I am going to say some hard things about some of the folks who advocate for traditional worship, so I should stress that I generally prefer it myself. What I would prefer is far more traditional than what occurs at our early service that is called the traditional service. I like liturgical services, even the less-worthy choices. I think it is better theology to begin with a corporate confession of sins. My wife mentioned that she misses having a Call to Worship - something that would certainly work well in a contemporary, Pentecostal, or informal service - and I concur. I would prefer to take communion weekly, at a kneeler up by the altar. So when I am criticising people who want traditional worship, I am pretty clearly not saying it's all of them, so please bear that in mind.
But that is lesson #1. I am never going to get what I want, and that's okay. While worshiping might be the most important part of the Sabbath, the type of worship is not. I take what I am given and I learn to like it as best I can.
Here are two looks at the same facts: Traditional worship, which nearly always means denominational settings, is the worship of the faithful. Those that have stood with the denomination or even that particular church for many years, in good times and bad, putting money in the plate, volunteering for whatever came up, dutifully attending weekly, make up the bulk of those who find traditional worship meaningful. The exceptions are usually the classically trained musicians of any age. It is a very human response to be reluctant to give up what for them has worked for many years.
The other side of that is why should we keep the style, especially the music, that has been chasing people out of the church for the last fifty years? The traditionalists are surrounded by each other, often in the choir, and have stories they tell themselves about people who have sought this congregation out appreciative that we have a traditional service. They believe there is a lot of call for this, if it were just embraced more whole-heartedly. But there isn't. We had an influx of choir and traditionalists a few years ago when a nearby church ceased having choir and traditional service. To the eyes of our people, it was "See? There is a demand for this. People come here because we have this." But it's just consolidation. The denominational churches have been shrinking.This is one of the reasons.
The in-house discussions in the Christian press often focus on the doctrinal issues, but the people I speak to in the flesh who are my age but go to newer churches and non-denoms nearly always reference the music, and for younger people, the four-verse hymn causes a shudder or an eye-roll. Some might like it as an occasional part of a service, either because they like the hymn or because they like the feeling of connection to earlier eras of the church.
A dear friend who recently died believed strongly that if the church just made an effort to explain to young people about these wonderful hymns they would like them. He was a kindly person, but he had smuggled in a very dangerous idea, that this music was very obviously spiritually superior, and good Christians could not help but recognise that if given the chance. I have heard other people say exactly this in less kind voices. They do not see their music choice as a mere preference on their part. It is often framed in the negative - they believe the other styles of music are cheap and inferior, leading to emotionalism and shallowness and lack of reverence. At our meeting, one woman expressed resentment that those in the traditional service always had to suffer incursions of new music they didn't like, but the contemporary service never allowed any traditional music. That's only partly true, but even if it were entirely true it's a false equivalence. There isn't an equivalent demand for the two styles. Traditional is more of a niche market. I imagine it has more popularity in the south, yet I will bet it is waning there as well.
Before I get into the pluses and minuses of various styles, let me ask "If these hymns of yours are so superior in bringing one close to God, then how is it that you have such a lack of charity after all these years?" I think the charge of emotionalism, however fairly it might be applied to contemporary music, might fit the experience of traditional music and liturgical forms better. They might bring comfort, but comfort is not the entire point.
I feel it. I grew up with many of these hymns, I know the bass parts and can free-form other harmonies, I have contemplated the odd and difficult lyrics enough over the years to understand them clearly, and I love, love, love singing many (not all) of them. But I also recognise that I am an enormous exception in the population at large in this. You know, the people who we are supposed to want to come join us in worship. Very few of them like this much at all.
There is a particular irony in this in the Evangelical Covenant. It was founded in Sweden by Lutherans who had started having home Bible studies and prayer meetings as a result of the Pietist movement in the 19th C. The started arguing early on about whether to keep the Lutheran hymns they had grown up with (and so many must have had significant attachment to) or find other music. They kept some of the Lutheran hymns, but they went out and wrote a lot of new music themselves. That music is now the foundation of the dusty old Brown Hymnal that only the oldest Swedes care about. It is now the traditional music. The Methodists have the same situation, pushed a century farther back. Lots of "traditional" Baptist hymns are 19th C and/or camp meeting. Because this is America, the various denominations shared with each other and the hymns thought of as "traditional" in the congregations today might not have been sung by their own grandparents. There is a generally recognised core, maybe.
We did have someone say "If it doesn't have a number I don't want to sing it," and another who thought that children weren't being taught reverence because of the influence of that other music, and she could just see it when they went up with their families for communion. I'm getting irritated here, and so will not multiply examples.
But is it Better?
Yet all of this would be extraneous if the style or the music really is a better vehicle for worship and for growth. I have already stated my preference for liturgy and you might convince me on that score. The spiritual record of the liturgical churches looks rather mixed to me over the last century, but there are clear strengths. But I don't think we're getting there on the hymns. I think they have a significant overall weakness. We'll pick that up next time.