Sing Anyway

The other day I stopped at a Goodwill Store and I looked over the large selection of used books found in many of their stores. Being a “bookaholic,” I am immediately drawn to the book area of any store that has a book area in it. It’s like I have a book magnet living inside of me… 🙂

I happened to find an old copy of a Baptist Hymnal (copyright 1956) with “Rockwood Baptist Church” printed at the bottom on the front cover, and it was well used and exactly like the hymnal pictured here, and I purchased it for 50 cents. It took me back to my childhood and teen years growing up in a small nondenominational church that I was raised in that primarily hired Baptist ministers.

Before going to bed that night, I turned every page in that hymnal until the very last page (over 500 hymns are in it), and I sang the first line and chorus of at least two dozen of the songs that I remembered singing years ago before going to sleep. It brought back many memories of those years gone by. Back in my younger years I sang in the church choir (alto), and I also sang in some of their musical productions, too.

The church I grew up in was a typical neighborhood church in the Midwest that eventually grew into one of the first of what are now called megachurches after it moved to a much larger facility. I haven’t attended there since my early 30’s, and the church has changed it’s name and moved to yet another location since then. I left that state a few years later when I accepted a doctoral fellowship at a private university in a another state.

Over the years since that time, modern worship music has taken the place of, and in some cases is used alongside, the older hymns that most older folks in our generations today remember singing. I really like the newer modern worship music, too, but I’m old enough to remember the older hymns, many of which are still very popular today (think of Amazing Grace and Great is Thy Faithfulness and, of course, many of the Christmas songs we still sing today, like Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Silent Night).

In an article titled, I Will Sing! Yesterday, Today, and Always!” by Victory Enyioke, wife, mother, and graduate student at SWBTS, she writes:

My recollection of Christian, congregational singing from my childhood and youth days is a repertoire of hymns either from the “Broadman Hymnal,” “Baptist Hymnal” or the “Sacred Songs and Solos” by Sankey. These songs etched in my mind and heart and continue to be my source of musical inspiration, encouragement and help in times of need. These hymns are loaded with spiritual lyrics and most times tied to Scripture.

Growing up, congregational singing was characterized by us holding hymn books by hand and connecting with the words of the song in a very special way. Families had hymn books at home and during devotional times we would pull out those hymn books and sing most times in parts because the songs were at our fingertips. This is a tradition we are trying to pass down to our children even though it is a challenge to match the contest that the sing-along trend of contemporary music poses. The technology of projector screens makes us lazy singers as we wait for the screen to spit out the next phase of the song without which we mumble and fumble.

My experience in recent years is one of bewilderment as I struggle to remember sometimes the very songs that were song in a morning worship service. Mind you, a lot of the songs are spiritual and melodious but not always memorable. And unless you are the type of person who is determined to take the extra time to go back and learn the songs, they fly by like the wind that brushes your face nicely and passes away swiftly. Not to misunderstand me, I do enjoy these new songs, they are Spirit filled and a lot of times are wonderful for worship. However, their life span is short because worship leaders are in a hurry to introduce the next new song.

Today, many reasons are responsible for why church folks no longer sing as the Church used to sing. These range from not knowing the songs to general apathy due to high pitches, complicated melodies and sometimes over repetition. Even though a lot of the modernized songs have rich theological content, worshipers generally have short attention spans and lack the patience to learn complicated musical pieces. Truth be told, most of these songs are designed for the choir and not for the congregation. While the younger generation try their best to follow along, older folks just cannot cope with the singing. While church music most ‘evolve in sorts’ and should not be static, we must not throw away the old as archaic and unusable. Reminds me of the old song that says, “Give Me that Old Time Religion, It’s good enough for Me. It was good enough for Paul and Silas, It’s good enough for me.” (Gospel Folklore)

My worship should glorify God. It is not about my likes nor dislike. Therefore, I should not pick and choose which songs to sing in church. However, worship leaders should strive to balance congregational music between the old and the new. The old folks should be able to sing for as long as their vocal chords can produce sound. While the young should be free to shout in Praise as their strength enables. What I want to be able to do is sing and sing and sing until eternity comes. (Quote source here.)

I agree with what the author above has written. Worship wars have been going on in churches for several decades now ever since modern worship music arrived on the scene. In an article titled, 5 Ways to Battle the Never-Ending Worship Wars,” by Carey Nieuwhof, a former lawyer and the founding pastor of Connexus Church, he writes:

So let me guess: someone recently complained about the music at your church.

It doesn’t matter what style of music your church features or how traditional or edgy your music is; complaining about music is almost a universal phenomenon in the church today.

Some of that is generated by church shoppers (I outlined 5 characteristics of church shoppers here), but the problem is more pervasive than hearing from a few church shoppers.

It’s endemic to human nature and to our consumer driven culture that basically says everything revolves around me. While I think consumer Christianity will die in the future (here’s why), we’re not there yet.

Before we get started, please know this isn’t a slam against any particular style of music in the church.

In fact, I admire all churches that are innovating to become more effective in their mission.

But here’s the challenge.

Many leaders have almost spilled blood getting their church to change in the area of music (or making sure their church doesn’t change).

And yet, despite the battles fought over music, many churches are still not much further ahead in reaching people because of it.

Why is that?

There are five problems I see church leaders struggle with when navigating the sensitive and emotional issue of worship style in church.

(1) You become so focused on pleasing the people you have that you lose sight of the people you’re trying to reach.

Whatever your music style, many church leaders are overly worried about how ‘their people’ will handle the change.

Being aware of the concerns of the congregation is healthy. Leaders who don’t care how their congregation thinks eventually end up leading nobody.

