Though this is an opinion piece I will make every effort to be as even-handed as possible in the discussion and please know that offense is not my goal, truth is. With that in mind I will try to lay out some of the pros and cons of each side of the discussion and some of the arguments made on behalf of both. With no further adieu let's dive in.
I think at the outset it would be wise to offer some kind of definition of "contemporary worship" before going any further. In my mind contemporary worship (we'll call it CW to save some key strokes) is characterized by music that has been written in the past 20 years or so. Typically there are a variety of instruments used from guitars (electric and acoustic) to drums, horns, stringed instruments, etc. Overall the feel is more akin to "pop" music than hymns. Generally speaking, and that is dangerous, this style of music appeals to the younger generations and in that we find one of the primary arguments for it's use. It is no news that the Church has been declining and we are losing a huge number of students during or after high school. It follows that something needs to be done to retain them as viable members of the Body of Christ. Enter CW styles.
The arguments has been made that younger people simply don't get much out of the more traditional forms of worship. It is seen as dry, emotionless and just plain old-fashioned. Thus, if CW appeals to them then that is what should be implemented to retain their interest and involvement in the worship of Christ. This, to me, is a perfectly valid argument. I would also say that many times worshipers get the feeling that the Holy Spirit is more free to move in a contemporary setting, there is no set number of verses and the participants are not required to focus on holding a hymnal in order to follow the flow of the music. However, this could also be the case with traditional hymns.
In searching through some of the Psalms it is clear that making music to the Lord was meant to be a multi-instrument affair. Psalm 33:2-3 says this;
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; Sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings. Sing to Him and new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy.
It is important to note that David, who wrote many of the Psalms, was primarily concerned with making a joyful noise to the Lord. Remember, this is the same guy who case aside all his pride and danced before the Lord as the ark of the covenant entered Jerusalem. Obviously David was not a Baptist! The argument could be made that a piano is nothing more than a harp turned on it's side and hammered rather than plucked therefore it is the more biblical instrument. However, I think that would be an unfortunate interpretation of Scripture. When I see a contemporary praise team using all manner of instruments to make music to the Lord I see a group of people with diverse talent using it to praise the Almighty. If we truly believe that God grants people skills, talents and gifts then to deny their deployment in worship would be tragic and borderline sinful.
Again, a definition is in order here. I would say that traditional worship (TW for our purposes today) is characterized by hymns and the use of a minimum of instruments, usually a piano and/or an organ. Generally speaking these hymns were written no sooner than, say, fifty years ago. These are the songs "we all grew up with." Though these appeal to older generations I have to number myself as one who loves the traditional hymns (I'm a Millennial).
The positive aspects of TW need not be minimized. If we found ourselves in a position where Bibles were outlawed but we still had access to good hymnals we would have a large portion of the Scriptures at our disposal. The important theological doctrines of sin, salvation, the might and power of God, grace, community and so many more are all expressed through the great, old hymns. Let me offer the example of one of the most popular and powerful hymns of the past two centuries, "It is Well With My Soul."
The overarching theme of this hymn is contentment in Christ, "whatever my lot." The attacks of the enemy are discussed in the second verse along with the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Verse three deals with sin further and assures us that all of it has been "nailed to the cross and I bear it no more." Finally, we have the crescendo of verse four in which we take supreme joy knowing that the day will arrive when "the faith shall be sight, the clouds will be rolled back as a scroll, the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend." In four simple verses we have a nearly complete picture of the Christian life and God's plan of redemption taking us from the cross to the glorious return of Christ. No doubt, this is theology put to music.
In so many of the older, more traditional hymns the majestic beauty of God and His plan are reflected in the words and phrases of the song. There is no doubt in my mind that should these incredible songs be lost forever, we would be in a sad state. Though it is beginning to change, ten years ago it was hard to find this kind of deep theological truth in CW songs.
If we really tear the argument over contemporary versus traditional down to brass tacks most of the time preference is the leading cause for disagreement. The reality is that the average pew-warmer doesn't give a rat's behind about the lyrics or how correct they are. What they want is the music that suits their taste. Again, this is an overly general statement because I've spoken with a few proponents of TW that honestly think that the theology of CW is not as strong. That's the kind of argument I like, one that is meaningful. However, in my experience these people are few and far between. Lest you think I'm harping on traditionalists unfairly, the same can be said for those who favor CW. "Well, I just don't like the way hymns sound. They're boring." Well, have you taken the time to consider the message because that is really the core of worship anyway?
It is my belief that God, being God, can move through any style of music as long as two things are present.
1. Lyrics that express His truth. There is no way God is going to honor bad doctrine in song. He doesn't honor it any other place so putting a catchy tune to bad theology isn't going to bring Him glory and honor.
2. The heart of a worshiper that is prepared to exalt God. We're not dealing with witchcraft here. You can sing "How Great Thou Art" and not mean it just as much as you can sing "Our God is Greater" and not mean it. The words and music don't make worship happen, a heart pouring itself out to God does.
Listen to what Jesus tells His followers in John 4:23-24, But and hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. The two aforementioned prerequisites for worship are clearly seen in these verses; His truth and a willing spirit.
The thing we must consider for ourselves is this, what brings us real joy in worship? If it is the tune or rhythm that we love we may as well be listening to, and singing secular songs. However, if it is the truth of God we are after and finding words to express our deepest feelings of worship then the tune shouldn't make that much of a difference. Now, I freely admit that style does play a role in how we feel the Spirit move. That is just a fact. However, what I long to see is people who are freed to worship God with all of their heart. It would bring me great joy to hear people say, "I don't really like the sound of the contemporary music but the message sure is great and it is reaching many people." I'd also love to hear someone say, "Those old hymns aren't exactly my style but they sure do have some great truth in them and I can appreciate that."
The bottom line:
The sad reality is that the bulk of the argument over contemporary and traditional worship has nothing to do with one being right and one being wrong. I think if the Church began to see that what we're really talking about is preference then we might be able to move forward and reach people for Christ. Furthermore, there was a day when what we now call "traditional" was contemporary. These songs were not handed down to mankind from God. They were written in time and space. I don't know for sure, but I often wonder if Isaac Watts caught a bunch of flack for writing contemporary songs. Likewise, there will come a day when the contemporary songs of today will be traditional and we'll be right back at square one.
Finally, I truly believe that there is a place for both TW and CW styles of worship. The fact is, they do speak to different groups of people in special ways and we need to recognize and honor that. However, the debate needs to stop. It is unhealthy and is doing nothing but hamstringing the Church from being about the real business of reaching people for Christ. We must ask ourselves every day; "What is more important to me, hearing something I like, or seeing someone come in contact with Jesus Christ.?"
*Photo courtesy of "arte ram." Downloaded from stock.xchng.com