Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?
A Question of Style
Let us limit our discussion to congregational singing. Some concepts can be applied to choral singing as well. However, for the sake of brevity, we will ignore entirely the issues of solo and instrumental music.
We must also define our terms. “Traditional” is usually understood to mean hymns, and “contemporary” does not simply mean “modern,” but rather music which sounds like the popular music of our day. A song with thoroughly modern words and music is still considered traditional if it is hymn-like in style, for example, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” by Kathleen Thomerson.
So the question is one of style, and because style is so subjective, it is impossible to declare it “right” or “wrong.” However, style does have some relevance to a church’s worship. It is possible to identify some ways in which traditional hymns are well suited to corporate worship, while contemporary music presents certain problems.
Hymns are designed specifically for worship
Hymns as we know them have a long and complex history, but they really came into prominence during the Reformation. Both Luther and Calvin shared a then-radical vision for worship: that congregations would join together, singing to God in their own language as opposed to Latin. Calvin published versified psalms for this purpose, while Luther allowed the singing of Christian poetry, paying careful attention to its theology.
The new music was crafted to reflect the character of the text as well as to fit the stresses and rhythmic patterns of spoken language. We take these features for granted today, but this was a huge departure from chant, the prevailing church music at the time. Some of these early hymns are still being sung in virtually every evangelized culture in the world, among them “A Mighty Fortress” and “Old 100th” (the Doxology).
Contemporary music is designed for personal enjoyment
The contemporary style comes to us by way of the entertainment industry. The influential singers are not always formally trained, but they are all professionals who capture their best performance in a recording studio. With the availability of radio, television, CD’s, and the internet, we can listen to our favorite artists whenever and wherever we want. It is music performed by individuals for individuals.
It is true that hymns have borrowed from the popular folk music of past centuries. But the Old World was more oriented to community. Singing was an activity for social gatherings, and the music could accommodate a wide range of musical ability.
Today’s popular singers take liberties not possible with hymns: rhythms are more syncopated and complex, vocal range may be more extreme, verses and refrains may be supplemented by “bridges” and “tails,” and poetic meter need not be followed exactly. While these freedoms can create a fresh and exciting sound, they can also make contemporary music difficult for congregations to sing together.
In order to adapt contemporary music to worship, the most common solution seems to be the use of a band and “praise team” who are skilled enough (and amplified loudly enough) to carry the music. The result, however unintentional, is much like a performance. This may be unavoidable given the performance-oriented nature of some contemporary music.
Hymns are distinctively religious
Consistent with their design, hymns are used almost exclusively for worship. With the exception of Christmas carols, we do not often hear hymns outside the church. Secular hymns do exist, but they are limited to alma maters and national anthems, still notable for their intent to evoke unity and devotion. The decidedly un-hymn-like direction of popular music underscores even more the un-worldliness of hymns. Thus hymns are developing an increasingly sacred character. They remind everyone that the church is not of the world.
The best hymns have endured
We mentioned earlier some 16th-century hymns that are still sung today. Most are not, and for good reason. It is the rare hymn that marries beautiful, truthful text with music that perfectly captures the spirit of the words and of the larger Faith. But the past 500 years have yielded many hundreds of gems. They are not always “catchy” or immediately appealing, and the language can be difficult. But their richness becomes apparent over a lifetime of singing and growing in our understanding of the Gospel.
Great hymns have survived even where sound doctrine has not. In churches where theology has deteriorated, congregations are getting better teaching from the hymnals than from the pulpits. When we sing those same classic hymns with conviction, we are calling the visible church to unity, but on the proper grounds: in confession of the historic, biblical Gospel.
It would be silly to suggest that we should never try anything new in worship. Hymns were once controversial themselves. But neither should we be too eager to fill our services with music that more closely resembles the world around us and that has not passed the test of time.
If your congregation does venture into contemporary music, you must be aware of its difficulties and overcome them. Select music with regard to the average person’s musical skill. Test new music outside of worship services, using groups that include singers of varying capabilities. Devote time to teaching more difficult songs to the congregation, and consider having printed music available for everyone. Avoid relying on performers. Regularly assess whether the music produces unified corporate worship.
Finally, we must all maintain a distant perspective. History predicts that nearly all the Christian music of the past ten or twenty years will be forgotten. Only a precious few songs will take their place among the classics. We may hope to contribute to the great music of the Faith, be we should also be drinking deeply from that well ourselves.
Recommended reading on musical style
C. S. Lewis, “On Church Music,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).*
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter XX, Articles 30-33 [dealing with public worship, singing, and prayer], trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845).*
Terry L. Johnston, Reformed Worship: Worship that is According to Scripture (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 2000).
*The Lewis and Calvin readings are easily found on the World Wide Web.