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Traditional Versus Contemporary Worship


Author: Brendan Prout
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Posted October 14, 2014 by


fellow theologian passed this my way, and I thought it worth sharing. It has been sited to Jonathan Edwards; however on further inspection, we found this to be an Internet error. It is simply an interesting anecdote. Nonetheless, the information is worth examining and having a conversation about.*

A man, accustomed to traditional worship, one Sunday attended a church that sang only praise choruses. When he came home, his wife asked him about the service. “It was interesting,” he said. “They sang praise choruses instead of hymns. His wife asked, “What’s the difference?”

He said to his wife, “If I said to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ that would be a hymn. But suppose I said, ‘Martha, Martha, Martha. Oh Martha, Martha, Martha, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, the white cows and the black cows, the cows, cows, cows are in the corn, the corn, corn, corn.’ If I were to repeat the whole thing five or six times that would be a praise chorus.”

That same Sunday, a woman accustomed to contemporary worship attended a traditional church. When she came home, her husband asked about the service. “It was interesting; they sang hymns instead of praise choruses.” “What’s the difference?” her husband asked.

She replied, “If I said to you, for instance. ‘Earnest, the cows are in the corn,’ that would be a praise chorus. But suppose I would say, ‘Oh Earnest, dear Earnest, hear thou my cry; incline thy ear to the words of my mouth. Turn thy wondrous ear by and by to the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth. For the way of the animals, who can explain? There is no shadow of sense. Hearken, they not in God’s sun or his rain. Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced. Yea, those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight, broke free from their shackles, their warm pens eschewed. Then goaded by minions of darkness and night, my Chilliwack sweet corn has chewed. So look to that bright shining day by and by, where all the corruptions of earth are reborn, where no vicious animals make my soul cry, and I no longer see
those foul cows in the barn.’ That would be a hymn.

It is interesting to see how long there was been a separation in the body, of different camps of people who each think their style of worship is preferable! And interesting to see how applicable this anecdote of old still remains today. Indeed, music in the church has long been amongst the most controversial topics throughout the history of the Church.

The point is not how we express worship – there is no one flavor of music that is more correct to worship God with, over another. Style is not relevant, but biblical truth is extremely relevant. Are the songs we sing true? Are the songs we sing glorifying to God? Are the songs we sing edifying to his Bride? Do they teach proper theology? Do they facilitate prayer expressed in a way simple words cannot? Do they conduct the church into the presence of God and allow Him to do spiritual business with his children? That ought to be the focus of our concentration on the substance of our musical choices, rather than whether the time signature is 4/4 or 6/8, or if there are 3 vocal parts versus 7, or any such comparison.

We as a body are very blessed to have a variety of different styles of worship music being sung every weekend. Let us continue to encourage and build each other up as a community of worship musicians, and remember that it is ultimately about Him and not our own likes or dislikes. Let us never look down on another’s worship offering for the sake of its form, but instead always appreciate its function, and the heart attitude with which it is given before the throne. All praise be to God!!

Brendan Prout is a pastor at Community Bible Church in San Diego, CA, where he oversees worship and outreach. He has served in worship ministry leadership for over 20 years and focuses on training and raising others to do the work of ministry they are called to.

Note From Monique Ingalls on Jonathan Edwards and the anecdote falsely attributed to him: 
*As in just about any time period, there were debates about old vs. new music in the church in Edwards’ day; however, the categories of “traditional hymns” and “contemporary choruses” as they are presented in the anecdote did not exist until the 20th Century. Most Puritans of Edwards’s day believed Christians should only sing psalms only, unaccompanied by instruments and in unison with no harmony. Towards the end of his life, Edwards was pretty progressive for allowing hymns “of human composure” (i.e., with texts that weren’t straight from the Divinely inspired psalms) to be sung in worship. So, for Edwards, “traditional” church songs were psalms taken straight from Scripture, made to rhyme, and sung in a very plain style, while “contemporary” songs were Isaac Watts’ hymns sung in 4-part harmony. Edwards was a stern Puritan preacher whose sermons are, quite frankly, dry and academic–he would never have used such a witty, folksy anecdote in a sermon. And, as one final nit-picky point, a quick Google search puts Edwards’ death at 1758, a couple of decades before the author claims he was writing in the 1780s.


    Ade Tostevin

    This is an interesting topic for me as I will be preaching on this topic in a couple of


    There are a lot of people now who have grown up from childhood with praise chorus worship. The sound, the words, the familiarity will inspire and serve to trigger a spiritual frame of mind in them that brings to them the presence of God.
    When they get to 50 years old, remove it. Change the words, change the tunes, change the routine and tell them you cannot go back to your traditional ways. Tell them that if they can’t change then they don’t really love God and if they won’t change God won’t love them. Tell them that the church no longer wants them.
    Tell them that sticking to their traditional chorus worship habits is the cause of people turning away from the church. It’s their fault.

