Playing With Fire: Contemporary songs and Traditional hymns

Bonfire

If I think back – I can remember cool fall evenings when for seemingly no reason at all, the church decided to hold a bonfire. Pretty much all the regulars would show for fellowship and all of the teens would be delighted to play games – only when we got cold would we venture closer to the fire – just long enough to catch our breaths and then continue the game where we left off.

Sometimes the temptation would be too great – one of us would like to play with the fire. Watching it react to whatever we did to it. We’d get scolded, of course, but that didn’t stop us. Today, it feels like playing with fire when you try to get contemporary music going at hymn-singing churches.

First, let’s establish that avoiding change isn’t a guaranteed method of securing a future for the church. Pretty much every church that exists now had to commit to some sort of change at some point – there’s no church that is identical to what it was decades, centuries, and millennium ago. Sure, some churches are big on tradition. The German (a friend of mine) once described the nature of churches in his country this way: “Nothing has changed in four hundred years … there’s very few youth – they’re only there as long as they don’t have a choice, and as soon as they do, like the older generations before them – they leave. Some return when they marry and have children. But when I look around, I just see grandparents, just a few adults and their kids, and even fewer youth.” In the States, I saw the exact same thing happening. A church was not willing to change, so it continued to adhere to tradition. It followed tradition when there were a hundred regulars. it followed tradition when there were seventy-five regulars. It followed tradition when there were fifty regulars. And it was still following tradition when there were twenty-five regulars. They were able to recall that the room was just ‘full of people’ in the 1980’s (before my time.) They just couldn’t understand why tradition would let them down this way – after all, it was all they had ever known.

What we have here are people who represent two worlds; the older world where ‘Blue Laws’ represented a childhood spent going to church because it was the only open place on Sundays, because it represented a vast social benefit to do so, and they had grown up in this tradition, and the younger world where all sorts of businesses were open for business, where the social benefit of church isn’t seen as a patriotic duty, and a generation hasn’t grown up in tradition. I’ve also talked about the legacy of music having changed – it’s something that people don’t necessarily grow up being familiar with these days, and certainly not the same now as it in the past. This leads to the scenario in this region – tradition-bound churches that have no youth. I hear that many churches have the opposite problem; contemporary churches that have no elders. The tug-of-war for power, control, and musical preference is one that can split a church apart in two; just like playing with fire.

An elderly lady from my church has just left her church because of Contemporary music. She said that one day, some guy said: “This is the way were going to do things here on out – we’re doing contemporary music.” She talked about the complaints that (likely she and) others had – how the songs were ones that nobody knew, how they were so loud, and they were un-singable. She said that the leadership said: “it’s likely that the sort of people who like these songs can’t read music anyway – so it doesn’t matter that they’re just words on a screen.” And they were right – at least in my case. I can’t read music, but once I know a tune, I can keep up with it well enough. While contemporary music is known for being loud, it also frees up people like me to be less self-conscious about singing. I noticed earlier today that while the church was singing Amazing Grace a Capella, we were pretty quiet about it. As to obscure songs – that’s something that only exposure to music can change. When I lived up north, the same songs we heard on the radio were the ones we sang in the church. We sang these songs more than one day in seven, some of us would sing them everyday on the drive to work and so we were all pretty familiar with them by the time we got to church – even the brand new ones. I think this region has difficulty with that due to the lack of a quality Christian radio from which people can draw the songs and listen to during the rest of the week to familiarize themselves with. Then again, some people just aren’t the sort to listen to Contemporary Christian music anyway, so there’s really nothing you can do to make the addition easier for them. She said that they had settled on a ‘blended’ worship, where some days she might get to play at least one of her beloved hymns, but the other four songs were contemporary.

Which brings me back to one other matter – the idea that Contemporary music can be introduced ‘too quickly’ done ‘too much’ or is ‘too confusing’. At my last church, the twenty-five regulars realized that tradition wasn’t the solution. So they finally reached out to those of us who knew a thing or two about Contemporary Music. One of them provided a list of songs that she looked over and liked well enough, so we got a chance to take a look at the ones she so kindly pre-approved for us. They were contemporary songs – but they were out of date. Some of them were closer to twenty years old. She was concerned that their previous attempt to bring in Contemporary was too much and she wanted to try it another way. She didn’t understand that what makes Contemporary successful is not playing the slowest, easiest, or closest songs to hymns. There’s a reason why you don’t hear millenials walking down the street singing: “When He rolls up His sleeves He ain’t just puttin’ on the Ritz … (our God is an awesome God) … ” (Aside from the dated terms, it’s just a song that isn’t played on the radio – the artists are busy introducing newly-made songs that younger people are listening to and are more familiar with.) If contemporary is to be done, it must be done well or not at all. And that’s why that church’s two efforts at contemporary music failed.

The efforts failed for a couple of reasons – one, their budget didn’t allow for musicians, sound technicians, or their equipment. They tried to do it on the cheap and that meant they had to sacrifice quality. Two, they didn’t really want contemporary music but they felt they didn’t have a choice. Because they didn’t want hymns, they didn’t do anything beyond the bare minimum of ‘tolerate them for the sake of the grand-kids.’ They didn’t fight for them, to improve quality, to become more familiar with them. And they didn’t encourage the ones who did like the music to keep on going. It created a tension in the air that was palpable so much so that the people who did like contemporary music began leaving. So they went back to hymns – secure in the knowledge that their favorite had won as the better of the two styles. They hadn’t realized that what they had done was the equivalent of putting Contemporary and Tradition in a one-minute race, and to be certain that Tradition would win, they broke one of Contemporary’s legs. Then again, they had let their numbers, their resources dwindle down to so few, there was really no way Contemporary music could have saved their church at this point. So they might as well go down with Tradition.

It seems like either way you go, one or the other, you’ll lose people. So blended is the best of both worlds – but it has to be fifty/fifty. The slightest preference for one tips the balance in it’s favor and it’ll lose people all the same. The trick is getting everybody on-board. Sometimes people are so used to how things are, they’re uncomfortable with anything different. Some are pretty good at making it clear that they hate something they’re being asked to do. We just have to remember that we can’t please everybody all of the time – if we try, that ‘fire’ issue re-appears. Doing nothing – the church will get burnt. Doing something – the church will get burnt. Doing it poorly – the church will get burnt. Doing it because you have to and you hate it – the church will get burnt all the same.

I keep on thinking back to those bonfires – nobody wants to be left out in the cold forever. Just as too much fire is deadly, the lack thereof is also deadly. We need to strike the right balance, close enough to be in the life-giving and life-saving warmth and no closer, and no further. I fear that too many churches are letting their fire … and their future go out.

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...Anyway, that's just how I feel about it ... What do you think?

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