Growing up as a child of the 80’s and early 90’s I remember well the shift that happened in my church when the hymns that our denomination had been singing for generations began to be challenged by the newer worship choruses that were being written around that time. As many people of that era experienced, there were some distinct growing pains that occurred and not a small amount of conflict that arose during that time that we now look back on and affectionately call the “Worship Wars.”
Whether or not you personally experienced a “war” in your own congregation, it is almost a certainty that if you attend or attended a church that doesn’t sing traditional hymns exclusively today, at some point there was some kind of shift that occurred. While many churches survived this cultural change and have now arrived at either a compromise of the two styles or have chosen one or the other, I am noticing a new tug-of-war of sorts occur within many congregations that embrace new music.
I was chatting with a former mentor of mine and fellow worship leader recently, and he pointed out a very poignant analysis of today’s church predicament. To quote his question; “When does a song become old in a culture of perpetual new songs?” In other words, at what point does our fascination with singing the latest songs that are popular come at the expense of singing songs that our members love? Many churches I have been a part of, my home church included, have certain choruses that the congregation loves to sing regardless of how popular those songs may be today.
This question also addresses the idea of a common language within the Church of today as it relates to music. Back when classic hymns were the predominant music of the church, you could pretty much walk into any congregation in America or even around the world and know most of the songs being sung. And if you didn’t know the song and could read music, you could pick up a hymnal and jump right in. (But that’s perhaps a topic for another time.)
This universal song language still exists today to a certain extent. I think you would be hard pressed to find a church body in most places today that doesn’t at least know or hasn’t sung “How Great Is Our God” or “Open the Eyes of My Heart” at least at some point. With the CCLI Top 25 chart, many worship leaders are able to see what their peers around the globe are singing on any given Sunday. And I think this is a good thing. None the less, with the massive proliferation of new worship music, we are undoubtedly going to find that there is a certain diversity that exists today between churches that was not there 50 years ago. How we embrace this diversity, I believe, says a lot about our roles as music curators in our ministries.
Several years ago I visited a very popular urban church in a large city that was on the cutting edge of culture and art. While the music was great and I really enjoyed it, I didn’t know any of the songs and, to an extent, felt much more like an observer than a participant. While I’m sure the regular attendees of this church felt a deep connection with the songs, they likely would have a very similar experience to mine if they visited a different church.
For me, the purpose of asking these questions is not to point out specific answers but, rather, to suggest the importance of asking them. As human beings, we gravitate to that which comes natural to us. For some of us that may be the pursuit of what is fresh and new and exciting. For others it may be the quest to uphold the traditions and rituals of the past to preserve what is sacred or precious. Neither or these pursuits is wrong. At the same time, I love the idea of being intentional in all we do as leaders. If as a worship leader I am guilty of falling into what comes easily or doesn’t require intentional examination, I am doing a disservice to the ministry and the people I serve.
One final parting thought on this topic. I would encourage all of us leaders to always welcome and seek out good counsel and feedback. At the end of the day, the decision of what songs to sing lies with us as worship leaders but that should never dissuade us for asking our congregation members what they like to sing. Maybe it would be a worthwhile exercise to take a minute this week to ask this question to a few people in your church. You might be surprised at the answers you get!
Eric Heinrichs is a worship leader in Southern California. For more information or to connect with him please visit worshiptones.org.