Worship in the Church: traditional or contemporary?

Staying home from church with Thomas this morning to avoid spreading the croup, I heard this interesting story on NPR’s weekend edition about the Southern Baptist Conference updating its hymnal with hundreds of contemporary praise songs written by famous recording artists like Michael W. Smith and Matt Redman.

Behind the scenes here at This Pile I’ve been thinking and writing about community, mission, and cultural relevance, so I found this story very timely to that train of thought. The SBC stipulates that including contemporary music in their hymnals will make them more relevant to young people, and will help draw new people into church.

But certain old-timers disagree.

An elderly woman interviewed – an arthritic piano player in a small church whose favorite hymn is The Old Rugged Cross – expresses her frustration with the watered down nature of most praise music, feeling that it doesn’t really say anything. She says the newer songs sing “praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord” over and over again, but she prefers the tried and true hymns because they tell a story.

T.W. Hunt, retired pastor and a member of the committee charged with approving new songs into the hymnal, agrees. He believes the contemporary worship songs don’t necessarily contradict good theology, they just don’t say much of anything at all. “I love the old hymns, because I think they are very good on theology. ‘My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness…’ That’s pretty good theology.”

It appears that cultural relevance is being pitted against good story telling and strong theology. So I wonder myself, is today’s church raising up shallow Christians as a result of creating a more appealing church experience? I worry that American pastors and worship leaders place the fear of man before the fear of God by catering to what they think people want to hear. Sure, more people will likely enter the doors of a church if their current world views are not too harshly challenged, but is the goal to fill churches with bodies or to fill churches with Christ followers?

I thought it was a very interesting and balanced story about the debate in the church today over how to reach new generations with the Gospel. I personally think there is value in being relevant to the culture, but not at the cost of diminishing the power of story and good theology. As more contemporary churches write new music, I would hope they would retain a solid theology and steer clear of emotional repetition and swelling music.

Sadly, I don’t think this is always the case.

Any thoughts?

8 thoughts on “Worship in the Church: traditional or contemporary?”

  1. I have many thoughts on this issue…but will keep to a few…:) I love both the old hymns and the new choruses…one issue that I have with hymns is that, like the King James Version of scripture, they are often hard to understand, using words that we MIGHT understand if we were “brought up” in the church, but probably wouldn’t if we weren’t…”He rent my fetters in twain?!?” Choruses are often words directly out of the scripture put to music and I actually find them to be more relevant to my life today…I tend to find poor theology sometimes in both the old hymns and some of the new choruses…I think both can be learned from and appreciate the thought that goes into the service where I worship to incorporate both.

    During both the difficult times in my life, I find both “Blessed Assurance” and “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” (Matt Redman) running through my head and I’m thankful for both…

  2. I hadn’t thought of the dialect issue, but you’re right, some of the language is outdated. When I think the old hymns, I think mostly of their choruses, which tend to be more simply worded (right?).

    I was also thinking of that Matt Redman (oops, spelled it wrong in my post, but corrected it) song as an example of contemporary worship with good theology. It’s a song I listened to often in the hight of my grieving Gordy’s death. These verses of the song really kept me grounded in the sovereignty of Jesus in that situation:

    Blessed be Your name
    When the sun’s shining down on me
    When the world’s ‘all as it should be’
    Blessed be Your name

    Blessed be Your name
    On the road marked with suffering
    Though there’s pain in the offering
    Blessed be Your name

    Every blessing You pour out
    I’ll turn back to praise
    When the darkness closes in, Lord
    Still I will say

    Blessed be the name of the Lord

  3. I too listened to this story on my way to church this morning. Brent (my nephew) & I were really waiting for the puzzle…but I kind of chuckled to myself as I thought if this is the **only** issue we had as a church we’d be in heaven (probably both literally and figuratively).

  4. Now you know how I love “Jesus is my boyfriend” music but I’ll admit I was a little disturbed about putting the new with the old. Isn’t that what jumbo-trons and Powerpoint presentations are for? My grandfather not only knew every verse of every hymn, he knew which page it was on. We spent our entire lives singing from a hymnal. That being said, I feel like I get “more in the Spirit” with contemporary worship songs.
    But if we are talking with an underground bias from the old crowd against ruining the purity of hymns, let’s not forget that many of our hymns were words put to the tunes of tavern songs in the 18th and 19th century.

  5. i was so glad to see this post today. my mom and i were just talking about this topic this afternoon. while i enjoy the more “culturally relevant” music of most contemporary praise and worship songs, i am continually blown away by the theology and story in traditional hymns. i wish that more people could fully appreciate both forms of worship. it seems like such a huge, unecessary division in the church today. they both have so much to offer believers.

  6. I’ve had the advantage of being exposed to both the old hymns ( I love The Old Rugged Cross) and the new contemporary songs (I also love Blessed Be Your Name.)
    The points you make are good ones–avoiding shallow theology–and this is true whether it is in the music we sing or the sermons we hear or the Bible studies we attend.
    It seems like the topic of worship style will always be one that is controversial.

  7. Another convert from Blogger to WordPress! Hurray! You will never regret it. The new site looks GREAT!

    I hope that you will participate in the first-ever Group Writing Project that Tami, Shalene, and I are hosting! You can read the details at On the Horizon. All you need to do is send a link to your post to me via e-mail. It will then appear on all three of our sites and, hopefully, allow a good number of folks to read your thoughts about thankfulness and Christianity! Please join us!

  8. I don’t know. I think whatever helps people worship God is good. And what’s that verse in the Bible where it says the angels sing “holy holy holy” repeatedly for eternity? Simple can be good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *