Pastor Voddie Baucham recently pointed out on social media this article about Martin Luther. For the longest time there have been folks who used Luther as an example for why it's ok to use "modern" or "contemporary" music styles for worship. The argument says that Luther used "bar tunes" for his hymns. I have to admit that I heard that argument and even repeated it. Turns out, it ain't so. At least in the sense we think of. (Read the article if you want the facts)
The interesting thing, to me, was the flurry of comments that followed the posting of this article. Everything from "all contemporary music is from hell" and "anything with syncopation is pagan" to the other side which says "anything and everything is fine because style just doesn't matter." And so, the battle rages on.
The first thing we have to do, in my mind, is separate "worship" music from "entertainment." What music we sing on Sunday mornings in our corporate worship services has a different set of criteria than what I personally listen to for my own edification and enjoyment. Certainly there can be some overlap between the two: I can enjoy listening to hymns/worship music at other times besides Sundays, and like it or not, some contemporary "pop" music can be acceptable for worship.
I've argued all this before, I think. I may not be a music expert (even though I was a music major for one whole year in college!). But as a collector of antique hymnals and a student of church history/hymnology, I can at least argue with an "informed opinion." And here it is...
Every generation has witnessed changes in musical style that reached the masses while also riling the establishment. Congregational singing itself was a novelty at one point in history, with the church teaching that the singing should be done by trained professionals and the congregation should just listen. Then of course there was the whole Psalms-only vs. Man-made songs thing. Isaac Watts, whose songs most traditional folks love, was seen as a radical by many in his day for his departure from Psalms-only singing.
The "old/traditional" vs. "new/contemporary" categories are themselves not sufficient for deciding what is appropriate for worship. In 1871, Robert Lowry and W. Howard Doane (stalwarts in church music) introduced a song book called Pure Gold. In the introduction, they say this: "Nearly everything in the book is new...It is taken for granted that Sunday Schools do not wish to purchase over again the songs which they have used in other books." What? They take it for granted that we want books with new songs?? Surely not.
Of course, this was a book designed for Sunday Schools. So surely it wasn't meant for the adults worship service. In spite of the fact that this very book contains "new" songs that have become standards in our Baptist Hymnals like "Take the Name of Jesus With You" and "Something for Thee." Hmmm...
Another collection of these Sunday School songs, 1874's Songs of Grace and Glory, makes this argument in the introduction: "(We) are confident...that the deepest interest is secured, even on the part of the children, when the hymns and music of the Prayer Meeting and the Sunday School are so pleasantly and judiciously interwoven that both shall be a preparation for bearing a more intelligent part in the praises of the Sanctuary, thus making all the musical services of God's house to be offered 'with the spirit and with the understanding also.' To this end they venture to suggest that the collection adopted in the school be occasionally used in the weekly evening meeting, and that the standard hymns...almost as sacred as holy Writ, be frequently introduced in the Sunday School."
In short, they argue that the new Sunday School music is just as worthy for worship as the old traditional, and the old traditional should be just as good for the young folks as the new hip stuff. Pretty good insight. Especially when you consider this was written in 1874, not 2014. It's an old argument, an old debate, is it not? And again, many songs in these new/Sunday School books have gone on to be standard "traditional" hymns today. All songs were new at one time, after all. Not everything new is good. Much of it today is banal and shallow. But some old songs reek of some horrible theology at times as well. Sound theology, not newness, should be the key.
Of course, then there is the issue of style. This style is sanctified and this style is not. High church hymns are closer to God than contemporary expressions. Any cursory reading of these old song books will reveal that there is a wide variety of musical expressions, each of which reflects the day and age in which they were written.
Again, I've said here many times that I'm not arguing that the stuff I listen to (like Skillet, TFK, Flame, Audio Adrenaline, etc.) should be brought into the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. It goes back to the corporate worship vs. entertainment thing. For the most part. Truth is, some of those groups have produced some pretty amazing worship songs. But I digress...
The point is that each generation, and each culture, writes music that reflects their own experiences. What 18th Century French worshipers wrote and enjoyed is certainly different in style to 20th Century African believers, etc. Styles change, culture to culture, generation to generation. Style alone shouldn't be the judge.
Don't you find it interesting that the largest book in the Bible is a book of songs; obviously indicating that worship and singing is to be a big part of our life of faith. But also notice that not one single song tune is preserved. Even the musical notations given to us in the Psalms are mysteries. If God was so concerned about one style, one musical form, don't you think those would have been preserved along with the texts; at least in the traditions of men? Or could it be that God wanted men to express their hearts to Him in the way that most moved them at the time, most spoke to their hearts. Music is, and should be emotional. Not just emotional. But emotions are surely a part of it. And face it, what moves you musically might be different than what moves me. So why can't both be acceptable.
Well, enough ranting. It's Pastor Baucham's fault for bringing it up again. I think it comes down to something Thom Rainer said. "When the preferences of the church members are greater than their passion for the Gospel, the church is dying." If we continue to argue over personal preferences in music, it will continue to kill the church. Time for the "worship war" to end!