Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Worship Music Debate

My friend and favorite blogger, Joe McKeever, has retired as Director of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Fortunately for me and the rest of his internet flock, he's still preaching and blogging. He wrote this last week, and I thought you'd appreciate it. Keep in mind, when worship music is the subject, the argument usually divides along generational lines: Those over 50 or so prefer the old hymns and nothing but, while those under 50 want nothing but songs written in the last 15 years. But this is a balanced, BIBLICAL perspective from a man of retirement age...which makes it all the more refreshing...

Are They Still Debating Worship Music?

If so, I have a contribution. Going through old files and tossing out the accumulated notes of a near-lifetime of ministry, I came across this correspondence from June of 2000.

Jeff and Lisa wrote to me:

"We have enjoyed the fellowship and warm welcome we have received from the church. But, we are concerned about something that it seems is becoming more and more emphasized in the church services. It sets a tone for the rest of the service that dampens our spirit. We find it hard to concentrate on your message, and we both like hearing you preach. We're talking about the music."

"We do not think it is right to add a rock beat to hymns written to glorify God. For example, 'It is Well With My Soul' was played one Sunday with a rock beat. This was so offensive to us that we did not feel comfortable singing the hymn. We hate not participating during that part of the service but we feel that we are not truly worshiping God. We hope you will prayerfully consider this issue."

I wrote them back:

"Dear Jeff and Lisa:
"I'm glad you shared your concern with me about the music. I'm going to sit at my computer and try to put some thoughts down here. So, you'll understand I'm typing this myself and not blame the form on my secretary!

"We've had lots of discussion about the music in the church over the past year or two, because in almost every church in the land, the music is changing. A month ago Margaret and I attended a church in California 20 years old and running 15,000 in attendance. The music was a band that just about deafened me, and was not to my liking at all. The pastor said he counsels ministers to find the type of music suitable to their own community, and not to imitate what he was doing there. As the week went by--we were attending a conference--I found the music less and less objectionable. It never reached the point of being 'my kind of worship music,' but I certainly saw how it was being used of the Lord to bless hundreds all around me.

"What I decided (and I'm not the first, of course) is that the type of music we best worship to is not theological or even spiritual, but cultural. That is, our choices in church music are conditioned by the kind of music we grew up with, in church mainly, but to a certain degree, out of church, too. Recently we had an African children's choir here. They were wonderful, and their music was loud, swinging, with a heavy beat, and extremely emotional. Not my kind, but still infectious. And you could see the love of Christ in these people's faces. My conclusion: there is no one kind of music that is 'the Lord's' with all the rest being secular. The music the Lord leads His people to worship with is just as varied as His children are.

"Ken Gabrielse (our minister of music at the time, also chairman of the church music department at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; now leading the music department for Oklahoma Baptists) says that many of the hymns we love and grew up on were originally written to honky tonk tunes of the 1700s. Church leaders who had sung only from the book of Psalms resented Charles Wesley taking a song out of a dance hall and putting Christian words to it, and they condemned him heartily. The same with Isaac Watts who wrote songs like 'At the Cross' and 'We're Marching to Zion.' Today's standards were yesterday's rock songs!
"One of our members was at the First Baptist Church of a large Southern city recently. The pastor told him that only 20 years ago, the congregation would not allow a piano to be used in the service because it cheapened the worship. It had to be the organ or nothing. And yet, where in the Bible does one find an organ?

"It's interesting you mention 'It is Well With My Soul' because, while I don't recall the particular instance you refer to, I was in a congregation a few months back when the music was provided by a jazz band. It sounded weird and sure did not 'feel' like how I want to sing that song. I tried anyway, and frankly did not get much out of the singing. Incidentally, Dr. Gabrielse says we're not supposed to 'get' anything out of the singing; we're supposed to worship the Lord and He gets the praise. He says most of us are too narcissistic in how we worship: 'What can I get out of it?' Anyway, after that service, I heard two or three people comment on how that music had blessed them. So, I kept my mouth shut rather than pour cold water over what had been a great experience for them.

"My conclusions then, Jeff and Lisa, are: --that often the very thing that offends one person blesses another, --that music is so personal and individualistic that almost no two people like it the same way, --that the minister of music has a tough job trying to meet the needs of so many people with varying tastes and needs, and --that church music is never static, but like every other methodology in the church. The message never changes, but the methods are fluid and always adapting to where people are at the moment.

That's why Jesus made so much of the need for God's people to be new wineskins. A new wineskin believer is open and flexible, willing to try the new and not resistant to change. I'm 60 years old (note: that was 9 years ago!) and I have to fight this tendency every day to prefer things the way they have always been. But I know when I give in to that, something within me starts to dry up and wither and I become less and less available to the Holy Spirit.
"What I'd love to see you do is to decide that a) not all music in the worship service must be to my liking, so long as some of it is; b) I will worship and sing unto the Lord and not rate a song or sermon by 'what I got out of it,' and c) to pray for the Lord to lead in the choices of what we sing and how we do it.

"Not long ago a man came to me with the same concern you mentioned. The drums were too loud and interfered with his worship. He had decided to remain in the foyer until sermon time. If this did not work for him, he would find another church. Oddly enough, the next Sunday he loved the music and even found that the drums fit right in. He made a discovery that's worth mentioning here. He found out that in order for the worship leader and the musicians to get the right balance in the sound and beat and so on (I'm not a musician!), they had to experiment. By being patient and not critical, he found that they are making strides to improve. So, he's still in his place on Sunday and seems a lot more satisfied.

"I know I've not done a very good job of responding to your letter, but I hope you'll give me an A for effort. I will take it as a great act of Christian faithfulness and love if you will accept my suggestions above, and see how it all develops. If, after a few months, you still have the same concerns, let me know and we will talk further, even involving Ken in our discussions.
"Thank you. God bless you. I'm honored to be your pastor."

(My notes do not indicate how Jeff and Lisa responded. I don't actually remember them--they're no longer a part of our congregation--but am confident that over the intervening years as they have visited churches in other cities, they have long since gotten past these concerns and recognized them as temporary preferences, not lasting spiritual convictions.)

Joe's blog is found here: Just in case you'd like to comment to him.


Carrie said...

"Dr. Gabrielse says we're not supposed to 'get' anything out of the singing; we're supposed to worship the Lord and He gets the praise. He says most of us are too narcissistic in how we worship: 'What can I get out of it?'"--Niiiice! So true and why is it always so hard for us to take the spotlight off ourselves? Great article.

Jeff Berger said...

I think it's hard to take the spotlight off ourselves because we're just plain old selfish! That's human nature. Plus, we've grown up in the USA, where there's an abundance of choices of where to go to church, so we feel like we have the right to demand the best "show" possible...or we'll just go somewhere else.

Jenifer said...

The picture on his page is so unlike him and the bio is so conservative.
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