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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Imperfect Harmony

I'm a weird one. I like contemporary worship with traditional music. But it's impossible to please everyone all of the time, so I tend to go with traditional worship just because I like the music so much. That said, I love the U2charist, but that's a whole 'nother story.

One of our number has a congregation that likes the worship well and good enough, but, she continues...

There are 2 groups that hate each other's favorite music. If we put anything from the 60s up to today into the service, one group loves it and the other says, I am not coming to church if you keep choosing those happy clappy "camp" songs.

But If we select more classical music (Bach et al) and 18-19th century hymns, it is reversed and the other group feels we are not meeting their worship needs: "too boring/too dirge-y."

What's a pastor, music director and worship committee to do?

Our matriarchs seem to agree that it's important to reinforce the notion that no one owns a worship service. It's there for God, and while an individual's need to be fed is of course a consideration they make in choosing a church, one person's aesthetic sensibilities should not dictate what music is chosen. That's not much help to the people making these decisions, who have to try to accommodate everyone's musical tastes much as they do other fractious issues, such as politics, sexuality, and the origin of and correct recipe for Brunswick Stew.

Here are some of the things they had to say, though, and hopefully that will be a starting point for some discussion.

Jacque says:
This is always a challenge. I believe, however, that it is more about the relationships than the music. Music has more emotional impact than most any part of worship. Therefore, my experience is that there needs to be some emotional investment in participating in either "old" or "new" music. We often assume that the connection must be a personal connection with that genre of music. I would suggest that if one truly has a connection with -- a love of and investment in -- another person, then we are able to value the music that is important to their spiritual nurture.

We are usually able to blend music successfully in our congregation. Certainly people have favorites, but I believe that because they know, love, and value each other, they want the other to be able to sing music that is important to them. The secret is to talk about what is important to us and why. If I know that "Amazing Grace" is significant and important for you, I am more patient about singing it, even if I can't stand it. I might even look at it through your eyes, your experience, and learn to appreciate something about it.

I teach the occasional class on Hymnody and find that it always has a positive effect on people's experience and engagement with the music we sing.

Jan says:
Clearly The Worship Wars are alive and well.

The thing is, though, that worship is not about meeting our own personal needs or taste requirements. Worship is for God, and here's the question to ask the two camps:

Would you be willing to give up your favorite music to bring new people into God's family? (Remember The Great Commission?)

Worship is not about us, our style preferences, our comfort. Yes, we want to be fed spiritually, but the congregation that believes that worship is "for them" is a dying congregation.

Karen says:
If these two groups of folks genuinely love and care for each other, they should be able to sing songs that are not their favorite if they know it helps others in the congregation connect to God and feel spiritually nurtured and uplifted. If they are unwilling to do that, I'd say the problem is much deeper than music.

That being said, sometimes the way "new" music is introduced and incorporated into worship can make a huge difference. Sometimes when people say they hate "that new stuff" it is because it is unfamiliar, not taught to them well, sung once and then not again for six months at which point it seems brand new again. On the other side, folks who think they hate "all those old hymns" sometimes come to have a greater appreciation for them if they know their history, something about the person who wrote the words or the tune, times in the history of the church when that particular hymn or anthem played a key role, etc.


  1. And what if the answer to do you want new people is NO - we have enough trouble with the ones we have. LOL

  2. I agree that "new" music needs to be introduced gradually. The first sunday we sang a hymn from our "new" more contemporary hymn book (which the congregation didn't know existed), I basically sang a solo and people joined in as they got it. But starting as a solo, helped. But then we sang it three or four more times in the next two months. And now - the whole congregation knows it and loves it. We usually do a blend, but we don't have any other instrumentalists besides our organist/piano player. Our most contemporary stuff is done on piano - which also helps the "newer" stuff feel not quite so scary.

  3. my bigger problem is that my church wants a contemporary service - but we have no one to lead it - no musicians and no choir... they keep saying something about asking the high schoolers to do it, but that only works if the high schoolers want to be there. Starting something from the ground is very tough.

  4. yes, I'm a both/and kind of person, or maybe an all kinds (there are not two articial labels "traditional" and "contemporary", for there are many different musical genres.) there is hymnody of many different eras, there are gospel songs and spirituals, there are folk songs and praise songs, there is a whole new Catholic hymnody being written, and there are songs from Africa, Latin America and Asia....

    a lot depends on, as others have said, how you introduce a song. You do need to sing a song more than once in order to know it and claim it.

  5. I love all kinds of music, so I find it hard to understand limited taste in others. But I agree with Karen. If people just don't care about the other group's feelings/opinions/preferences/inspiration, the problems are much deeper.

