How to Blend Contemporary and Traditional Music Elements Without Offending Everyone
By KAREN REYNOLDS
A change in worship without a process will bring out all kinds of offense! It would be like changing the noon meal my farming parents have eaten every Sunday in their fifty years of marriage. Dinner is at 12:00 noon, and the menu consists of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, and baking powder biscuits. If you were to suddenly change their meal, you would be in for a fight. And I wouldn’t blame them. As we plan worship, we set the table for God’s people. When the need arises to change the menu, we tell people why and help them develop a taste for other things. And that begins by answering a few important questions.
The first question is, “Why change how we worship?” That question ultimately leads to additional questions, such as “What is worship?” and “Who is worship for?” I have often sought answers to these foundational questions as our congregation’s worship life has changed.
Why change? The style of worship has always changed. For example, most of us would feel out of place in the ancient Hebrew church. (Attend a synagogue service to sense what this means.) The language would be foreign, and the tonal structure of the music would feel, at best, very awkward. The message would still be about a loving God who forgives sin�but I wouldn’t understand it. Many of us still expect people today to feel at home in a church filled with organ music and foreign expressions like “collect of the day” or “introit.” However, none of these things are indigenous to our culture. In other words, these things make many people feel like they are in a foreign country. People then begin to feel that God is foreign and inaccessible. The question is not, “Should we change?” but, “What needs to change to be relevant to people in this culture, at this time in history?”
What is worship? (Or, we could ask, what is not worship?) Worship is not a style or a form. We learn from Jesus in John 4 that worship happens in spirit and truth. Worship is at the heart of the believer who adores God for who he is and what he has done. When we plan worship, our job is to facilitate the meeting between God and the people of God. We want to give people tools to communicate and express their love and praise of God.
Some have argued that only certain tools or actions are allowed in worship. But what makes one instrument more worthy of God than another? What makes one style of music more worthy of God than another in any given community or place in Christian time? Personal taste? Childhood experience? Church policy manuals? Theological pronouncements? Authoritative prayer books?
Our music, texts, and instruments find their value in worship as God uses them to transform the hearts and lives of God’s people. If God were concerned about the value of the vessel, why use spit and mud as a sign of healing for a blind man? Or why use bread and wine or water as signs for our most important Christian practices? Or why allow Jesus to be born as a mere human being? God has always reached into our world by using familiar things so that we could acknowledge him and commune with him.
For whom is worship? It is for God and for the one who worships. Not either/or but both/and. Our lens is always Jesus: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2a NIV). As we adore and praise God by focusing through Jesus, God appears to us. God says that he dwells in the praises of his people. In 2 Chronicles 5 we see the picture of Israel singing and praising God. When they sang, the glory of the Lord filled the temple with a cloud. On Pentecost, as the disciples were worshiping, the Holy Spirit came in a mighty rush of wind. Today, God still comes to God’s people as they praise him. And when he does, it changes their lives and gives them renewed life.
Having answered those preliminary questions, how do we then blend the best of past practices and the best of present imagination about the God whom we worship? Here are some practical suggestions:
1. Pray for God’s vision and begin with baby steps.
2. Begin listening to tapes of contemporary Christian music. Some churches offer a tape or CD library so that guests and members can check out music and become familiar with the styles and lyrics.
3. Introduce the congregation to contemporary music by having a soloist or choir sing a contemporary song during worship. Make sure that the style of contemporary music fits the overall “feel,” or “climate” of the service.
4. Teach the singers and instrumentalists how to lead the worship by leading the congregation in the singing of hymns and songs.
5. Begin to develop a sing-a-long style (the congregation sings along with the leader or choir on the songs).
6. Help people understand the difference between the method and the message. Remind them that while the method may change, the message stays the same.
7. Teach about worship in Bible studies or youth and adult classes, and cultivate an attitude of worship.
8. Put two to four songs together in a medley, mixing well-loved hymns and some contemporary worship choruses.
9. Invite the congregation to experiment with a blended style of worship for six months and then give them the chance to evaluate it.
10. Understand that change can be, and often is, chaotic.
11. Study other churches and how they faced the same issues.
12. Spend time and money educating the choir, instrumentalists, and other leaders in the area of worship, worship leadership, and contemporary expressions of worship.
13. Be excellent in everything you do.
14. If you currently use only the organ, start incorporating some different instruments. To use songs with a pop style sound, find a good drummer.
15. If you are the worship leader, don’t be afraid to lead.
These suggestions will not eliminate all the opposition or discomfort. Remember to be sensitive to those who are not pleased by the change. Remember that relationships are very important. When people are angry about a different style of worship, don’t fight or flee, but think of ways to be clear and gentle as you express your vision for worship. Realize that there will be a price to pay, but that the benefits will be beyond your imagination. When people hear the gospel sung and spoken in ways that they may not have heard before, they will respond. Not because of what you have done, but because of what they are finally hearing. For “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17 KJV).
Karen Reynolds is the minister of music at Community of Grace in Omaha, Nebraska.
This article How to Blend Contemporary and Traditional Elements without Offending Everyone written by Karen Reynolds is excerpted from the book Contemporary Worship edited by Tim Wright.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.