It seems to be en vogue right now for worship leaders to write long articles decrying the use of contemporary music in worship services. Just this past week I read one that makes the case for the “abandonment of most contemporary songs.” Aspiring young leaders and seasoned older ones tout the superior theological content of classic hymns while complaining about the repetitive nature of contemporary music. (King David got the same complaint about Psalm 136. “Quit repeating ‘His love endures forever’” was the actual comment in ancient Hebrew. “We GET it!”)
Can I plead, in the most engaging way possible, that we quit trying to limit God’s artistic inspiration to a specific era and realize that there are tremendous benefits to admitting that artists have been faithfully writing music appropriate for worship services for the past couple millennia? It is the height of musical snobbery to pick one style of music and insist that God can ONLY use classic hymns or ONLY use contemporary to draw us close to Him!
A hymn can be defined as “…a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshipper’s attitude toward God.”
We must continue to sing traditional hymns because they reverently and lyrically engage with mind with rich theology. These hymns remind us that God was “long beforehand with my soul” (“I Sought the Lord”) and “as Thou has been, Thou forever wilt be!” (“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”).
We must sing contemporary songs because they reverently and devotionally engage the heart with great depth of feeling and conviction. The recent song “Oceans” (Crocker, Houston, Lighthelm) begs “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders. Let me walk upon the waters wherever you would call me.” The theology is sound and our heart is made to yearn for this kind of faith in God’s plan for our lives.
Thomas Aquinas said, “A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.”
We must praise God with classic hymns because our ancestors were able to use art and language in beautiful ways. We can visualize God, our Mighty Fortress as our “bulwark that never fails.” We feel the Horatio Spafford’s anguish as he underwent terrible trials yet could say, “It is Well with my Soul” because of the assurances found in God’s word.
We must exalt God with contemporary songs because all theology with no passion fails to show gratitude to the God that created both. Just as we are encouraged to sometimes focus on one verse of Scripture to fully grasp its message, it is just as valuable in worship to focus on one aspect of God’s character and spend a whole song praising Him for it! If we ONLY use older hymns, it is easy to become so bogged down in the “why” and “how” that we fail to adore the “Who!”
A quote by Pastor Michael McCartney, at Christian Hills Church in Orland Hills, IL, states,
There are…major reasons why we so often fail to touch many non-Christians with the Gospel. Firstly, we frequently present the good news in language and from a viewpoint which does not actually engage with non-Christians and their real felt needs, or take into account the culture they live in.
We must outreach with classic hymns because some non-Christians that come to our churches will be drawn to God by something familiar from their past. Many people grew up being taken to church by a family member and to hear a familiar hymn will reach their hearts like nothing else could. We need to be doing everything possible to reach those that don’t know Christ!
We must outreach with contemporary songs because 99.32% (I made that number up…) of non-Christians do not have their radio tuned to the hymn station. Classic hymns can sometimes be inaccessible to those who are searching and a song with a good beat and lyrics that describe a meaningful relationship with Christ will capture them like a hymn couldn’t. And after all, we need to be doing everything possible to reach those that don’t know Christ! We seem to forget that church isn’t just about the Christians. If you haven’t invited someone to church with you lately, worship style is the least of your problems.
Our worship is enriched when we are able to truly embrace the brilliant diversity that God gives us in both the ancient liturgies and the passionate offerings of today. The gifted worship leaders sharing the Good News with electric guitars are no less inspired than the hymn writers of old. Each use the idioms of their culture to reach their peers for Christ and we can do no less. Pope John Paul II gave us a beautiful reminder of the weighty responsibility of our role as worship leaders.
Today, as yesterday, musicians, composers, liturgical chapel cantors, church organists and instrumentalists must feel the necessity of serious and rigorous professional training. They should be especially conscious of the fact that each of their creations or interpretations cannot escape the requirement of being a work that is inspired, appropriate and attentive to aesthetic dignity, transformed into a prayer of worship when, in the course of the liturgy, it expresses the mystery of faith in sound.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Kimberly Hewitt is the Worship Director at Caledonia Christian Reformed Church and at New Life Community Church in Caledonia and Wayland, MI. She is married to Pastor Michael and they have 6 amazing kids ranging in age from 4 to 15.