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Tuesday, April 11, 2017


Not having visited most churches today, I perhaps shouldn't actually comment on "most churches today", but it seems as if most churches today are in some area between "traditional" and "contemporary" worship modes. They may have switched to a dual "traditional" service and a "contemporary" service. They may have a "blended" service. Or maybe they've ditched what would have been termed "traditional" for full-on "contemporary". This distinction is primarily in the music, although some people would include more than that. The hymnals are all but gone. The majority use projections on screens and PowerPoint presentations for the sermon and the like. But it's mostly in the music that we find the difference between "traditional" and "contemporary". "Traditional" is hymns with simpler accompaniment -- piano, organ, that kind of thing. I mean, there can be a range of instruments, but the music is primarily hymns ranging in age from hundreds of years old to maybe half a century or more. "Contemporary" has more "upbeat" music with "upbeat" instruments and "upbeat" beats. Choirs are out; stereotypical rock bands are in.

I'm not going to discuss the good or bad of switching or not. I'm not going to try to ask about what "style" Jesus would want. I am not going to examine which music is more godly than which. What I want to know is why. What is the motivation for this shift? Clearly churches are changing from something to something. Throughout Church history worship styles have changed and rarely without conflict. The 3rd century church was upset about instruments at all. The 6th century church didn't like the congregation singing much at all. The only "correct" version of singing in the 9th century was chanting. In the 15th century John Wycliffe complained that the choir was too loud and the music drowned out the words. In the 16th century they were offended that Martin Luther used contemporary tunes with his music. In the 19th century the founder of the Salvation Army was quoted as saying, "Why should the devil have all the good music?" Sure, things change. Regardless of whether or not it's a good thing, why are they doing it?

The question at hand is about changing musical styles for worship. Clearly there is no "biblical definition" of what style is the right style. You can't find any commands in Scripture that say, "Thou shalt use pipe organs and piano and thou shalt not use drums and electronic instruments." It's just not in there. So we aren't going to go with "We're changing musical styles to more closely conform to biblical commands." So why? There are a couple of answers.

First on the list is, essentially, numbers. More people like contemporary music than hymns. You want to attract more people, therefore, you need to shape your music to what would attract them. It's kind of a marketing thing. Find out what people like and, if you can, give it to them. They'll come. The standard view is "If you want to keep growing, you need to make it interesting for the younger generation." What is interesting to the younger generation? Cool music. What is "cool music"? That's a matter of feel, I suppose, but there definitely needs to be drums. Because this attracts people. The #1 answer, then, is reaching people for Christ. Isn't this what we're here for? If you want them to come in, you'll have to give them a reason. Music they like is one of them.

Close behind this one is the idea that contemporary music is more "feeling". It is more emotional, so to speak. (I'm not sure I'm expressing this adequately.) You want people to feel close to God. Most hymns are dirges ... not "close to God". Let's pick it up a bit. Let's liven it up some. Worship shouldn't be "ho-hum"; it should be expressive, enthusiastic, exciting.

Those are, I think, the primary reasons that churches have shifted. They want to improve the numbers (want more people to come) and they want to engage people emotionally. I am, of course, interested in knowing if there are others, but those are the two primary reasons I've found.

You see, I think the motivation is more important than the substance. I think that we've missed the biblical motivation for "church". If this is true, then we might want to rethink changing from something to something if that "to something" isn't in line with the biblical purpose of church.

So what is the biblical purpose of church? The first is found in the word. It refers to the "called out ones". It is a gathering of the saints. Sure, unbelievers will be present (1 Cor 14:24). But the purpose of the church is for the saints -- believers. That's found in the name -- "church". Paul goes on to explain that the primary function of the church is "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Eph 4:12). "There, see?" they will tell me. "Building up the body of Christ. Bring in more people." No, that's not what he is talking about. He is talking about maturity. He says the building of the body of Christ is "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes." (Eph 4:13-14) That is the primary purpose of the church. And how are we doing with that? How are we at "the unity of the faith"? How are we at maturity? How are we at no longer being tossed about by every wind of doctrine? I would argue that we are clearly failing. Is it because we've shifted from "building up the body of Christ" to "bringing in the sheaves"? Is it because we've aimed the church more toward evangelism than equipping the saints?