    At 67, All that is left for me now is sung evensong in a nearby Abbey when I can weep at my loss during the nunc dimittis and feel the presence of God.

    Praising Him in the Mess

    I grew up in the traditional Baptist church singing the hymns and to this day still love them! However, I do remember what I saw during the services were folks just going through the motions singing the 1st, 2nd and 4th verses. Never understood why the 3rd verses were skipped. It saddens me that those who believe the hymns are the only way to sing praises to God are very shallow. Basically what you’re saying is God stopped working in lives way back when hymns were written and that the songs today that are being criticized can’t be from God. Have any of you ever thought to research the contemporary worship songs that have been written today to hear the stories that are behind them? I dare you to do that… Just one example, look at Laura Story and what God is doing in her life and where God has been speaking into her life. I read through all the “contemporary vs hymn” debates and must say the majority of the complaints come from the pro hymn side. Must be honest… I hear a lot of biblical similarities there… from the pro hymn side all I can think of are the Pharisees. Then I have to ask myself where would Christ be hanging out today, in the churches that think there is only one form of worship music or in churches that are relevant today and drawing ugly sinners to church? You see, I remember what I saw growing up sitting in the pews with the hymnals… everyone looked like they had it all together in their dresses and suits, there was no mess! People with messes in their lives are intimidated by you! By the way, your life is messy too! If it isn’t then why do you need Him? Please open your bible and your hearts and see who and where Christ spent his time and then maybe you won’t be so focused on YOU and what YOU think you need to worship Him!

    Maralind Krejci

    Music in church services is more than entertainment. It is a means usher in the presence of the Lord. This same thing could occur for you while at home. Use music to set the stage for the presence of God. It’s not that God comes when you play music. It is more like us being more receptive and in a state of mind where we are more sensitive to the presence of God. After all, God is already there. I find it odd that at funerals you won’t hear the contemporary songs…..but you’ll hear Amazing Grace and other Gospel songs. Gospel songs are not old… they are testimonies of the Authors that wrote them in sharing their experiences and the experiences will always have the same effect on the listener without checking to see what year the Author wrote it. I can say that it is a rare sight to see the Power and Anointing of God pour down on a Church Service that only will sing the Contemporary Songs, at least in my search for the “Norman Rockwell” type singing versus the “Picasso” singing I have yet to see it. Many Churches have become more like Social Clubs where the minister can deliver a beautiful message from God with a brief prayer and the congregation is dismissed. God must be shaking his head in disbelief that we have so generously discarded all the music testimonies over the years in lieu of some of the songs that have 7 words and 7 notes. I doubt many of our young people in our Churches today have any idea of what it feels like to have the Power of God and the Anointing of his Spirit pour over them. It’s a shame that they aren’t and won’t experiencing the legacy that was left to us by our parents. If bridging the “Gap” between the older and younger people with the new Contemporary Music was working why has Church membership declined so enormously over the past 25 -30 years, which is about the time the Contemporary Music was introduced into our Churches ???


    I was born in 1942. I first attended Church while in my Mothers arms. I grew up in Church with the Hymns of old. I do not wish to hear them just because I like the music. Worshiping with/through the old Hymns was a significant part of bringing me to God Almighty/The Lord Jesus Christ. It is a worship “need” for me, and always will be. Too many Churches nowadays steadfastly refuse to recognize this worship need; a need which a good number of older folks have. It has caused a good number of older folks to leave the Church they were in; not because they were selfish about the music they wanted to hear, but it is a worship need. I recently rescinded my membership in a Church. No more traditional service. I was one of a long line of folks that are now going elsewhere. I just found a Church that has a tradition service, with a choir, an organ, and a piano, and old Hymns. This Church also has two contemporary services. Contemporary Christian music is fine for those that can actually worship with the loudness and redundancy in the choruses; somehow finding some connection with God, and some reverence. God Bless all Christians, no matter what music they prefer. Your Brother In Christ, Andy


      We can’t be so stubborn though. I love both Contemporary and Hymns. A lot of elderly people use the fact that they “hate” contemporary music as a good excuse to get what they want. It is also proven than contemporary music attracts new visitors. I think a church should have a mix of both. In terms of a choir, piano, organ, etc…. this are dying out. Choirs don’t serve a purpose for the future generations as of now. Organs are dying out in many churches as well. If churches are unwilling to change the way they reach out to people (not change Christian beliefs), churches will die.


