Monday, August 31, 2009

Traditional or Contemporary?

It’s always nice to hear that something you said was helpful to another Christian. When that Christian is an Episcopalian, it’s wonderful. While the Rev. Bennett doesn’t say all that could be said on the debate of “contemporary vs. traditional” in Christian worship, it was interesting to see her Anglican perspective on the worship of the church.
G. K. Chesterton once said that being a "traditionalist" means a determination not to automatically dismiss any man's opinion outright just because he happens to be your father.

The buzz these days in the church is whether you attend a church that has "traditional" or "contemporary" worship.

William Willimon, former chaplain at Duke University and newly elected Methodist Bishop of Alabama, (not known to be a curmudgeon) writes this: "I was recently at a church of my own denomination, and I came away frightened, thinking, have I seen the future of the church? The hymns (songs really), anthems, everything had jettisoned the tradition, our language, our metaphors, and our stuff in favor of something called contemporary Christian music. And in my humble opinion, what I heard that day, I just don't think will lift the luggage in the future. As people were singing, praising some vague thing called 'God' who, as far as I could tell, had never done anything in particular, as we were bouncing along praising, I wanted to say, 'you know there are people out there today who just found out that their cancer is not responding to treatment, or who found out their kids won't do right, that their marriage won't survive, or that they ca n’t keep their jobs, and here we are just bouncing along, grinning, praising God. We've got some good stuff for that kind of thing -- where is it?'"

Willimon speaks of running into a preacher who said his church had had contemporary worship for 12 years. "When does the contemporary stop being contemporary? When we go into our second decade of this stuff." The preacher said, "You mark my word, you've heard it here first; you're going to drive by some Baptist church in Atlanta, and they're going to have, out there on the lawn, an amplifier, a set of drums, and a guitar for sale. We will have moved on to some other infatuation."

Willimon reports that he heard an (ELCA) Lutheran pastor say recently, "We are starting to form new churches that have, as part of their mission, the aggressive, loving nurturance of traditional Christian worship."

The fact is, there is something to be said for using words that have been used in Christian worship for 2000 years, something to be said for using prayers that St. Augustine and St. Basil and countless others handed on to us like the precious gems they are. There are 2000 years of Christians who have pressed them to their hearts, stained them with their tears, and carried them to their deaths. The core of our Christian worship is filled with the life blood of Israel as well. The truth is, not many people realize how ancient are the prayers that we pray and the substance that fills them or how ancient is much of our music. This is not to negate that there is some bad theology in traditional hymns nor the need to bring a freshness to worship or a spontaneous voice to prayer.

It IS to say that what traditional worship gives us is something that is not only unique, but something holy, something that has bubbled up from thousands of years of Hebrew-Christian experience.

There are contemporary hymns I love, that bring me fresh insight into God and my relationship with God. But I will never stop breaking out in goose bumps when the choir sings an "Aye Verum Corpus" or a Gregorian chant that suddenly brings the world of my Christian ancestors so close I can almost reach out and touch them; those who felt that God was worthy of the deepest reverence they could offer.

A student asked Willimon, "How come we always sing these old hymns in Duke Chapel? I don't know any of these hymns." Willimon replied, in love, "Well you'll notice that you won't hear any of this kind of music on MTV. This is different kind of music. You had to get up, get dressed, and come down here at an inconvenient hour of the day to hear music like this. Check out the Ten Commandments. It says that thing about 'honor your father and your mother.' This is our attempt to do that in a small way. To be a Christian is to find yourself moving to a different rhythm, a different beat."

So yes, this year in our church you will hear the ancient words again and you will hear the ancient music again and the reason it will touch you is because it has woven its way into your soul as it did those before us. No doubt, there are things that are new, both tunes and words that will ultimately weave their way into our hearts and souls as well. In the meantime, perhaps the test of whether they stay or leave should be do they give you goose bumps! If not that, then at least it should be something that doesn't just make you feel good, but something that pulls back the veil between God, you, and the rest of the community, so that we are able to perceive just Who it is we come before and worship.

-- The Rev. Virginia L. Bennett, St. Andrew's, Episcopal Church, Edwardsville, Illinois

(From The Anglican Digest, Easter A.D. 2005.)

Will Willimon


Mike L said...

I love that we must return to "traditional" worship that mostly reflects the 15th - 19th centuries. How come they were allowed to develop their meaningful songs of worship and we are not?

ray said...

