Every denomination and Christian tradition in America has its scare-words. Baptists start squirming the second “infant baptism” enters the conversation. Watch a scowl descend quicker than an over-inflated tech stock upon the face an Assemblies of God minister when “Calvin” comes into play. And what of us who are Calvinists? What term tyrannizes the minds of us who call ourselves Reformed? I think it might be “contemporary” or “modern.”
Don’t believe me? Try walking into your average Reformed church with the suggestion of adding some “modern” music to the worship; likely, the main reason you won’t be thrown out on your ear is that the elders can’t find such a maneuver in the church order.
The knee-jerk reaction against anything contemporary is understandable. The barrel of American Christendom spews out the bunghole with churches seemingly willing to sell their souls for one more member. The so-called “seeker-friendly” and “church-growth” movements have done more to stunt the gospel in America than anything in the last 30 years — all in the name of advancing the gospel.
Tied so tightly as almost to cut off the circulation is American churches’ commitment to The Now. Being hip for seeker-friendly churches is right up there with being “non-judgmental” and accepting next to anything so long as rumps stay pew-glued. Taking a page from the gospel of Duke Ellington, church don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Instead of trusting God to haul in His elect, too many churches rely on entertainment and excitement (a mammoth local church here actually calls itself “Adventure Christian Fellowship”) and give oblation on the altar of The Latest Thing.
Reformed churches rightly recoil at the antics of the First Church of What’s Happenin’ Now. For too many of us, however, the eschewing of the modern is simply a reflex, and not the product of sound Biblical thinking.
Saying that something is contemporary or modern is merely a statement of chronology. Objecting to something because it is new is like objecting to calendars because they contain next week. It’s the reverse of the “chronological snobbery” C. S. Lewis warned about — now our temporal chauvinism swings toward loathing things because they are new and praising things because they are old. Such a response ignores the fact that the goodness or badness of a thing has nothing to do with when it was minted. Other standards apply.
Style and Custom
For contemporary worship, the issues really boil down to musical style and theological content. Stylistically, music is always in flux, always developing and changing. Philosopher John Stuart Mill (silly boy) worried as a young man that the world would run out of new music because there are a limited number of notes with which to compose. As Thomas Sowell points out, though, at the time of Mill’s concern, neither Brahms nor Tchaikovsky had been born — and blues and jazz were not even figments of the imagination.1 While human expression is not infinitely variable, musical styles demonstrate how wide the array of innovation truly is.
Admittedly an argument from silence, notice that the Book of Psalms does not contain set tunes. Nowhere in Scripture does God tell us specifically how or what to play. Many Psalms do contain notes of direction (e.g., the type of psalm, what instruments to play), but it’s not like they come with sheet music. The melodies sung by the congregation in Israel would have been popularly known and might have varied depending on the desire of the music leader. Some had set melodies (Psalm 45 is to be played to the tune of “Lilies”), but we have no clue what these are today.
Now have a look at the blue Psalter Hymnal2 used in many Reformed churches; none of the music was written in 1000 B.C. Instead you see that most hymns were penned in the nineteenth century — musically the products of that period and place.
Tonally, the music is clearly Western, not Eastern, and follows all the compositional rules of Western music. The Psalms, for instance, contain rests, indicated by the word “selah.” This term is not sung; rather it is a point at which the congregation shuts up. Selah indicates a pause — possibly a place to ponder what was just sung. You don’t get that with music written in the 1800s. It’s all in definite meter. If you pause, the piano player will beat you to the end of the bar, and the person in the next pew will give you a dirty look if you try resuming out of sync with the rest.
Musically Eastern, it is likely that the Hebrew Psalms were sung to melodies that used microtones, a definite abrasive on the ears of people accustomed to Western music. Normally, we define musical sounds in terms of notes and halfnotes — the whole “doe-re-me” spiel. Not so on the other side of Byzantium, where they use what Westerners call quarter notes To the untrained ear, they just sound out of tune, but they’re not flub-ups; the tonal scale is simply different. Consequently, it might prove difficult for an American to get accustomed to singing the Psalms as they were written and played originally. The tonality and meter would throw us for a loop.
