Thoughts on worship music

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I’ve been involved in church worship music for 16 years, which is almost half of my life.

I began learning to play bass guitar at age 18 with a good friend of mine in the hopes of putting together a musical group that would perform on special occasions at our church, a small United Methodist congregation.

That quickly transitioned from “special occasions” to “leading regular worship services.”  The journey from 19-year-old bass player to 35-year-old guitarist and singer has seen many unexpected turns.

As a teenager and well into my 20s, I liked the idea of “contemporary worship” (i.e., church worship to newer songs with guitars and drums) because I thought it provided a spark of life that was largely absent from my church experience.

My Christian journey has been far from simple, though – I no longer identify as a proud Protestant, “low church” guy but as a “high church” kinda-Protestant-with-strong-Catholic-and-Orthodox-leanings guy.

It may surprise some people to learn that I now actually prefer older hymns and “traditional” church music to the “contemporary” trope I generally play and sing.

But, as has become clearer to me within the last couple of weeks, the main body of songs I know – which I learned primarily from ages 18 through my late 20s – actually isn’t all that contemporary anymore: I guess my song choices are now viewed by 20-somethings in the same way I viewed songs by Amy Grant, Twila Paris and the Gaithers.

Admittedly, one of the primary reasons I don’t learn more “new” songs is due to life just being incredibly busy.  I’m in my mid-30s as a single-dad working full-time at a demanding job while also trying to grow as a Christian and maintain several important relationships.  Learning new songs just isn’t high on my priority list compared to other responsibilities.

There’s a deeper reason, though, that I am guilty of relying on as a bit of a crutch but nonetheless has important elements of truth to it.  It’s a reason that led me away from an active advocacy for “contemporary worship” in churches.

You see, I burnt out badly of trying to make church cool or relevant or whatever you want to call it.  My efforts throughout my 20s to put on a great worship performance left me feeling empty and fake.  Too much of an attempt at glitz and glamour while ignoring the true and only power that does anything important in the Church, the Holy Spirit.

Contemporary worship became more dead to me than traditional worship had.  It felt even more fake.  Church was trying to turn itself into a rock concert.  Worship leaders and pastors were trying to become celebrities.

Traditional music had felt like people were just going through the motions, but contemporary music felt like people were trying too hard to make the church something it wasn’t.

The reason I’m not all that keen on pushing for contemporary music anymore is I saw it as a means the church was using to plaster over the real problem, which was that the Holy Spirit wasn’t being actively invited into worship services, given the freedom to act as He sees fit.

Trying to stay cool and relevant and always up-to-date on the latest music and church worship tweaking ideas became idols.

Plans, ideas, music selection are all utterly irrelevant when the Holy Spirit shows up.  And it’s only the Holy Spirit showing up that is going to drive the Church and Christians toward holiness and sanctification.

As long as song lyrics are true and honoring to God, the style is moot.  Sure, I have my preferences, but not everyone shares my preferences.  Styles ought to be tailored to match each individual congregation, because no two congregations are alike.

It’s for that reason that I’m able to tolerate the (in my opinion) really bad 70s and 80s gradual hymns that my particular church sings.  I know there are a lot of people in the congregation who are incredibly moved by them.

Likewise, there are a good number of people in our congregation who respond to traditional hymns (which, in turn, mostly started life 300-400 years ago as poems set to bar tunes or popular ballads).  There are also a good number who like “contemporary” music from the late 90s and early 2000s.

There aren’t a heck of a lot, comparatively, clamoring for the newest songs from Hillsong, Bethel, etc.  But, hey, even I get tired of playing the same rotation of 40 or so songs on repeat every Sunday, so I’m very aware of the need to broaden my repertoire.

But I don’t plan on falling down the particular rabbit hole of trying to always remain “relevant” again.  Heck, I go to an Anglican Church – being contemporary’s got nothin’ to do with it.

But the Church as a whole needs to understand that.  We aren’t about trying to put on a show for people, whatever that “show” might look like.

We’re about ushering people into the very Presence of God.

It’s God’s show to put on.

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