The struggle between competing worship forms is as old as the story of Cain and Abel. But the stakes and pitch of the argument seem higher than ever, as we learn more about how other “more successful” churches worship.
As both church musician and pastor I have discovered that church members care deeply, very deeply, about their music. I have rarely seen such intensity over proposals to change other aspects of congregational life, or even to change pastors.
At the age of thirteen I became my congregation’s second-string pianist. I loved church music, but was convinced that the old hymns needed some major rehabilitation if the church were to prosper, and that under my musically progressive fingers lay the keys to church renewal.
My first forays into casting our beloved hymns into current musical idioms, from pop to jazz to rock and roll, were met with tolerant pats on the head — a teen willing to show up dependably in church can get away with an awful lot. But when it became apparent that I was becoming a fixture at the piano, genial tolerance morphed into anxious resistance on the part of many. All those extra notes and new rhythms seemed to them an affront to the natural dignity of their hymns. Why couldn’t I leave well enough alone?
I had stumbled into my first skirmish in what has more recently been dubbed “the worship wars.”
Tom Long declares, “Music is the nuclear reactor of congregational worship. It is where … congregational meltdown is most likely to occur.” (Beyond the Worship Wars, p. 53) Ultimately, the ruckus isn’t only about the music itself, but about things that go deeply into the heart of our faith, to the core of our very identity.
Music’s strange power
What is music’s strange power, that we are more willing to bend with almost every other church activity? The power of music to evoke a whole world of associations is extraordinary. Nothing transports us back to long-gone halcyon days of youth, especially to young love, as quickly or completely as hearing a favorite song from those days of our lives.
Patriotism is galvanized, not by national poems, but by national anthems. Presidential campaign managers search for just the right theme song with as much care as the designers of television shows or commercials, knowing that the staying power of music will cement their “product” into people’s consciousness far more securely than would mere slogans or mission statements.
Similarly, most powerful and lasting religious movements are inextricably associated with a new, popular, and distinctive hymnody. A prominent feature of the Swiss Reformation (from which Presbyterianism emerged) was its emphasis on the importance of Psalm singing. Songs from the Genevan Psalter, commissioned by John Calvin and his associates, continue to shape our souls nearly 500 years later — we still sing their setting of the “Old Hundredth” Psalm, whose tune has become the standard Doxology we all know and love. One cannot imagine the Wesleyan movement’s mercurial rise and revivalist zeal apart from the thousands of hymns penned by Charles Wesley, many of which are sung avidly by Presbyterians, including “O For a Thousand Tongues” and our beloved Christmas hymn, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” In our own time, Billy Graham’s impact is forever linked with “Just As I Am” and “How Great Thou Art.” Within a single generation “How Great Thou Art” became one of America’s favorite hymns almost entirely because of his crusades.
A familiar hymn evokes in us a world of associations that confirm, shape, and strengthen our deepest faith commitments. St. Augustine said, “The one who sings, prays twice.” Hymns are essentially a form of heartfelt prayer in which we lift our voices and hearts in concert to acknowledge God’s majesty, holiness, grace toward us, and claims upon us. Treasured hymns evoke powerfully the sense of the Holy Spirit’s near and transforming presence.
Songs shape belief
Lex orandi lex credendi est — literally, “the word of prayer is the word of belief” — is an ancient phrase that reminds us our worship shapes our theology. Conversely, what we believe shapes how we pray. Congregational prayer in the form of hymns both reflects and shapes the church’s faith and actions profoundly. There is more at stake in “messing” with our music than merely accommodating different artistic, cultural, or theological preferences. It gets down to our deepest sense of who God is, who we are, and what God calls us to be and to do.
As a pastor I have always found this both humbling and instructive. The congregation’s faith and life will be more significantly affected over the long haul by the hymns they sing than by the sermons I preach! Some folk have told me that a sermon of mine influenced their lives; but they are far more likely to sing or whistle Sunday’s hymn than to recite my main sermon points as they go about daily tasks. Hymns work their way deeply into the fabric of our hearts and faith commitments.
Music is a language with as many variations and idiosyncrasies as spoken language. What communicates effectively in one place will be virtually indecipherable in others. To complicate matters further, cultures that share the same language of speech and commerce often have many different musical languages. In the United States, for instance, people who perfectly understand what national newscasters say might live between newscasts in vastly different musical worlds: bluegrass, show-tune, country and western, hip-hop, jazz, salsa, techno-pop, classical, reggae, Asian fusion music, or a host of other possibilities. What does communicating to these people in their own language entail? Does our musical language communicate with them in ways they can understand and claim as their own?
