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The Trauma of Changing Church Music: An Ironic Story

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, March 31, 2010

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, many people are traumatized by the changing of music in church. I am one of those people. I must confess that I am bugged when I’m singing a familiar hymn, one I memorized in my youth, and all of a sudden everybody else is singing different lyrics. I look down at the hymnal – or up at the screen – and realize that the words i know are not what we’re supposed to sing. I feel awkward and embarrassed.

More often than not, however, the problem I face in worship is not altered hymns and songs, but altogether new ones. In my role at Laity Lodge, I get around to quite a few different churches. For the most part, I know the hymns, usually by heart. But often I’ll have to sing three or four praise songs that are unfamiliar to me . . . and I know most of the CCLI top 100.

As worshiper, I know how difficult it can be sing to hymns and songs I don’t know. And I know how much I’d rather not sing music that is not in a genre I appreciate. As a pastor, I know how tricky it is to introduce new music, and how much changing familiar hymns and songs is a precarious and delicate operation.

What I’ve just described is true for virtually every church I’ve ever attended. It’s not just traditional churches that struggle with unfamiliar songs. Even new churches, churches on the “cutting edge,” quickly get settled in their patterns. If their leaders dare to change those familiar patters, they inevitably confront the ire of some worshipers.

I learned about this in 1992, shortly after I became the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Southern California. One Sunday afternoon, my wife and I decided to attend the Anaheim Vineyard. That’s where John Wimber was the pastor. The Vineyard, as you may know, had been extremely influential in the praise and worship music movement. Many of the most popular worship songs of that time had been written by Vineyard worship leaders (or those influenced by them). (Photo: worship in the Anaheim Vineyard.)

The form of worship at the Anaheim Vineyard in those days quite simple. It began with about 30-40 minutes of singing. The songs were almost always of the praise and worship variety, led by a fine band. Sometimes the leader would intersperse short prayers. But otherwise worship meant singing contemporary songs.

This is exactly what happened the night my wife and I attended the Vineyard’s evening service, except for the beginning. Instead of opening with music, the leader that night made a short speech. It went something like this:

“We’re going to do something really different tonight. I know it’s going to feel new and different to many of you. But it’s something we really believe God wants us to do. We’re going to sing a song that will be unfamiliar to most of you. Some of the words will seem strange. You may find it hard to sing at first. But this is an important song, and one we really want you to know . . . .”

As the worship leader went on, I wondered what in the world we were about to sing. Rap? Reggae? Acid rock? What in the world could be so novel in the Vineyard, of all places?

” . . . please be open to this new song tonight. Give it some time, and I think you’ll be able to worship with it. So, let’s stand together and sing a new song to the Lord . . . Crown Him with Many Crowns.”

And so we sang this classic hymn, or at least the four most familiar verses of it. I thought to myself how ironic it was that the worship leader almost had to implore us to be open to this “new song,” when down the street, a more traditional church would have had to implore its congregation to be open to singing a Vineyard praise song.

Moreover, I was encouraged that the Vineyard seemed to be “discovering” some of the great hymns of the church, even as this movement had so generously shared their worship music with so many more traditional churches. (In the almost two decades since that time, the lines between hymn-singing churches and praise-singing churches, as well as the lines between music genres, have been substantially blurred. Now, it’s not unusual for a rock-band led worship service to employ several hymns, or for a choir-led traditional service to use several newer praise songs.)

When I am challenged by an unfamiliar song, or when words of a formerly familiar hymn have been changed, I need to remind myself that worship is not primarily for my delight, but for God’s delight. If I let my feelings about the music get in the way of worship, then I am completely missing the point and God is missing what he deserves from me. Furthermore, it just may be that if I sing a song I don’t particularly like to the Lord and for his glory alone, somehow that act of worship is even more of a gift to God than when I sing a song I love.

Topics: Hymns |

13 Responses to “The Trauma of Changing Church Music: An Ironic Story”

  1. Chuck Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 3:46 am

    Our church (non-denom / evangelical) made the big turn toward the Vineyard style of music back in the early 90’s. Was it a good thing or not? Depends on who you ask. Nonetheless, my greatest concern is that the church in America is on the verge of losing centuries of wonderful hymns. Within another 10 years we will have raised up a generation who have had max exposure to the CCM / Vineyard variety of music and minimum to our historic hymnody. I have to admit that I see this as a very sad thing.

