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Is Music Snobbery Hurting Worship?

 

 
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Author: Kim Hewitt
 
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Posted July 18, 2016 by

I

t 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. 


18 Comments


  1.  
    chantilly

    Hymn lyrics don’t bother me as much as a mismatch between room acoustics, instrumentation, and sound amplification. I DO NOT want to listen any musical ensemble when their sound is going to bounce all over the room, exceed healthy decibel levels, and cause microphone feedback despite the equipment and software programming in place to eliminate or minimize it.

    I go to a church where it takes 3 seconds for sound to “decay”—the echo factor to fade out. The sanctuary is built with a shelled “sweet spot” where someone can stand, speak, and be heard throughout the ENTIRE sanctuary (church was built in 1912). If instrumentation and vocals get too loud–I sit in the mezzanine level, halfway to the back wall of the church–everybody hears about it. I have a pair of earplugs handy as well.

    “Rocking out” in a church may indeed create an exciting atmosphere for worship; I find it aurally painful. My preferred instrumentation is acoustic/minimal electric, four to five people. IF our church ever got a praise band that was convinced it had to play loud, I’d be leaving.




  2.  
    Mary

    How can we “sing a new song to the Lord,” if all we ever do is sing the songs written in a previous generation. Those songs were composed out of that generation’s deep devotion and in styles that expressed for them those feelings and theology. Every generation and “every thing that has breath praise the Lord” in a way that is new and fresh from their own hearts. Our Lord deserves nothing less as His mercies are new every morning.




  3.  
    Keifer

    I appreciate the sentiment of this article, but I fear that sometimes when trying to appeal to too many people we run the risk of not reaching any. I think that having a focused service can be just as rewarding for a congregation.

    I propose a solution where you tailor services to particular taste. You have a traditional praise (appealing to baby boomers/midlifers), a contemporary praise (youth and early adults), a traditional service with hymns (ye old classics) and “mixing it up” once and a while within those structures. I do agree that you should introduce your congregations to different kinds/eras of music, but it needs to be within a general preference taste of the service. If you go so far as to have one kind of each in every service it can be confusing for people and leave people who only liked one or two songs unsatisfied wanting more music to which they relate.




    •  
      Allan

      Doing this creates more divide than already exists in our congregations. The myriad generations need to worship corporately/together – not split by their age. The traditional service followed by the contemporary service does not serve the cause of unity since younger people will rarely interact with older folks in a corporate worship setting. This is important to the health and mission of any church.




  4.  
    Carolyn Null

    I love a mixture of the two types of music.

    When we were still in Grade School, we spent our Summer days in the woods. We would play Church by singing “The Old Rugged Cross” and “How Great Thou Art” and etc. When we would sing “The Old Rugged Cross” at our church, I would remember how reverent we were when we built the cross, and prayed in the woods. It would bring back those memories and my tears would fall like rain (I had to keep tissues close at hand). That was the beginning of my religion and my love of Christian music. My Mother would always sing in a quartet at church and my Father played in a country band. At that time, we did not have money for me to learn anything about music.




  5.  
    Beth

    I’m a little sad that we are still even having to address this topic, although I do appreciate the way in which it was addressed here. It’s just been going on for way too long. Why are we arguing over what type of music is “right” when we should be more concerned about sharing the love of Jesus with those who don’t know Him? God did not place us on this earth to decide the rightness of musical style. He did place us on this earth to be salt and light to others. Imagine how much more effective we could be if we just got to it!




  6.  
    Jim

    Do you know that when Bach died in 1750, his music was ignored for 79 years? Ignored in favor of a more modern style of music. Are you familiar with the beautiful antiphonal anthems of the Renaisance in the 1400’s, so ethereal and lovely? In the 1500’s a group of musical experts referred to as the Florentine Camerata declared it vain and too fleshly because of its flowery phrases. They banned it from usage in the Church and declared “one note, one word” to be the order of the day. And when the great preacher Dwight L. Moody toured Europe with his worship leader, the amazing gospel song composer Ira D. Sankey (Blessed Redeemer, Faith Is the Victory), people left in anger when they heard his “gospel songs.” He carried a little pump organ “on tour” and sang and played it for his own accompaniment. Abomination, some cried, shaking their fists as they left the building.

