Reflections on the “Worship Wars,” Part One

This morning after I awoke I debated for a few minutes whether I would go to the Men’s Bible Study at Christ Presbyterian Church today. While I was “up and about” in time to attend I am still quite hoarse from some sinus “issues” I have been having and wondered how much I would be able to contribute to the discussion. I decided to go anyway, and am very glad I did so, as the discussion around the table where I sat followed a very interesting “rabbit trail” regarding music in worship and related topics. Since I was planning to address this topic on my blog today anyway, I am thankful for the unexpected opportunity to exercise and refine my thinking on this topic before writing, as well as for the opportunity to meet regularly with a group of men that take God and His Word so seriously.

Much ink has been spilled, many words—sometimes harsh words—exchanged, and even churches split over the question of music in worship. While myopic contemporary Americans might tend to think that this is a phenomenon unique to the present generation, such debates are not new in the history of Christianity. Post-Reformation era Roman Catholicism questioned whether to abandon polyphonic music and return to the simplicity of Gregorian chant. The Lutheran reformers reintroduced congregational singing while retaining a love for instrumental music and professional choirs and soloists; those of a more Calvinistic stripe eschewed instruments and in some cases even harmony entirely. The question of whether the Psalms only should be sung in worship or whether “uninspired” hymns and songs are also allowed has long been debated in some circles. Even the organ, an instrument which for many modern Christians is the very embodiment of “traditional” Christian worship, was a subject of intense controversy in much of American Protestantism little over a century ago. Thus today’s debate of “traditional” versus “contemporary” music in worship, while unique to the present day in its particulars, is in a broad sense not at all new. In any case, it does not represent a singular interruption in a 2,000-year history of otherwise unbroken musical consensus for the church.

In today’s post I hope to begin addressing the “traditional” versus “contemporary” music debate by defining (as best as possible) those terms, then presenting the “pros and cons” of both positions. While I will draw some tentative conclusions today, I hope to continue these thoughts in a future post by introducing something of a “third way.” In that post, I will seek to demonstrate that this is a debate that must and will always go nowhere, because it is asking the wrong questions. If we are to rightly answer the question of how music is best employed in God’s worship, we have to rightly answer the question of what the purpose of music in worship is. But, before I get further ahead of myself, let us begin by defining terms.

Defining Terms

The terms “traditional” and “contemporary,” when used in reference to music used in Christian worship, are notoriously difficult to define, yet people throw them about recklessly as if “everyone knows what they mean.” Well, “everyone” does not know what they mean. After all, that which is “traditional” to one person might not be so to another. I have heard the comment before that “I want to hear that traditional church music…like Bill Gaither!” With all due respect to Mr. Gaither (b. 1936) and to the anonymous admirer that I just quoted, the popular music of just one or two generations previous does not really qualify as “traditional” in the context of a millennia-old faith and its musical history. One author wrote that he asked someone to define a “traditional” hymn, and the answer given was “How Great Thou Art.” While a fine hymn, “How Great Thou Art” was first written in Sweden in 1885, and not introduced in its present English form until 1949. Once again, to define “traditional” as the music coming from just one or two generations back is at best uninformed and at worst irresponsible. I am reminded of Voddie Baucham (b. 1969), who once remarked that the “traditional” versus “contemporary” debate pits advocates of 1950s-style worship against advocates of 1970s-style worship, insinuating that not only do our “traditionalists” have a very limited view of Christianity’s musical heritage, but also that “contemporary” music advocates tend to be well “behind the curve” in their pursuit of music that mirrors modern popular culture.

As you are perhaps beginning to see, creating functional definitions of “traditional” and “contemporary” with regard to worship music is exceedingly difficult. But, for our purposes going forward let me suggest the following:

  • “Traditional” worship music is that music which either comes out of, or seeks to emulate, the great body of psalmody and hymnody stretching throughout the history of the church. This music makes no deliberate attempt to mirror currently “popular” styles; if anything, it is more reflective of classical and/or folk repertoires.
  • “Contemporary” worship music is that music which is written with the express intention of emulating the music that is commercially popular in a given time and place. Older texts and melodies, when used, are modified in order to conform to the desired style.

Even these definitions are imperfect; it is difficult to define terms of which “everybody knows the meaning.” Also, these definitions—and perhaps this entire debate—reflect a particularly North American context that does not always apply in other places. Still, I hope these will be helpful in framing what follows.

“Traditional” Worship Music: “Pros and Cons”

Both “traditional” and “contemporary” worship music styles have a number of perceived strengths and weaknesses. Rather than discuss all of these at length, I am going to provide bulleted lists with only limited discussion. First of all, then, arguments in favor of “traditional” music.

