Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

June 6, 2010


We can be thankful for the tension in our churches


Churches suffer when there is angry conflict among its members. No matter which side wins, the church loses. On the other hand, a good fight can sometime help a dead church to come alive.

A certain amount of tension is healthy as long as it does not lead to destructive conflict. Tension can be useful. A violinist cannot make beautiful music unless there is tension in the strings of the violin.  Tension among church leaders can help them evaluate their ministry and shape a new vision for the church.

Where there is no tension, church leaders dig deep ruts. They settle for doing the same old thing again and again. That is a huge mistake. If a church keeps on doing ministry the way it has always done it, that church will soon be out of business. Churches die when they continually greet new ideas by saying, “We have never done it that way before.” Wise church leaders recognize that while the message of salvation remains the same, the methodology of proclaiming that message does change.

Church music, for example, has changed dramatically over the centuries. The gospel message has remained steady: Jesus saves. But how you sing “Jesus Saves” seems to change with every generation. In our generation tension has been the catalyst for much change in church music.

In recent years tension regarding music has resulted in new terms to describe worship. Churches now offer people traditional worship, contemporary worship, or “blended” worship. The latter does not work well in many churches. The problem is that nobody is happy when traditional music is “blended” with contemporary music.

My church tried the blended plan for awhile but finally discarded it.  

The tension made us realize that our people needed a traditional service as well as our two popular contemporary services.  It proved to be a wise decision but it was the tension that made it happen.

      It is probably a good thing that there is tension in most churches about the music. I have not fought in a war but I have been in several good church fights. I even started a few. Some churches need a good fight to wake people up and motivate them to think, and then act on their thinking. In a dead church it is difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.  And usually there is not much thinking going on.

          The term “contemporary music” is something of a misnomer. Once “chanting” hymns without musical accompaniment was contemporary. Chanting, thank goodness, was not widely accepted though it is still practiced in some churches. While the church organ has been used for many centuries, the piano is a newcomer to worship. People complained when the piano was first used in worship; it was a vile contemporary thing.  Yet Christians have always sung. The difference has been what musical instruments they have used, if any. In a small church a fellow playing a guitar and singing a song he wrote might be considered “contemporary music.” In larger churches today contemporary music is done by a large band with drums, many instruments, and several vocalists.

          Traditional worship varies as well. What is traditional now is a far cry from what was traditional even 25 years ago. Traditional music in a “high church” setting is much different from traditional worship in a country church where a steady diet of “gospel” songs is the norm. For some traditional worship must be very liturgical; others prefer an informal approach where worshipers may call out a hymn they want to sing.

Most of my ministry has been centered in traditional worship. I was slow to embrace the contemporary style. However, I would much rather try to sing contemporary music than to worship with people singing great old hymns as though they were a funeral dirge. Lifeless singing makes worship quite boring. I have heard some people sing “Rock of Ages” so slowly that I could go outside, cut a watermelon, eat a slice and spit out the seeds before they finished singing the second verse.

          John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, shared my distaste for sloppy singing. You will enjoy knowing some of Wesley’s “Directions for Singing” that were printed in his hymn book for the early Methodists:

          “Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.

          “Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.”

          Wesley also directed the Methodists to “take care not to sing too slowly. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.”

          Some folks complain that contemporary music is too loud. Some of it is, but not all of it. Some of it is marvelous and moves me to worship my Lord.  As for the loudness, God has been kind to me. My hearing loss has come at a good time.  

          Honestly, I like both kinds of music. I like contemporary music because it is brings young people to church and it inspires people to embrace a deeper faith in God. I like traditional music because it is embedded in me and has nourished my soul all my life.

          My big concern is that most contemporary worship is liturgy poor. There is great value in liturgy that exposes worshipers to scriptures, creeds, and prayers that have withstood the test of time. I fear that a generation of children is growing up without being taught some of the excellent truths that are usually conveyed in traditional worship.

Children learn the faith by singing the truly great hymns that are part of traditional music. Every Christian is blessed when given the incredible joy of learning to sing songs like “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well with My Soul,” “Joy to the World,” “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Victory in Jesus,” “My Hope is Built On Nothing Less,” “And Can it Be,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” and many others that give me goose bumps whenever I sing them.

          Our generation will not bring to an end the tension that exists in church about music. But we can learn to respect one another’s different opinions. And we can give thanks for the tension that provokes us to keep searching for effective ways to get people excited about our key message – that Jesus saves.  Whatever the style of music, that remains the mission of the church. + + +