With this post, I begin a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since I retired from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry. These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance. I welcome discussion re: any of these reflections.
Reflection #1: Contemporary worship is now fully multi-generational; no longer do older folks just stand and listen.
Yes, this is a general statement for which there will be specific counterexamples, but in the vast majority of the churches my wife and I have visited during this season of being ecclesiastical free agents the congregation members, across the board, have sung with a greater collective and enthusiastic participation than would have been the case 10 years ago–whether they were attending a “blended” service (which, regardless of the percentage of the blend featured at least one song that most of us would classify as a “hymn,” even if it more accurately might be called a “gospel song”) or a full-blown “contemporary” service (for which no effort was made to utilize any “traditional” church music.)
(As a side note, I generally am of the opinion that the words in quotation marks above are inadequate for serious reflection of worship music. For a discussion of alternative terms and structures that can enrich our vocabulary in conversations on this topic, I recommend an essay, “A Rose by Any Other Name,” written by one of my first grad-school worship profs, Dr. Lester Ruth [“A Rose by Any Other Name”]. However, because those same terms are still ubiquitous in laymen’s discussions about worship styles [i.e., because I’m confident the terms will be understood in the context of these reflections by a majority of folks who will stumble across this blog], I will continue to use them, despite my reservations about their suitability for more-nuanced discussion.)
If my observations are accurate–if congregations are more often these days singing “lustily and with good courage,” as John Wesley once exhorted–why is that happening, and what should be our response? Here are a couple of possible reasons why there seems to be a more unanimous response from parishioners to congregational song of late.
First, there are fewer folks around who didn’t grow up with rock and roll. Whether you consider saxman Louis Jordan’s jump blues in the late 1940’s, or Jackie Brenston’s (really, Ike Turner’s) “Rocket 88” in 1951, or Elvis’ “That’s All Right (Mama)” in 1954 to be the birth of rock and roll, the number of people in church pews/chairs for whom rock and roll music (and its attendant culture) arrived as a discombobulating shock to the system diminishes with each passing year. Because contemporary worship music (cwm) takes its cues from rock and roll (various subsets thereof, at least), there are fewer people who come to cwm with suspicion, at best, or derision, at worst; hence, there are more people who come to cwm with tolerance, at worst, or enthusiasm, at best.
Second, cwm is, on average, getting better all the time. Now, I am intimately familiar with areas in which cwm needs improvement (in some cases–harmonic structure being most glaring–significant improvement), and I will reflect upon them in this series from time to time. But the best of the genre these days is better than the best of the genre 20 years ago. (Part of this is related to the maturation of cwm’s major songwriters; the palette of life experiences from which one can draw is simply broader at age 40 or 50 than it is at 20 or 30. Part of this is related to the fact that younger cwm songwriters have witnessed the maturation of their older brothers and sisters and are, hence, challenged by example to write better songs themselves.) It is easier to sing “lustily and with good courage” when the songs you are being asked to sing on any given Sunday provoke holy enthusiasm more often than not.
And if contemporary worship truly is multi-generational these days, what should worship leaders do about it?
First, be even more intentional about balancing your worship set with songs that cover a chronological spectrum of cwm. Yes, even your 70-somethings and a few of your 80-somethings are embracing your musical styles without reservation–praise God!–but, if you are called to minister to the entire congregation and not just to a particular or coveted demographic, your job includes allowing everyone in the congregation at some point in the regular worship gatherings of the Church to sing what at Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts we call “the soundtrack of your faith,” that music that was integral to and/or utilized by the Church at the time of your conversion. Because of all that has been discussed above, this task is easier now for worship leaders than ever before, but some effort will still be required, especially for younger worship leaders who weren’t around at the dawn of cwm, to broaden the worship set list beyond whatever Bethel and Hillsong United have released in the past five years.
Second, keep on writing better and better songs for your congregations. Make them theologically sound. Make them Trinitarian. Make them God- and others-centered. Make them easy to sing for the average Joe and Jane. More on this topic in the weeks and months to come. The Lord be with you!
Coming next week (Lord willing): Worship leaders as safari guides.