  • The old hymns have been vetted by generations of Christians; that which is poor has largely been “weeded out” over time.
  • These hymns teach difficult doctrinal ideas in a way that is well-absorbed over time.
      • This is an EXTREMELY important consideration, in my opinion. One argument sometimes heard from advocates of “contemporary” worship music is that the heavy doctrine in some of the older hymns is difficult for new converts and non-Christian visitors to understand. That may be true, but the assumption that our worship services need to be focused upon the unsaved and the recently-converted is an assumption that needs to be challenged. The author to the Hebrews challenges us in chapter 5 to strive to move from “milk” to “strong meat,” from entry-level ideas to the weightier points of doctrine. “Milk” is fine for new converts, and we should by all means provide it, but let us not neglect the “meat,” and let us exhort each other to move from the “milk” to that “meat.”
      • Keep in mind also, that even for the full-grown individual meat takes longer to digest than milk. It might take multiple hearings over a period of many years for one to fully absorb the deep scriptural truths embedded in some of the great older hymns. That is just fine! Singing these doctrines is a way to embed them into the memory so that these truths are absorbed slowly, and at last, God willing, understood.
  • Traditional music “sounds reverent.”
  • Because it is often rooted in classical music and better folk music, Traditional hymns lift our minds and thoughts to “higher” things. There is some truth to this, but only some.
  • Singing older hymns gives us a connection to generations of Christians that have preceded us, as we sing the same songs as our forebears.
  • The Psalms can be considered part of “traditional” worship, and we are commanded to use them. (Colossians 3:16) I don’t believe that we are to use them exclusively, but if “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” includes worship music other than the Psalms, it still does include the Psalms.

And now, some rebuttals and causes of concern regarding these arguments.

  • It is true that the old hymns have been vetted by time. However, this does not mean that they should not be thoroughly and continually examined for theological soundness. The phrase “Reformed and Reforming” is appropriate here—we should constantly be about the business of making sure our worship is keeping with the teaching of God’s Word, never allowing our reverence for godly traditions morph into an ungodly traditionalism.
  • Older hymns, just like newer ones, can be poorly written and/or difficult to sing. It might be best to discard those for which this is the case.
  • Not every hymn needs to be difficult and full of complex doctrine—some of the Psalms teach very difficult concepts; others are simple offerings of praise. We should emulate the Psalms in using both. Besides, the Doxology and Gloria Patri are not exactly heavy doctrinal pieces, and yet many congregations sing them every week! We must not attempt to feed the entire congregation entirely on “milk,” unless we want them to all remain “spiritual babes.” However, if you try to give a baby meat he will choke. Both “milk” and “meat” are necessary in the diet.
  • “Sounding reverent” is largely a cultural consideration; what sounds like “church music” to some might not to others.
  • The idea that classical music is “higher” and therefore should be used in God’s worship might, when understood properly, be true, but it is a somewhat problematic assertion. First of all, we need to remember that our beloved New Testament was written in the common, “fish-market” Greek of its day. We should not seek such “highness” to the point that some worshipers are alienated. Additionally, not all classical music is necessarily good. Some of it is poorly-written or difficult to sing, and in some cases there are ungodly or unbiblical associations that can accompany some classical music. For example, the “Ode to Joy” melody from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been appropriated by English-speaking Christian churches with the text “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” but the text Beethoven used, though certainly about “joy,” was in no way an orthodox Christian text. Opponents of “contemporary” worship music sometimes argue that the appropriation of popular music by churches could cause difficulties for some in the congregations because of associations with ungodliness, but I suspect that if this hymn had been sung in Vienna in the 1820s the differences between the Christian thought expressed in this text and that expressed in Friedrich von Schiller’s (1759-1805) poem would have caused at the very least a bit of “cognitive dissonance” in the listeners.
      • All of that to say, we can’t just say “classical good, popular bad” or “old good, new bad.” All music can bring with it cause for caution or concern, and all must be examined in light of Scripture.
  • Those that argue vigorously for “traditional” worship can sometimes be cold toward their fellow believers that disagree, and toward unbelievers. Zeal for right worship is a good thing—a very good thing—but if this zeal crowds out the brotherly love we are commanded to share with our fellow Christians and the sincere desire we are to have for the salvation of the lost, then we have problems.

“Contemporary” Worship Music: “Pros and Cons”

First, arguments in favor of “contemporary” worship music.

  • God has not ceased gifting men and women to write hymns.
  • This music is in a popular style, which younger people find easier to sing, or at least more familiar.
  • Newer music is necessary to reach contemporary individuals.
  • Heavy doctrine is difficult for young converts or prospects to absorb.

