have not yet heard the gospel. If we simply parachuted in to this time and culture and were thinking as missionaries, we wouldn’t probably be asking people to sing in archaic English or be talking about which week to play an organ. Stained glass and hymns have their charm, but they both have roots in connecting the gospel to illiterate people. They come to us as a heritage, but that heritage is not only about aesthetics, it is about bridging a chasm back to the common people by meeting people where they are at.
Motives are not based on style
I hear a lot of people talk about individual performance and its effect on leading people into an experience of worship. My concern of course is that judging the motives of the people who are trying to help lead us into worship is a slippery slope, but even worse, we are in essence saying that what a person is doing is equated to why they are doing it. Is this not more the mentality of David’s nagging wife who was shocked as he danced naked before the Lord (2 Sam 6), than it is the mentality of David himself swept up in a spirit of worship that is at work in such thought? Can the people on the stage attempting to lead us in worship not be swept up in worship without being accused of “individual performance” or seeking personal glory? Is not evaluating performance itself one of the biggest distractions to fully engaging in worship?
Forms and Formulas
I once heard a joke about the difference between hymns and choruses as lampooned by a farmer communicating the message that the “the cows are in the corn.”
As a chorus:
O Martha MARTHA MARTHA,
The cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows,
The black and white cows,
The COWS COWS COWS,
Are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn,
CORN, CORN, CORN
As a hymn:
‘Oh Martha, dear Martha, Hear thou my cry,
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth,
Turn thou thine whole wondrous ear by and by,
To the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth.
Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,
Have broke free from their shackles, their warm pens eschewed,
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night,
They all my mild Chilliwak sweet corn have eschewed
Like a sonnet, worship music has expected forms. These forms are often unwritten, yet they are there just the same. A hymn for instance has a fairly rigid meter; is often written with four part harmonies in mind; is designed to be led by an organ or choir; and shares many qualities with classical music. From the first verse to the last, the meter’s pace runs uninterrupted. A contemporary worship song also has an unwritten form: simple, easy-to-pick-up melodies in a mid-vocal range; repetition of a chorus between verses; familiar chord progressions, and often a key change on the bridge. Contemporary praise choruses share some musical similarities to rock and roll, and often are led by a guitar or piano with vibrato style singing. Both forms have strengths and weaknesses. One is not better than the other, one aims at the head and the other at the heart. One takes the form of a theological treatise, the other a simple prayer to God.
Common and accessible music
When I was a child I wanted to be a piano player, but was told it was for sissies. As a poor kid growing up, I knew that music lessons were beyond my means, not to mention the cost and maintenance of a piano itself. A piano is one of the most complex of all musical instruments, with thousands of moving parts that need to be tuned just so, but even the piano pales in comparison to an organ. The reason we use organs in worship in the church is because at some point in church history Roman emperors had them in their private chapels, and the church slowly began to adopt them. The church coveted the luxurious worship music played for the emperor. At times, I hear people lament the amplification of a guitar, and comments like “is that really necessary?” We should not be surprised if younger people think the same things about pianos and pipe organs, once reserved exclusively to the realm of concert halls and imperial sanctuaries. As I sat with some young people and marveled at our beautiful organ, we all knew that learning to play an instrument such as this one remained something for an elite few. I wondered at how many and varied instruments could be bought for the price of something such as this…
This also makes me wonder though, why a guitar or drums raises concerns about individual performance that a piano does not? Or why if someone leads worship in a crooning, bluesy style people talk about individual performance, but not after singing songs from the hymnal that are way too high for me to sing, while accompanied by accomplished musicians who have been classically trained? Worship music should be accessible. While I would grant that there is plenty of inaccessible music both in the hymnal and on the radio, what qualifies as individual performance seems very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, and in my book, just another way to harp on an unappreciated musical style. I went to school in the 1980’s, when the budget woes of a major recession virtually eradicated musical education from being something all public school kids experience. Unless you were in band or choir, most kids today have not had any instruction in musical theory or an opportunity to learn how to read music. Four part harmonies or singing in certain keys are impossible for people like myself, and if the song is too high for the voices of most men we will forever be self conscious as we stumble along.
Another thing young people might never tell you is that one singer and an accompanist is not a very inclusive model for leading worship; it sends the message to young people that “we don’t need you or your gifts, just stay in the pew. We will leave this up to the professionals.” Whereas older people might see a big “rock band” as flashy and bearing the connotations of performance, younger people see the same thing at work in the single song leader model, where one “elite” person can be the only leader.
Content and Familiarity
I often hear people say the hymns have “a firm theological foundation,” but then notice that when the time comes to sing them we only sing half the verses! Such irony! Mostly I think it is the familiarity that is important… familiarity is more important than people would like to admit, but familiarity to whom? Most of the music that has touched my heart and been a part of my experience with God was written in the last twenty years. For some people it was the music of the 90’s they grew up with in church and not the 1900’s. Many of the people who grew up with contemporary worship music are even becoming grandparents now. Some of the college students at Penn who come here may never have used a hymnal in worship. It just is not something that has any familiarity to them. Familiarity, however, is a wonderful thing that helps bring about the cohesion of a community. It is necessary to have a shared identity.
I will readily admit that at times the theology of some modern songs on the radio bothers me a great deal. I don’t like the “Jesus is my boyfriend” style songs at all. We must look at the content of what we sing, not just the popularity level. But to be fair, the hymnal is full of bad theology too. The Old Rugged Cross sounds an awful lot to the younger ear like someone is worshipping a piece of wood. It may be popular in the church, but to the uninitiated, they are not really sure why. Yet I sing it, not for myself, but for those who continue to encounter God in a powerful way through it. And since it is valued by those I value, I continue to experience it and continue to try and see what they value in it. Every now and then, I even sing one of those sappy Jesus love songs too…
True musical worship should rise above generational preferences, and somewhere across the generations, there must be an understanding that worship is more than singing. It is more than musical styles. We must choose a relationship with one another over our likes and dislikes and what we find familiar in church music. We need to be hospitable to the outsider. At the same time, any group should try to be itself, not trying to be someone they are not. We are an intergenerational church at College Avenue Friends. We have a rich diversity of experiences glorifying God in song, whether those songs that help us encounter God are old or new. We must make room for each other, and sing each other’s songs for one another; but more importantly, we must make room for God and strive for meaningful experiences in worshipping God together. We cannot come to worship refusing to participate, refusing to experience God together. Sing with all your heart, even if your “joyful noise” falls a little flat now and then like mine…