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Worship: Traditional or contemporary?

By Tom McDonald

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 singing “Alleluia.”

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.

What’s more, 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.”

Musically, worship 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.


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