in Worship is Selah's occasional
newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful
articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational
Contemporary vs. Traditional
"Contemporary" vs. "traditional."
With these standards flying, many a congregation has descended
into paths of unrighteousness. These battle lines, however, are
usually not drawn very helpfully. Usually the "traditional"
worship that wearies those people who want something "contemporary"
is set to music from the last decades, usually, as in the Lutheran
Book of Worship (1978), in a neo-Renaissance musical style. The
musical style of what is known as "contemporary" is
usually folk-which feels more familiar and "older"
to most people. The addition of drums, synthesizers, and saxophones
simply brings the quality of sound up to date. One could play
any melody using these instruments, and it would sound contemporary,
though not "modern." Truly "modern" music-like
that of Schoenberg and John Cage-has no appeal at all in worship,
except to the most esoteric aesthetics.
What some, especially Lutherans, are feeling
is that their liturgical music has not worn well, and thus, in
these parts more notably, they are looking for other forms and
styles of worship. Those churches who do begin using "contemporary"
worship report increased attendance, something that causes them
to conclude they have made a right decision.
On the whole I would agree. I do, however,
have two caveats against "contemporary" worship.
1) The congregation should make a clear distinction
between the "form" and "style" of worship.
Worship services are usually created with some reference, even
if only an emotional one, to a venerable form. Even the free
Christian prayer service-which has long been a service of those
who would return to the "Upper Room" experience of
the apostles-has a recognizable form of hymns, readings, confessions,
testimony, and prayer. Those planning such services should be
explicitly aware of those forms when they recreate services.
2) As one who loves to sing old familiar hymns
and songs, I dislike it intensely when I attend a worship service
with all the electronic possibilities of a sound studio and find
myself having to sing only the music of the composer of the "contemporary"
liturgy. I like the eclectic mix of tunes and texts from the
entirety of the Christian tradition, and I like them mixed in
a service-from Bach to rock, I say synechdocally, but mean the
whole range of church music we have-in time and place.
While the composer might prefer to have the
Ordinary of the Mass from the pen of one composer, I, as a follower
of Martin Luther, think his Deutsche Messe provides a helpful
guide. I much prefer using suitable hymns for the Ordinary, especially
in these days when we sing fewer hymns and more liturgy during
the service. The most pervasive principle of worship these days
is that liturgy is the work of the people. Unless they are asked
to sing music they know and can sing, they will become observers
again, and we'll be right back where we started. Keep the song
of the people alive!
Gracia Grindal is a teacher of preachers at
Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. She is also a writer of hymn
texts, many of which appear in numerous contemporary hymnals.