Thursday, August 06, 2009

Is Contemporary vs. Traditional Worship the Wrong Debate?

Proponents of "contemporary worship" often advocate their style on the grounds that the contemporary style is appealing and helps people worship. Proponents of "traditional worship" also believe their style fosters worship, and many of them likewise find their style appealing.

I think it's possible that both are right, but that the people they're appealing to and the people they're helping worship are simply distinct cultures within Christianity today. I wonder whether these proponents of different styles are simply applying the homogeneous unit principle to different musical styles. In other words, I'm increasingly convinced that we should be talking less about contemporary vs. traditional and more about the value of simplicity or "mereness."

Mike McKinley wrote a piece on the 9Marks blog that makes a similar point. He says:
I'm becoming convinced that the way to become all things to all people is to make our churches less culturally specific, not more. The more we consciously try to accommodate our church gatherings so that they appeal to the surrounding culture, the more we alienate everyone else who doesn't identify with that culture. In our effort to become all things to all people, we sometimes become all things to only a very narrow slice of people.
How exactly do you do this? How do you get rid of unnecessary cultural trappings? Yeah, great question. I'm not totally sure. But here are a few ideas:
  1. Choose music because the text is rich, not because you like the tune or the arrangement or the fact that it's on the top 40 Christian chart or because they sing it at the Wilds.
  2. Include more congregational singing and less performed music (choirs, solos, etc.)
  3. Choose music that reflects the whole range of Christian experience. Sing songs that are meditative, plaintive, and sorrowful, not just the bouncy, happy stuff.
  4. Reduce the volume of your instrumentation. You'll help the congregation hear itself and encourage their own volume, and you'll also limit one of the most culturally conditioned aspects of musical style. And that applies to bass guitars and organs, drums and violas.
  5. If you're fortunate enough to be in the middle of designing an auditorium, build it to amplify congregational singing, not to deaden the congregation and amplify performed music from a stage.
David Nelson of Southeastern Seminary has some related thoughts on technology and congregational singing here. His conclusion:
In the end, if the elements of worship, or our actions in worship, or use of media, or technology, garner more attention in a worship service than Christ, then something is out of order. Christ is the sovereign, not technology or anything (or anyone) else. We need to be more cautious about making a servant (technology) the master in our public assemblies.


Anonymous said...
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Ben said...

This thread will not be dragged off topic by an anonymous post that's beyond implausible, as much as I'd share the thrust of the criticism.

Scott Aniol said...

Amen. Amen. and Amen! Again, I'm in absolute full agreement.

I've often told people that if I planted a church tomorrow, we'd have no special music. We'd read the Scriptures, sing hymns, pray, give, and preach.

Special music, while it can be very helpful (and has in the past) is more of a distraction today exactly because of the reasons you cited.

Thinking about worship and music these days, huh? :)

Scott Aniol said...

Oh, and by the way, the term I use to describe this music philosophy (as revealed in my taxonomy) is "modest worship." Not flash, no spectacle, no pizzaz. Just simple, unadorned worship.

Which, by the way, was a distinctive of Baptist worship for a long time...

Dan Salter said...

I'm not sure I understand the reasons for a few of the suggestions to get rid of surrounding culture. The first is to choose music because the text is rich--fine so far. But why add that you should not choose because you like the tune? Okay, maybe in an either-or scenario I can understand this, and maybe that was your intent. But ignoring the interest of the tune often makes even the best written poetry uninspiring and therefore unworshipful.
The second point listed is to include more congregational singing and less performed music. This is a difficult one for me. Is the reasoning because performed music is not worship delivered by the bulk of the worshippers? If so, I'm not sure I fully agree. When I purchase Christian music to listen to at home, I do not turn down the volume and make sure I sing along louder than the CD in order to be worshipful. I believe my heart is in worship based on the involvement of my mind and heart, not necessarily the involvement of my voice. I'm not trying to make an either-or statement here. Yes, I want to worship with my voice, and yes, I enjoy hearing others in gathered worship lift up their voices. But it appears often in the discussion that performed music is an enemy. I believe performed music can bring a congregant's mind and heart to worship in an effective manner. Consider the attendance at a non-religious presentation like, say, Les Miserables. I can't imagine that the imagination-capturing and thrill of soul (all with my mind's conscious involvement)would be enhanced by the performers turning the volume down and allowing the audience to take over the singing. I realize that to an extent I'm doing an apples to oranges comparison since worship gathering has so many more elements and its direction is different. But some points are similar. And for those points, performed music clearly is beneficial.
Lastly (and I apologize for the length), I think we should also be careful how much culture we get rid of under the presumption that it is unnecessary. For cultural concerns that do not violate our biblical responsibilities, we may do well to examine them closely for their impact. If we in society are accustomed to a certain way of doing things and come to a church gathering where those cultural norms are disregarded, we may find that instead of producing more contemplation, we may end up with more subconscious distraction. -- just a thought.

