“Worship Wars” are raging in evangelical, predominately white churches throughout America (Fischer). What is a worship war? Worship wars often erupt when churches begin discussing musical styles. “Old-fashioned or more trendy, upbeat services?” and “hymns or praise songs?” are some of the controversial questions debated. Over the past fifty years, worship styles in many American churches have changed. Let me state right here that I am NOT, repeat am NOT against using new music in churches, nor am I opposed to “modernizing” music in churches to a degree. However, what concerns me ARE some of the seeming reasons behind the changes many churches are adopting. Rather than focusing on what honors and glorifies God, some pastors, elders, and church leaders seem more focused on numbers (aka people in the pews). In order to draw more people into the fold and to keep their young adults attending church, many churches are being influenced by the American pop music culture and are changing from traditional church services to contemporary worship styles. Again, I am not speaking against more contemporary worship in the church; I am questioning the motives of many who are seeking to make their churches more appealing to the masses.
A Quick Look at Hymns:
In current, evangelical American culture, there are two main kinds of worship in Christian churches: traditional and contemporary. What is the difference between these two styles? When people think of a traditional service, they often think of pipe organs, choirs, and hymnals. Contemporary worship brings to mind more modern instruments, overhead projections, upbeat music, and a praise team. However, there are greater, yet often less perceived differences between both worship styles. In most traditional hymns, the music, derived from Classical music, is very structured. It enhances the words of the hymn—meaning that it does not overpower it, but it adds beauty to the song. The emphasis of each hymn is the content found in the words, which are often didactic, not the music behind the lyrics. When a hymn has powerful words coupled with strong, harmonic music, it tends to last. Many hymns are sung for generations. Take “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” which was written by Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Reformation, or “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” written by Robert Robinson in 1758: both hymns have stood the test of time and are still sung and well-beloved by Christians today. Since many hymns are written in four-part harmony, hymns are meant to be sung by congregations or full choirs, thus drawing the church together as they raise their voices in song (Lusher). Now, I am not advocating that churches stick merely to “hymnal worship” (though I have no problems with that); however, I think it a shame and a pity when some go on “hymnal burning sprees” just because hymns are not as modern and hip as current praise songs. Certainly, I will grant that most songs from the hymnal are not exactly in vogue with pop culture, but does that mean that we need to eradicate them from the church? No. The “Church” is the body of Christ, and it shouldn’t be taking orders from the world. Christians are to be in the world, not of it. Personally, I feel that a healthy mix of hymns and solid newer music makes for a nice balance between the two styles.
On Praise Songs:
According to Michael Schmid, “A frequent complaint regarding contemporary songs is that there is little meat to them. The content is sparse, repetition is common, and very little doctrinal material is presented” (2006). Let’s stop here for a minute. First of all, I am NOT saying that all repetition is wrong. Nor am I saying that contemporary songs are sinful. There are new songs that I truly enjoy singing and that have blessed me. Aside from the difference in content, there is a large difference between traditional and contemporary songs. In addition, praise songs are generally sung in unison and have more instrumentation (often electronic). Because praise songs ride on the wave of trendiness, they often do not last very long (Lusher). Whichever style one prefers, it is evident that they are both very different. What has encouraged and influenced modern churches to make the switch from traditional to contemporary worship styles?
A Brief Timeline of Change and the Desire for the Masses:
Change is inevitable. Times change, people change, and cultures change. In the current age where older, classical sounding hymns hold little appeal for the masses, many churches are changing their styles of worship music to draw more people through their doors. Because many are unfamiliar with the complexities of classical music (thus unable to harmonize), some argue that traditional worship services alienate many people (Smith Creek). As a result, many churches are switching gears and moving from traditional services to more upbeat, contemporary forms of worship in order to re-invent the church for this new era (Guinness). More and more congregations are becoming “seeker-sensitive.” According to Ana Petitfils, “A ‘seeker-sensitive’ church is a church whose main purpose is to try to make the church look more attractive to unbelievers. Many churches use technology and media to drive outreach to the communities” (1). This “seeker sensitivity” was birthed by the pop music culture in America. In the 1960s, many hippies came to Christ. According to Peter Masters, these converted hippies, known as the “Jesus people,” began to worship God by singing in the style that they’d known as hippies: extremely simple songs, often consisting of one line repeated over and over again. This style of music helped them to release their emotions through song. Some Christians then began to want worship music that sounded like secular rock (“Is ‘New Music’). Following the hippie era, the Contemporary Christian Music movement (CCM) took off in the 1970s and became known and encouraged as an alternative to secular rock. As the popularity of CCM grew, churches began inviting artists, like Amy Grant, to give concerts. Eventually, hits like “Great is the Lord” and “How Majestic Is Your Name” were incorporated into the worship service as a result of their growing popularity in the world of CCM (Hymnody). Because many find the old, classical hymns either boring or intimidating, many seeker-sensitive churches are opting to discard them in the hopes that their new, Christian alternative to rock will draw the masses through their doors. Should this be done?!? What of the people still in the church? The CHURCH is the BODY OF CHRIST, and who said that had to be cool? Add in new songs if they glorify Christ, but do not, PLEASE do not disregard the solid hymns of the past in the process.
