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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!

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario

10 Comments

  • Ruth Ann says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m a worship director and endorsed worship coach and our FB groups have been resounding with this very conversation. Worship is more complicated, nuanced, richer than any musical stylistic argument. I am tired of it. So thanks for this encouragement! I’ll share this with my colleagues. And could you share this with the Banner?

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    This is an age-long complaint, isn’t it!
    My solution?
    Everyone who enters asks the Holy Spirit to bless this worship time and allow me to see and hear Him in every song we sing and every word that is spoken.
    Why this solution?
    Because in this setting it’s not about you!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Laura, for your thoughts on the worship conflict. I doubt that such conflict will ever get resolved. It doesn’t really matter how much thought you put into your planning or your theology of worship. It still boils down to preference for the average worshiper. And lest you think the Holy Spirit will guide your worship planners, realize that the Holy Spirit (emotion) has done a pretty poor job over the course of the last fifty years. I wouldn’t expect a resolution to this problem any time soon. Thanks, Laura, for your contribution.

  • Emily R. Brink says:

    Bless you, Laura, for articulating what I sighed over when reading that Banner article.
    I’m forwarding this to our Worship Committee and Youth Director, asking that they be sure to read it all, including to Mr. Bean’s conclusion!

  • JCS says:

    Thanks Laura,
    While your topic is not one that lifts our spirits in a Sunday worship service, your comments and expressions are so true. The devil is sneaky in how he works. Often he can be more active & successful in a gathering of all sincere Christian people than in some night club. Maybe your thoughts expressed may touch a few readers and they can be more open & accepting. I know my church has come a long way from the worship wars of years ago. We have a great variety of music styles and everyone loves or appreciates them all. The words are far more important than the style.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you Laura,
    As usual your writing is thoughtful and inspires many thoughts and ideas.
    I would add that most churches are small. Sometimes it’s not about preference. It’s about what is possible. The church I serve would love a choir, but we only have about 4 or so sings other than our pianist, so a praise team is all that really works for us. We could pay for fill in “professional” in a choir, but that’s expensive, so we do hymns with a praise team format along with modern songs. Our church would love to play the organ more, but organists are hard to find and very expensive. We now have a young man who taught himself to play the organ because he loves the instrument, so we can have more of it.
    Two other thoughts, in the midst of worship wars especially about modern vs. hymns, I try to remember that the church once bemoaned the secular nature of hymns rather than singing the Psalter, which was the only “biblical” option. And two, I try to remember that our church is not the be all and end all of “church,” so if some have a preference for music we do not offer, they are free to find another place to worship and we send them with joy that the Spirit will fill their hearts in a different worship environment.
    Thanks again

  • Jim DeYoung says:

    Great stuff, as usual, Laura. Thanks for your insights…and the Mr. Bean clip!

  • Elbert van Donkersgoed says:

    A thoughtful reflection on a rolling dilemma. Just before reading Laura’s reflection I was listening on YouTube to the Grandparents Day assembly at Toronto District Christian High School. The student praise team chose to sing older hymns to which I could sing along lustily at my desk. Had they chosen newer songs like “Days of Elijah” (at least newer to me), I would do the same. But there is a hitch with a fair bit of the newer music. It is performance music. It’s not meant of singalong for 100+ folks who are mediocre singer but love to sing. I love some of the new songs more than the old. But worship leaders should be upfront about their preference – performance or singalong. I don’t enjoy singing when I make a muddle of trying to sing along with a performance song.

  • June A. Huissen says:

    Full discloser. I am 86 and have been a member of my church for 65 years. And yes, we are going thru all of this yet again. There are many reasons why and I am not going to take this space to talk about what I think is happening or has happened. And I do not recommend that we return to the ‘good ole days’. I am thankful that we use a large variety of music and musicians. What I miss most in worship and think we have lost is the sense of awe. I am personally along with the community of believers meeting God in a particular place and time. With the casualness of dress, the Starbucks coffee mugs. the applause, and water containers along with hearing good morning several times during the service after we have been greeted by God and greeted one another makes it hard sometimes to realize I am in church and not at some program or concert. More vertical worship than horizontal?

  • Ann Bezemer says:

    I am a 75 year old and love hymns on the organ because that is what I grew up with and love them both because that’s what speaks to my heart and that’s how I feel most comfortable in praising God. There are many beautiful praise songs, I totally agree, but some of them do not lend themselves well to congregational singing. Our worship director is trying very hard to please ALL worshippers! Our church has a large cross section of ALL ages. Having done the liturgy for many years, while the church I belonged to at the time was vacant, it’s a daunting task but we must keep listening.

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