Expanding Our Repertoire: How my worship credo has changed

I'm writing these thoughts at the end of August, after visiting and preaching in a number of different churches. Although these congregations were theologically rather uniform, their worship idioms differed greatly—ranging from stately Canterbury to enthusiastic Nashville. And some of the congregations showed cracks and crevices in their koinonia, because of differences in their worship preferences. All of which made me take stock again of my stance on various worship issues.

Here's my worship credo of ten years ago:

The worship tradition that is most appropriate (and probably most God-glorifying) is dignified, carefully planned, historically rich. We do well to tilt in the direction of Anglican and Lutheran worship traditions. Buxtehude is more appropriate to worship than Bill Gaither; "Immortal, Invisible" will always be more God-glorifying than "Do Lord"; the organ is more edifying than the accordion; syncopation should be very limited; and the Genevan gown is more appropriate preaching garb than a polo shirt. Bringing in the electronic keyboard is an unfortunate intrusion from our secular culture, as are professional stage lighting, theater seats, and songs projected on a screen.

And so my litany continued: Fanny Crosby ought to be limited to two selections in my denominational hymnal, and I hope they sing those when I'm on vacation. African-American style is "interesting," but I would find it difficult to worship that way very often, and our choir's rendition of "Move on Up a Little Higher" should at least be dignified. I remember a blue-collar congregation I was preaching for who really wanted to sing "Higher Ground" rather the "Glory, Laud, and Honor" I had selected, arid it made me grateful for the good taste in my home congregation. Mexican rhythms seem fine for the annual fiesta, but they don't sound very worshipful. Christian rock may be necessary once a year for the young people's service, but save me from that the rest of the year. Clapping to a children's song helps to make the children feel accepted, but let's limit it to once a month. Raising arms and hands may be OK for those people who have been influenced by the charismatic movement, but let's hope that's never more than three percent of our congregation. "Bind Us Together" was probably picked up from the annual Praise Conference in Indianapolis, and has thin theology.

And today?

I still love joining my daughter in the St. Mark Episcopal service—probably still my preferred worship mode. But I'm expanding my worship "repertoire." I recently attended an African-American service that was incredibly physical and energetic and emotional. I probably will never feel completely at home in such a service, but I shared in the worship of God. In a local Christian Reformed church with a "Praise and Worship" segment, I lifted my arms for nearly the full twelve-minute "praise time" (which included Psalm 150 and "Holy God, We Praise Your Name" from the Psalter Hymnal). I attended a summer camp service where the hymns showed a strong indebtedness to country music. I found it hard to enter into the music, but most of the other worshipers had no such hangups.

What does this mean for my "theology of worship"? I'm not sure that I have arrived at such a theology, but I have learned something about worship differences. It seems to me that my earlier predilection was white, European, adult, classical, with strong resonance from the traditional concert hall. In my preference for "traditional" church music and worship I reflected my education, socio-economic status, ethnic background, and personality.

As I have worshiped in various traditions and have studied biblical worship patterns, it becomes increasingly clear to me that our worship and musical preferences are to a great degree a cultural and educational issue, and one ought to be very careful about attaching religious value judgments to those preferences. The full-bodied musical tradition of African-American music may be much closer to some biblical worship than the dignified, sonorous "If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee."

Is the tradition I grew up with a worthy one? Yes, indeed. And worth preserving. Is the Lord partial to it? I doubt it very much. My theological hunch is that God receives just as much pleasure when praised with Israeli folk music, Appalachian dulcimer, Bill Gaither tunes, Cuban rhythms, African drums, teenage liturgical dance, Ken Medema's playfully profound songs, or James Ward's jazzy praise. The notion that God is more pleased with "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" than with "Because He Lives" is no more than fashioning God with a middle class taste of restraint and propriety.

If I'm right, what are the implications? First, we ought to avoid the stereotypes we often engage in. In a recent RW questionnaire some of our respondents reacted as follows: "Please don't give us any more articles about Praise and Worship ditties." Or, "You'll never loosen up those rigid classical musicians—let them stew in their aesthetic sense of elitism." Tempting thoughts, perhaps, but best left unsaid and unwritten. We should not judge a worship idiom by its extremes— not every classical worship service is conducted just by uptight white folk; not every populist service uses taped music.