In a time and place when most church services were conducted in Latin, which few people understood, John Calvin and the Reformers urged that the Gospel be communicated to people in their vernacular, if it was to connect with them and change their lives. They unleashed a storm across the European church by presenting God’s Word in the languages of the masses. How dare they sully the purity of God’s Word and orthodox doctrine by translating it into vulgar speech? (Ironically, their gold-standard Latin Bible was known as the “Vulgate,” a vernacular translation that ancient Romans read easily. Our word “vulgar” comes from the same root.) We might be tempted to shake our heads in bemusement — of course we should preach in the language of our hearers! Could anything be more obvious?
According to the Directory for Worship, part of our Book of Order, the language of worship should always be authentic to the Gospel proclaimed in Scripture and confessed by the church; at the same time, it should also always be appropriate to the local culture, so that people will understand and embrace it as their own. Musical and spoken worship must be fully both — authentic to God’s Word and appropriate to our world.
Should we all use the same Hymnal?
Each new hymnal deletes hymns from older editions in order to accommodate new entries. Some hymns, while retained, have their texts altered. Some alterations are simply updates of outdated English. For example, consider “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” The refrain as Charles Wesley penned it is: “Hark, how all the welkin rings … Glory to the King of kings.’” Quick, what does “welkin” mean?
Sometimes the alterations have been doctrinal. For instance, Isaac Watts’ classic hymn, “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” featured a graphic line in verse one that many denominations altered early in the twentieth century: “Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I?” became the standard amendment of the original “Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” More recently, hymnal editors often change hymn texts for the sake of gender inclusiveness; thus, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!” becomes “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice!”
One way some congregations protest the changes initiated by hymnal editors is by refusing to invest in their denomination’s new hymnals. A significant number of PC(USA) churches do not use our current hymnal because they want to retain hymns it discards, or because they dislike the ways its editors altered some hymn texts to adapt them to changing theological sensibilities. Some simply prefer other hymns than the ones it contains. Some congregations have discarded hymnals altogether in favor of song sheets, or of projecting slides on screens. Such approaches afford congregations more flexibility in their music choices. But might we also lose something in the process of discarding the sharing of hymnals?
When we use the same hymnal, we deepen our sense of unity in the faith. An old saying claims, “The family that prays together stays together.” The same could be said for churches that pray together in song. Common prayer shapes and strengthens a sense of common identity and mission as Christ’s Body. Perhaps it is no coincidence that as fewer of our congregations use our denomination’s hymnal, many are becoming less involved in shared ministry in favor of their local church’s ministries. Might there even be a correlation between the trend away from using a shared hymnal and the decreasing percentage of people who seek out a congregation of their former denomination when they move to a new area?
Digging deeper, reaching wider
Our choice of music for worship faces the complex challenge of deepening our connection with our rich faith heritage and of communicating the Gospel effectively with a world that knows little of and cares even less about our treasured tradition. How are congregations responding to this challenge? Each approach has its real strengths, and carries important cautions.
Some respond to this challenge by being selective, intentionally focusing on doing just one side well — either to be authentic to the tradition or to be appropriate to our culture, leaving the other dimension to “the church down the street.” It is good to focus energy on doing what we do well, but a congregation lopsided one way or the other is not as fully responsive to the church’s mission as the one that addresses both dimensions wholeheartedly.
Others seek to be eclectic, so that there is “something for everyone” in each worship service. This approach has some real strengths, so long as it takes care not to become an exercise in diversity for the sake of diversity, and the central reason for our assembly becomes secondary. The net effect can be to give everyone at least something to dislike in each worship service — hardly a worthy goal!
Many churches develop multiple worship services with very different styles; people choose to attend the service they like best. The caution here is that in the Body of Christ we all need each other, especially those who are different from each other. Offering various “niche” worship services tends to lead people into clusters of like-minded folk, depriving the church of the vitality that can come only when those who are different are gathered into One body. Jesus lived and died to reconcile those who were separated; we dare not let our music become the catalyst for separating again those whom he has reconciled!
Jesus teaches that wise leaders in the Gospel mission are like householders who prize and use both old and new assets (Matthew 13:52). Together, the old and the new comprise the single treasure of a complete household. In this image, there is no thought of throwing out the old to make room for the new, nor of shunning the new because the old has better cachet. In our music, as in all prayer, there is always the need for both old paths and new things, for the tried and true along with the spontaneous and new. They form two sides of a single coin. The church’s mission can never be fulfilled, nor our identity complete, until we embrace and cultivate old and new together — each with its own integrity, yet neither independent of the other.
Sheldon W. Sorge is associate director of the Louisville Institute, Louisville, Ky.