    There is nothing new under the sun, Ecclesiastes tells us, and it’s true. I’m 61, leading worship as I have for over 45 years, and I’m presently singing Tomlin and playing a cranked Stratocaster. I was raised under the hymns and love them. I participated in the Guitar Wars of the 60’s, the Devil’s in Them Drums Wars of the 70’s and 80’s, and it’s still going on today. So, go find what you like and whatever brings you closer to God and don’t worry about the rest. The bickering over music will never end. As for me at this point in my life, I would rather sing Matt Redman’s 10000 Reasons than How Great Thou Art any day of the week.




    •  
      Mary Houtz

      You make good points about the history. The is nothing new. Anything different is always set a side for a while by the masses in every discipline. Think of Louis Pasteur and Simmelweis in medicine. The idea of microscopic germs and the need to wash hands was laughed at. As far as the two songs one by Matt Redman and the other How Great Thou Art, both touch me deeply in worship….anointed lyrics and well constructed tunes.




    •  
      Kitty Sheehy

      AMEN and AMEN




  7.  

    Pretty sure that article you are mentioning is the same one that came to my inbox from a well meaning friend this past week. As I read the article I felt that the author’s take on the subject was biased and seemed pretty elitest. Your response is very well written, balanced and encouraging on many levels. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

    I think I’m going to forward your article to my friend. Many blessings to you!




  8.  

    All of our traditional hymns were contemporary at their inception. Worship is constantly changing and adapting. God bless us for being creative in the development of our music.




  9.  
    Steve Thomas

    As our congregations are diverse, so are their musical tastes. And we always try to provide balance. So, a typical worship set recently:
    1 – praise and worship song (“Offering”)
    1 – country gospel song (“I Saw the Light”)
    1 – southern gospel song (“Turn Your Radio On”)
    1 – traditional hymn (“Have Thine Own Way”).

    Instrumentation is sometimes complex traks, sometimes worship band, sometimes a single instrument (guitar or piano).

    It’s ALL good. But no one style appeals to everyone.




  10.  
    Mal

    I agree with many of the sentiments in this article. For many people, worship has more to do with nostalgia than anything spiritual. Additionally, I challenge the assumption that new or “contemporary” music is not spiritually deep. Many of the new songs have great theology. And, if you care to admit it, there were more than a few hymns that were shallow and/or repetitious. It’s not the age of the song that makes it valuable, it’s the content.




  11.  
    Mark

    Great article…it is a blessing to hear the truth of worship styles and the biblical reasonings for what we do, as we do it to accommodate and uplift others…Colossians 3:16. Refreshing to hear all the positives over the pedantic arguments of what is and what isn’t appropriate…you robbed the snobbers!!! Bless you sister…




  12.  

    Thank you so much for this article. As you said, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”




  13.  
    Karen Gage

    A very good and thought provoking article, Kim. How can anyone of us not recognize that God is a God who loves variety. Each one of us is so unique and our God had made us to express His goodness and love in a variety of ways. Ways that reach others with God’s truths and love. Yes, I do enjoy so much the classic hymns but I also have many contemporary songs that I truly enjoy because of the uplifting beat and joy in the message. We are all different but we should enjoy the differences and appreciate the creativeness God has given each of us as we worship, praise and show His great love for others through the leading of His Spirit in music and song. May God be praised!




  14.  
    Lisa

    I could not agree with you more Kim!
    I honestly love the new or contemporary worship music as much as some of the old hymns.
    Can’t imagine worship without “Nothing but the Blood” or “How Great Thou Art”.
    Music is like any art, you can admire the “new” with “cherishing” the old.
    Enjoyed the article; )





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