Tammie said...

perhaps it would be more helpful not to put more emphasis on the details than the scriptures do.

Ben said...


1. I'm not suggesting we should prefer bad tunes. My point is that godly people will have different preferences when it comes to tunes, and we shouldn't get locked into our personal preferences. Thanks for drawing out that clarification.

2. You're right. Les Mis is apples to oranges. You took the words right off of my keyboard. The difference is so foundational that it's not useful as an analogy. I'm arguing in this post that performed music tends to be more culturally distinct—less accessible and helpful to a larger number of people—than congregational singing. There's a worthwhile, broader discussion on performed music, but that's my specific point here.

3. Your concern is valid, and I wouldn't argue for a hasty abandonment of norms that are deeply ingrained in any particular church.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your emphasis upon congregational singing and participation. While some things in our culture are worthy of assimilating into worship, our growing tendency to be spectators is NOT!

Anonymous said...

It would seem that I've come late to this discussion. In our church, unfortunatly, worship music has become the battleground with the congregation lining up on both sides of the aisle, and few wandering no-man's land where they can turn around and appreciate either form of worship. We recently brought our traditional and contemporary services back together as one. We realized that parents were separated from worshiping with their older (college age and beyond) children, grandparents removed from their grandchildren, and generations separated. As a mixed congregation, we are striving for musical worship that lies somewhere in-between. I appreciate the comment that we should choose good text, but I disagree with the notion that the tune shouldn't be important as well. The idea of playing at a lower volume so the congregation can hear themselves and thus contribute more to worship is a great idea. I can't tell you how many people have told me they are frustrated by overly loud music and they can't even hear themselves sing. Lastly, God is the center of our worship, and music is only one way to worship. Create an attitude of reflection and prayer. Appeal to different worship styles with ambiance, video, perhaps even candles. Pray for God to turn the focus of the church outward toward others, then there will be less room for criticism.

mlinger said...

The purpose of having qualified musical leadership is twofold.
1. To enhance the congregational singing.
2. To enhance the quality of the offering to God that is part of worship (Firstfruits).

Over-amplification of the leadership, be it an organ or a gaggle of worship leaders behind microphones serves only to drown out the congregation. The congregation therefore quits singing. In a downhill spiral, the leadership decides the amplification must not be loud enough and they amp it up even more. Good accompaniment enhances the congregation and plays second fiddle to the congregational singing.

Many forums such as this focus solely on peoples' opinions (I like this music or don't like that music). But many people have aesthetic reasons for desiring quality music. Example:

A well written 4 part hymn, sung from a hymnal so the music is present, has potential to represent the interaction of the different parts of the Christian body acting in concert. Take away the hymnal, and you take away the parts. Use a guitar, and you automatically get wrong inversions, wrong chord progressions, and DON'T get the four parts played. A guitar can NOT physically accompany a hymn in a healthy manner.

Also, in most cases, the text of the "old hymns" is significantly superior in content and poetry to many of the CCM ditties. I am speaking generally, of course - there are hymns that don't say much and choruses that say a lot.

My biggest hangup is that where a healthy church relies on the knowledge, training, and maturity of its Elders to guide doctrine, and relies on the knowledge, training, and maturity of its Deacons and treasurers to maintain financial health, many churches throw out the knowledge, training, and maturity of trained musicians, chalking them up to being snobs or elitists.

Finally, many churches focus musically on what is "liked." At that point, it becomes entertainment as opposed to discipleship. In a traditional church I used to attend, we had two world-class violinists who are also strong Christians. One of them finally politely asked the congregation (via letter) NOT to clap for him after special music or offertories. Whenone person responded "I'm clapping for Jesus," he replied, "Do you also clap for beautiful sunsets or a good sermon?" Clapping = acknowledgement of entertainment.