Give Me That Old Time Worship War

Some things in the past don’t stay in the past. Here’s an attempt to re-hash the internecine struggles over worship music that transpired through the 1980s and 1990s (interspersed with my own thoughts):

By imminent decline, I do not mean imminent disappearance. Commercial forces have too substantial an interest to permit contemporary worship music (CWM) to disappear entirely; and human beings are creatures of habit who do not adapt to change quickly. I do not predict, therefore, a disappearance of CWM, sooner or later. Already, however, I observe its decline. Several years ago (2011) Mark Moring interviewed me for Christianity Today, and in our follow-up communications, he indicated that he thought the zenith of CWM had already happened, and that the movement was already in the direction of traditional hymnody. He did not make any claims about the ratio of CWM to traditional hymns; he merely observed that whatever the ratio was, the see-saw was now moving, albeit slowly, towards traditional hymnody. If the ratio of contemporary-to-traditional was rising twenty years ago, it is falling now; the ratio is now in decline, and I suspect that decline will continue for the foreseeable future. What follows is a painfully abbreviated list of eight reasons why I think this change is happening.

So this gives you a pretty good idea of how this articles is going to go, if you still use contemporary music it’s probably because you’re under the sway of some manner of “commercial forces” which seems to suggest you’re a stooge for some record label or something. A decline, for what it’s worth, would likely be about the only direction that contemporary worship music *could* because, for better or for worse it has become pervasive in evangelical culture. This is like predicting a relative decline in Taylor Swift’s popularity, when you’re on top, there’s pretty much one way to go.

1. CWM hymns not only were/are comparatively poor; they had to be. One generation cannot successfully “compete” with 50 generations of hymn-writers; such a generation would need to be fifty times as talented as all previous generations to do so. If only one-half of one percent (42 out of over 6,500) of Charles Wesley’s hymns made it even into the Methodist hymnal, it would be hubristic/arrogant to think that any contemporary hymnist is substantially better than he. Most hymnals are constituted of hymns written by people with Wesley’s unusual talent; the editors had the “pick of the litter” of almost two thousand years of hymn-writing. In English hymnals, for instance, we rarely find even ten of Paul Gerhardt’s 140 hymns, even though many musicologists regard him as one of Germany’s finest hymnwriters. Good hymnals contain, essentially, “the best of the best,” the best hymns of the best hymnwriters of all time; how could any single generation compete with that?

Just speaking arithmetically, one would expect that, at best, each generation could represent itself as well as other generations, permitting hymnal editors to continue to select “the best of the best” from each generation. Were this the case, then one of every fifty hymns we sing should be from one of the fifty generations since the apostles, and, therefore, one of every fifty should be contemporary, the best of the current generation of hymnwriters. Perhaps this is what John Frame meant when, in the second paragraph of his book on CWM, he indicated that he had two goals for his book: to explain some aspects of CWM and to defend its “limited use” in public worship. Perhaps Prof. Frame thought one out of fifty constituted “limited use,” or perhaps he might have permitted as much as one out of ten, I don’t know. But our generation of hymnwriters, while talented and devout, are not more talented or more devout than all other generations, and are surely not so by a ratio of fifty-to-one.

This is an extremely poor and confusing argument to lead with. The point Gordon seems to be making is that there have been several centuries of hymns and from all these composers over all this length of time our current collection of hymns represents the very best of the best. How can contemporary composers even try to compete with that? The implication is that our current collection of hymns is durable whereas most of the current “contemporary” church music is disposable. Except that hymns were also disposable, Gordon says so himself. According to Gordon, Wesley wrote over 6500 of them and we retain 42! Thousands of hymns were composed, sung, and forgotten, they were disposable. Most contemporary worship songs will be composed, sung and then forgotten. It’s the same process, Gordon sees a contrast here where there frankly is none. What of the sacred music prior to hymns? Again, pretty much all forgotten. If even the hymns of Wesley were forgotten, so what? T. David Gordon would be sad? The hymns of Wesley have no power to save! Music may grow and change and maybe some hymns will be recovered and much of contemporary worship music lost, but I do not see a straightforward return to hymns as they have previously been sung as the only inevitable future.

2. Early on in the CWM movement, many groups began setting traditional hymn-lyrics to contemporary melodies and/or instrumentation. Sovereign Grace Music, Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Music, Reformed Praise all recognized how difficult/demanding it is to write lyrics that are not only theologically sound, but significant, profound, appropriate, memorable, and edifying (not to mention metrical). If the canonical Psalms are our model, few hymn-writers could hope to write with such remarkable insight (into God and His creatures, who are only dust) and remarkable craftsmanship (e.g. the first three words of the first Psalm begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph (?), each also has a shin (?), and two of the three also have a resh (?), even though each is only a 3-letter word. Even those unfamiliar with Hebrew cannot miss the remarkable assonance and alliteration in those opening three words: “ashre ha-ish asher”).

