When I was in my 20s I was among those who fought for contemporary music in our worship. We were faced with the canonization of 19th century, John Philip Souza style marching hymns and 1930s southern gospel as the only acceptable music in the church. This was a musical style that we could not understand or relate to. We felt that by not having our music accepted, we were not really being accepted. I later learned that we were doing nothing new. Throughout the history of the church, new generations have struggled to win the privilege of contextualizing worship to its own culture. But, they each proceed to make that into THE worship style. I even warned my peers 35 years ago that if we won the worship wars we would face our grandchildren fighting the same battle against us if we were not careful.
After 30 years of playing in church praise bands, etc., I am still a supporter of contemporary worship. I have no intention of stopping or going back to the way it used to be. Also, for the record, I want everyone to know that I have never, ever been motivated by or cared the least about doing music in order to be “hip”, “relevant”, or as a means to attract young people to church or for any other gimmicky reason. My concern has only ever been to do music that creates authenticity in worship, and for me, that means using music that comes from the heart and soul. Generally, that means musical styles that I care about, that resonate the beauty of creation and of God, in my spirit. In that sense, I suppose, music should be relevant, and obviously what is relevant for one culture is not necessarily for all. That is why missiologists discuss contextualization.
Having said all that, I believe there are some badly needed changes in the world of contemporary worship that need to be implemented immediately. Here are some:
1) STOP CREATING A CONCERT or NIGHT CLUB ATMOSPHERE IN THE SANCTUARY
a) Do NOT dim the house lights!! This appalling practice should cease immediately. Period!! This is not a show!
b) Get the praise band off the stage and into an orchestra pit, out of sight at the side of the stage. If they are not the focal point, they cannot be confused with being performers. The musicians should be heard, but they do not need to be seen.
c) Include other instruments besides the normal rock ensemble. Add strings, brass, woodwinds, and even a pipe organ, etc. Different hymns and praise songs will require different instrumentation. Do not be afraid to go from a rousing rock praise song to a majestic pipe organ hymn, all in the same service.
2. Have a full choir each Sunday, instead of a small group of “lead singer” vocalists. There is no reason to imagine that having contemporary instruments and music is inconsistent with a choir. In fact, the voicing of a choir will encourage congregational singing and greatly enhance contemporary music. Black churches excel in this. Go visit and pay attention.
3. Most importantly – CONTROL THE VOLUME OF THE MUSICIANS!!!! There is utterly no excuse for rock concert volume in a worship service. Modern technology allows for guitarists and other instruments to achieve any tone needed at low volume. Any drummer who is not able to play well at a low volume is not good enough to be in your praise band. He should not need to be put in a glass cage, but do this if needed (since the glass cage WILL NOT be on stage anyway).
4. To reiterate, these changes will allow the congregation to both hear and see themselves and each other, cultivating the sense that God is the audience, not those in the congregation or on stage.
5. Require worship leaders to have formal training in music, including leading and arranging. Experience playing rock and roll in clubs and bars is not adequate qualification for leading a worship team/praise band.
6. Regular rehearsals are necessary, but it also is helpful to rotate musicians who play in the band, especially in larger churches. More people get to participate and there is less chance of someone getting a performance mentality. (And personally, I do not think praise band members should be paid. There are many fine non-professional musicians who would love to serve and should be allowed to do so. Worship leaders, however, are pastors, and wherever a church can afford it, they should be fully compensated).
7. Coordinate music selections with the preaching as well as the liturgical calendar. Make it a point to include music/hymns from the repertoire of church history, but be sensitive to contextualization as well. Music is a means of communication as well as worship, so there is nothing wrong with using the language (music) of the people in the congregation and the community. Provide something for all generations – both in what will please them and in what will challenge them.
8. Strongly consider returning to the use of hymnals. There is something more solid about the printed page that creates a sense of concrete reality and permanence. It also allows for worshipers to review and meditate on the content of the songs both before and after the service. In addition, it provides a concrete repertoire of worship songs that creates familiarity. Congregations that know the music will participate more readily. Hymnals also contain notes about the hymns that connect us to the history of worship. Plus, you never have to worry that the media guy does not change the power point slides fast enough to keep up with the singing!
That is the end of this lone sheep’s bleating for the moment. I would like to hear what you all think.