Second, we ought to acknowledge authentic expressions of worship from other traditions, and not let aesthetic and cultural preferences dominate our judgments. A stately German Lutheran service with decorum and precision may express the peoples best worship gift. So may an African-American service of infectious joy and enthusiasm. And so may the services that appropriate some of Luther and some of Dorsey.

Third, all of us can and should enlarge our worship repertoire, so that we can experience some of the wideness of God's Pentecost-inspired church, the wonderful multicultural gifts of Gods people, and the diversity of creative worship expression. We can gain this wider appreciation by worshiping in other churches or by incorporating different worship idioms into our congregations worship. (I realize the danger of such incorporating becoming a liturgical garage-sale mishmash, but it can also be a rich mosaic of multi-splendored praise.)

Do my suggestions mean that worship patterns are only a matter of "taste" and that there are no norms and standards? That's too simple a conclusion, and it makes communal worship too individualistic. Neither does the "each according to her own taste" recognize that each one's "taste" may be influenced by factors that are not edifying, and that may be an inappropriate borrowing from our culture. Questions of fitting-ness, of excellence, of the difference between Christian concert and congregational worship—these we have to continue to ask.

Also, any style or musical idiom or tradition can be misused in worship. The classical, educated worship repertoire can be used for aesthetic pleasure only; can become too refined, cultured, and bloodless; can become little more than arrogant musical etiquette. As Eugene Peterson says about some Bible translations:

Some people suppose that language dealing with a holy God and holy things shoi ild be elevated— stately mid ceremonial. But one good look at Jesus—his preference for down-to-earth stories and easy association with common people—gets rid of that supposition... The message is not in a refined language that appeals to our aspimtions after the best but a rough and earthy language that reveals Gods presence and action where we least expect it, catching us when we are up to our elbows in the soiled ordinariness of our lives ....
[from the Introduction, The Message: the New Testament in Contemporary English]]

The classical worship and music tradition can remove us too far from the ordinariness of our faith lives.

A populist tradition can degenerate into repetitious mush; it can become coarse and common, sentimental and trite, as insipid as paint-by-number. Contemporary songs can express the depth of tackiness ("Jesus, Just Let Me Own My Porsche a Little Longer"). The thirst for newness can deteriorate into a religious hit parade fueled by publishers and producers. Mediocre songs can gain popularity through technological manipulation. Legacy and history can be shunned in favor of catchiness and popularity.

Yes, every idiom or style or tradition can be a danger to the faith, but that does not change my main point. My main point—that much of our preference in worship is a matter of education, ethnicity tradition, and temperament, and that we should temper our tendency to elevate one tradition over another—should give some breathing space to our worship differences. Speaking denominationally, if a city has three Reformed congregations, one may choose to be Canterbury oriented, the other Nashville, and the third old-fashioned Reformed—and we can recognize that each expresses an authentic worship pattern.

A greater problem is faced in congregations that represent a large number of musical and cultural preferences. The suggestions IVe made here would at least place the discussion in the area of human tradition, rather than universal norm or divine (dis)pleasure. But I am not minimizing the frustration and complexity of "worship wars" at the congregational level. Those congregations certainly do need showers of grace!

Reformed Worship recognizes the multiplicity of worship patterns in Protestant churches. And we offer no simple solutions. We know that a review of recent Praise and Worship songs will elicit scorn and charges of "worship pulp" or "musical schlock" from some. And our presention of a carefully crafted service based on the lectionary with an abundance of Lutheran and Anglican hymns and anthems, will call forth the charge of "liturgical elitism" from others. We are persuaded, however, that in this year of the Lord we are called to recognize and encourage the worship voices of old and young, men and women, red and yellow, black and white, classical and contemporary We will continue to encourage God's people to give their best (including their musical best) to the Lord.


Harold M. Best of Wheaton college has written a wonderfully wise book on music in our lives and in our worship, in which he charts a course between "narrow ex-clusivism" and "sloppy inclusivism." See Music through the Eyes of Faith (HarperCollins, 1993). We will publish a review of the book in a later issue of RW.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 34 © December 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.