Given all that has been said here concerning contemporary music, the question which must be settled is whether or not music in the assembly can be made to accommodate contemporary musical forms without dumbing down. To that question, I believe the answer is yes. Incorporating contemporary musical forms into assemblies is not only desirable, but imperative—within certain limitations. The qualification here is that a careful balance must be maintained. And music, as all aspects of life, must be submitted to the authority of the whole counsel of God, not just a few passages taken from context as proof texts to justify a pet view. And any congregation’s focus, if it is correctly aligned with Scripture, will be on ministering to all in the assembly rather than targeting and accommodating the whims and fads of a given age group or mindset while marginalizing and demeaning others.
The proponents of contemporary music have stated, and rightly so, that virtually all musical forms which are played as “traditional” church music were, at one time, part of the contemporary culture popular at the time the songs were written.(Miller, 1993:107-137) Therefore it is ill-informed, if not hypocritical, for the “traditionalists” to dismiss contemporary musical forms solely on the basis of those forms being contemporary in nature.
On the other hand, the hymns and songs which form the body of “traditional” church music have endured for so long because they have been recognized as having qualities which render them valuable to believers in successive ages.
An honest appraisal also recognizes that even those who wrote “traditional” church music sometimes wrote songs which were not very good. Charles Wesley wrote over 700 hymns. Only a handful have survived to this day simply because what has endured has been recognized as embodying sound theology and therefore merits continued exposure.
The question is whether or not contemporary worship music and those who advocate it will submit to the same historical process of testing as Scripture requires. (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1-2) Liesch observes:
What will our sons and daughters have after thirty years of exclusive chorus singing? A few choruses of enduring quality and the memory of hundreds of worn-out ones? (Liesch, 1996:22)
What steps can be taken to increase the appreciation for the tradition while incorporating the energy, drive and freshness of new musical forms?
First, the church can recognize that no musical form or style has developed in a vacuum and emerged full-grown into the culture. Instead, each form builds on something which has preceded it. In addition, musical forms develop through the “technology” available.
For example, the baroque style of music emerged as musicians during the Reformation began blending in elements of Gregorian chant with songs and melodies from popular culture. Classical music developed as new musical technologies were incorporated and superseded older technology [the piano replaced the harpsichord]. In North America, jazz and blues developed from the field chants of slaves. Jazz incorporated those elements using wind and brass instruments, while blues musicians took the guitar as their instrument. Among poor white southerners, what became known as country and bluegrass music developed from the folk music traditions of Appalachia. In the second half of the twentieth century, boosted by new technologies in recording, coupled with the advent of the electric guitar and bass, some urban black musicians began infusing a heavier beat to the blues, resulting in the form called rhythm and blues [R&B]. At the same time, young white musicians in the South began fusing country, bluegrass, and R&B styles into what became rock ‘n’ roll. The best and most enduring music is always built by taking the best of a traditional form and fusing it with more contemporary forms or by fusing two older forms to form one new one.
A perfect example of this blending and fusing of musical forms would be Eric Clapton. Clapton’s music is firmly rooted in the traditional musical forms known as Delta and Chicago blues. Yet Clapton has also at varying points in his career incorporated elements of jazz, psychedelia, Celtic folk, reggae, country, and Memphis soul into his playing. (Clapton, 1992. See also Clapton, 1995)
One means of exposing newer musicians to traditional church music forms in a fashion which can build bridges would be to create arrangements for traditional hymns using more contemporary instruments and styles. Most of the music in hymnals is arranged for piano and organ in keys which make it easy for those playing such instruments. But those keys and their attendant chord progressions are nightmares for a guitarist who has not been trained in classical guitar. And guitar is the instrument of choice in this culture [Bill Clinton’s saxophone notwithstanding]. As a guitarist, this writer has experienced immense satisfaction and found new appreciation for hymns when he was able to arrange them for accompaniment with guitar. Turning guitarists in the youth group loose to create new arrangements or even new melodies to existing hymn lyrics will invest them with a sense of ownership in the music, as well as provide a vehicle to respect the tradition by giving it a fresh set of clothes. One outstanding example of this approach has been demonstrated by the group “Indelible Grace.” From my perspective, the depth and integrity displayed in their music far exceeds that displayed through the overly secularized and banal approach to lyrical content demonstrated by Hillsong and Maranatha! Music.
Now, please keep in mind, I am not advocating that our assemblies have to recreate the atmosphere of a concert hall or the spectacles which pass as concerts in today’s culture. That form of cultural accommodation is, in my opinion, a form of idolatry which borders on, if not crosses over into, blasphemy. The Church has endured and will endure without the egocentric, angst-driven, posturings of heavy metal, punk, grunge, rap, and hip-hop music. What I am saying is that music was created by God and when we strive to present excellence in music, without theatrics and showmanship, with the goal of adhering to the full counsel of Scripture as to the purposes in music, then we honor God with our music. As William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, once observed, “Why should the devil have all the good music?”
Congregations do well to remember that music is not an end in and of itself. It is a means to an end, and that end is teaching and admonishing those assembled something about God or the faith. When it is used for any other purpose, it is drawing the Church into a new form of idolatry:
What is faulty is churches’ assumption that if we choose the right kind of music people will be attracted to Christ. It is idolatry to think our work makes a difference. Christ Himself draws people to believe in Him through the Holy Spirit. Worship music is used to proclaim Christ, not to advertise Him. God must be worship’s subject, and music is the outgrowth/consequence (not the antecedent) of worship, the response to [rather than the cause of] God’s presence. (Dawn, 1995:192, emphasis added)
But if we fail to state the faith in its complete form in such a way that it can be understood and appreciated by those in the culture today, we are failing to obey the great commission.
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