Worship Wars….Kicking Up Again

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Jesus found me at a point in history where the “worship wars” were in full swing, though I was both chronologically and in faith to realize it at the time.  Thankfully, I came to faith in a Mennonite environment where people still knew how to sing so hymns tended to be sung well (oh, 606, thing of beauty).  Most of my friends in High School liked singing praise music better, but they tended to also sing that well.  In short, hymns verses praise music wasn’t really an argument I was involved with my first two years as a disciple.  I could have been, had I gone to some of the Mennonite congregations that were sparring over the issue – but I was mercifully spared this for the most part.

As such, I developed a much different perspective regarding worship music than a lot of the folks I met in college and seminary – many of whom only wanted to sing praise songs exclusively because that’s what “God is doing today.”  One gentleman I met in seminary was particularly convinced that praise music was the only way to be on board with what “God is doing today.”

I tend to have a deep skepticism regarding statements like that.  In fact, I find it completely bogus.  Good grief, even the Prophets had moments of looking toward the Lord and saying, “What are you doing to me!”  I have no prople with people saying, “Well, it looks like God’s doing something here.”  But the firm declaration of “this is what God is doing,” just rings hollow to me.

Having said that, the style of worship music among Protestants that connects me to the story best is a praise team.  The source of the songs doesn’t matter to me all that much (hymnal, other church, self-written, off of a CD), as long as the content of the song is relatively deep and theologically vetted.  There are songs that grate on my nerves in the hymnal (“I Come to the Garden Alone….” bleck) and out of contemporary music, (“Days of Elijah,” catchy tune – the words make no sense whatsoever and I trip over “There is no God like Jehovah”).  Occassionally, I’d rather just chant some liturgy – but good luck getting that done at a Baptist Church.

My take on worship music tends to confuse worship warriors who tend to want to take sides.  I tend to prefer hymns, but I like them played on electric guitars.  It confuses worship warriors because, even when they begin calling for a truce, continue to think that everything is all or nothing.  A hymn means an organ, and a praise song means a praise band – truces are called so people don’t lose what “territory” they have left to them.  When I start hearing/reading people who remind people about the need for one style of music over the other – it usually means that one side or the other is done licking their wounds and are ready to go another round or two (oftern citing that they don’t want to fight, they just want to make people recognize the importance of whatever style they advocate).  It’s a mess.

Lately, I’ve been seeing more blog entries in defense of keeping hymns in worship – which may spark the very first worship war fought primarily in the blogosphere.  Maybe I’m contributing to it right now, I certainly hope not.  To say that I’ve been disappointed with the posts I’ve read is an understatement.  They are disappointing not because I think hymns are “so 19th Century,” but because the arguments being made in favor of keeping hymns alive in worship are based off of over-blown, antecdotal, or historically innacurate information.  These poor defenses of keeping hymns alive in worship affect me so deeply because I absolutely agree that hymns should never be expunged from worship (even if instrumentation needs to change).  Let me sum up some of the bad arguments and give some responses:

  • Praise music is harder to sing

Sorry, have you ever tried to sing a tent revival song from the early 20th Century?  The rhythm is ofter so weird the only thing I can do is listen.  Stylistic changes do make cross generational singing a bit messy if you have the mentality that one style has to “win.”  But if we can acknowledge that that the style we prefer (and it really is only a matter of preference) is difficult for folks who don’t share our preference to sing, maybe we can develop some empathy for each other.  That would be a good thing – don’t blow it by saying only one style is difficult for some people, though, that’s just not true.

  • With only the words congregations can’t learn the songs ahead of time

I wish that every blogger, worship leader, pastor, and lay-person in the English speaking world had to take a course on the history of English Hymnody before being allow to have  publicly stated opinion on worship.  I really do.  Hymnals as we have them today are recent inventions (yes, in terms of the history of English hymns 100 years is recent).  Hymns were written without tunes in mind – just words.  They were handed off to the music director who created a tune, or adapted a tune, for the words.  Very few people in worship would have known the hymns ahead of time (in John Newton’s case, the children of the congregation may have learned a hymn earlier  – but that was it).  Not knowing songs in advance is not a new development in English-speaking worship.

