America’s church environment and culture have changed radically in the last three decades. Some are distraught while others are elated about the changes. Probably the most controversial of church refashioning is the evolution of worship substance and style. Some have dubbed the discord “worship wars.” Although more contemporary praise and worship have become accepted in many churches, others are holding a tight grip on the traditional hymns. Let’s look at what is really at stake here.
I’m a septuagenarian. No, that is not a church denomination. It means I have been blessed to have matured to seventy-something years of age. In my youth and early adult years, worship in church by singing was exclusively in four part harmony from a hymn book. Most of the hymns were written by centuries-old lyricists, and set to old secular melodies. Usually, the song leader would announce that we would be singing the first, second, and last verses from the hymnals stowed in the seat backs. Often, there would be a choir on the platform consisting of people who could actually sing harmony. Most Sundays, the choir or soloist would sing a “special” from the hymnal or other source.
Contrast that with today’s worship services typically consisting of four to six singers on the platform usually backed up by musicians on guitars, electric keyboards, and drums. This “praise team” leads the congregation in praise and worship songs with lyrics on a big screen rather than in a hymn book. The messages of the songs are more simple than in the past. The music is at a higher volume and at a more modern beat and style than that of days gone by.
Churches across America are presently experiencing a wide range of transition from traditional to contemporary worship. Some are hanging on in defiant deference to the old worship styles and hymnals. Others have completely welcomed the popular praise team concept. Yet many are trying to keep one foot in traditional music and one foot in contemporary by mixing hymns and praise songs sung with both a choir and a praise team. One thing is common with almost all churches moving through this generational passage: some level of internal worship wars.
Those who defend traditional worship often bemoan the loudness and what they consider a “rock and roll” style. Some disfavor the “performance-like” presentation with showy lighting and big screens. Others decry the lyrics as being too generic and simple and not doctrinally edifying. My comfort level with contemporary worship is sometimes challenged by the first two concerns. I believe churches can get a little over-the-top with amplification and showmanship that may be too man-centered and may not honor and glorify God. However, I have to challenge the idea that the lyrics and style of the old hymns were better suited for worship.
Yes, my old-school worship foundation made it somewhat difficult for me to initially warm up to singing repeated lines of lyrics that sometimes don’t even rhyme. But the more I compared the traditional with the contemporary, the more God helped me realize that the contemporary lyrics were much closer to how God instructed us to worship. For the most part, hymns are sung “about” the Lord and are mostly instructive. Contemporary songs are primarily sung “to” the Lord and are expressing our love and devotion to Him. Church congregations have many other outlets for doctrine and instruction in sermons and Bible studies. Worship is a connection to God and a musical conversation with Him. With a few exceptions, the songs in the Psalms are praises and odes to God. The Psalms were sung with various musical instruments. Note Psalm 92:
It is good to praise the Lord and make music to Your name, O Most High, to proclaim Your love in the morning and Your faithfulness at night, to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp. For You make me glad by Your deeds, O Lord; I sing for joy at the works of Your hands. How great are Your works, O Lord, how profound Your thoughts!
One final thought. I have lived through the entire worship evolution from hymns and choirs to praise and worship with praise teams. I must say I sometimes have a nostalgic yearning for the former type of worship. However, when I observe the younger generations enthusiastically worshiping with higher energy, higher volume, and higher levels of connectivity with their Creator, I am happy to support them and join them in their preferred and biblical style.