Worship is so much more complicated and nuanced and important and rich! We cannot reduce it to the generalizations or categories of (old) hymns against newer modern songs, or youth v. seniors. Because even in trying to find labels (so we can find ourselves on one side or the other of this argument) we fall short.
In January of 2021 I wrote my first “Worship Blog” for my congregation in Grimsby, Ontario. In that first blog, among other things, I quoted from a little-known booklet called “Authentic Worship in a Changing Culture” published in 1997.
“When our hearts are right, we will refuse to be controlled by caricatures of the worship of those with whom we disagree. We will resist labels like traditional and contemporary when they are used to put down others. We will quit trashing hymnals and traditions and quit using highly judgmental words like ditties and schlock [today we say things like 7/11 songs which is equally offensive] to describe contemporary music. We will not come to church looking for things with which we disagree in worship, but we will come to WORSHIP, regardless of what happens “up front” in a particular worship service.” – Authentic Worship in a Changing Culture, p. 52
This book was written at the height of the worship conflict in many of our churches 25 years ago. Recently two separate, short articles in our denomination’s monthly magazine caused these labels “traditional” and “contemporary” to be escalated yet again into unnecessary divisive worship-war talk. Worship directors, planners and leaders everywhere were dis-heartened - we all wish we were past these old arguments. Worship is so much more complicated and nuanced and important and rich! We cannot reduce it to the generalizations or categories of (old) hymns against newer modern songs, or youth v. seniors. Because even in trying to find labels (so we can find ourselves on one side or the other of this argument) we fall short.
There are many modern worship songs, written in a standard hymn-form. Are these contemporary songs or hymns? There are non-hymns written in the 1970’s that we use in worship: are those contemporary because they aren’t hymns (eg Lord I Lift Your Name on High. Shine Jesus Shine)? Where does “Will You Come and Follow Me” by John Bell, a Scottish minister and musician, fit in these two limited categories? What about “In Christ Alone”? Hymn or contemporary? Both? Neither? What about “Father Let Your Kingdom Come” by Porter’s Gate? This was written very recently making it contemporary in the sense of “now.” Is it then in the “contemporary” group? In what ways is it or is it not like “Way Maker” or “Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord”? All of these are more or less “contemporary” but the forms are different; they can’t all be categorized as the “same.”
I’m sure you see the point I’m trying to make. The word “hymn” refers to the compositional form of a particular song; and “contemporary” is a word indicating a time-frame, usually referring to the context of “now” or current. We can’t use these words on opposite sides of a continuum. Nor can we assume that all youth love Hillsong worship songs or that all seniors want to sing hymns.
Let’s not reduce the work of worship planning to an imaginary two categories of music, of which we must choose some of each. How can we as pastors and worship leaders expand, use, and articulate, different categories that will help our congregants expand their understanding of the purpose and place of congregational songs in worship?
Here are 5 spectrums of categories I try to use when choosing songs for worship (thinking of both lyrics and melody). These are continuums:
Simple ….. Complex.
Proclamation (head/doctrine) …... Expression (heart/emotion)
Pastoral (comfort) ….Prophetic (challenging)
And then we must consider even more: tone, mood, theme, church season, congregational context, length of service. Perhaps instead of asking if any song fits our category of contemporary or hymn, why not ask how the song connects with the message and themes we are exploring together? Or how does this song help us pray? How does it help us praise? Or how do all of the parts of worship: (songs, images, art, readings, prayers, sermon) reveal God to God’s people? Or how do they reveal something about us, and ways that we can grow in faith?
My hope and prayer, and this is a BIG hope and prayer, is that we learn to be open to worshiping God through ALL that is offered in a service. Even the parts we don’t like.
*Editor’s Note: Is your church having similar conversations, debating the “contemporary vs traditional” worship style? What are some of the ways you are challenging your congregation to think more deeply and go beyond the worship wars (again)? Email us! firstname.lastname@example.org