I think we've really missed the point in churches today. Worship is not about entertaining the masses or bringing up attendance. It is about God's people offering a sacrifice of praise to an audience of One, not about feeling good about God. It's about maturing believers, not enlarging the congregation. Mind you, mature believers will feel good about God and a church of equipped saints will increase attendance, but these are not the point. I think we've missed it. And I think it is our own loss to our own shame. You see, it's not about taste, about "old" vs "new", about preferences. It's not even about music. It's about unity rather than personal preference, about theology rather than experience, about participation rather than consumption or entertainment. We are engaging in worship of the Creator with all the saints and angels. Now, tell me again why we're changing from "traditional" to "contemporary"? There may be reasons for change, but do they conform to that kind of purpose?


Bruce Hergert said...

You have hit a tender spot. At age 62, I have heard the gamut of music styles. Growing up, it was hymns/organ/piano, choir/organ/piano, solo/organ/piano. Then in my teen years, us youth got caught up in "He's Everything To Me" and "Pass It On" and those kinds of songs, accompanied by acoustic guitar. But we could never get the congregation to sing them.

Then in my "Christian Band" days, the people would say, "You have a lot of enthusiasm (meaning the music was too loud), but what's with the words?".

Then the '80s came along with synthesizers to replace both the organ and the piano. And my Christian music world was rocked by the likes of Michael W. Smith. There was the great (to me) music, of course, but the lyrics were still somewhat doctrinal. I really thought I had died and gone to heaven. But my church was slow to catch on.

It was somewhere in the '90s and/or early 2000s when, to me, the lyrics began to be less and less doctrinal and more and more feel good. And now today, we have lyrics like, "Father, hold me..." and "Jesus, I'm running to your arms...". Very emotional, cuddly lyrics.

I'm not an expert about church music history, either old or new. And this is surely a rant. I didn't address your stated goal of why the change. But, I only know my experience.

Stan said...

Indeed there is a dearth of doctrine in a lot of contemporary "worship" songs. They are rich in "Jesus is my boyfriend" type stuff. I wonder if this is part of the answer to why the switch is on. Is it that too many modern Christians won't endure sound doctrine? I don't know. But I do think that we've stopped teaching "all that I commanded you" (Matt 28:19-20) and switched to tickling itching ears with milk -- teaching to the least common denominator ... in preaching and in lyrics.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday a family member brought up the topic of how church services have changed in the last 50 years. "The sermon is five minutes. People dress so casually, and bring water bottles. I saw a woman eating a banana."

Stan said...

I'm not sure how much of that is related to the question at hand. Some of that is a cultural loss of the sense of "appropriate", where behavior and dress is no longer measured in "What is appropriate to the situation?" That is, it is an unconscious shift. I'm asking about the reason for the intentional shift.

Craig said...

I think you may be painting with a brush that is too broad. I think the impetus for the change is Paul saying "I become all things...", as well as acknowledging that we have to operate in the context of different cultures. I'd suggest that there are some churches who have taken this to an extreme and there certainly needs to be some check on the content of music for worship. There are plenty of theologically questionable songs be they hymns or modern.

I think your question is completely valid and should be a part of any decisions regarding style of worship. But it seems like more of a local church thing than a big picture thing.

Ultimately worship is aimed at believers and any time style becomes the driving force it could be argued that style is an idol and should be treated as such.

Marshall Art said...

The church I attend, on Sunday, has worship services that are "style" specific. There is a contemporary, a traditional and I believe one or two others (I've only attended at particular times, so I'm not sure about the "others"). I prefer the traditional because I don't find the contemporary songs all that good from any angle. The preaching, however, seems the same in the sense that it does seem to be with an aim to equip the "saints", as it were. Power point is used, but it seems for the purpose of note-taking, which many people do.

I would differ on one point, that things like dress-codes and what is appropriate fall in line with the same notion of appealing to the people, just like with song selection. I don't think things like dress codes are so much an unconscious shift, but more of a conscious toleration so as not to depress attendance numbers. I've spoken on this before at my blog. Some like to believe that God has a "come as you are" attitude. But even if we concede that possibility, it's still a matter of our own attitude of whether or not God is worth a little more than wearing whatever we pull out of the hamper.