    Why can’t we all realize that we are all different? Some people would prefer to not have music at all. Some people like the hymns, some like contemporary praise and some like a mix. As the writer stated, there is no right or wrong as long as we are singing to our heavenly Father. I prefer contemporary music, but I was raised on and do know all the old hymns. Many churches offer more than one style of service. Isn’t the thing we should be happy about is that each person in a service, regardless of it’s style, is in church? I don’t attend the traditional service at my church by I fully support it being offered for those who feel God’s presence through that type of service. Attend the service that brings you closer, makes you stronger and allows you to be in His presence and let others do the same.

    Sharyl Mennenga

    We recently attended a church that for the most part of the service consisted of a praise team up in front singing for all they were worth while the congregation stood at attention some joining in the praise choruses and others merely standing. There is no sense to the “praise team” showing off their talents with singing the same 7 words 11 times through. This is not worship. It is a show. They make like they are really getting into those same 7 words by raising their hands as if they are praising the Lord. They are merely praising themselves. We in the church of God have lost the beautiful old hymns in which scripture is repeated and God is truly praised for all He has done and is doing for us. Let’s get back to the basics of worship where God is the center of attention, not a group of showoffs putting on a performance.

      Chad B.

      Please don’t tell others what the members of the praise team were doing (this is not worship, it is a show). God is the only one that can see a person’s heart. Maybe them getting into the song is true worship of the King and not just a show. Is it okay to lift your hands in worship as long as it’s when a hymn is being sung? Is it okay to show off your talents only when singing a hymn? I certainly am not going to try to interpret what those in my congregation’s intent is when they sing a song, I would ask you to do the same.


        Dear Chad, how be you don’t tell people what they can and cannot say & do?simply because you disagree with it. People, including you Chad, have every right to express their observations, concerns and opinions concerning praise and worship or any other issues. The pretense of piety does not mask attempts to control the dialogue. If their praise team looked like it was performing a show rather than leading the congregation in praise then that is a valid comment and what right do you or anyone else to dismiss it? I often hear this line, ” God is the only one to know people’s heart –being completely abused and I see no where in the Bible where we are told not to use common sense and GOD gifted wisdom & discernment observe words, actions, behaviors and even to see intentions. People expose what is in their hearts all the time.


          This reply is a bit late, but I would like to add that regardless of a person’s judgement on others, it truly is only God that can see a person’s intentions. One cannot simply group all bands together in such a way and claim to know what is in a person’s heart fully. I believe Chad was not completely dismissing it, rather he was trying to convey that no other than the Lord can truly say whether or not a person believes what they are singing. Some worship leaders may put on a show and have distracted hearts, but the same can be said for hymn leaders or people singing in a congregation in general. A person can have the most beautiful of voices but a vile heart. Also, because worship is something done individually, even if the praise team were to be only seeking attention, as long as those who are singing in the congregation are truly worshiping God, this would not matter. There is no way to know what is in one’s heart, and so there is no way to discern whether or not someone is truly worshipping with their entire being. Regardless of who is leading the song, as long as the words that are sung are in tandem with the scriptures, anyone can worship. I hope that you, and others, will find truth in this and that my reply will not be taken harshly. It is also my hope that God has lead me to type these things and not my own person.


    First, the description of a hymn was ludicrous, by any objective standard. Second, most choruses are shallow in content while this anecdote makes it appear that hymns and choruses are equal in content. Third, contemporary music is not just about choruses, though many if not most are shallow in content; they carry with them amplification and instrumentation that drown out all but the soloist singing at the front, sometimes with backup singers. Fourth, contemporary worship, when a hymn is sung, cannot resist messing with the arrangement, adding a chorus in the middle, and changing keys and harmony lines. Why? Are the semi-pro musicians at the front, whose worship is all that apparently matters, just that bored?

      Chad B.

      I thought that the description of the hymn could actually be considered quite accurate by some people, so I don’t think the description is ludicrous at all. I will agree that some choruses are “shallow” in content, but there are quite a few that have great content. If you look at the top songs in CCLI, there are many with great depth behind them, and not just a few words being repeated over and over (This is Amazing Grace, 10,000 Reasons, Lord I need You, etc.). Regarding the volume issue, that really varies from church to church, no matter the style of music that is being played. I personally like the variety that come with adding a chorus to a hymn, but also appreciate singing it as it was originally written. I don’t think that adding harmony lines, using certain instruments, or (fill in the blank) is a good or bad thing, simply a preference. I’m guessing that there are some people that would suggest that you are being closed minded by thinking that most anything new that is introduced, whether from a musical or technical perspective, is bad/wrong. Remember, different styles of music speak to us all differently, otherwise there would only be one style. Believe it or not, scream metal and rap have been known to help bring people to Christ…


    Great story, but I’d love to see your source for attributing it to Jonathan Edwards.

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