Traditional or contemporary?
I was just a boy when,
for the first time, I heard the music of a new generation. Like
the Gulf Stream, a wind of change blew in from the West Coast.
The ladies from our stately Baltimore church returned from a retreat
The song was soothing.
And fresh. We enfolded the chorus into our altar worship and,
although simple in form, the song ministered grace to all.
New songs often do
that. Once learned, a new song can catapult a congregation into
worship with abandon.
Soon we were singing
the compositions of Bill Gaither, John Peterson and the quintessential
theme from the newly organized Full Gospel Businessmen’s
Fellowship — “His Banner over Me Is Love.” The
new songs balanced our traditional hymns and gospel songs nicely,
especially on Sunday evenings.
I do not remember animosity
within our congregation as we welcomed renewal and its novel songs.
The concept of a worship war was foreign to us in those days as
pastors and church musicians formatted cautiously, expanding the
repertoire of worship without restricting or ignoring our tradition.
It is important to
note that we added the new songs of the charismatic era to our
worship without replacing the traditional music. We felt fortified
singing hymns for doctrine, gospel songs for testimony and the
new choruses for a fresh vernacular of praise.
I believe we were happy
with the songs of worship of that period for three essential reasons:
The new songs were simple, they were not substitutionary and the
balance between new songs and traditional hymns created a spiritual
climate conducive for growth. They blessed you whether you were
a new convert, a charismatic from another tradition or a classical
Pentecostal. The programming of music from the ’60s and
’70s created an open door, not a closed one.
So, what has happened
to worship music in the ensuing decades? Why are so many people
unhappy with the music in our churches today?
In the last two decades
the musical transformation in worship cannot be overlooked. Some
of the transformation reflects sociological change. Some of it
reflects a natural musical evolution. Still more of this change
reflects the disconnect that often accompanies the aging of a
congregation and the appointment of younger staff. Without great
sensitivity on the part of a young pastoral staff in a historic
church setting — both to introduce change cautiously and
to program music strategically — one runs the risk of that
disconnect broadening into the worship encounter. Worshipers may
feel alienated rather than unified.
Americans, by virtue
of medical advances, are living longer than in any other time.
We now have up to four generations in the typical Assemblies of
God congregation. This is unprecedented in church history. Each
generation has its preferences about songs best suited for a worship
experience, preferences that typically center on the music being
sung when those believers first met Jesus.
many believers today choose a church home by the same methodology
they choose a cell phone company. “What’s in it for
me?” is the prevailing mentality. We tend to evaluate church
services based upon how happy we feel afterwards. George Barna
comments, “For most Americans worship is to satisfy or please
them — not to honor or please God.”
songs have steadily evolved like any other genre in music history.
Since the ’70s, Christian composers have written songs that
are increasingly wordy, more complex harmonically and more driven
rhythmically. The effect of these more complex songs makes them
challenging to internalize.
No wonder Lyle Schaller
has written, “Music has replaced doctrine as the most divisive
issue in the church today.” Consequently, the typical congregant
tends to settle in to watch the “show” and not participate
in the process.