What’s more, with the pervasiveness of the internet and portable recorded music, it is more likely now than in any part of history that people will know a song sung in a local church for the first time before it’s introduced in worship.

  • Congregations sing songs differently

When hymns were written w/o tunes in mind every congregation that sung a hymn would have sung it differently.  Over time, certainly tunes would “stick” more than others (which is why some songs can be sung to more than one tune even in hymnals today) – but many hymns didn’t find a common tune for decades after they’d been penned.  “Amazing Grace,” for example, didn’t get linked to it’s most familiar tune until the mid 1800’s, decades after the author’s death.  Worship survived, and even thrived, in such a diverse environment.  I think it can survive the relatively slight variations modern worship songs have between congregations.

  • Hymns preserve Christian theology

This isn’t false as must as it is over-stated.  I once taught a Sunday school class on the theology of hymns, and fully embrace that the purpose of much of Christian hymnody was to teach common lay-folk the great doctrines of the faith.  English hymnody is no different in this respect.  I get chills, every time I sing “Joy to the World,” and “And Can It Be” for just this reason – the way in which the lyrics are steeped in the Biblical narative and Christian doctrine is stunning and beautiful.

Here’s the thing – not all hymns do this.  For every “Lift High the Cross” there is “I Come to the Garden Alone.”  The latter being a song more sappy and sentimental than any praise chorus put out in the late 80’s and early 90’s (which is saying a lot, given that many of those songs are nothing more than “Jesus is my boyfriend” music).  Advocates who strive to see hymns kept in worship need to be much more honest that hymns need to be weeded almost as much as the corpus of contemporary(ish) praise music.  Thankfully, contemporary(ish) music has begun to show some good theological saavy – but which both young an old folks have got to understand that people might not necessarily want the theological hymns.  For many folks, what they want is simply what they want.  The entire church needs to be taught how to embrace the depth of worship, no matter what style – so pointing out that one does a better job (when, really, it doesn’t necessarily) doesn’t really help matters.

  • Hymns are more reverential

Please.  This again shows a complete lack of awareness of the history of English hymnody.  Churches that sang hymns, as late at the early 1800’s, were considered low class and “overly enthusiastic.”  In Anglican circles such people were labeled “methodists.”  What were these overly enthusiastic folks singing?  The “more reverential” hymns that people insist are more appropriate for worship today.

All in all, when it comes to worship wars (even the one currently kicking up in the blogosphere), “There is nothing new under the Sun.”  People are still making the same old arguments about music styles that they’ve been making since as early as the 1700’s.  Only the names making the claims have changed.  Also, please note, I critique the side that is advocating for Hymns (not necessarily hymns exclusively) because that is the mentality I have a stronger affinity for.

For my part, I try to swallow my pride as much as I possibly can regarding music styles.  I try to sing choruses as loud as I sing hymns (when I can handle it that early in the morning), I also sing songs that I, personally, can’t stand (though I do draw the line at theological error).  Worship isn’t about me, and it’s certainly not making sure that the things I prefer happen.  Worship warriors, for all their great statements about what “God is doing” and “retaining tradition” seem to miss that point.

Of course, all my orthodox friends are probably reading this and thinking, “Wow, all our music is liturgically prescribed – you Protestants are certainly whacked when it comes to music.”

Some good reading on worship music, as well as some history on English hymnody, would be:

11 Comments

  1. Jamison says:

    Nice post. I agree on most of your points. I also have a very unique perspective on church music in that I was raised in the Salvation Army church. Our hymns were sung to the accompaniment of a 20-30 piece brass band. To this day I can’t stand hearing “Crown Him with Many Crowns” without a horn section.

