Music: Is There Any Chance of Harmony?

The shift from the traditional to the contemporary

  • The old traditional hymnbooks have gone. Instead the lyrics are projected onto screens with the actual choice of music being without limit. New worship songs are being written, flowing out of creative spirits to express praise and thanksgiving.  Some are easy for a congregation to sing.  Others are anything but this.
  • Tastes in popular music obviously change from one generation to the next. We accept the differences as inevitable and recognise that people will tune their radios to stations which carry their kind of sound, from “easy” music, to classical, to the high energy FM stations which unashamedly pitch for the young adults. And that is where the problem lies in the selection of music for worship in our churches: we are having trouble providing for the wide variety of needs of differing generations and spiritual stages.
  • It is not just a matter of musical taste either. Music touches the soul; it plumbs the inner depths; it has a language and meaning which goes far beyond words, melody, tempo and rhythm. To debate whether we should be singing the old favourites or the newer songs misses the point. A Christian who has been on the journey of faith for a life time has anchored at least a part of that faith experience in the hymns and music which have energised, inspired and sustained them through the good and the bad times. Those hymns are the signposts which remind them of the faithfulness of an ever-present God. An abrupt, insensitive removal of these reminders severely diminishes the entire act of worship.
  • The younger Christian or the person still on the quest of faith has a different set of signposts. They are the products of a more recent culture: their grasp of the Gospel will be different; their vocabulary will have fewer theological words; they will not respond in the same way to the metre and style of the great hymns of the faith. The simple truth is this: it is not a matter of the new hymnology being better than the old. Rather, it is a pastoral consideration of how meaning in worship can be genuinely experienced by the whole Christian community without any one group feeling that their needs are inconsequential.

There is the veritable Pandora’s box of difficulties which emerge here:

  • We lack clarity of purpose in our Sunday morning services. Has the local congregation sorted out what Sunday’s service is all about? Traditionally Sunday has been the time for worship when the people of God join as one to offer themselves again to their Lord. There is still too much talk of what we should “get out of” Sunday worship and too little understanding of what we should be giving. In other words, we still have not understood the purpose and nature of the worship of God.
  • We are not sure whether we want to focus on evangelism or worship. This becomes painfully clear when the debate about music shifts to focus on the needs of the unchurched. Now we are usually delighted to have non-Christian folks in our services. But is our purpose worship or evangelism? We do not want to scare away those who are seeking a relationship with God. But can worship and evangelism be equated? Can two very different spiritual endeavours be accomplished at the same time? Is it fair to expect a person who is outside the household of faith to grasp what is occurring when believers renew their commitment to their Lord and offer their praise and thanks to Him? Our approach to an evangelistic goal will be rather different from a worship experience. This is not to say that worship and evangelism necessarily conflict; it is simply to question if we have thought enough about what we are really about when we do come together.
  • A single-minded focus on a given form of music has significant limitations. Given that the future of the church is seen to rely on the winning of a younger generation to faith, some churches have made it quite plain to all that their music is selected with them alone in mind. The inherent difficulty with this all or nothing approach is that it disenfranchises those who have prayed and laboured to keep the witness of the church alive over the years. On the other hand, it is just as problematical to suggest that the songs should be only for an older generation. It is the need for balance which seems to be so hard to find. Further, maturity and sensitivity would indicate that all generations should be helped to understand each other’s needs. As long as there is competition between them, there will be tension and unhappiness.
  • There is good and bad in old and new. Some of the old hymns had great meaning in their day but the choice of language, the images and the underlying sentiments do not communicate as they once did. They have passed their use by date. But some of the newer songs are no better. They have much in common with the more offensive TV commercials, are free of biblical content and are musically curious. There is a need for discernment and the exercise of courage in making assessments as to what will be uplifting for the people we know.

