Music Wars

There is a conflict within many church congregations in North America (and Europe to some extent) that has been going on for about 30 years now that I find not only very disturbing, but rather shallow and silly as well.

I’m referring to the “music wars” – the divide between those who think only their favored style of music is the ONLY acceptable form of music to be used during a worship service. It is usually presented as a choice between ‘traditional’ hymnody and ‘contemporary worship music’.

Now, before I continue, I will warn you that you will almost certainly disagree with my analysis of the subject, and some of you might even be offended by my conclusion. I challenge you to find a godly, gracious, and Biblical foundation for your stand!

First, a very brief generalization of the two views, beginning with the “traditional hymns only” side. The basic argument for using ONLY traditional hymns is that the contemporary music is theologically deficient, and is more performance art than worshipful. It encourages ‘spectator worship music’ rather than participation, and does little or nothing to reinforce sound doctrine. I’ve even heard more than one church leader equate the use of contemporary worship music with sin!

On the other hand, there’s the ‘contemporary only’ side. They argue that traditional hymns are dull, boring, and put young people to sleep. Not only that, but many of them have SO MANY verses and all those weird words that nobody understands. They want catchy tunes that make them feel good and lets them “feel the Spirit”. In the words of one Christian artist, “I don’t want no funeral marches – I ain’t dead yet”!

The sad thing about this is that I’ve seen more than one church split with the battle over style of music as the excuse, and even more churches that have essentially two completely different congregations (with little to no interaction between them) with the only difference being the style of music.

But here’s the thing. Once I start asking questions and listening to what people are saying (and not saying), I’ve come to the conclusion that it is rarely, if ever, really about the music. More on that later, but first let’s take a look at the problems with the arguments on either side.

I’ll start with the contemporary side first. Almost all of the objections to traditional hymns come from younger (as in 40 or less) people and boil down to this: They want catchy tunes that make them feel good, and lyrics that are easy to understand and talk about what God is doing for them. Traditional hymns are too slow, and all those ‘thees and thous’ and strange words are just too difficult to deal with. I often hear from them “I can’t worship to that kind of music. I need something that relates to me.”

My response to that usually falls on deaf ears, but here it is anyway. Worship isn’t about you or what kind of music you prefer. Worship isn’t about the style of music. Worship is about GOD! Every hymn or song sung in a worship service should focus our attention on God, His nature, His work in the world and our lives, and our adoration and loyalty to Him. The style is secondary, and if you have trouble with the words, then you need to decide whether you are willing to be disciplined enough to expand your vocabulary or not.

Now for the traditionalists. Most of them are older, and their arguments are variations of “the old hymns are rich and have meaning, and this new stuff is just shallow glitz and needless noise. I can’t worship to that sinful rock and roll wannabe noise. I want content”!

My response to that usually falls on deaf ears, but here it is anyway. Worship isn’t about you or what kind of music you prefer. Worship isn’t about the style of music. Worship is about GOD! Every hymn or song sung in a worship service should focus our attention on God, His nature, His work in the world and our lives, and our adoration and loyalty to Him. People of different ages and different cultures express themselves musically in different ways; they will prefer the style of music that is comfortable to them. Keep in mind that EVERY hymn ever written was ‘contemporary’ at one time. Many lyrics were set to the tunes of popular drinking (as in tavern) songs. How is that less ‘sinful’ than a song with an original tune in a popular style? Granted, many of the contemporary songs are rather shallow and repetitive, but you can find the same thing in a significant number of hymns as well.

I think you should be able to see my point by this time. It isn’t about the music, and it isn’t about us. It is about whether we are willing to put up with something we don’t prefer in order to show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ and to worship Christ in both Spirit and Truth. I really think that the Music Wars are nothing more than a symptom of our self-centered, sinful, and silly attempts to make worship all about ‘me’ rather than Him.

Having said that, I want to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with preferring any particular style of music; the error is in insisting that that is the ONLY legitimate style. What i’m saying is that if you’re congregation is struggling with the traditional vs. contemporary music conundrum, perhaps it would be best to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider whether it is one style of music that will help the church better serve and worship our Lord, or maybe we should be finding some kind of middle ground.

There are some practical ways in which we can bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary music styles. If you would like to know more about them, email curly@wofblogs.org and I’ll either reply privately, or if there are enough inquiries, post them here on the blog.

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