So between things like song selection and dress codes, the point of OUR attendance should demonstrate a higher level of reverence for Whom we come to worship. From the perspective of the congregant, worship is the reason one should attend primarily, whether we are well equipped after each service or not.

David said...

Craig, you demonstrate one of the points in this and a similar post. You say worship is aimed at believers, and that's to problem. Worship needs to be aimed at God, not us, not bringing more people in, not conforming to the relaxing of standards. Many modern songs are aimed at our feelings toward God, some don't even mention God in any form and it's only through the context of being at church that it's implied. A church I used to attend said specifically that they had contemporary style to draw I people from the neighborhood. It is probably likely that it is the common reason for adopting the new styles. I can't think of any other reason to.

Craig said...

I didn't express my self as clearly as I should have. I meant that worship is for believers to focus on God, not as a means to evangelize non believers.

As far as songs with little, no, or vague theological content those are problematic no matter who wrote them or when they were written. I've sat through plenty of "traditional" services with unsingable, theologically lacking hymns.

The problem I see is holding up a style of music as an example of the "right" way to do things? A song with good theology, is worthwhile no matter what instrument it's played on.

My problem with much of the "contemporary" music is as follows.

1. Music, which is not appropriate for worship is used in worship.
2. There is no theological filter in place to determine what is appropriate for corporate worship.
3. The attitude that we shouldn't adapt the form or style of worship to acknowledge the culture. For example, you wouldn't sing in Portuguese when in Haiti, nor would anyone insist that we should ape services from any previous era.

The NT gives us some broad strokes about what the Church should look like, but not so much about what the worship style should be.

I don't disagree with Stan's questions being appropriate, I just think maybe style is an area for grace and content is the bigger concern.

Craig said...

I guess I'd ask what specifically would be wrong about engaging in worship that is designed to be attractive to those believers in close proximity to it? Would the church be more effective if it intentionally chose to do things that were not attractive to the believers in the neighborhood? I've been to enough churches that haven't done so, and sat in services where there were 15 seventy five year old folks who just want to do things "the way we've always done them" or maintain at "traditional service just because, tradition. Watching these once vibrant neighborhood churches withering is incredibly sad.

Again, Stan's questions are worthwhile but there are plenty of things I see churches doing that concern me much more than musical style.

Stan said...

"Would the church be more effective if it intentionally chose to do things that were not attractive to the believers in the neighborhood?"

I would like to point out that no one is suggesting that we should be doing things intentionally to repel believers (or unbelievers). That would be a strawman.

I would argue that "We just want to do things the way we've always done them" ought to be questioned as well as "We just want to change things to make it more attractive to unbelievers."

I would also point out a couple of other interesting points. 1) Studies indicate that "contemporary worship" does not necessarily bring in more people. 2) Trends suggest that "contemporary worship" is declining rather than increasing. 3) I have on multiple occasions seen believers from "contemporary worship" venues encounter vibrant "traditional worship" and find it more uplifting than they had anticipated.

I am not a "because we've always done it that way" kind of guy. I'm not even questioning style. But when we change something for questionable reasons (like "It's the way the world does marketing"), I'm not sure it's a wise change. Or, to put it another way, not all shifts (like a church that changes to "contemporary worship") are for the wrong reasons. Therefore, not all shifts are wrong. I'm just asking the question because most of the time the answer I've been given is wrong.

Craig said...

Stan, what I'm suggesting is that for a church to be in the midst of a neighborhood and not try to make it self welcoming and attractive to those in its neighborhood is the equivalent of intentionally making itself unattractive.

1. I'm not suggesting otherwise, but I'd be reluctant to take that sort of broad conclusion at face value. My point is that it's probably more effective on some places than others, I'd also wonder how one controls for the quality of the teaching also.

2. That may well be the case, if so then churches should be open to the different possibilities and not cling to one style to the exclusion of others.

3. I have as well. But that doesn't necessarily support the broader argument.

I've pretty clearly agreed with your basic sentiment and the worth of your questions, if I have a disagreement with you it's that I see this discussion having more value at the micro level rather than the macro.