Congregational Song | Choral | VocalSolos | Children | Instrumental | Handbell | Organ & Keyboard | Video

  Selah helps successful church musicians

Music in Worship is Selah's occasional newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational song.

Pastoral Viewpoint
Contemporary vs. Traditional
Gracia Grindal

"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

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.


Your comments and suggestions are always welcome. Please e-mail us your thoughts.

What's New | Music in Worship | About Selah | Composers & Authors | Licensing
Customer Service | Ordering | Legal Stuff

© 2011 Selah Publishing Co., Inc., Pittsburgh, Pa., 15227.