A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON WORSHIP AND THE ARTS : PART LAST
By Kemper Crabb
Over the previous several issues, we’ve examined the most recent outbreak of the worship wars, waged between the ‘70s converts from the counter-culture (and their cultural heirs in the Church), who reject traditional hymns in favor of contemporary (e.g., rock-, folk-, r +b-, and pop-styled) worship music, and traditionalists who will countenance nothing but hymns in the Church’s worship.
As we saw in the last issue’s column, both sides in this debate have much to offer each other. The traditionalist emphasis correctly holds up the Church’s traditions (e.g., the way Christians have lived out their faith across time) as something to be treasured, assessed, and consulted for keys as to how we in the present should live as believers; this includes how we write, arrange, and use music in worship. Tradition is, after all, the bridge from the past which has carried forward the things of great value resulting from the Holy Spirit’s Actions upon His People in the past. To despise this is to cheapen our heritage, and to proceed blindly and rootlessly into the future.
On the other hand, our traditions also carry within themselves many things which, despite their amazing efficacy in the past, are simply not engaging or directly relevant to the present due to the historical cultural forms in which they crystallized in the past, and have little to offer to contemporary worshippers (and/or non-believers). With all the insight and content we can learn from our Christian past, we must study to extend the influence of the Gospel into today, and to avoid becoming locked and frozen into forms of perceived irrelevance. Rather, informed by the effective practices with which Christians of former times engaged the people and cultures of their generations, we must work hard to engage our own time with the Gospel in ways which present the Lord Jesus in culturally understandable and engaging terms.
We must understand and remember, and, in the ways possible to our time, continue the Church’s Tradition, not least of which involves expressing the Gospel in ways which speak to the present and shape the future. This is especially true in the area of the music we use in worship. This means we must balance, in creative ways, the past and present of the Church’s Tradition.
A couple of issues ago, we asked why this balance had not been widely attempted, resulting in this newest expression of worship wars. We observed that the reasons for this lack had mostly to do with the selfishness and pride of both opposing parties in the quarrel. Each side was convinced it was entirely right in its opinions, and refused in any meaningful way to obey Romans 12:10, which commands that we be “kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another,” and ignoring also Phil. 2:3-4, which demands that we “esteem others better than ourselves, looking to their interests.”
In most instances of this conflict, no preference was given by one side to the other, and the interests of other brothers and sisters were not looked after. In this, the Spirit was grieved, and Satan rejoiced. Rather than patiently hearing out the other side’s position, and prayerfully and thoughtfully considering its Biblical strengths and advantages, most people involved in this struggle simply wanted what they preferred, ignoring the needs and legitimate desires of their opposing brothers and sisters.
The converts who preferred contemporary worship wanted to rock! (or folk! or whatever) and generally made no secret of their despisal of “irrelevant” hymns. The traditionalists wanted to continue their well-loved and comfortable hymns, and refused to see that there might be any legitimacy in expressions of worship that might speak effectively to those not familiar with traditional worship forms. Both sides, in their refusals, diminished themselves, and, in so doing, diminished the effectiveness of the Church, breeding unforgiveness, bitterness, and hostility toward their own fellow Christians.
Both sides, as I’ve pointed out, need each other. If they had been willing to countenance the Biblical worth in each other’s positions, they could have (as the term is now used) blended their styles. Would it have been uncomfortable to some extent for all involved? Undoubtedly, at least at first. After awhile, though, each side would have discovered that there was value in the other side’s expression, and (wonder of wonders) even found that they liked things about the other side’s worship expressions. After a bit longer, both sides would discover that both types of expression had also become their own. The traditionalists would have discovered (as many have) the real value of contemporary worship. The non-traditionalists would have learned the value of the past, and began to draw on it for continued contemporary expressions (as many are currently discovering).
This is not simply sheer speculation. For the last twelve years, I have lead the worship at a large Episcopal church. When I began the task, there were factions among the congregation, some preferring hymns, some “older” contemporary worship songs, and others “modern” worship songs. We began to do all of these types of songs together (all, remember, in the context of liturgical worship). Within six months, the factions had all but disappeared; the blended worship had become “our” common worship, and unified the worship and attitudes of the congregation. It wasn’t comfortable for some, at first, but their desire and need for worship relevant to them was not forgotten (it simply began to share the time with other styles of music), and they came to enjoy and love the other expressions, which became their own eventually, as well. They preferred their brothers and sisters to themselves, looking out for others’ interests, and were blessed for it.
Let us never forget, as well, that, in the final analysis (as we saw in the first article of this series) worship is primarily for GOD, not for ourselves. The God Who desires for us to express the Unity we have together in Him would be most pleased if, in humility, we preferred our Brethren to ourselves, and ended this latest shameful round of worship wars, being servants, first of God, and then of our brothers and sisters. Will we do so?
I suspect that God has began to act to bring peace and unity in the worship of the American Church today. The real question is: Who will we serve?