I think this point translates as “I like the psalms, also I took at least one ancient Hebrew course .” I have no idea where Gordon is going here, that writing music and lyrics is difficult? So everyone should just give up and resort to Wesley’s attempts? What if Wesley had done that?

3. As a result, the better contemporary hymns (e.g. “How Deep the Father’s Love,” “In Christ Alone”) have been over-used to the point that we have become weary of them. These two of the better CWM hymns are sung a half-dozen times or a even a dozen times annually in many CWM churches; whereas “A Mighty Fortress” may get sung once or twice (if at all); but neither of the two is as good as Luther’s hymn. What is “intrinsically good” (to employ Luther’s expression about music) will always last; what is merely novel will not. Beethoven will outlast 50 Cent, The Black Eyed Peas, and Christina Aguilera. His music will be enjoyed three hundred years from now; theirs will be gone inside of fifty years.

Oh, I see, point 3 is merely a continuation of point 2, perhaps it’s actually point 2A? Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” is better? Gordon doesn’t even bother to explain how. Maybe he likes the lyrics, and I won’t argue with them, but the melody I find clunky and the weird time changes are either obtuse or lazy, I’m not sure which. Marty did quite a bit for all of us, but that doesn’t mean that his hymns are automatically gems.

4. It is no longer a competitive advantage to have part or all of a service in a contemporary idiom; probably well over half the churches now do so, so we have reached what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “Tipping Point.” CWM no longer marks a church as emerging, hip, edgy, or forward-looking, because many/most churches now do it. Churches that do not do other aspects of church-life well can no longer compensate via CWM; they must compete with otherchurches that employ CWM. Once a thing is commonplace, it is no longer a draw. And CWM is now so commonplace that it is no longer a competitive advantage; to the contrary, smaller churches with smaller budgets have difficulty competing with the larger-budgeted churches in this area.

Once again, the implication here is that no one actually *likes* contemporary worship, they’re just doing it to “compete” – maybe still under sway of those shadowy “commercial forces.” It seems that Gordon finds it impossible that anyone would actually enjoy worshiping with anything other than his particular canon of hymns. And these praise bands cost money. Because pipe organs are totally free and you can buy them anywhere. Actually every contemporary worship musician I know has purchased their own music equipment whereas I have never known an organist to do the same.

5. As with all novelties, once the novelty wears off, what is left often seems somewhat empty. In a culture that celebrates what is new (and commercial culture always does so in order to sell what is new), most people will pine for what is new. But what is new does not remain so forever; and once it is no longer novel, it must compete by the ordinary canons of musical and lyrical art, and very little CWM can do so (again, because its authors face a fifty-to-one ratio of competition from other generations). Even promoters of CWM prefer some of it to the rest of it; indicating that they, too, recognize aesthetic criteria beyond mere novelty. Even those who regard novelty as a virtue, in other words, do not regard it as the only virtue. And some, such as myself, regard novelty as a liturgical vice, not a virtue because of its tendency to dis-associate us from the rest of our common race, heritage, and liturgy.

Contemporary music is all mere novelty, and all commercialized. Once again, sure, most contemporary songs will fade away like most hymns did per Gordon’s own admission! He then returns to this specious 50:1 comparison. What about the generations that sang chants in monasteries? Monastic movements started in what? The 300s? And lasted till, um, today? 1700 years of chants, hymn-singer, you can’t compete with chanting! Surrender!

6. Thankfully, my own generation is beginning to die. While ostensibly created “for the young people,” the driving force behind CWM was always my own Sixties generation of anti-adult, anti-establishment, rebellious Woodstockers and Jesus freaks. Once my generation became elders and deacons (and therefore those who ran the churches), we could not escape our sense of being part of the “My Generation” that The Who’s Pete Townsend had sung about when we were young; so we (not the young people) wanted a brand of Christianity that did not look like our parents’ brand. Fortunately for the human race, we are dying off now, and much of the impetus for CWM will die with us (though the commercial interests will “not go gentle into that good night,” and fulfill Dylan Thomas’s wish).

“Thankfully my own generation is beginning to die” – I’m going to just repeat this bizarre statement of self-hatred. As if the baby-boomers were a monolith. I’ve encountered plenty of Gordon’s generation who were not especially counter-cultural. Woodstock was one place, less than a million people were there for what, a weekend? So what. If there is any reason to usher the baby-boomers off the stage it’s that they get caught in these “us versus them” types of dichotomies in ways that (hopefully) younger generations will seek to avoid. Gordon does not hold out any hope that some kind of compromise or fusion or future synthesis of different worship cultures will emerge. Nope, it’s hymns versus praise bands in a death match.

