I love traditional worship and, as a church musician, am in favor of the whole package: choir robes, pipe organ, hymnals, etc. I once even jokingly said I’d drown myself if I ever heard “Oceans” played in another chapel.
That said, though, I am not necessarily in favor of having separate traditional and contemporary worship services. Before coming to the church I currently attend, I found myself in pursuit of a completely traditional service as I sought to avoid what I saw as the church-turned-concert vibe of many contemporary services.
But is this biblical?
I can easily make a case against a solely-contemporary worship regimen. After all, hymns provide a link to our Christian heritage, are (in general) more closely inspired by specific scriptures, and tend to be more musically complex. However, there are many skilled contemporary Christian artists who write songs packed with beautiful music and sound theology and it is not wise to ignore these for the sake of tradition.
Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion writes (in many more words) that so long as it remains rooted in scripture and dedicated to administering the sacraments, churches on Earth are encouraged to grow and develop according to their situation in time and location. Thus, while we should not forget our tradition, we also should not refuse to progress and continue to create.
Thus, the statement that we ought to remember our traditions and the belief that we ought to continue to develop our worship should not be mutually exclusive.
We may certainly choose to attend chapels or such gatherings that have the musical worship that we prefer. However, in the church, it is potentially unwise to cater separately to both extremes: traditional vs. contemporary.
I love traditional worship and do not mind contemporary when it is done with excellence, but I especially love the church services where the two are combined. I should clarify that I am not talking about contemporary remixes of the hymns; for example, when good ole “Joy to the World” becomes “JOY! UNSPEAKABLE JOY!” and is repeated for eternity, I cannot help but cringe. I am simply saying that rather than alter the hymns to make them more palatable for contemporary Christians, we should sing them alongside new songs. And, in doing so, we might bring the two extremes of the worshipping body together.
I have personally observed disgruntled older Christians in contemporary services and, although only twenty years old, I relate. As soon as the guitar and drums come in, we often lose our motivation to worship because the melodies are unfamiliar, the words projected on a screen rather than printed in a hymnal, and the music is too loud. Rather than adapt, my traditional pals and I attend a separate service that fits our expectations.
On the other hand, younger congregation members might feel uncomfortable in a liturgical service. They find the hymnals unwieldy, the music or lyrics too complicated, and the environment too formal. Rather than finding such a service reverent, they might find it stiff and distant. And so, like their older counterparts, they create and attend a service geared specifically toward their desires.
What seemed like an insignificant difference of musical preference is much more: it is a fundamental division of the church body.
In a traditional service, it is rare to see anyone under a more venerable age. In a contemporary service, primarily youth attend. There is a massive gap between generations in the church. And this is wrong; just as only featuring one era’s songs of praise does not accurately represent the span of Christian creativity in worship, hosting separate services for each worship preference does not accurately represent the body of the church, or- more importantly- the body of Christ.
The body of Christ, we are told in scripture, is united. Paul’s letters are overflowing with calls for the crucial unity of church members. For instance, 1 Corinthians 1:10:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
Does dividing the congregation based on means of worship obey this call? Does it reveal that we are living with “the same mind” or does it demonstrate a willing, opposing judgment?
What is the solution to this division? It cannot be to abandon one mode of worship for the other, forcing all members to sing hymns or contemporary music as this would further promote disunity! It would either divide us from our heritage and thus from the brethren that came before us or it would disconnect us from the current Christian culture. Either way, choosing one exclusively is not the answer; severing the past from the present obviously cannot heal a primarily generational division.
Rather, just as we ought to bring together the generations and preferences of our congregation, we must bring together the worship of our history and our present age. Blended services are a blessing (even if it means suffering through that repetitive refrain or faking your way through a wordy hymn) because you might be suffering and faking next to a kindly grandmother, an enthusiastic college student, a smiling toddler, or a wise father. Worship is about more than music; it is about the communion of the saints. Where the members of the body proclaim truth in unity, there is worship.
Romans 12:4-5 reads:
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
These verses, which focus on spiritual gifts, may also be applied to worship. We are individual members and, as such, carry our individual preferences. I personally find it easier to worship through the hymns, but many I know find contemporary songs more accessible. These are not doctrinal conflicts, but rather individual differences between members.
Ultimately, though, we are not called to live according to ourselves as individuals but to submit to one another. We are to bring together our gifts- and our preferences- to serve each other so that we join to become something greater: the united body in and of Christ. Combining our worship services, even if it is just once in a while, and singing praises together is a small step toward this perfect and desirable unity. Together, we might sing both beloved psalms and new songs to our one Lord, “who was and is and is to come.” And, together, we might realize fully the truth of Psalm 133:1:
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”