Music is the Rub: Staying in tune with God and each other

What style of music is most appropriate for the worship service?"

If you've ever raised this question, you know how quickly it can polarize a congregation and with what disastrous consequences. During the years I have served as a pastor and a church musician, I've made the "mistake" of asking this question myself. I've learned firsthand, in the trenches, what a volatile issue church music can be.

Heart Problems

The truth is that in most churches pastors and worship leaders can't avoid talking about the integration of musical styles. Our culture demands attention to this matter. But it's also true, I learned, that a wise pastor and music leader will sense that the real question people are asking has less to do with music style than it does with inspired worship. In Mark 12:30, Christ says that our worship must be "with all our heart...," that is, with wholehearted abandon. Paul's doxology at the end of Romans 11 shows Paul worshiping God with wholehearted exhuberance as a direct response to our glorious salvation.

This type of worship was illustrated vividly to me in a service some time ago. A man who had just become a Christian was sitting toward the front of the sanctuary. After a soloist had effectively sung about the cross of Christ, this fellow broke into spontaneous applause—only to be humiliated in front of two thousand people who did not join him. How embarrassing! How inappropriate! I thought. But the truth is, that man was greater than I. He was not applauding the performance. As a new believer, he was responding to his salvation. He was experiencing Christ. He was worshiping.

True worship, through which people experience Christ, is the real issue. When we as leaders hear people "whining" about the music used in worship, it is not so much a signal that drastic changes in style are needed as much as a call for drastic changes in heart. A "dead" service injected with contemporary music will still be dead. What is missing is not a church alive with music but Christians alive with Christ.

A number of years ago I watched as the church I ministered to fizzled into nonexistence, largely due to this problem. The church was dead. We needed young people. We wanted families. So we decided to foster a contemporary music program. But that solution led to a disastrous end. Why? Because music could not change the hearts of the people.

I have seen similar problems in other congregations. And I've noticed that often the "heart" problem is in the soul of the pastor or music leader who forced his or her ministry vision on the church more for the sake of relevance and momentum than for the sake of Christ alone.

What Leaders Can Do

As church leaders, it is our responsibility to lead the people in our congregations toward experiencing Christ through obedience to his Word. This is as true in the area of music as it is in any other.

In practical terms this means that if you are the pastor, you are also the worship leader. Regardless of your musical background, by virtue of your calling, you are the one who must continually lead your church music leaders toward a theologically sound philosophy of music.

If you are a music director, it is important to remember that you are first a minister, then a musician. Many of us consider ourselves the bastions of musical truth. We territorialize and defend our turf. But our job has a far higher calling: we must be in tune with God. We must be in tune with the leadership. We must be in tune with the people. Our desire must be to foster worship that is God-centered, is within the parameters of the leadership guidelines, and is always leading the people to experience Christ.

Unfortunately, style integration is a war zone for many leaders—-even godly leaders. Often, the problem arises from two misconceptions: first, that traditional music is excellence and contemporary music is mediocrity; and second, that traditional music is bondage and contemporary music is freedom.

These misconceptions are simply general statements that voice two different style preferences. Both styles are valid and have varying degrees of intrinsic value and excellence. Each church, as a unique group of individuals, must have leaders who are sensitive to its style preferences.

More Than One Avenue

A general premise to remember is that individual church members have particular style preferences. I call these preferences "music avenues," avenues that lead an individual very comfortably and quickly to the throne for worship. Most churches, in turn, have one predominant style avenue. And, though the people are often accepting of some variety, change must be introduced slowly and for a good purpose.

Also remember that it's never appropriate to replace the old avenue completely. Instead of seeking to replace a style avenue, we as leaders must offer additional avenues with varying styles. For example, in the last two churches I served, even though the congregations were young, we maintained a healthy balance of the "old hymns." This choice was not simply an attempt to appease the older crowd but rather an opportunity to offer an additional avenue to the young crowd. The more appropriate avenues of music a congregation has, the more vital their singing will be.

Be Prepared for Bumps

Although we were able to integrate styles in these two congregations I served, the road of transition had its bumps. At one of the churches, I decided to introduce both an organ (which had never been used) and a rhythm section over the course of a few months. This action was not as suicidal as it may sound, for the church had already fostered a fine appreciation for hymns as well as contemporary music. What was lacking was the appropriate accompaniment to foster the singing with vitality in both genres.

Fortunately the foundational aspects—those spiritual and relational dynamics that we discussed earlier—were strong. But I was not without my challenges. As the Sunday approached for the "unveiling" of the rhythm section, the drummer, who was a church officer (the safest kind), became ill. I searched for another.

"Do you know a good drummer who is sensitive to the church worship environment?" I asked a colleague.

"Absolutely!" he said. "I know a man who is the best in town."

"But is he sensitive?"

"Oh yes! Very sensitive," he replied.

When the drummer showed up for rehearsal, I tried not to stare at his long hair and chest-length beard, not to mention his tiger-striped trap set. I assured myself that he was, after all, a sensitive drummer. He rehearsed well, too, and gradually my apprehensions relaxed. But once worship started, the drummer's "sensitivity" seemed to disappear. I guess you might say he became inspired. In any case, he successfully led our rhythm section in blasting the congregation into the next county. A visiting elderly couple sent a negative letter to the editor of the newspaper, describing our service as a big "show." I was crushed.

