Blending Voices: Making 'their' music part of 'our' worship

This article has been difficult for me to write. I know how important music is in the church. But I also know that in many churches the area of music continues to be a battleground.

The truth is that people have strong feelings and sometimes conflicting ideas about the purpose and style of music in their worship. Some people focus on music as a way of involving church members by their participation. Other people are very concerned about the tradition of mamtaining certain "churchlike" musical styles. And still other people hope that music will help them "enfold" young people or newcomers to the church. How a church prioritizes these and a variety of other purposes will, to a large extent, determine that congregation's character.

Personally, I appreciate a worship style that some would call "high church": using the organ to open and close the worship with appropriate compositions by such masters as Buxtehude or Bach, Karg-Elert or Purcell, Paul Manz or Gordon Young; accompanying the congregational singing with organ and/or piano in a way that edifies the participants and glorifies God; incorporating soloists or ensembles who have well-rehearsed and fitting songs to contribute; singing songs only from the denominationally approved hymnal.

But I know that many churches who make preserving this type of worship style a high priority are "turning off" young people and even driving them away to other churches. Why? Because the youth of the church embrace a different style of music. Do parents and grandparents expect their children to appreciate the popular music they grew up with? I doubt it! Then, how can we expect our young people to worship God using a style of music that they do not relate to?

"Theirs" and "Ours"

In my experiences with song-leading at retreats and youth conventions, I have often heard comments like these: "Why can't we sing these songs in my church?" "I wish I could take this enthusiasm for singing back to my church!" "Singing is never this meaningful in my home church." "I don't think I've ever experienced worship like this before; I feel so close to God."

The group singing at these events is usually high-spirited and enthusiastic— loud and at times even a bit rowdy. Often there are arms waving, hands upraised, or hands clasped with others in an expression of unity.

These young people are praising God; there is no doubt about it. However, because the music they appreciate is foreign to their congregations and does not fit in with their church's musical tastes, it often has no place back in their weekly Sunday worship services. So the young people begin to differentiate between "their" music and "our" music. (Don't most adults do the same thing?)

Consider also the musical contributions young people make in their churches by way of vocal or instrumental music. Most churches would love to see young people participate more often. But are congregations willing to accept the offerings the young people bring?

Gifted young singers today are often most comfortable singing along with an accompaniment tape played on the church's sound system. But I know of one church consistory that refused to allow taped accompaniments for soloists because too often they contained drums, guitars, or too strong a beat. This is clearly a case of "their" music being unacceptable for "our" worship.

Personal Praise

Of course, not all music that youth appreciate in worship has a strong beat or uses pop-style instruments. Most of the songs used at the retreats, conventions, or youth services of which I have been a part fall into the Praise and Worship category. This type of music represents a large part of the repertoire that young people enjoy.

I find nothing in Praise and Worship music that people could object to—except that it does not appear in the traditional hymnals. Many of the song texts are taken directly from Scripture. Others are personal expressions of praise, trust, adoration, confession, dedication, or thanks. (See KW 20, a theme issue devoted to the Praise and Worship style.)

This personal quality appeals to young people—to be able to praise God with these words: "Great are you, Lord; I lift up my voice; great are you, Lord!"; or to express adoration: "I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul rejoice"; or to demonstrate trust in Him: "You alone are my strength and shield, to you alone may my spirit yield. You alone are my heart's desire and I long to worship you." These are the kinds of songs our youth want to use to personalize their expressions of worship.

Perhaps the time is right for your church to expand its musical repertoire to include Praise and Worship songs, especially if you want to generate some enthusiasm among your young people. This type of change should be introduced gradually and with care; you do not want other members of your congregation to get the feeling that this "new stuff" is being shoved down their throats.

My church seems rather comfortable with opening the worship service using three to five Praise and Worship songs. These "praise openings" have been scheduled once approximately every six weeks, and I envision this span being reduced to about three weeks in the future. The words are printed in the order of worship or are flashed on the wall with the overhead projector. (We are careful to abide by all copyright laws; having Christian Copyright Licensing Inc. do this for us makes life a lot simpler. [See box on p. 16])

Some churches use a worship team to lead the singing; we have one person leading. The responses I hear from our church members are all positive—primarily, I think, because we are moving slowly. Many people would like a heavier dose of Praise and Worship music, but I think they recognize the importance of regulating the balance.

Give Them a Chance

Our churches are full of talented young musicians. Unfortunately we have turned off many of our young people by saying that their contributions are inappropriate for our worship. How sad! If one of your high school students has put a lot of effort into learning a sacred song on her guitar or trumpet and wishes to play in a service, give her the opportunity to do so. Piano students could be encouraged to use their selections while the offering is being taken or during the prelude or postlude.

I am not suggesting that "anything goes"; the performers should perfect their contributions to the best of their abilities, and these musical selections could even be previewed by a member of the worship committee—preferably someone who is more interested in the sincerity and desire of the young person than in the number of wrong pitches.

The bottom line is this: give the young people a chance to praise God in their own way.

Balance and Compromise

As with almost everything, these ideas must be implemented with balance in mind. Whoever does the planning in your church must maintain a careful balance between the traditional elements of your worship and these new ideas that I have mentioned.

Maybe compromise is another fitting word. Most churches could never change their traditional music style to all Praise and Worship without having a war on their hands. But a compatible blend of the two styles is very possible when planned carefully.

I recently attended a Reformation service at which "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and "By the Sea of Crystal" were sung along with "Wind, Wind, Blow on Me" and "I Love to Praise Him" (although not side by side!). Accompaniment for most of the songs was provided by organ, piano, guitar, electronic keyboard, and drums. The service, designed to appeal to community members of all ages, was regarded by many as a high point in that community's history of combined worship.

Listen to the Young

None of what I have suggested here will make much of a difference if we do not begin to accept the fact that most young people want to worship in a style that they are comfortable and familiar with. We cannot force upon them the traditional styles that we grew up with and then say, "Well, it was good enough for me; I was able to worship God that way. Why can't these kids?"

It becomes the responsibility of worship leaders to listen to the young people's ideas for worship. If you want to keep young people in your church and have them contribute to its life, you need to accept their ways of worshiping and their methods of serving God. It's as simple (or as difficult) as that.


We had great youth services when I was in high school. We took turns with area churches one Sunday night a month. the young people from those churches would arrive in the morning already—some driving for two hours. So we would make a day of it, starting right after the morning service. The host group would serve soup and buns for lunch and then plan the afternoon, usually something like singing in a rest home, playing games at someone's home r in a local gym, and then having supper. ■ Then we would worship together. The young people of the host church would plan the service together with their pastor, who preached. At these services the music was more upbeat. We included a lot of praise singing, guitars, and drums. And the young people led all but the sermon.
—Michelle Schievink (Bowmanville, ON)

Jack Ippel is a vocal music teacher for Zeeland (Mich.) Christian School, a member of the worship planning team for Third Christian Reformed Church in Zeeland, and a frequent song leader at Young Calvinist Federation conventions.


Reformed Worship 28 © June 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.