Dissection of a Song:
Let’s take a look at one song that is now being sung in at least one Reformed church: “Above All,” made popular by Michael W. Smith.
Okay. As written, the song has lots of repetition. To be fair, the church which recently incorporated this into the worship service cut out the repetition. Is that done everywhere, though? Read the words of the song. Are they spiritually enriching? I don’t know about you, but the lyrics do little to stimulate spiritual growth for me. Compared to the level of what should be taught in a healthy church, this song doesn’t seem to fit in. In addition to the rest of the words being weak, I also dislike likening Christ’s atoning death for sinners to a “rose trampled on the ground.” To me, it seems to reduce and simplify the awesomeness, the wonder, the beauty of what Jesus did for sinners. He “took the fall” or took on the wrath of God? Like a “rose trampled on the ground” or like a lamb let to the slaughter? Perhaps some would accuse me of nitpicking, but I honestly cannot sing that song in good conscience. Yes, we must have things in terms that the unconverted can understand, but why are we boiling away all the meat and leaving only broth behind as is done in this song? Let’s face it. This is a pop song. It is. In Christian pop culture, this simple ditty has won plenty of radio time on stations that have advisory boards comprised of listeners (like WRBS). Why is it being sung in a Reformed church? Dare I even question that? I will. What is the motive behind it? There is soooo much other music, songs better suited for corporate worship, lyrics more doctrinally solid, strong, and uplifting . . . I’ll leave it at that and continue my discussion.
Another Common Motive:
Church attendance among young people is dropping drastically. A survey conducted by LifeWay Research showed that seven out of ten Protestants ages 18-30, all who had attended church regularly in their youth, had stopped going to church by age 23 (Grossman). In an attempt to stop this trend, churches are also modernizing their music in an attempt to keep young people in their midst. According to Warren C. Slaten from Audio International:
Nationally, more contemporary music is being added to traditional worship services. This music includes a variety of instruments, including electronic/amplified and high-powered vocals sometimes called “praise-power-teams”, all designed to excite, inspire and to captivate an audience. This music is, primarily, directed towards young people to simulate the kinds of music they hear in the secular world.
By making church music “more cool,” many are attempting to use the appeal of pop music to retain their younger attendees.
The Need to Refocus:
Now, why are so many churches so focused on MAN and man’s needs rather than on God? Church isn’t about man, it’s about God; therefore, we must seek to honor and glorify God, rather than to please and bribe men. In Reformed circles, it is believed that God is responsible for man’s salvation: that the Holy Spirit must draw a man unto God, and that God grants repentance and eternal life. What is a basic means of drawing? The Bible speaks on preaching in Romans 10:
14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
I would argue that preaching is CRUCIAL, even more important than music. This doesn’t say “How shall they hear without a worship leader? And how shall they sing unless they be gifted? As it is written, How beautiful the feet of them who sing of the gospel of peace, bringing glad tidings of good things through song!” In my opinion, music is too emphasized in many Christian circles.