I know of a number of churches where, had this happened, severe internal strife could have resulted. But we were spared any strife because the foundational elements for change had been laid. The congregation was Christ-centered and had been educated about what was going on. Because leaders had earned a high level of trust, we got over the hump. We learned many lessons. And the church went on to enjoy a plethora of music style avenues Sunday to Sunday.

Tips for Leaders

One of my greatest joys in ministry has been to watch these style changes foster the habit of singing in people who had previously participated very little. And I've discovered that one of the most effective means for increasing participation is through singing psalms!

For a number of years I have used psalms set to music in every conceivable manner (responsive,antiphonal, etc.) and in all styles (a cappella, with organ, guitars, rhythm section, etc.).

Why are psalms such a good way of initiating style change? First of all, because the text is from Scripture, and people feel comfortable with it. But also because the psalms are set to music in so many styles.

Once you've learned to sing psalms together, you may want to try composing some of your own arrangements for these familiar words. In the more traditional of the congregations I served, I discovered that psalm settings, sensitively arranged in the contemporary style, were received immediately. For the traditional church, this is a more palatable way to introduce a different style than simply plopping a group of contemporary choruses in the middle of the service.

Ironically, the road to change in a more contemporary congregation may be bumpier than in a traditional church. I have often found the self-proclaimed "open-minded" contemporary church to be more exclusive and less willing to integrate a different style than its traditional counterpart. In such situations biblical instruction is the key. These congregations must be taught the principles of spiritual growth, maturity, and self-denial. Once this groundwork is laid, carefully selected processional hymns and uplifting psalms and responses will be well received.

I once was asked to lead worship for a conference of pastors, most of whom were from contemporary churches. After a couple of days of doing "their thing," I conducted a worship service that was liturgical in nature. Most of the music was in the contemporary style genre, but I also inserted a psalm and a processional hymn. Both of these were uplifting and loud, with choir backup. Not only did these pastors receive the music well, they received the "old" Reformed liturgy as something new and refreshing!

Why a Worship Funnel Can Help Worship Planners

No matter what their style preference, people look for the same basic things in worship: they want to experience fervent seasons of praise and joy as well as still moments of prayer and contemplation.

In spite of this universal desire, I have found these two elements lacking passion and contrast in many congregations. The level of praise and joy should always be a "shout unto the Lord." The level of prayer  and contemplation should cast an awesome hush over the people. But these levels of emotion will not be achieved unless the service order and flow promote them.

Often, our services have the emotional character of a yo-yo, or else they are insipid, lacking in emotional content whatsoever. In churches with a traditional worship style, a quiet prelude is often followed by one hymn of entrance, and then a prayer. Here the people have only one opportunity to get warmed up and praise God with a shout before it's suddenly time to be quiet again.

In churches using a contemporary worship style, the first set of choruses is often contemplative and prayerful. But then an accompaniment tape is activated, and a soloist offers praise, permitting the congregation only to observe, not to participate.

As leaders, we must foster meaningful sections of joy and meditation in our services. The "worship funnel" is one method for programming praise and prayer time effectively. The funnel represents the emotional flow of the service. Scripture invites us to "come into his presence with singing and into his courts with praise." Where the funnel is wide the people are singing and shouting praise. As the funnel diminishes in shape, the people are progressively led toward a more meditative time of prayer. Finally they are ready for the preaching of the Word, after which the funnel bursts open. The people leave the service in praise. They are God's servants joyfully going into the world for the praise and glory of their Master. (See diagram.)

The point of the runnel diagram is this: people will achieve a higher level of exaltation when they have the opportunity to express themselves with two or more selections that are highly praise-oriented and sung without pause; and people will be better able to pray and listen to God's Word when they are led into contemplation by two or more reflective selections.

Planning worship—either traditional or contemporary—that recognizes this funnel takes a lot of time and coordination. Smooth modulations and transitions are essential. But such planning will help people of any congregation experience the full range of Christ-centered emotion that is essential to biblical worship. It will also make congregations more receptive to change and to walking down new style avenues together. Most important, it will better enable them to experience Christ and give him the ultimate glory.

Emotional Range

Worship Elements

Worship Action

High   The singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (highly participatory but could include anthems etc. )  
  Loud singing and uplifting leadership and response.    
Medium High   * The reading of Scripture (or creeds / responses etc. but done in the atmosphere of praise) Praise and Exaltation
  Momentum is carried from the prior element so that the mind is now stimulated to participate to participate more conguitively. The offering  
Medium Low   The preparation for prayer (psalms, hymns, or spiritual songs)  
  Although the demonstrative level is low, the heart and mind are most passionate. The pastoral prayer  
Medium     Prayer and Proclamation
  The mind is now prepared to concentrate and the heart to absorb.

The preaching of the Word

Medium High The people respond to what they have heard.    
  The people are sent out, joyful and victorius. The sending of God's people into the world (benediction followed by song of praise and postlude) Consecration and Comission

*Note: The offering is often placed here when it is more festive. Readings and creeds, if done here, must be led by a leader who can instill an atmosphere of praise. Otherwise, the readings should be inserted further down on the funnel.

John Haines is associate pastor of worship and music for the Evangleical Free Church of Kearney, Nebraska.


Reformed Worship 35 © March 1995, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.