But it’s also a trap. When people’s reactions become an overriding fear, the mission shifts away from reaching new people to keeping the people you have happy.

As a result, leaders:

Abandon change to keep people happy.

Compromise vision to try to satisfy the discontent.

Stop innovating to try to placate people.

These attempts at making people happy virtually never work (I wrote about the problems people-pleasing leaders face here).

What To Do

So what do you do to combat your people pleasing focus?

Focus on whom you’re trying to reach rather than on whom you’re trying to keep.

And when you’re communicating a change to your congregation, focus on why you’re making the change (to reach people) and far more people will accept what you’re trying to do (changing the style of worship).

If you want more on this subject, I’ve written more on leading change here.

2. You define ‘contemporary’ relative to how you used to worship.

Let me name the elephant in the room. Most of what passes for ‘contemporary’ worship isn’t that contemporary at all.

Sure, the church has changed. And there may have been some battles over the change.

But walk into many self-described ‘contemporary’ churches and it feels like 2004, or 1994, or even 1984. The church isn’t actually ‘contemporary’ (contemporary means ‘occurring in the present’).

Tony Morgan makes a great point in The New Traditional Church: If most churches truly wanted to be contemporary, Sunday would have a lot more hip-hop and R&B (have you listened to the Top 40 lately?).

But most church leaders don’t like that style of music or are afraid their church wouldn’t.

What To Do

Be honest. Don’t call yourself contemporary if you’re some paler version of it. Self-awareness and honesty actually matter if you’re trying to reach unchurched people.

Sadly, well-meaning self-deception runs rampant in church leadership today.

Be truthful about what you’re doing. If you are, it might just make you frustrated enough to make you change again.

In the meantime, realize that despite all the change, you might still be miles away from being relevant to the people living around you.

3. You’ve become stuck in “No Man’s Land.”

I learned about No Man’s Land in churches from James Emery White.

It’s a term that describes churches too contemporary to please the traditionalists and too traditional to reach people who connect with a contemporary approach.

I have no desire to ignite a furious debate about ‘blended worship’ (a combination of traditional and contemporary styles).

Can it work? I’m sure it can, done right.

But you don’t have to get too far into the conversation with most church leaders who are in a blended format to realize it’s not an overriding passion to reach the outsider that fuels the change, it’s fear that if they go too much further there will be an apocalypse.

What’s the bottom line? Most blended worship happens because leaders are afraid to go further, not because leaders think it’s the best option.

The attempt to make everyone happy usually makes no one happy.

In my view, the last 10 percent of change is the hardest. When we transitioned from traditional to blended to full-out ‘contemporary’ music a decade ago, the last 10 percent of the change was harder than the first 90 percent. I think that’s how leaders get stuck.

Again, I’m not saying blended services are a bad thing (we’ve chosen to not embrace that strategy at Connexus for very specific reasons). I’m just saying if you end up there, make sure that’s where you want to be because you believe it’s the most effective way to accomplish your mission.

What To Do

Don’t get stuck somewhere you’re not called to be.

Finish the change or make sure where you’re at is honestly the very best way to fulfill your mission.

4. Style has become an end in itself, not a means to an end.

Your style of music and service should serve the mission. It is not the mission.

Once again, this nails all of us: traditionalists, innovators and everyone in between.

Our goal is not to arrive at a particular worship style. It’s to accomplish the mission Christ has given us.

I love how our church does music.

But 40 years from now, I don’t want to be sitting around in a retirement home with my friends complaining that young people today don’t sing enough Hillsong “Young and Free,” play cover tunes at church or make pour-over coffee.

The church should always change, and it needs to change on your watch.

How do you address this? 

Be committed to constant change. Don’t rest.

Your style as church helps you achieve the mission. It is not the mission.

5. Older leaders make decision that belong to younger leaders.

Far too often in the church, I have seen older leaders make decisions that rightly belong to younger leaders.

There is a role for middle-aged leaders and older leaders. They bring wisdom to the table and a seasoned viewpoint almost impossible to find in someone who is starting out.

I’m not slamming others. I am almost the oldest person on our staff team.

Even though I’m fairly up to date on culture, music, and technology, I’m no longer the guy who should be calling the music, design or cultural shots at our church.

I’m not sure most leaders over 40 should be. Not if you want to impact the next generation.

Sitting around the table at our service programming meetings are leaders who are 10-30 years younger than I am (we almost always have a teenager in the mix).

I trust their judgment more than mine when it comes to how our services will connect with the people we’re trying to reach.

I have just seen too many leaders in their 40s, 50s and 60s make decisions that alienate younger generations and then sit around and ask where all the young people went.

Don’t be that leader.

What To Do

Ensure you have younger leaders around your leadership table and empower them to make the decisions that drive your organization.

It’s really not more complicated than that. (Quote source here.)

I love all kinds of music from old time rock and roll, to rhythm and blues, Motown, jazz, contemporary (80’s and 90’s and today), country–especially country rock–you name it and I probably like it (well, I must admit that I am not a fan of opera, but there’s still time to for me to acquire a taste for it). And in church I love both the old hymns and the modern worship music. In fact, I even sometimes sing in the shower to get my day started. That’s how much I love music.

So let us not go to war when it comes to worship music. Let’s just sing and enjoy it! I’ll end this post with the words from Isaiah 42:10

Sing to the Lord a new song . . .

And His praise . . .

From the ends of the earth . . . .

YouTube Video: “Amazing Grace” (1779)  by Il Divo:

YouTube Video: “Freedom” (2018) by Jesus Culture:

YouTube Video: “Moving Forward” (2008) by Israel Houghton and Lakewood Church (this song is a personal favorite of mine):

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here
Photo #3 credit here