Conflicts in Church Music
Some years ago, I was asked by a midwestern-based denomination to write an article using the title "Worship Wars." It was interesting and even intriguing to see those two words side by side.
In writing about conflict over musical styles in Christian worship, Eric Beechem observed the following:
To assert that conflict over music in the Christian church is a new issue would show a lack of understanding of church history. As Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Historically, every change in worship style is accompanied by controversy. Monophonic Gregorian chant gave way to polyphonic music, which introduced harmony to sacred music. Martin Luther used culturally relevant German hymns during the Protestant Reformation while John Calvin advocated for Psalms. Disputes arose between Luther’s and Calvin’s followers regarding which musical style was appropriate. Now widely regarded as one of the greatest hymn writers, Isaac Watts received criticism for his texts. Some considered his lyrics man-centered and humanistic. Conflict over innovation in musical style continues today. Conflict within the church over musical styles is not new.
In writing the article, I referred to some lessons from the account of Abraham and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah, found in Genesis, Chapter 22.
I find it significant that just prior to climbing Mt. Moriah, Abraham made the statement to his traveling assistants, "The lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you" (v. 5 NKJV). The text reveals in verse 8, that Abraham and Isaac walked "together."
Preaching from the Genesis 22:1-19 text, I often emphasize that Abraham and Isaac were two individuals from two different generations, yet they were able to climb the same mountain and experience worship "together."
Attempting to use a light-hearted, yet meaningful illustration, I purposely point out that Abraham did not climb the mountain alone holding tightly to a hymn book, worship, and then return, saying to Isaac, "Now it’s your turn." Neither did Isaac travel alone with earbuds firmly in place while dancing to the music of "Jesus Culture, Hillsong, or Planetshakers,” but refusing to permit his Father's contribution to the experience because of his older ways of doing things.
It didn't happen that way. Abraham and Isaac found a way to climb the mountain and worship together.
Anyone who is acquainted with me at all, likely knows that for several years, I have been involved in writing and singing what many would know as “Southern gospel music.” Some refer to it as traditional gospel. Yes, I admit I do enjoy it. It evokes a lot of good memories for me and quite honestly, it has paid a few bills and helped send my girls to college. I’ve always thought that Southern gospel songs are typically testimony, story, and message songs about Jesus and the Christian life.
It hasn't been as broadly known, but I have also written what is referred to as contemporary Christian songs. I even did an entire praise and worship recording made up almost entirely of songs of the more contemporary style. I enjoyed that as well. It was an opportunity to write songs that are sung more "to" than “about” the Lord. I’ve had the privilege of hearing some of the praise and worship songs I’ve written sung in various languages, and it is something I never get tired of hearing.
With that said, I think I can write with some sense of experience on the subject of worship conflicts, and here is what I have observed. I've seen both the Abraham and Isaac generations get it right, and I've also seen them get it wrong. It doesn't have too much to do with style, lyrics, rhythm, or age. It typically has to do with attitude, humility, and a willingness or not, to allow for others to know the expressions of heartfelt worship to the Lord.
You've probably heard me jest that it's my opinion "God taps His feet to good ol’ Southern gospel." That line usually gets a chuckle and a smattering of polite applause at a senior adult convention—and even in some churches. However, if I used that line at a youth gathering somewhere, you and I both know I might be looked at with puzzlement or asked to hop on the first gospel quartet touring bus coming through and get out of town. That is, if the youth even knew what I was talking about. The truth is, regardless of style, I'm convinced, that if a lyric honors the Lord Jesus, and if the song is presented in a way that also honors Him, then our heavenly Father is surely to be pleased.
Church marketing specialists will possibly differ with me, but I believe that balance can be found, Christ can be exalted, and a church doesn't have to be divided over stylistic issues as it relates to its music. A church focused on the Great Commission should find little time to be easily entangled with conflicts built only around musical preferences.
Both traditional and contemporary gospel songs can have their good and bad points. I think all that can be good or bad about one can also be good or bad about the other.
For instance . . .
Either can be unscriptural in their lyrical construction.
Either can be difficult to sing with challenging rhyme and rhythm patterns that ultimately take away from the enjoyment of singing.
Either can become redundant and lose impact and effectiveness.
Either can be lyrically complex, utilizing words that only trained theologians can understand.
Either can be irrelevant, utilizing metaphors that are not familiar to some audiences— younger or older.
Either can be constructed to appeal only to the emotions of an audience rather than the edifying of our Savior. While emotion is inherently a part of the music and worship experience, it's always much more important for a song to stir passion for Jesus than any other purpose it may serve.
Either can be overused—there's a reason some songs are called "hits." Every genre of gospel music has them. When a song is extremely familiar, it tends to get used a great deal and can become a "crutch," if a singer or worship leader is unprepared or unrehearsed.
Either can become performance-driven by the singer(s) rather than a “led and inspired” corporate expression of worship where everyone may easily participate.
On the other hand, however . . .
Both contemporary and Southern gospel can serve to lift up the name of Jesus.
Both can inspire people to a closer walk with God.
Both can serve as discipleship and teaching opportunities set to music.
Both can prepare hearts to receive the preached Word of God.
Both can serve as a means of involving more people in the worship expression and experience.
Both can be lyrically impactful to the point of being little "sermons set to music" that reach unconverted hearts with a message of God's love.
Both can put a smile on the face of Jesus, evoking His, "Well done my good and faithful worshiper(servant)."
Everyone has an opinion, a preference, and a taste in music. Our heavenly Father does too, and here it is . . .
Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous things. . . . Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the Lord with the harp and the sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—shout for joy before the Lord, the King (portions of Psalm 98:1-6 NIV).