Some time ago, I was curious about the Great Awakenings – the period of revivals that swept through America a long time ago. I learned that in the midst of revival, the churches fell into conflict. The Old Lights were the defenders of tradition, while the New Lights were caught up in the excitement of change. It never occurred to me to ask what that looked like in the churches on Sundays.
Traditionally speaking, worship services were designed to rely on logic and reason. The sermons would be planned out in advance to argue for a position and back it up with Scripture – to that end, they avoided emotions. The New Lights, on the other hand, accepted emotion over reason. They wanted people to get excited, awed, and even shocked as they accepted the movement of the Holy Spirit among them.
Back then, I wouldn’t have thought much about it. But it just so happens I’m a New Light soul in an Old Light church. Sometimes I get the feeling that Old Lights tend to look down on me because of that. Craving emotion, having to feel something, not being swayed by logic and reason, or fulfilled by doing things as they have always been done. I guess I seem immature to them.
I don’t really remember my churches from when I was very little, but I do remember that most of my churches sang contemporary songs. One of them tended toward Michael W. Smith songs such as Breathe, Hosanna, and Above All. It was all pretty low-key, we had skilled musicians perform for us, but no stage lights, no fog machines, nothing too complicated. The next church was a non-denominational church that actually had a stage with lights set up, they sang from the Top 40 worship songs list more often than not, so we’d often hear the same songs we were about to sing or had just sung on the local radio station and had become quite familiar with them. The next church fell some-where in between the two – but it didn’t last. Since then it’s been hymn-only churches.
The only hymns I really know are the old standards – the hymnal equivalent of the Top 40 list – and the Christmas songs that even my contemporary churches found time to sing in December. Even so, I don’t really like hymns. Every now and then, our church choir will sing a contemporary song that I do know – but it’s evident from how they sing them, they don’t really care for them in the same exact way that I don’t care for hymns. They sing with less passion for songs that have been written in the last decade and they sing with more passion for songs that are older than they are. It’s a typical symptom of mismatched worship.
It strikes me as a fallacy of human thinking to arrange our churches in such a way as to see to it that we’re all Old Lights or New Lights. That we’re all traditional or we’re all well, not traditional. I think when it comes down to it, we’re all complex mixes of new and old – each of us unique. So often we seem to make the mistake of thinking that other people like what we like because they grew up like we grew up and know what we know – but this clearly isn’t always the case, not anymore.
Most would tell me – “If this church doesn’t suit you – why not go to another?” That’s the problem. We’re only slightly mismatched – in another way, the church is the closest match for my theology. I might not be keen on tradition for the sake of tradition, but this church has a tradition of respecting women and men that doesn’t happen in other denominations to the same degree. Were I to find another New Light church to satisfy my need for emotional worship – I would be just as mismatched because they don’t hold with the same theology that I do.
The problem with mismatched theology is that it’s effects are more deleterious than that of mismatched worship and can poison our spirituality. Great music alone can’t overcome terrible teaching. But not getting the right kind of worship is no good either. I remember a visit we had made to a contemporary church in a neighboring county. The music was okay – but once ‘How He Loves’ got started, it brought me back to a time when worship felt pretty great. I hadn’t realized that I had been running on empty until I finally got something out of worship. I felt like the think that had been missing from worship was right there in front of me – waiting for me to accept it … to let it fill me up with joy.
Even traditional worshippers can relate – you know your favorite hymn? What happens when you get to sing it with everyone else? Do you sing it slightly louder? With more gusto? Do you leave the building humming that hymn? What about a hymn you absolutely hate? It’s just not the same, is it? Now me, as a New Light in an Old Light church, hymns take a little bit of my joy away – each and every Sunday. I thought that using my MP3 Player would give me a bit of my world – my music to bring back my joy. But I don’t always get a chance to listen to my music when everyone else around me is talking to each other so loudly. I thought that being able to stream a contemporary service in the evening would be helpful – but it’s just not the same.
I wish I could ask you to allow for blended services, but then you’d be just as miserable as I am. When I get to sing 10,000 Reasons, I’d hear the disappointment in your voices that we’re not singing How Great Thou Art. When I’m singing Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) I can tell that you’d rather be singing Blessed Assurance by the lifeless words you quietly mumble. While it’s acceptable for you to put me through mismatched worship, I just don’t want to put you through that because you grew up with hymns and I didn’t, they mean something special to you the same way that contemporary music is special to me.
Perhaps what both sides need is blended services with a music appreciation class as an option as a part of Sunday School – a time when both sides can sit down, learn a contemporary song, how it’s sung, and learn a hymn and how it’s sung – about the histories of both songs, the story of their inspiration. Who knows, we might find that were both New Light and Old Lights, we just weren’t ever encouraged to accept change and tradition without being threatened by everything they represent. Because no-one ever told us or believed that we could co-exist.