  6. Jan identifies something key -- is your worship for YOU or for God? And... how interested are you in 'outsiders' finding God (and your church) and becoming a part of God's Family?

    If it is all about me then you will get a mishmash of music (you've read my Friday Five answers... that's no shocker!)

    If it is all about God, then I need to take my velcro opinions off of it.

    Who does enjoy Bach and U2 in worship.

  7. Ah, but that's tricky, isn't it? Jan isn't simply saying worship is FOR God, but to bring people TO God. And those means may be different depending on the context, right?

  8. A couple weeks ago I was at a worship con-ed event. The keynote speaker (Tom Long, of Beyond the Worship Wars) spoke tyo this sort of conundrum.

    He named that most parts of the worship service and most hymns will have people who could lose it with no worries and some people who come just for that one thing. But, he said the ethical duty of a worshipper is to participate fully in the parts/hymns we love and in the parts/hymns we detest. And so he will sing "In the Garden" with full gusto even though he would rather never sing it again because it is meaningful to Mrs. Smith in the next pew.

    The question of course is how to make people live out that ethical position. Naming it helps.

  9. But I think there CAN be a drawing component of worship (drawing people TO God) as well as focusing on who you are worshipping (not the environment, not a political entity, not the Bible.) We are drawn to something larger than ourselves.

    At the same time, we are searching for a way to make God relevant and not something dusty and seemingly from another generation.

    If the music does not "sound" like the music we hear in our contemporary setting (and especially if it sounds LOUSY!) there is nothing in it that "draws" but it more repulses.

    At the same time, if the worship (and the music) does not bring a sense of "the Holy" then we might as well all go play golf. And sometimes God is closer there than many a house of "worship" with dusty, stuffy people or banging, yelling, clapping people.

    If ya know what I mean.


  10. One point that just screams to be made here: it is simply not acceptable for any member, be they fans of Bach or the blues, to issue an ultimatum regarding their membership in a congregation. Jan's right - those problems go WAAAAAYYYYYYYY beyond music. My response when the ultimatum was issued regarding the place of the flag (another issue that's not really the issue) was, "I'm sorry to hear that. We'll miss you."

    It's not being mean or vindictive (all right, it's a little bit of that): you can't add anything to Jesus as a "necessity" for the church. Christ Jesus is our only reason for being the church in the first place - add something to Jesus, and you've got yourself a nice little idol you're worshiping there...

    In the early years of the church we called such things "heresy." Try to tell your ultimatum folks they're heretics - see where that gets you! :-)

  11. I think that hymn placement within worship makes a difference. Playing an unfamiliar hymn as an opening hymn, for instance, can literally begin worship on a sour note.

    To me it's also helpful to use an unfamiliar hymn instrumentally as prelude music for a few times so that people start to recognize the melody before they're asked to sing it.

    Here's what we do in our parish -- and my pastor credits a trip to a small parish in the Aleutian islands for this inspiration: When he and his wife were in Alaska several years ago investigating a possible call, they worshipped in a First Peoples parish where the precursor to the actual worship service was a big community sing-along that lasted for an indefinite amount of time...people just sang hymns until they didn't feel like singing anymore. So at our church, we have been preceding the order of worship with a similar by-request sing-along that includes very un-Lutheran come-to-Jaysus-camp-meetin' hymns, standards from the 60's-70's folk mass heyday and more contemporary stuff like "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High." We may do three or four requests before wrapping it up with the song "Sanctuary" and entering into worship proper. I myself don't get into this music too much, but as my pastor notes our singalong "gets things out of people's systems" and settles them down for our standard service, whose music is generally right out of the LBW and WOV.

  12. Lutherchik - great ideas - I don't work well with telling people the "have" to do things - so this is a solution that works for me - thx
    btw - The Gift of Worship here

  13. I wrote a comment so long and verbose that I have moved it to my blog -

    We're going through something related.

    Ann, seriously, we joke about that daily.

  14. A couple thoughts...

    A clergy woman I know has a GREAT saying about the variety of worship (and everything else) she plans in her congregation: Everyone will get some things they like, but no one will like everything they get. And by "saying" I mean that she actually tells people this when they complain about music, or whatever.

    In the parish where I grew up, when new hymnals were introduced, we would have a series of potluck dinners and hymn sings, so that the musician could introduce us to some of the music she thought was especially good - and then we'd sing it not long afterwards. That was (is) a singing congregation, so it worked, but it was a lower-stress way of introducing new stuff.


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