1Corinthians 1:21 “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”
The Bible makes it clear that preaching is foolishness to those who are unsaved, but that He has chosen to use that which is foolish in their eyes to make them wise unto salvation. Too many want to change the music to draw people into the church through imitating the secular world, thus giving unbelievers that which they are used to hearing. If the main emphasis of the change in worship styles is man-centered rather than God centered, then I am very wary of the shift. Rather than emphasizing the importance of the music, why are churches not focusing on PREACHING? A potential problem with trying to draw people into the church with music is that those already in the pews will be neglected—either underfed or ignored in the attempt to fill seats. I am NOT saying that churches should not be evangelistic, quite to the contrary. However, churches should rely on God and the Holy Spirit to draw men to salvation, and not make music man-centered in order to win souls. Equip the saints in the pews to evangelize—feed them, nourish them, love them, strengthen them that they might be mighty and able to share the Word. Keep the focus of worship on God, and not on men. In the Old Testament, God killed those who offered Him strange fire, struck down those who dared to touch His ark. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Just because He isn’t sending down fire from heaven now does not mean that He is pleased with all that goes on in Christian worship services. I am not advocating an “exclusive psalms and hymns” kind of worship. Rather, I am pointing out that the reasons for changing the style of music in a church (and perhaps dividing it by doing so) must be biblical, and that the songs chosen should be sound and God-honoring. We should not be influenced by the culture (and God warns us of fascination and love of the world) when considering music for a church service. Keep God as the focus.
Music is definitely an integral part of the Christian church. Whether classical or upbeat, traditional or contemporary, music plays a key role in religious services (though perhaps it is over-empahsized in many circles). However, there is much controversy over worship styles. Many older people prefer traditional hymns, accompanied by the organ or a piano, while many of the younger generation like praise choruses, replete with guitars, keyboard, and often drums. Regardless of one’s preference, it is interesting to note how popular music in America has influenced many modern churches. Because churches wish to attract new members, and they desire to keep their young adults from leaving, many are changing their worship styles to mimic secular music. This is fascinating. Only time will tell how far popular music will influence American churches in the future. Am I saying that all churches with contemporary music or which are moving toward changing worship styles are doing so for negative reasons? No. For now, though, it is worth noting the great power held by the pop music industry, and to question the motives and reasons behind the great musical shift in churches today. If you are seeking God and His glory first and foremost, by all means, go for adding in some newer music. However, if drawing men into the holy house of God is your primary focus, please pray and ponder the weighty decision that is before you. It's more than just "changing the music," it's about the intentions of the heart.
Fischer, John. “What to Do About the Worship Wars.” Moody Magazine 2001. Moody Magazine. 23 Apr. 2008 http://www.moodymagazine.com/articles.php?action=view_article&id=955.
Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Young Adults Aren’t Sticking with Church.” USA Today [Maclean, VA] 27 July 2007. USA Today. 2007. 22 Apr. 2008 http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-08-06-church-dropouts_N.htm.
Guinness, Os. “Trusting in a Culturally Relevant Gospel.” Interview with Christianity Today. Christianity Today 1 Aug. 2003. Christianity Today. 26 Aug. 2003. 21 Apr. 2008 http://www.christianitytoday.com/outreach/articles/trustingculturalgospel.html.
Lusher, Paul. “Hymns and Praise Songs.” Center for Church Music: Songs and Hymns. 2008. 23 Apr. 2008 http://songsandhymns.org/music-worship/article/hymns-and-praise-songs.
Masters, Peter. “Is ‘New Worship’ Compatible with Traditional Worship.” Sword and Trowel 1998. Freedom Ministries. 23 Apr. 2008 http://www.freedomministries.org.uk/masters/worship1.htm.
Petitfils, Ana. “’Seeker-Sensative’ Movement Poses Threat to the Church.” Christian Examiner Mar. 2005. Christian Examiner. 21 Apr. 2008 http://www.christianexaminer.com/Articles/Articles%20Mar05/Art_Mar05_oped1.html.
Schmid, Michael. “My Perspective: Michael A. Schmid on Praise and Worship Music in the Lutheran Church.” True Vine Music. 24 Mar. 2006. 23 Apr. 2008 http://www.truevinemusic.com/my_perspective.htm.
Slaten, Warren C. “Music VS Worship.” Audio International. Nov. 2001. 22 Apr. 2008 http://www.audio-international.com/musicvsworship.html.
Smith Creek Music. Rev. of Praying Twice, by Brian Wren. Hymnology: Praise and Worship Music. 17 Apr. 2004. Smith Creek Music. 21 Apr. 2008