Living in a Time of Radical Change

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In a recent seminary class, we were reviewing key moments in the history of the church. My colleague Scott Hoezee asked students to think about what church life would have been like in six different centuries. As students reflected on each of these different moments in history, it struck me that in each of them public worship would have been led almost entirely by a single pastor, with the help of a single musician (who may have worked with a small choir or other group of musicians), according to a pretty established order of worship, and drawing on a fairly small musical repertoire (usually a common body of 100-400 songs). Despite the diversity of practices that we are learning to appreciate in nearly every period in church history, this overall pattern has been pretty constant: for Mennonites and Methodists, revival preachers and Catholic priests, Presbyterians and Pentecostals. In many places this is still true: a couple key people lead worship in most places, most congregations don’t know more than 200 songs, most congregations work with a fairly set order of worship—even the “low church” ones.

Still, the historical differences shock me. We all have access to thousands of songs. Many people improvise an order of worship each week. Many churches invite many people into the worship planning and leading process. This is all part of why I believe that it is accurate to say that never before has Christian worship been changing in so many directions at the same time.

When I describe this I find that most people either cheer or weep. The reactions are strong in one direction or another. But suppose we push beyond our visceral responses to ask deeper questions? How can we keep our poise in an era of change? Those of you who cheer change: what dangers do you see in all of this and how can they be avoided? Those of you who weep change: what resources for making wise choices would you recommend, and what good do you see despite the losses you feel?

In fifty years, when we look back at the last decade or so, what regrets will we have? What will endure and what will seem faddish?
 

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Our church has gone through changes in our worship style, or at least our musical style. We changed from all organ & piano & hymns or praise songs to a praise band and a worship leader who plays guitar and we include more contemporary music. We try to honor our tradition, though, by also including many hymns, often with the same traditional tune but a more contemporary beat, some transitional bridges or choruses. I love this blend of tradition and contemporary because I love the hymns so familiar to me and I like learning new things.

I thought of this when you asked about "the losses you feel". My wish when we started changing to this more contemporary style was that our members who loved the familiar hymns wouldn't feel a loss because we continue to include so many of the hymns. Unfortunately, it seems that quite a few people don't think it "counts" as singing a hymn unless it's sung exactly the same as they've always heard it, and only accompanied by a piano or organ, not a praise band.

I wonder if others have experienced this in their churches and what they are doing. We're going to try having one of our worship team members who is an organist start coordinating a special portion of the service for a traditional hymn with traditional accompaniment - probably a mix of solos, choral groups and congregational singing. I'm hoping this will help. I'd love to hear other ideas or thoughts.

Mavis Moon
San Jose CRC

John, thanks for a great question - I appreciate the focus on stepping back from our current situations at looking at the big picture.

I firmly believe that the biggest mistake we're going to regret in 50 years is that we set contemporary/modern worship as an either/or over against traditional worship, both musically and preferentially. I think, as we see the dust beginning to clear from the "worship wars", we're seeing a huge chasm between traditional-only and modern-only churches. If we're realistic, I think that means in 50 years, as traditional churches continue to close their doors, the songs they sang will be locked up, as well.....and I think that's a dirty shame.

I might be in the "cheering" section for change, but I really love hymns. However, since the modern and traditional crowds decided to fight a war rather than learn from eachother, the casualties are necessarily going to be quality traditional hymns simply due to the age groups who sided with one or the other. Maybe not in the next 10 or 20 years, maybe not even in 50 years, but the trajectory is fairly clear to this observer.......and its a microcosm of the Church as a whole that reaches farther than music to theology, practical ministry, etc.

Churches who participate in separate traditional/contemporary services and divided worship services into "praise team" and "organ" exclusive sections only contribute to this divide and drive it home to congregants. I always try to encourage bands to play hymns because it drives home a different message - if the Church is going to be one just as God is one, then the music must also be one.

I think we're already seeing the growing chasm between contemporary worship and traditional worship being played out intergenerationally. At a recent funeral, teens and early 20s attenders did not know any of the hymns, and at graveside could not recite the Apostle's creed. After hundreds of years of hymns being inter-generational, we seem to be reaching a time when songs that those in their 30s know are different songs from the 20-somethings, and different still with the teens. Never mind the hymns that only the 40s and over know. There is no continuity or shared experience, it seems.
The contemporary songs today that have depth in both words and music will stick, and the rest will be sung for a year or two and die away. That is not new. When we all sang out of the same hymnal, the songs with depth and sing-a-bility were sung often and the ones that were difficult, dull, or whatever, were sang so seldom that many were dropped from subsequent versions of the hymnal.
I welcome new songs that are theological sound and meant to be sung by a congregation, not a performer. So I wouldn't classify myself as only weeping over the change, and as for resources for making wise choices, I would say Sing A New Creation would be a good start as opposed to introducing every new song that comes down the pike just because someone on a praise team likes it.
However, if one is in a congregation where contemporary is "in" and an occasional hymn is only thrown in for the "old folks" then the whole conversation about resources and what we can learn is moot.