Editor’s Note: Don Moore, retired executive director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, recently concluded a research project to further understanding of worship styles within the church. This article is a result of that project.
Perhaps no part of church life is beset with more controversy and difference of opinion than styles of worship. Most evangelicals understand there will be prayers, and offerings. These do not seem to draw much fire in terms of controversy or conflict. So, for purposes of this article, we need to narrow our discussion to worship music.
Whether we call it praise, singing, shouting, or otherwise exalting the Lord and His name, music has always been an integral part of the corporate life of the followers of the Lord. In Psalm 150 we are counseled to use every kind of instrument and everyone to use their breath in praising the Lord. Going into battle, coming out of battle, building a physical structure, celebrating the pinnacle of redemptive activity, the death of Jesus–music figured large in the life of Israel and the followers of Christ. The climax of praise and worship is best seen in the visions God gave the Apostle John in the book of Revelation. Saints of Old and New Testaments united with angels in heralding the glory, honor and majesty of Jesus as the coming conqueror and reigning King. (I wonder if the angels liked the music the earth people chose?) There was one person, one voice, and one purpose to their worship. It seems their praise was so spontaneous, and spirit directed that they had no leader. They actually did—the leader was the Holy Spirit and they all agreed on the key, the lyrics, the tune and the volume. Until we can do that together in Heaven, we will probably have to contend with the difference and preferences that we all have.
One would think that the greatness of the Lord, His Word and work would be enough that we could unite around them. David’s understanding was clear. Psalm 138:1–2 (ESV) “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.” Our common focus on His name and His Word would seem to be a powerful bond to unite us. The shared benefits of His saving grace and promised future glory are powerful realities that could and should prompt united praise.
But no! The most glorious realities of our living faith have been superseded by our individual preferences and tastes in music. This battle has been in existence ever since Israel returned to rebuild the Wall and the Temple. The old people compared it to the old and wept. The young people did not know any difference and they rejoiced. There was a lot of noise, but they were not united. Ezra 3:12–13 (ESV) “But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.”
Having lived through seventy years of ministry, I have been a witness to what has happened and would hope that a few simple facts would help us to understand, accept and appreciate the worship preferences of each other. After all, when Paul challenged the Ephesian Christians to encourage each other with “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” he went on to charge them Ephesians 5:21 (ESV) “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” At the least, that would mean that I would yield to your preferences some time out of “reverence for Christ.”
One choice of music might minister to another brother or sister greatly. We should be grateful. The next selection might minister to another. Those not preferring that number should rejoice that another was blessed, and that God has been praised. Worship is not about getting what we want, but God getting what He wants.
It is a false assumption to consider that younger people do not appreciate the hymns of another generation. It is likewise a false assumption that older people do not like the modern songs of the present generation. The older music usually focuses on the objective realities of God, so they usually have more doctrinal content to them. Modern music focuses more on the subjective, the individual experiences one may have with God. As one friend put it, “A lot of the contemporary songs are written by people with no theological training or background, so they don’t see the need to reinforce the doctrinal beliefs of people. To them, all that matters is our experiential relationship with God.”
Some comparisons of where we are and how we got here may help us with understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of our different worship styles:
Many young worship leaders today have never known anything but contemporary music. They confess, unashamedly, that they do not know hymns. In older traditional churches, the older people have never known anything but hymns.
Most of the churches whose music ministry serves as models for others are newer churches that have grown up in recent years and were never oriented to hymns for worship. The membership has been made up of mostly younger people from their beginning. There were no older people to consider. Intergenerational or multigenerational worship was never a reality to face.
Little, if anything, seems to have been done to help such worship leaders integrate the two into a unified worship family. Consequently, the injection of modern music into older traditional churches means older people are expected to comply with the youthful preferences with little consideration of their preferences. There are some churches that have made the adjustments, but often it is not the case. Numerous churches can be viewed online that are using both the old and the modern in their worship services.
Let’s face it. We are at different places in life. We have traveled a different road to get here. While the influences that brought us here are vastly different, it should not surprise us that we have ended up with different preferences. If we can focus on WHO brought us together—Jesus, and His gracious provision—perhaps we can once again “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep.”
For God’s sake, may His praises be overwhelming, and His honor preserved by us having united hearts before His throne. Let’s understand there is a reason for us being as we are; accept that being different is not necessarily evil and then appreciate anything that blesses another brother or sister. Then we can obey scripture and “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Eph. 5:21
A great word, Don! And a true word! I’m going to share this with my students. I would add to your word that we have to train up people and hire people who have great theological and musical training. We can’t choose great songs without solid theology. We can’t lead great songs for a multi-generational church without skill and training. I don’t mean this as a self-serving comment meaning send your students to Worship Studies at Ouachita (though you certainly can! :-)). We just have to put 1/2 of our collective times together as a church ( the Sunday worship) in the hands of a solid singing theologian who loves God and loves God’s people. :-). I love and respect you and your wisdom. Again, I thank you for your words today!!!
Thank you, Bro. Larry! You are so right! The heavy doctrine in the old hymns came from a need to reinforce great doctrines from the Reformation and Counteract the heresy coming out of the Enlightenment. Let’s pray that God will bring us through these transitional challenges with a stronger faith and more spiritual worship. He is certainly Worthy!
So sad that so many church stopped having graded choirs.