Could not help but think of Charles Wesley when I read this.He wrote over 8,000 hymns and never heard the sung on Sunday.Charles was an Anglican minister (the Methodist did not split from the church of England until after he died),and the Anglican church did not allow "new hymns" in service until the early1800's,guess he was to contemporary.Charles wrote about the Christian experience :foregiveness.Charles had a heart for outreach and wrote emotional hymns with invitation stanzas.Outcast of men,to you I call Harlots and publicans ,and theives!He spreads His arms t'embrace you all;Sinners alone His grace recieves::NO need of Him the righteous have,He came the lost to seek and save.I can think of 25 modern day contemporary christians songs that say the same.The modern Church is the same today to the state of England when Charles was ministering.Few non-Christians attend church so the worship is for the already saved.And some Christians are satisfied with that.Charles wasnt and neither am I.

ray said...

Guess every generation has its contemporary worship.Oh by the way later with George Whitfield ,Charles Wesley pioneered open air revivals that were seen as really outside the mainstream ,imagine that.

Darcyjo said...

I'll admit it, I have to agree with the previous posters. I admire a lot of what you have to say, but each generation has its own thing to say, and things to add to the ongoing conversation. If you're just speaking to the folks like myself, who were raised in church, maybe sticking with older music is a good idea: you don't want to run them off. But anyone else? If someone has to learn a new language understand a worship service, there's a good chance it's not going to happen.

Bob Bentley said...

I'm not sure the "traditional" vs. "contemporary" conversation, at least the way we tend to do it, is very helpful. Undefined labels have little value. In fact I think those labels limit our creativity in worship.

Traditions in the Christian church reach back across several centuries. Who is to say which traditions are traditional? For a religion that had its unique beginnings 2000 years ago and rests upon a religion whose roots reach back that much again I suppose the argument could be made that everything that happened since the Reformation is contemporary, relatively speaking.

That analysis is not very helpful either. But I enjoyed it.

I love traditional prayers and liturgy. I believe they can be used well in "contemporary" services when set in modern media or creative modes, with the words on a video screen, or presented by multiple readers from different positions in the room, or as responsive readings among the congregation.

Three things are necessary. First, God must be glorified. Second, the elements of worship must be theologically sound, and third, worship must be relevant to the worshipper. That can, and has happened in all generations. It takes quite an ego to believe that there is nothing to learn or value from worshippers throughout our history, including those that are creating worship today.

There is no need to announce in a "contemporary" service that a "traditional" element of worship is being used, or vice versa.

Just worship.

Steve West said...

I think the the terms traditional and contemporary are losing their meaning as a result of the entrenchment of the "worship wars". If you think about it, all worship should be both contemporary and traditional. The question becomes what traditions are being drawn from (there are so many) and what is "with the times" (the meaning of contemporary). Some things that are called "contemporary" are actually quite "traditional." Praise songs that are comprised of verses of scripture sung repeatedly is essentially the same spirituality as Taize or Gregorian Chant ... it's more "traditional" than a four verse hymn in Christendom.

I think what is of the Spirit, what is truth (sound familiar?), what is sound, what is deep, and what draws us into mystery should be the questions we ask. Plus a willingness to let our guard down over trappings such as instrumentation (which is a cultural, not a theological, issue ... it is impossible to theologically or historically argue that drums are more "secular" than a piano) and feel free to expand to other traditions and cultures of the world while honoring what a particular faith community tends to love.

When we become entrenched, our world gets smaller and we think of what we like as good and label the rest. I am fond of telling people when they say they don't like something we sang that I don't like every song we sing either, but part of my spirituality is to give myself to the singing of the heart songs of others and worship expands me.

I prefer worship that is creative, liturgical, spirited, and not afraid to break down walls and expand our horizons. Just don't call it blended because that's a label that will lose its meaning too!

I love the fact that the Wesleys carried a book of Charles' hymns (that was contemporary, we must not forget) in one pocket and the Book of Common Prayer in the other. They stump preached and went to eucharist three times a week. Later, camp meetings balanced formal Sunday worship. Even later, Sunday night was given to Cokesbury hymnals. Now we have "contemporary" and "traditional" services on Sunday mornings but that will eventually fade and we'll continue the journey another way. For Methodists, this is a "how do we do both/and" not a "how do we do either/or" discussion. If we trace our worship history and see how the torch has been passed, the polar dynamic is part of the power, not the problem.

Bill C said...

This is a wonderful piece! I'm looking forward to sharing it with others.

Paul said...

Here's a contrarian thought (or two or three):

It's actually untraditional to be traditional.

Do we think Luther told his followers that they had to continue to sing Gregorian chants–that they couldn’t sing his new-fangled “A Mighty Fortress,” etc. until it had aged 100-200 years? Do we think the Wesley brothers hid their songs until they had died? Fanny Crosby? Bill/Gloria Gaither?

Hasn't the alive Church of the ages has always, always been innovative?

