When I was a teenager, just starting to play the guitar and leading worship, I was often met with resistance from “traditionalists.” Their arguments against “contemporary” worship was that it was too repetitive, was not substantial, lacked theology, was not sacred enough, and a whole bunch of other claims arguing for modern music’s inferiority to hymns. Funnily, their definition of a hymn ranged from the oldest songs we know, like the 8th century’s “Be Though My Vision” to “Victory in Jesus” written in 1939. What I wanted to know was what constituted a hymn? By what measure did we decide to make one song a hymn, and another a “praise and worship” song (That is what everyone used to call the newer songs in the 80s and 90s)?
I would look at various factors and compare. A hymn has multiple verses, but so do modern songs. A hymn supposedly has deep theological expression. But when examining the text of many hymns this is a misconception. Many hymns have simple expressions of faith that have no theological depth whatsoever. A great example is “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling,” a song that may be right, but has very little to back up its claims. It is poetic language set to express something of one’s ideas about Jesus. Hymns are filled with poetic lines that sometimes don’t mean much of anything, they simply rhyme. The same is true for today’s songs. Many have lines containing deep theologically sound expressions of worship. While others are filler, meant to complete an artistic vision or to get the singers to the next line. It happens.
I could go on and argue the silliness of some of the arguments and merits of the arguments between traditional and modern music in the church, but that would be tedious. What I know is that modern music and hymns constitute men and women reaching out in worship for the sake of the church. As new generations comes along and expresses themselves in worship there may be some signs of immaturity that mark the beginning of a movement, and this is true throughout history, but it is undeniable that when these men and women get their bearings, we all benefit from their songs as they help us worship. For example, if I look at recent worship music-writing churches like Elevation or Bethel and trace their songwriting back 5-10 years I am amazed at the artistic and theological progression that can be seen. These two churches in particular have always produced good music to an extent, but their most recent releases show theological depth that is really fun to read through. Many of their songs can stand tow to tow with the best hymns and be acceptable. And as always there are some pretty poorly written songs out there that are bland and theologically shallow. But this is true about some hymns, they just are the unpopular ones that no one singsor never got included in a hymnal. Lest I continue down this rabbit trail forever, let me summarize and say that the only difference between well written modern worship songs and well written hymns is time period. I am a theologian and historian, and I love to understand where we have been as the people of God. But I cannot let my love of what has passed distract me from what God has called all of us to do in every present; build his Kingdom here on Earth.
With that being said, the argument between hymn vs. modern comes down in most cases to preference. Most people who argue for hymns or “traditional” music of any kind prefer it. They are church people. The same is true for those who argue for modern music in the church, they are also church people. They are there already to engage in the argument. But there is a third group of people that must be considered, the un-churched. If we do not consider this group in our discussion, then we all have lost the plot. Most of us operate by trying to convince people to come into our comfort zone in order to experience the church and have an encounter with Jesus. We ask them to overcome significant barriers to even get in the door. The outsider must shift his or her schedule, walk into a foreign environment, get over any preconceived notions they have, and meet brand new people, most of whom already know each other. These are significant barriers for most people to overcome. I sincerely believe that modern music helps remove some of those barriers, since most people will be familiar with the form, if not the content. My goal is to get non-Christians to sing. My favorite stories people tell me are not when they thought the band was awesome, or even that worship was “intense,” but when people I know who are far from God tell me they didn’t know what was wrong with them, they were just overcome and started to sing. This is the goal. I want to create an environment that partners with the Holy Spirit by removing as many barriers and pointing people, especially non-believers, to Jesus. So for me, the question isn’t what style you prefer, but what style non-believers prefer. What is going to be the easiest style of music to get them singing? It has to reflect, in some way, the music they listen to. It has to be a form of pop music. It is popular music after all as the name suggests.
I admit I have not always believed this. I was a huge folk-acoustic fan and, especially through college, believed that was the only way to make authentic and poetic music. But the truth is, it cannot be about my preference, but non-believers preference. Again, I say this specifically in light of the fact that modern music can be as deep and thoughtful as ancient music. So for me, the gap between modern and traditional has shifted from music to the heart. If I engage in discussion or debate about the styles, I am comfortable and confident to say I will sacrifice my preference for the sake if the non-believer. Our pastor made a statement this week about our church being on mission, and I love it. He said, “Our attitude must be that we exist for the benefit of those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.” I think that applies to worship. I do what I do, how I do it, and why I do it, for the benefit of those who do not yet know Jesus. That is where my bridge is being built. If people do not engage with me on that argument, then a bridge is impossible to build because we are on different paths altogether. If someone can argue effectively for traditional forms of music being easily accessible for our culture and can effectively engage those who do not yet know Jesus, then I am all ears. What I will not do is pander to Christians who simply want their preference, and so I will ask bluntly that we lay down our preferences for the sake of others’. This is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus, and the true nature of worship. How do we bridge the gap? By understanding our heart-cry for the lost, and casting that vision. It is not a preference bridge, but a heart bridge. If that is met with resistance I will maintain we are at an impasse and continue on my mission to get non-believers to worship.