  2. Evan Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 3:56 am

    As we look in on our scene, it is the year 1527, in the offices of a church in Wittenburg. The capellmeister says to the pastor, Martin Luther, “The image of God being our fortress IS a lovely one, but Martin… people don’t like this NEW music. They like the old hymns.”

  3. keelie Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 6:19 am

    Evan–love it!

    Several years ago the southern baptist church I attended tried to make the change from all hymns to a more “blended” worship service that incorporated contemporary music as well. Needless to say this did not go over too well with the older generation–the generation that had sustained the church for many many years.

    Sadly this attempt at change led to a church split and caused many hurt feelings even divided families and long time friendships. It was devastaing to me and my husband.

    Though one of the most trying experiences of my life, I would not trade it for anything. It has taken years or prayer, study, and forgivness for me to realize just what you said–It is not, has never been and will never be about what pleases me.

    I am able to sing hymns, praise and worship songs, Deep and Wide with my children for that matter, and worship Him with a joyful heart. Because if I don’t–SOMETHING will.

  4. Emily McColl Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 7:03 am

    Thank you Mark for this reminder. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
    17 yrs ago Duncan and I celebrated the promise of resurrection with a ‘both-and’ service after the death of our son
    40 yrs ago next week I came to faith through the contemporary music of John Fischer and others and the ministry of Young Life.
    And I remain profoundly grateful for the depth and theology of the ‘old’ hymns.
    If our prayers are the cry of the heart for God, music is the voice of the soul to God. To be able to share both in many voices and manners is a blessing. To God be the glory.
    Recommend reading This is Your Brain on Music: the science of a human obsession, by Levitin

  5. Kozak Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 7:59 am

    1)The problem with new “praise songs” at my church is that they don’t give you the music to follow. They somehow expect you to psychically pick it up.
    2) I like variety in a service, as long as the newer stuff has more than 7 words. Endless repetition brings me closer to anger than God.

  6. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Thanks for these comments!

    Kozak: Yes, I was pleased that Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC supplied words and notes!

    The older praise songs tended to have few words and many repetitions. The best of the newer songs tend to have much more richness in lyrics . . . almost like hymns.

  7. Marlene Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I was pleased when my 70-something parents told me that their Baptist church was adding a praise band. My mother’s comment “Hey, it’s not my style but at least the kids are involved”.

  8. Todd Bartel Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Your piece on “introverts in the church” has been brought up in many of my conversations regarding church style, preaching style, and hymn vs. praise music. It has made me re-think a lot of my own preferences (and prejudices) in church style, church music, and even church layout and architecture.
    BTW we had David Gibbons speak at our church last weeek (pastor swap). It was interesting to go back and read your interview with him about his book “The Monkey and the Fish”.

  9. Jim Huckabay Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Dear Mark:
    I learned a lesson over 40 years ago that has given me caution before I criticize a style of worship music, though I still have my own definite preferences. A professor of music at a Christian College once addressed our young adult group. He related a story about a visitor to a small Christian congregation in an African country pastored by missionaries from the States. He was surprised that they were singing traditional American hymns, and asked about it. The response, a logical one, by the missionaries was that the converts had come out of a very pagan background and to use their style of music would remind them of their pagan past. The music professor then went over to the piano and played a very lively rendition of “A Mighty Fortress” by Martin Luther. He said that Luther had taken a bar-room tune as the melody, and then asked the question, “Who is right?”.

  10. John Earp Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Though it wouldn’t bother me if it were true, and though I once thought it was true, I have not been able to find any historical evidence supporting the claim that some of Luther’s (or Wesley’s) hymns adapted from drinking songs.

    About worship music (whether new songs or old) my experience as a pastor and worship leader is that all too often people are worshipping their worship instead of worshipping God.

  11. Pastor Mike Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    A memory rich with traditional hymnody is invaluable, but it also can become a problem when we expect others to embrace our history as theirs. Every song, hymn or chorus was new at one time, and no one was born knowing “A Mighty Fortress.” We betray a lack of missional intent when we think or utter, “Everybody knows this song.”

  12. George Lawton Says:
    April 1st, 2010 at 5:17 am

    Properly done, all the music in a worship service will comment one way or another on the theme of the preaching. Therefore it is frequently necessary to use hymn and praise songs that are not in the “top 20.” If the congregation is aware of this, they might be more flexible.


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