The following is a brief paper I wrote for my Pastoral Ministry class. The assignment was to write on an existing polarity within churches today (e.g., law and grace; evangelism and discipleship; tradition and contemporary). I wouldn’t say this is the most thorough and well-executed paper I could have written, but it is what it is, and I thought I would share it. Enjoy!
In the past two decades, few practical matters have divided the church more often than the concepts of the traditional and the contemporary. This polarity manifests itself in a variety of ways; however, none so strongly as the issue of music and worship in the church. For the purposes of this discussion, I will refrain from referring to music as either “traditional” or “contemporary;” rather, I will use the terms “classical” and “folk,” respectively. I believe that discussions on the role of tradition in the church are often fruitless because there is a lack of understanding, not only in music history, but in forgetting what we are doing with music in the first place.
There are benefits and setbacks to each end of the spectrum. Concerning classical worship, several benefits are noted. First, it aids in congregational singing. By its very nature, classical music is designed to have melodies that are easy to sing, as well as harmonies that are governed by a very strict set of rules. In addition, the rhythm of classical worship music is more often simpler, which leads to a more unified voice in congregational singing. This music was meant to be sung as a congregation, and its uniformity is exemplified in the existence of hymnals. Second, the classical style is unified in the sense that it is timeless. Chorales written by Bach three hundred years ago contain the same characteristics of living hymn writers such as Paul Jones of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Third, and in many ways most important, is that classical worship contains texts that are richer and more theological in meaning. Because this style has had wide acceptance, as well as time on its side, the lyrics of classical worship often portray a grander sense of the person and work of God. Fourth, classical worship is not dependent upon stylistic interpretation. In this style, the composer, not the performer, has the final say in what is performed.
All this is not to say that folk worship does not have its benefits. First, it is easily accessible to believers in that it utilizes music that is familiar to them. In using the familiar, they are able to identify with the style of music, and consequently, relate more with the texts. This is the main line of support for using folk music. Second, a believer does not need to know how to read music or be skilled in similar ways in order to make the most of folk worship. Third, the texts are usually more personal.
In addition, both styles have drawbacks. In today’s American culture, unless someone either grew up in a church that employed classical worship, or is a musician, a believer will not readily identify with the style, and it will thereby become a distraction to worship. Indeed, one would not expect a remote tribal group of South America to worship using standard four-part Western harmony. It would be more appropriate for their folk music to be that vehicle. As it were, classical music used to be a part of our culture, whereas in the past century, it has been declining at a rapid pace. Perhaps one of the main reasons why it was a part of our culture was because of the church, as the church was the foremost outlet and supporter of classical music. The history of church music is the history of classical music.
There are also drawbacks to employing folk music. First, it employs a familiar style of music that can be easily equated with the commercialism and individualism of today’s culture. A believer can sing a song in church on Sunday, and then turn on the radio and sing along with Chris Tomlin in their car on Monday on their way to work. Like it or not, the Christian music business is still, at its heart, a business. Second, because of its nature, folk music is centered on soloists, which detracts from congregational singing. Melodic rhythms are usually syncopated and will vary from worship leader to worship leader. Because most recording artists are either tenors or altos, this translates into melodic ranges (usually too high) that are not suitable for people in the congregation. To be fair, classical worship used to employ high melodies; however, this was also when many were trained to sing in that style. One will notice that the trend in more recent hymnals is to actually lower the keys to accommodate for this lack of training! It is an accommodation not usually found in folk music. Third, the texts are often focused on a believer’s emotions, abilities, and responses, as opposed to the person and work of the Object of their worship. Fourth, by its very nature, folk music changes with a people group’s culture. Even a song written twenty years ago can be difficult to fit into a “contemporary” service. Worship leaders must always be on the look out for the next hit worship song that will replace what came before it.
So what can a pastor do? I believe there are several important things to keep in mind. First, keep the main thing the main thing! Why are we even utilizing the vehicle of music in the first place? It is to worship our Creator and Redeemer. Everything else must be subservient to this goal. Second, the pastor should be educated in what the differences truly are, and pass that on to their congregation. Many churches that stem from the 18th century American “camp meetings,” or the 20th-century “gospel crusades” use gospel songs or Southern gospel for worship (this applies to my home church). What many congregants do not realize is that these are not “hymns” simply because they have become “tradition!” These gospel songs are merely the folk worship of one hundred years ago, and are fundamentally no different than what is being written today. Likewise, many instruments that are considered “classical” are relatively recent inventions. Just as folk music can be criticized as subjective and ever changing, even classical music has not always been around as such.
Third, what are the congregation’s perceived needs and why? If a congregation is thriving on classical worship (e.g., Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia), switching to folk worship in order to be relevant to today’s culture would be to lose that church’s relevancy. Likewise, it may not be the wisest course of action as a pastor to upset the faith of half a congregation by demanding a switch to the other style of worship. On the other hand, perhaps the congregation’s real need is to be educated and more fully understand why they want what they do.
Fourth, your church may be one that would like to see a blend of classical and folk styles. In my experience, I have found it best (not only in terms of musicality, but in placating the most congregants) that the blend of styles manifest itself in the co-existence, not a merging, of styles. Performing folk songs with an organ and classical songs with a guitar and drums is probably not going to achieve the balance you are looking to strike.
Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages, and I believe it is best to let them both stand on their own merits according to the needs of the church. Unfortunately, churches let this issue divide them far too often, especially when we consider that this is over an act of worship and devotion to the One who died for all of us.