And, arguments against this music:

  • Contemporaneity is not a virtue. Our society values the new because it is new, and the church in many quarters is absorbing this idea and saying that we must discard centuries of tradition in order to remain “relevant.” This is not consistent with what Scripture teaches. Not only will something so old as Christianity never be “relevant” in a world obsessed with all things new, but Christ said if we were faithful to Him and His Word, the world would never accept us. (John 15:18-20)
  • God has indeed not ceased gifting people with the ability to write. However, not every song that is good for solo singing or for Christian radio play is suitable for worship, even when the doctrine expressed in those songs is sound. Hymns for worship must be easily singable by groups, and groups consisting of various ages. Young people might find it hard to believe that older folks—and even some of us younger folks—that don’t listen to the newest popular music often find their music difficult to sing. “Contemporary” music often contains large amounts of syncopation—where the notes or the words happen “off the beat.” This is more often than not a hindrance to congregational singing, even to those that prefer this music.
  • Familiarity is not necessarily a good thing, as much of the music with which we are most familiar is not always conducive to singing God’s praises or particularly to instruction in His Word. Commercial music—music designed to sell either itself or some other product—is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of music, but it is pervasive in our society. Much of this music sounds notoriously “cheap” and fleeting—because it is, and is intended to be so. That churches would want to bring music of this kind into the worship service, where the holy, transcendent, omnipotent, redeeming God and Creator of all things is to be lifted up, and that they would try to teach His infallible and inerrant Word using this music, makes no sense. We want to magnify the Lord of all things and to learn His Word, and the best music to do this is not that which in any other setting would be utilized to generate a “cheap thrill.”
  • The idea that contemporary music must be used to reach contemporary individuals is not entirely true. First of all, when the church imitates the world—including its music—it tends to do so badly, and about ten years “behind the curve.” Non-Christians mock this; they don’t seek it. Second, when the Holy Spirit is drawing someone to Christ, that person is seeking something different from the world he is fleeing, not a pale imitation of it. Third, evangelism is not the primary purpose of corporate worship. We gather for the worship of God and the edification of His People.
  • The old hymns did not suddenly become irrelevant around 1970. While there is a place for new music, there is no cause for a reckless discarding of the old.
  • Those that argue vigorously for “contemporary” worship tend to be impatient toward their fellow believers that believe differently, and have even caused major church splits by forcing changes upon congregations that did not want to abandon the old hymns so recklessly. Just as “traditionalists” should not allow their zeal for what they perceive as proper, reverent, and God-honoring worship to make them cold toward the lost, so “contemporaries” must not cause discord in the Body by forcing rapid change. Scripture calls us to be patient and also to show genuine love and respect toward our fellow believers, particularly those older than ourselves.

Summary and Conclusions (For Now)

I have already gone on too long for a blog post today, and so, as I anticipated, I will have to take up this topic again in a future post (God willing, in my next “Fifth Friday” post in March, 2013–EDIT: The second post on this topic was not published until May 31, 2013). Let me end with a few summary thoughts.

  • Neither the “traditional” nor the “contemporary” camps are without difficulties in their positions. Even defining these terms is difficult, if not impossible in this context.
  • To prefer the old because it is old, or to prefer the new because it is new are both attitudes which are unscriptural and unhelpful.
      • Christ warned the Pharisees about elevating their traditions to the point that they were made superior to Scripture. (Mark 7:6-8)
      • Moses admonished the people of Israel to revere their elders. (Leviticus 19:32) We would do well to heed this command, even though to do so defies the cult of youth that dominates our society.
  • There is a place for psalms and hymns that express simple concepts, and for those that cover complex points of doctrine. Both are in Scripture, and music is an effective tool for teaching both. I suspect that this is why God has called us to use music in teaching. (Colossians 3:16)
  • We must be aware of the changes that the development of commercial music has forced in our listening and perception of music, and be careful to guard against this influence in the church.
  • Brotherly love should permeate our thoughts and discussions on this matter. Too often “traditional” music advocates alienate young people and display little regard for reaching the lost, and “contemporary” advocates alienate and disregard the wisdom of their elders. This is not how Christians should behave.

I have much more to say on this topic. Though I’m sure my personal preference for “traditional” over “contemporary” music has come through in my writing today, I really think this entire debate in some ways misses the point, and am looking forward, God willing, to questioning the parameters of this discussion and introducing a way of thinking about it that will be new to some readers. I hope the reader will look forward to that future post, as I am.

This material is derived from notes for a series of Sunday School lessons presented at Calhoun Presbyterian Church, Calhoun, Louisiana, between August 7 and September 11, 2011.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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