Then there's the issue of indigeneity. Is it not foolhardy to push a pipe organ on a Zimbabwean congregation? Why is it not appropriate to utilize indigenous American musical forms--jazz, rock, and yes, country-western? As a pastor, I'm wanting our worship to resonate with Americans in 2009, not Northern Europeans who've been dead for centuries.

One more thought--another shift we may be seeing is theological. We are probably seeing the pentecostalization of global Christian worship. And that is something up with which many will not put. Or clap their hands. Or raise their hands.

Pastor DtP said...

Ahh the worship wars...

Here is an odd view - and perhaps far more pragmatic - are the people singing?

Being a fairly liturgical lutheran (one who finds it a bit...ironic that a female episcopal cleric is bemoaning the tradition that denied her ordination for most of its history - based on all three legs of the of the stool ) my look is this - WILL THE PEOPLE SING

And the answer - whether it is a Nunc Dimitis chanted with organ, or Ancient Words sung with accoustic guitar - doesn't depend on the song as much as the rest of the service.

Do they realize what they have been given in Christ, as revealed in readings, and the prayers and maybe even the sermon? Do they understand the depth of Christ's joy, as He approached the cross to bear their sin? Do they understand that they were united with Christ's death and resurrection as God wet them down in baptism, or that the Table is a koinonia with the Body and Blood of Christ?

If so, they will praise Him, with anthems, hymns, praise songs, even things like the Sanctus and repetitive hymns in Revelation and Isaiah 6.

peculiar folk we may be... but our God has created us, and recreated us and calls us His worksmanship, His People, His children.

If that don't make you want to sing, I don't know what will.....

Eutychus said...

I have a theory: in a few years someone will "discover" a pipe organ and "Holy, Holy, Holy" and will start a whole new movement of "new" contemporary worship!

Dr Campbell said...

I believe Wesley used bar song as bases for the hymns he wrote.

Dr Campbell said...

Wesley used bar songs as bases for the hymns he wrote. (dont tell the "traditional" church they may never sing again.) if you are going to complain about the different type services, then come up with something that is tangible for this next generation. becasue we are missing the boat. They (contemporary) are not being reached in traditional setting. We need to LISTEN to the crowd that is leaving the church and those who wont even step foot in our church for whatever reason. Do be so high and mighty that you look like pharacies and saducies. i not calling you that but ppl that dont come to you church or have left your church may look at you that way. God and the ppl that do his work are not divisive. His word has to be shared in a way that is received. (that is what all of Wesley's work was about)

Paul said...


Don't forget the knickers, wigs, hoop skirts and horse-drawn carriages in your theory.

How about we call it "Luddite worship?" "Higher Luddite" with pipe organs and 300 year old hymns, and "Lower Luddite" with Hammond organs singing Fanny Crosby hymns.

BTW, where can I place a bet on your theory?

Tim Marsh said...

I think that the jist of the post deals more with the substance and content of the songs as opposed to the styles (though this is a bit confusing in the article).

Questions that need to be addressed:

1. What is the purpose of singing and the content of songs in "traditional" worship as opposed to "contemporary" worship?

2. What theological agendas do various "traditional" hymns promote? The point about Charles Wesley is pertinent to the discussion.

I do voice my concern that many "choruses" lack theological substance. I believe that Bishop Willimon, and others, would not deny the importance of each generation composing songs connected to the Bible's narrative or that articulate theology. I find that lacking in contemporary worship.

However, I find many theological presuppositions often at work in "Hymns."

Charles Wesley's "And Can It Be" articulates the Wesleyan emphasis on individual experience and response.

A Baptist Hymn of Invitation: "Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior" emphasizes a Reformed view of God's sovereignty in salvation.

The question raised is more complicated than the musical instruments. I would like to see a discussion focus on the questions I raised in an articulate fashion, rather than a caricatural fashion that is often the case.

Paul said...

Tim, let me first concede that many contemporary choruses are theologically vacuous (many are getting better in the past 5 years), and you make a very important point about theological differences expressed in song, yet, I would still argue...

Style is THE issue at hand. It's all about age, class and race.

It's visceral, not cerebral. That's why it falls apart so easily upon examination.

Let's see...the Church of England reaction to Wesley was primarily about theological content?

C'mon, Wesleyans, please be Wesleyan. The Church universal desperately needs Wesleys today. Lots and lots of Wesleys. God bless them, but there are plenty enough Anglicans to go around, especially in Africa.

Oh, I forgot; they've been pentecostalized, too.

At least TEC doesn't have to deal with them as a Central Conference (I hope everyone thinks that's funny:)).

I assume on a blog like this, you don't make an impact without pulling out all of the stops.:)

Tim Marsh said...


If we had the time to communicate more, we would find that we have much in common.

