Listen To Article
Last month the Christian Reformed magazine, The Banner, published an article titled “Why Youth Don’t Like New Worship Songs.” It sparked quite a response on Facebook among congregants, pastors, and worship directors.
The response from many on the original post was varied, with some pushing back on the generalization and defending new music, and others victoriously trumpeting the virtues of hymnody.
The response from many of the pastors and worship directors when the article was shared in our Facebook Groups was one of weariness.
“Haven’t we moved past this yet?”
By this, we mean the worship wars.
On one side, hymns, the organ, liturgy… “the way it used to be.”
On the other side, Chris Tomlin, guitars, and strobe lights.
That’s generally what the conversation about worship boils down to for a lot of people. New music vs. old music, organ vs. praise team.
I won’t speak for all worship directors and pastors everywhere. But for me, this kind of conversation is disheartening, discouraging, and wearisome. Because there’s so, so much more at play than this simple dichotomy that people are forever harping on about. The conversation about worship planning is big, nuanced, and complicated.
It’s big because it encompasses not just the songs we sing, but prayers, Scripture readings, litanies, dance, art, the Sacraments, sermons, movement, silence, and senses. There’s so much more that goes into crafting beautiful and worshipful services. When the feedback given or conversations being had keep being reduced to “we like this song; we don’t like this song,” it feels like a great deal of the work put into a service doesn’t matter.
And it’s big because a lot of the time, complaints about song styles are a symptom of bigger concerns or fears.
An 86-year old can’t see the projection screen from her seat, but she can see a hymnbook pressed up to her nose. So she’s frustrated when she can’t sing from the hymnal – and perhaps rightly so – but her frustration is probably exacerbated by her fear of losing her eyesight.
Parents of high-school aged children complain that we don’t sing enough songs their kids know and like, and all our music is so slow and depressing. Why can’t it be happier and more upbeat? Their kids might in fact prefer different music, but those parents are also probably afraid their kids are going to leave the church, and are clutching at any possible way to get them to stay.
So there’s a pastoral element to our worship conversations – we need to ask ourselves and each other, “Is there something else going on?”
Our conversations about worship are nuanced because there’s no one true statement about worship preferences. I’m sure the author of the Banner article was truthfully recounting his surprising conversations with high school students who preferred hymns to newer music. But that’s one group of students, and shouldn’t have been framed in the title as “the youth.” I’ve been in a room full of a thousand college students singing “Waymaker” at the top of their lungs. I’ve been in a room full of a thousand college students chanting in Latin. I know plenty of seventy-year olds who love Bethel music.
In the same way there’s no one true statement about worship preferences, some of the arguments we use to support our musical preferences are a bit less black and white than we’d prefer. Someone complains about the repetition of “Oceans” but is perfectly content singing Taizé’s “Bless the Lord, My Soul,” twelve times. Or we criticize how much music one person is putting out these days (“it can’t all be worth singing!”) but forget that Isaac Watts wrote approximately 750 hymns in his lifetime, and only twelve of those hymns made it into Lift Up Your Hearts.
Our value statements about worship music are often less about values, and more about preferences. But the worship directors I know (and I’ll admit, there are probably some who just pick music out of preference) are really looking at the value of a song, whether old or new. Does it say something true about God? Does it fill a gap in our song repertoire? Will we sing it more than once a year? Is it singable? (And before you say “hymns are much more singable than new songs,” ask yourself if you feel really confident on the timing of ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’).*
Which leads to the fact that our conversations about worship are also complicated. Churches are finite entities with limited resources. I might want to sing the latest Hillsong song as much as the next person, but if my available musicians include a pianist who doesn’t read chord charts, a flautist, and a djembe player, I have to be realistic about what we can pull off. And it doesn’t matter how much a congregation is clamoring for the organ to be played if there’s no one around who knows how to play the organ.
When I think about worship in a local congregation, I’m thinking, “What does authentic worship sound like here?” I think there’s room to bring in paid guest musicians. But there’s something about the people gathered bringing their own gifts to lead in worship. And if that means we’re led by piano, flute, and djembe, how do we do that well?
This blog is of course a very simplistic look at just the tip of the worship iceberg – wise people have written many, many books on worship. . . because it’s a big, nuanced, complicated conversation! But hear this as a simple request to expand and deepen our conversations about worship beyond the dichotomy of song preference — in your churches, around your coffee tables, on Facebook, and in our publications. And if you see your worship director, tell them “thank you.” They could probably stand to hear it amongst the complaints.
*I love “All Creatures of Our God and King.” But I’m with Mr. Bean on this one. The timing can be tricky!