Why Contemporary vs. Traditional Worship is the Wrong Debate
For some reason, the debate between traditional worship music and contemporary worship music has been appearing frequently in my Facebook newsfeed of late. Most notably was a post from Dan Cogan called “My Journey Away from Contemporary Worship Music”. It is a good, thought provoking article. It has been provoking my thoughts ever since I read it.
You see, I am a hymn lover, but I am also a chorus lover. And when one style of worship is held up as better or superior, I cringe. In my opinion, it is the wrong debate.
As the diverse, multi-faceted body of Christ, should we be surprised when our preferences in worship differ? When did we become okay with criticizing others who do not worship in the same way we do? (To be clear, there was nothing divisive or demeaning in the post I shared- rather it is in the subsequent conversations that occur after a post like this is shared).
Instead of trying to prove which is better- contemporary or traditional worship- the Church should be focused on the One we are worshiping. I guarantee that both sides of this debate can point to deep, theologically sound songs that make up their repertoire. And if they are being honest, they can also provide examples of songs that do not have depth and are theologically off.
One of Cogan’s reasons for moving towards more of a traditional worship service was the fact that these songs have been sung by “giants” of the faith for the past two millenia. There is something to be said for this joining with other believers who have gone before us. But the first song I think of when I consider that I am joining with a great throng of believers was written in the 21st century.
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty
Who was and is and is to come.
With all creation I sing,
Praise to the King of Kings,
You are my everything and I will adore you.
~Revelation Song by Jennie Lee Riddle
Our God is timeless and when we consider His greatness, there are no giants of the faith- there is only our great God at work in and through his people from the beginning of time to the end of time. This means that we can’t simply throw off hymns as being archaic or rigid. They are significant, because they were written to worship God. Likewise, we cannot disregard contemporary songs, simply because they are new. They are significant, because they have been written to worship God.
His second point was that hymns are vastly more theologically rich and encouraged worship ministers to search for hymns that carry the same message as the contemporary chorus, because undoubtedly there will be more depth in the hymn. With this point, I disagree. Maybe it is because my husband was a Bible Theology major in college and is now the worship leader at our church, but my experience with contemporary music is that there can be an incredible theological depth if one is seeking to find it.
The real question we need to be asking of our worship is are we true worshipers?
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers of God will worship in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.
~John 4:23, 24
Do we value a song because of when it was written or Who it was written to? Are we concerned with God’s glory or with our own preferences? Do we throw out all songs that are in a certain style or do we honestly look at each song as an opportunity to worship God?
There is a danger in getting “stuck” in one style or one tradition. This danger is an inability or an unwillingness to search for God’s glory if a song doesn’t fit into our style or preferences. It also alienates anyone who does not worship in the same way.
That is why contemporary vs. traditional worship is the wrong debate. Scripture clearly teaches that we are to fight for unity in the body of Christ, but this debate only creates a disunity.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. ~Ephesians 4:3
I love traditional hymns and I love contemporary choruses, but when someone makes an argument for one being superior to another, I feel the need to defend the opposite side. And when I get to the end of my defense, I feel frustrated, because I got sucked into the wrong debate. The question should not be whether one tradition is superior to the other, but rather does this song bring glory to God? Are we worshiping in Spirit and in truth?
Recently, my family had the opportunity to travel to Ithaca, New York. In our never ending quest to see waterfalls, we discovered the understated Ithaca Falls. On our way to get close to the waterfall, we saw piles of stones that have been set up. Immediately, we thought of the hymn “Come Thou Fount” written by Robert Robinson in 1758. One of the lines in the song is “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come”. It is a line that has caused much confusion when sung by worshipers, but it is based on 1 Samuel 7:12 when Samuel set up a stone, calling it Ebenezer to remind the Israelites that “Thus far the Lord has helped us”.
As we basked in the beauty of God’s creation, we decided to set up our own Ebenezer, a reminder to our family that God has faithfully led us- sometimes through difficulty, sometimes through joys- but He has always been with us.
I am thankful that Robert Robinson penned those words, drawing out a story from scripture that would otherwise be likely overlooked. And I am thankful that no one told him that his words were unimportant because they weren’t old enough. I am also grateful for modern day songwriters who continue to use their talents to bring glory to our great God. They should not be discounted simply because they are not old.
Let us be diligent in seeking out theologically deep and sound songs, but may our focus be on God’s glory and unity in the body of Christ, not on styles or preferences, new vs. old, contemporary vs. traditional. There is no superior tradition and when we get hung up on our differences, we are dishonoring our superior God.