Sunday, June 20, 2021

Traditional Worship

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.


Tom said...

The biggest issue I have with much of the newer music is bad and/or mushy theology, a sense that feeling, not thought, rules the music. Make sure the music conveys the same message as the rest of the church, and we can talk. A secondary issue is that, too often, music becomes the central event of the service. I am all for making a joyful noise to the Lord, but let’s not lose the service is the process. Maybe that makes me intolerant, but I see that intolerance more than reciprocated by most music ministers.

Donna B. said...

It's not a secret that I'm not now a churchgoer, but I like tradition... sometimes. My parents bought me a piano and paid big bucks (for the time) for piano lessons. One of their dreams (and mine) was for me to play the piano for church services. However, I found it quite difficult to play them "straight" as that particular congregation liked. It was boring. I drove my Mama crazy at home changing keys in "Onward Christian Soldiers" every other measure and I couldn't help but improvise with the base and upper octaves.

One of my favorite hymns is "Old Rugged Cross" and this guy is playing a quite subdued, but traditional Southern Baptist version of it:

My church piano playing career was over by the time I was 12, even though I never got over my love of four part harmony, especially acapella. Traditions change after a while, because I still listen to "Alice's Restaurant" every Thanksgiving, but have recently incorporated WKRP into the mix. It's my duty to see that my grandchildren understand cultural references. In this I include the 7 deadly sins, important saints, and the chemical meaning of 'organic'.

One of the funniest things my younger daughter ever said was that she wanted to transfer from Texas A&M to W&M because "a little tradition goes a long way." The saying for that is "jumping from the frying pan to the fire" isn't it?

Sorry to hijack what you were writing about, but I hope there will always be choices. I love the more traditional music in church and feel it can be modernized, updated, etc., without changing the emotional (worship experience) or theological (study and contemplation) aspect.

james said...

"The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world"

I agree with you about liturgical styles of worship. In some ways they seem to offer more congregational participation. They're not perfect--one can "worship" on autopilot, and the liturgical denominations seem more susceptible to "I ticked the boxes so I'm OK/orthodox/whatever" attitudes. Still, they touch some bases that evangelical styles slide by.

I figure music in a worship service has maybe two functions: performance by a few to provide opportunity for contemplation by the many, and participation by the many for praise/thanksgiving/adoration, etc.

The character of the latter has to depend on what idioms the congregation know, and what training they have. Many of the volunteer musicians over-estimate the skill of the congregation, and throw in bells and whistles, tempo and key changes, and sometimes modifications of the lyrics. I have unhappy memories of congregations singing lustily along with familiar Christman carols, only to fall silent when the worship team threw in an unexpected bridge. Maybe some warning that "We're going to tinker with a familiar song to make us think about the words!" would help.

Don't get me started on the malign effects of over-amping. If you can't hear yourself, how can you sing?

And yet the traditional songs have problems too--sometimes crippling problems. "My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought," takes my mind in non-worshipful directions. "And I'm happy, so happy, as onward I go" -- even if, as I've often asserted, hymns are often more aspirational than descriptive, that's just not anywhere near reality. Dark night of the soul, anybody? Gethsemane?
And the contorted grammar can make Browning look lucid.

There's some rich stuff in the evangelical traditional service, and liturgical services could probably stand a dose of it. And there's rich stuff in the liturgical service, and the evangelical services could do with a good dose of it.

OTOH, I'm not the one to whom the worship is offered, who gets to decide whether it is fitting or not.

Blick said...

I hope you don't mind if I butt in. I expect Worship to reveal and revel in the Majesty, Glory of the Trinity and to exalt Almighty God. That can be any thing from music all the way to Silence. The "worship service should not be just to warm up the audience for a sermon.
worship is about who and what God is. Praise is about what God has done. Thanksgiving is for what God has done for us. JB

Grim said...

I saw a Latin Mass in Jerusalem sung by the Franciscan Order that keeps the Christian Quarter there. (A bit misleading; the Armenian Quarter is also Christian.) For my money, that’s as good as it gets.

Is it better? Well, it’s enduring. It’s moving. It gives one a sense of being tied to something genuinely ancient and beautiful. I’ve never seen or heard it’s equal.

Douglas2 said...

As an undergrad lo those many years ago was part of a campus christian group that was full of people who were really enthusiastic about hymns. It was catching, often unaccompanied or with guitar & flute, but very much the notes on the page in the traditional rhythm, melody, and harmony.

I'm with James on the lyrics of some older hymns being theologically suspect.

I joke about once seeing a projection of chorus lyrics saying:
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus;
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus;
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus;
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
©2007 Eagle's Wing Music, Inc.

-- but there are also a good many contemporary worship songs that are rich in meaning and (small-O) orthodox, just as there are many old hymns which are insipid or sketchy in their theology.