That is why we must ask what is the role of singing in the various worship styles? Is it to recite liturgy, teach theology, or to experience some intimacy with the Spirit present in worship.

You are right: The article is inconsistent with regards to what it is against - the style. However, I maintain that we must ask why the "choruses" are telling God how great he is in oversimplistic terms and why that seems to appeal to a certain subculture?

The discussion needs more than articles - it needs dissertations. Furthermore, it needs consistency. Is the problem with style or is it with substance? And, it needs less charicaturing.

Paul said...

Agreed, Tim.

Dr Campbell said...

Maybe we can look at this another way. If Contemporary church were to disappear - No contemporary church or service on the planet. Where would those people go? Do you think they would attend Traditional service?

If you dont think they would attend a traditional church how are we to reach them?

If you do believe they would attend, share why.

I believe, because of this argument - WE are missing a chance to reach ppl who are searching, People are communicating with one another with pride about the type service they attend, and give a chance to share God! i have seen and heard more ppl excited about their spiritual growth -- some from traditional and some from contemporary. I am EXCITED PEOPLE ARE EXCITED AND TRYING TO LIVE FOR CHRIST!

Paul said...

Dr. Campbell,

I'm excited you're excited.

Which is more excited than Mr. Bean in "Mr. Bean Goes To Church"

Dr Campbell said...

thank you for Rejoicing with me.

ray said...

Well said Paul.Amen.Most churches spend more time worrying about pleasing the 30yr pew warmers ,than reaching the lost whats all the hoopla about anyway.Very eloquently put Paul(I think).Then someone posted Mr Bean goes to church and I spit coffee all over me laughing.I have visited that church before.You put things so well, with a touch of humor, you must be charismatic or pentecostal.

David said...

An interesting discussion. I appreciate ray's point about Wesley and the importance of content over style. I would like to clarify Dr Campbell's post that says Wesley used "bar songs" as this is an often stated misconception. "Bar tune" or "Bar form" was a musical term that referred to the way the words were arranged. see,387
That said, I don't follow the idea that certain forms of music are inherently evil and in a world that is in need of redemption, a lot of 'secular' music can be redeemed by inserting sound theological lyrics. In our mission church, where very few of our attendees have ever heard any hymns, we use 'familar' music with re-set lyrics (as well as inserting great hymns of the faith and using the lyrics of some of those hymns in a modern musical format.)
I do wish Bishop Willimon would follow-up some of his blogs with responses to the comments. We could all benefit even more.

Christine said...

My husband was a pastoral intern for a UMC congregation in Somerville, MA. When it was his turn to run the service, he decided to shake it up a bit and have a "good ol' fashioned Southern sing-along." Up until this point, the church had presented an odd mix of obscure ancient tunes and unknown songs from the 70s. So--when he chose his songs, he decided to choose songs he felt the congregation might be able to sing. I believe the list included Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, the Old Rugged Cross, and you bet there was some Charles Wesley in there.

As I looked around during this sing-along, I was amazed. Some of the oldest members of the congregation were belting their hearts out like Broadway singers. Some of the people my age (young twenties) had tears streaming down their faces because something in the not-always-upbeat-words of the old songs struck home. They called out for more at the end of the sing-along, so we just kept singing more and more songs.

I guess what I am saying, Dr. Willimon, is that I've seen the old made new again. It is moments like this that I grieve for when I attend one of our church's contemporary worship services, because they rarely work in "oldies." At the same time, I definitely see the value contemporary music holds, particularly as a generational movement.

But if my generation wants to learn from the baby boomers, the most obvious thing we should learn is that we will not always be the young, hip ones in society. Someone else will come along and make us feel obselete. Church music needs to minister to all generations and try to prepare for the future. If that means adding theological depth to contemporary worship music--great. If that means throwing in some old-timey sing-alongs--fantastic. Even hosting Taize services can minister to a portion of the congregation you didn't realize existed. But to put blinders on and argue that the one path we've chosen should be sufficient for a whole congregation, forever, is silly.

Incidentally, it has been interesting reading an article in favor of bringing back traditional worship because the vast majority of conversation I've heard on the topic has been more in line with the comments. Thanks for posting some variety for my reading!

Dr Campbell said...

I should have researched on my own before posting that about "Bar tunes" (taught that, i have forward the link to collegues.)

but my stance doesnt change, Traditional - is were ppl can grow a relationship with Christ.
Contemporary - is were ppl can grow a relationship with Christ.

I Pray God will continue to teach us new ways and preserve the old ways of reaching all!

ray said...

David ,I would like to hear from the Bishop also.The original post contained comments that were not consistent with comments he had made in the past regarding worship styles.
Maybe he can post a reply and give us some clarity on his view.

David said...

Well said, Dr Campbell, I join you in that prayer.