But the comparison doesn’t have to be so dramatic to demonstrate that different styles are favored more at different times. Arthur Sullivan’s music to Sabine Baring-Gould’s “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was at first frowned upon as too militant for a hymn, too unsolemn. Likewise, until Dwight Moody, waltzes were rarely if ever heard in church services. Now, Johann Strauss can be found in almost any standard hymnal.3
The way praise and worship music is played has changed radically over the years. The Reformed prejudice to look down upon music that seems new is to blink at the fact that at one time all those “timeless classics” we sing in church were wet ink on the paper of some composer and rang fresh and contemporary in the ears and hearts of parishioners.
By What Standard?
Dismissing the notion that because something is modern it is bad for worship, the only standard of any importance has to go beyond time and place. That can only be God’s everlasting Word (this is especially refreshing to note, considering the church is global, housing multitudinous cultures and customs across millennia and not stuffed into the strictures of nineteenth-century Western hymnody).
Regarding worship, God’s Word points out several ways in which we must approach Him in praise:
- Humbly (Ps. 10:17, 95:6; Jas. 4:10)
- Thankfully (Ps. 147:7; Jn. 2:9)
- Joyfully (Ps. 97:12; Phil. 4:4)
- Reverently (Ps. 96:9; Rev. 14:7, 15:4)
- Truthfully (Jn. 4:24)
Playing an up-tempo, six-month-old song with a bass guitar and synthesizer does not by itself violate those standards for worship. One can worship God humbly, thankfully, joyfully, reverently, and with theological accuracy with a new song and electric guitar just as easily as with an old classic and piano. If the worship leader tries to direct the praise to his skill and not God’s bountiful grace; if the congregation is hard-hearted and not grateful to the Lord; if the people are emotionless or, worse, sour, rather than rejoicing; and if flippancy or distraction betrays a lack of reverent attention to God, then there is a problem. But those things are just as possible with an old hymnal and organist. Vainglory, ingratitude, displeasure, disrespect, and bad doctrine are not inherent to pop-style rhythms and drum kits; they are inherent to sinners — a condition shared by both hep cats and old dogs who loathe new tricks.
Does this mean that all bets are off, that the choir and pianist should be switched for any amped-up group of twitching guys with guitars and funny hair? Hardly. Saying that a current standard doesn’t cut it is not the same as saying there are no standards.
Church worship is a congregational act. We gather as believers, united in praise of our God, to humble ourselves before Him, to thank Him, to revere Him, to confess the truth of His works. This we do as a body. As such, music that interferes with those reasons for gathering should be eschewed. Music might interfere by being exceptionally novel, by utilizing tone intervals or compositional structures that are too far beyond what the congregation is accustomed to, or by simply being ill-suited for congregational involvement. But music that supports rather than detracts from worship should not be discarded simply for having a recent vintage.
Playing contemporary worship is not whoring after the world or lurching “seeker-friendly”; it is simply pushing the musical repertoire of God’s people beyond the nineteenth century. Just as we don’t dress in the same fashions as folks of the 1800s, it is absurd to insist we never play music that was not written then as well. There is no Biblical justification for this standard. It does nothing to advance the kingdom and may in fact serve as an impediment by reaffirming the stereotype that the Reformed are irrationally snobbish for anything antique.
Erecting nonsensical, extrabiblical barriers in the face of unbelievers is not how to expand the borders of Christendom. Nor is prohibiting God’s people from singing His praises with modern music the proper role of elders governing a church that advances relentlessly through time and history.
While some contemporary worship may overplay its hand as “New and Improved!” Reformed believers should not be so quick to scrap it as “New and Disapproved!” Such a conclusion is not warranted by Scripture and cramps the worship of God in a box of man’s own making — precisely what we should be trying to avoid.
1. Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 69.
2. Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Church, 1976).
3. Ronald B. Allen and Gordon Borror, Worship (Portland: Multnomah, 1982), 168.