A new species has emerged in our services: the worship leader. There are several variations:

  • Enthusiasticus – joyful and excited to a degree often unattainable by most on a Sunday morning
  • Spurgeonus – actually a frustrated preacher who offers lengthy homilies between songs. Bring your knitting; you should get the front of a jumper done before the sermon.
  • Aerobus – a fitness video junkie. Wants worshippers to clap, stamp, sway, raise hands and dance in the one action. Look for the signs in the foyer warning those with heart conditions, expectant mums and children under five not to enter.
  • Watchlus – has no concept of time. Aims to sing through all the lyrics on the church’s computer in one sitting (or, more likely, standing)
  • Crippilus – insists that everybody should stand for a minimum half hour while two or three songs are sung many times over. Unfit worshippers crumple after about fifteen minutes or two songs which ever comes first.
  • Confusus – loves new songs and teaches these every Sunday. Prefers complicated melodies and loves it when greeted by vacant stares or total cacophony. The latter passes for singing in the Spirit.
  • Spiritus – leaves it to the Holy Spirit to guide in the selection of songs as the service happens. This accounts for high level stress at the sound desk, the projection of incorrect words, along with mental and musical breakdowns within the music group. There is no one to stand up for the Spirit Who has actually had no part in the proceedings at all.
  • Triumphalus – prefers songs of wealth, health and victory. Steers clear of songs about the cross, suffering and servanthood as no one needs to be down today do they?
  • Mysticus – leads with eyes closed, Mona Lisa expression and body in semi kneeling position. Possible lower back pain may be the problem.
  • Sumuppus – stands to announce the closing song but has to summarise the sermon just preached or add one of their own, tests the patience of even the most affirming congregations.

Watch out for the Hymn Police!

  • These keen saints are the self appointed definers of the new benchmarks which determine if a song will be sung in a service. Well intended and committed to singing only that which can be readily understood by a total outsider, they censor unmercifully those hymns which have words of more than one syllable, have profound theological content, archaic images or music which is too far distant from what they see to be contemporary musical forms.
  • There are many casualties. Handel’s Messiah is in for a hard time, of course. The hymn police also perspire dreadfully if a hymn lacks inclusive language. Any hint of gender bias leads to the delete button. Not all of this is unhelpful but unrestrained zeal has led to the debunking of countless hymns which are still favourites and sung with zest by your average congregation.

Where to from here?

  1. We do no one any good when the Lord’s people scrap over what they sing. There is a need on all sides to accept that there are differing needs and a great variety of musical styles. It is a mistake to opt for only one genre of hymnology.
  2. Keep the pastoral dimension in focus. Too many of our great and now much older saints find it hard to attend their own churches because they have difficulty relating to newer forms of worship. There should be at least one or two of the great hymns of the faith in a service. Newer Christians can enjoy most of these too.
  3. Let’s continue to address the issue of worship. It is not sanctified entertainment or the collection of warm fuzzy spiritual moments. When we worship, we enter the Presence of the living and holy God and offer ourselves to Him again in humble service. Instead of easy familiarity and jocular exchange, we come to receive grace and stand in awe of His faithfulness to us. Too often we are not still and so do not know Him. He is lost amid the clutter and noise of what we think is worship but what is often simply a hi-tech performance.
  4. Careful thought is needed in the planning of our services. In many congregations the pastor has handed the music over to the worship leader or some other person charged with leading the service. Even with advising the theme of the service, this is no guarantee that there will be a connection between the sung word and the preached word. There is a pressing need for a review here.
  5. We need to avoid the aberrations of worship leader offered above. There are some very gifted persons who are able to lead a service with sensitivity and inspiration. They do not need to draw attention to themselves.  They will not demand responses from the congregation which are inappropriate and create stress for individual participants.  As for any ministry, it is not good enough to enlist the keen but ungifted. They will be a distraction and often an embarrassment.
  6. Above all, let’s talk to our people! So often it appears that there has been no real communication with the ordinary folks who turn up week by week. If there is upset or unhappiness, it is time for some genuinely active listening. Great leadership is marked by great openness. This does not meant that you can meet all needs but there is a much greater tolerance when people feel that they have been genuinely listened to.

Is there any chance of harmony? Yes, there should be. No good purpose is served by backing off into our musical comers. Let us reach for fresh ways of accepting each other and being especially sensitive to those differing needs which are present in every congregation. We do claim to be a community of faith, don’t we? Well, let us incarnate our words in everything, including our music.

Rev John Simpson