7. CWM is ordinarily accompanied by Praise Teams, and these have frequently (but by no means always) been problematic. It has been difficult to provide direction to them, due to the inherent confusion between whether they are participants in the congregation or performers for the congregation. In most circumstances, the members of the Praise Team do the kinds of things performers do: they vary the instrumental or harmonious parts between stanzas, they rehearse, etc. In fact, if one were to watch a video of the typical Praise Team without any audio, they ordinarily look like performers; their bodily actions and contrived emotional expressions mimic those of the entertainment industry.

Theologically and liturgically, however, it is the congregation that is to sing God’s praise, and what we call the Praise Team is merely an accompanist. But there is a frequent and ongoing tension in many CWM churches between the performers feeling as though they are being held back from performing for the congregation, and the liturgists thinking they’ve already gone too far in distinguishing themselves from the congregation. Many pastors have told me privately that they have no principial disagreements with CWM, but that they wish the whole Praise Team thing “would go away,” because it is a frequent source of tension. I have elsewhere suggested that the Praise Team is not biblical, that it actually obscures or obliterates what the Scriptures command. I won’t repeat any of those concerns here; here I merely acknowledge that many of those who disagree with my understanding of Scripure agree with my observation that the Praise Team is an ongoing source of difficulty in the church.

Most choirs have soloists. Let that sink in. Many organists can take on star status in their congregations (I was part of a congregation where this became something of minor blow-up). If Gordon thinks that “performance” is a problem that started with contemporary musicians than he is truly deranged in his view of worship. Consider the very nature of the organ, the old ones I mean, the giant mass of pipes at the front, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and dwarfing the altar.

8. We cannot evade or avoid the “holy catholic church” of the Apostles’ Creed forever. Even people who are untrained theologically have some intuitive sense that a local contemporary church is part of a global and many-generational (indeed eschatological and endless) assembly of followers of Christ; cutting ourselves off from that broader catholic body may appear cool for a while, but we ultimately wish to commune with the rest of the global/catholic church. Indeed, for many mature Christians, this wish grows as we age; we become aware that this particular moment, and our own personal life therein, will pass away soon, and what is timeless will nonetheless continue. Our affection for and interest in the timeless trumps our interest in the recent and fading. We intuitively identify with Henry F. Lyte, whose hymn said, “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” We instinctively wish to “join the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all” (to use Edward Perronet’s language). Note, in fact, the opening lines alone of each stanza of Perronet’s hymn, and observe how, as the stanzas move, our worship is connected to both earthly and heavenly worship, past and future worship:

All hail the power of Jesus’ Name! Let angels prostrate fall;…
Let highborn seraphs tune the lyre, and as they tune it, fall…
Crown Him, ye morning stars of light, who fixed this floating ball;…

Crown Him, ye martyrs of your God, who from His altar call;…
Ye seed of Israel’s chosen race, ye ransomed from the fall,…
Hail Him, ye heirs of David’s line, whom David Lord did call,…
Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget the wormwood and the gall,…
Let every tribe and every tongue before Him prostrate fall…

O that, with yonder sacred throng, we at His feet may fall,
Join in the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all!

It is not merely that some churches do not sing Perronet’s hymn; they can not do so, without a little dissonance. Everything that they do intentionally cuts themselves off from the past and future; liturgically, if not theologically, they know nothing of martyrs, of Israel’s chosen race, of David’s lineage. Liturgically, if not theologically, everything is here-and-now, without much room for angels or seraphs, nor every tribe and tongue (just those who share our particular cultural moment). To sing Perronet’s hymn in such a setting would fit about as well as reading Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at a Ku Klux Klan gathering.

“Contemporary worship” to me is an oxymoron. Biblically, worship is what angels and morning stars did before creation; what Abraham, Moses and the Levites, and the many-tongued Jewish diaspora at Pentecost did. It is what the martyrs, now ascended, do, and what all believers since the apostles have done. More importantly, it is what we will do eternally; worship is essentially (not accidentally) eschatological. And nothing could celebrate the eschatological forever less than something that celebrates the contemporary now. So ultimately, I think the Apostles’ Creed will stick its camel’s nose into the liturgical tent, and assert again our celebration of the “holy catholic church, the communion of the saints.” The sooner the better.

I think Gordon is trying to conclude here by strongly hinting (but not actually saying) that all the saints of the church both past and future(!) are singing hymns, just like Gordon would! Really? The apostle Paul would not have recognized the language, melody or structure of anything that was in any of the hymnody. Same with Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. Even the Iraqi martyrs killed by ISIS this year would likely have no idea about Wesley and likely never ever sang anything by Martin Luther. What a parochial, narrow view of the church Gordon has!

Contemporary worship has problems, some contemporary worship is just terrible, but the same might be said of hymnody. To set up a restoration of hymn singing as a panacea is to do nothing short of constructing an idol.