    I also tend to be one of those people who likes hymns as well as praise music, but I do prefer hymns on something other than an organ. It’s not because I dislike the organ in general, in fact I like listening to a solo organ performing a complex piece. I just hate singing along with it. It’s far to complex an instrument for it to sound good being in the background. I much prefer a varied instrumentation for my hymns.

    On the topic of praise music, the thing that bothers me the most is places that try to do praise music, but don’t have the talent to do it well. I’ve been in many praise bands, and if you don’t have a talented and vibrant worship leader then don’t bother. Too many churches just try to put together a group of anyone who can play. That’s a recipe for disaster, since frankly, it just doesn’t sound that great. If you can’t put together a full band, then just get one guy on a piano as a worship leader… and PLEASE don’t bother with the cheesy “chorus” of 3-4 singers along side them. (ya, maybe I’ve got some pet peeves about this…. 🙂 ).

    This also brings up the subject of what is the point of congregational singing? In many “contemporary” churches half the service is music with energetic/reflective songs to get people hyped up and emotionally in-touch. At least that’s a definite purpose, even if you don’t like it. The thing I dislike is other churches where you sing 4-5 hymns, and the congregation isn’t really into them, and then you plop down two ‘solos’ by ‘special musicians’ and I have to ask? What’s the point?? I don’t come to church for a concert. I come to experience the presence of God. (and no… very few soloists are going to draw me into the presence of God…)

    Ok, I’ve rambled enough…

  2. wezlo says:

    Heh, tell me what you really feel. Good thoughts, all.

  3. jimgetz says:

    Good stuff (both of you).

    I really can’t say that I care much any more for the whole discussion of praise songs vs. hymns anymore. I find myself putting the whole debate in the same corner as inerrancy, Bible translations, and women in ministry. I just don’t feeling like playing the same notes again.

  4. Spoon says:

    Actually, your Orthodox friends are likely reading this and thinking, “Organs in church?! Blasphemy!” 😉

  5. wezlo says:

    I don’t either, I kinda wrote this as a way of describing why I’ll not be among the fighters in the next war.

  6. Mandy says:

    I just don’t know why it is Christians think every time they get together they have to sing…

  7. Chris says:

    Ahh…”Days of Elijah”. Shouldn’t that chorus go: “There is no word spelled Jehovah…” 🙂

  8. Erik says:

    ha. I guess upbringing means a lot. early 20th century revival music has always struck me as an incredibly catchy accessible music style. One of the ideal points of it is that it was designed for a group of amateurs without much assistance to sing together, which avoids the tendency towards performance that much older high-classical pieces and newer solo/”gut” style praise music can have. (so it seems)

    I’m in a weird flux right now. Hymns were a huge part of my worship personally and publicly, and now I’m leaving a lot of the old standards behind (for decidedly older standards). A lot less distressed by the “losses” than I thought I might be. (And in two days am heading to the Antiochian Village in PA for a 5 day conference on chant and sacred music. which should bolster and boost a lot.)

  9. wezlo says:

    Yah, revival music (called “baptism hymns” by folks around here) sends me into fits of confusion. I don’t get it – and I’m OK with that.

    The conference sounds cool – where is it?

  10. Erik says:

    The Antiochian Village is in central PA 70miles from Pittsburgh, I think Bolivar is technically the town it’s in. It’s a pretty gorgeous retreat center for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

    Feel a bit bad that I’m heading PA-ward and won’t get to see any of the great PA-folk I’ve not seen in ages (or ever). but beyond that I’m very excited.

  11. mel says:

    I like hymns and praise music. What I can’t stand is campy or dirdge like unless the song is written that way. And most of the hymns sadly tend to be played in both manners. Personal preference? undoubtedly. but from my limited experience it is very difficult for most people (myself included) to sing something that’s supposed to be triumphant at death speed or apreciate and find deep meaning in something that sounds like it should be sung at the next major league baseball game.

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