“To Serve This Present Age”: How Pastors and Worship Ministry Leaders Can Form God’s People through Music in Worship

I attended a wonderful conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa this summer.  A member of one of the institutional convening partners of the conference, Rev. Dr. Bruce Theron, expressed one of the challenges that churches in South Africa are facing in this way:  “How to stay true to our tradition and be relevant to our context.” While there are certainly particularities to the South African context, the tension between tradition and relevance is not only a South African problem (nor was he suggesting that).

Immediately in my mind arose a statement that retired Newark, NJ, pastor Rev. Dr. Granville A. Seward often says to me:  “Well now, I’m still trying to figure out how to serve this present age.”

With respect to worship, what questions emerge at the intersection of tradition and relevance? What challenges do we encounter as we try “to serve this present age,” as Charles Wesley wrote in the hymn “A Charge to Keep I Have” while “stay[ing] true to our tradition[s]?”  They are questions of content as well as form.  What kind of music should we sing?  Hymns, chants, or contemporary music?  What version of Scripture should we read? KJV, NIV, NRSV, CEB, The Message? Should we wear robes or not? Should we use hymnbooks, bulletin inserts or screens for the music?  

At its best, answers to these questions can lead to conversations about the perpetuity of practice and the current articulation and contextualization of theological truths.  At its worst, these conversations can devolve into fights over content and form.  How do we as pastors and those who serve in worship leadership “engage all of our powers in order to fulfill our callings” without abandoning our rich traditions or ignoring our current contexts and the people in them?  While I do not have specific answers, an important matter to consider is the goal.

A question we should ask ourselves is, “What is the goal?”  If the goal is the spiritual formation and transformation of the people who are before us, we must ask two further questions:  (a) what do they need to grow spiritually and (b) in what form do we need to present what is needed so that the people before us can engage and embrace what we present to them?  An observation that I have made is that many churches have implemented solutions that answer eitherquestion a orquestion b.  Music is the easiest lens through which to explain.

There are many pastors who desire their congregants/parishioners to be more theologically grounded, to have and be able to articulate a sound theology (of God, of humanity, of the relationship between God and humanity, and of the ethical relationship and responsibility of human beings to one another, informed partly by ancient Christian tradition and informed partly by liberative theologies bequeathed to the church and the academy by modern theologians and the hermeneutical and methodological frameworks they left us).  And, in attempts to meet our current 21stcentury context, many pastors and worship ministry leaders have replaced (abandoned?) hymns entirely for contemporary (Christian and/or Gospel) music. In the swap out of hymns for contemporary (Christian and/or Gospel) music, good theology is often swapped out for weak (and sometimes bad) theology for the sake of a beat… or an upbeat tempo… or to get more and/or young(er) people in church.

Why do we continue to think in binaries?  Why is it either hymns or contemporary music?  Why can’t the solution be a combination of both, beyond having both genres sung in two different places in the same service?  Minimally, there are two solutions to this problem.

The first is setting old (traditional) hymns to new tunes.  If our goal is “to serve this present age” while “stay[ing] true to our [theological] tradition[s],” is it more important that the “form” of the hymn be the one we grew up singing, or is it more important that the people currentlyin our charge are spiritually and theologically formed and fashioned into a holy people for God?  If it is the latter, then we need to consider ways to present the content in a form that the people currently in our charge will embrace and engage.  This is easier in churches that do not have large generational spans (i.e., are comprised of mostly one age demographic).  However, it is not impossible in a church with three to four generations either. Introducing old (traditional) hymns to new tunes requires a little patience and some teaching.  Often times, musicians and choirs are playing and singing for the church in their memories and not the church currently in their pews. (This is not to suggest that we sing only what our congregants know.  I am a strong believer in congregations being musically literate in the music of the church across periods and genres.  However, I am nota proponent of singing only one genre of music. With respect to music and musical genres of any local church or a church musician, my late pastor, Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Tyler-Lloyd, once said to one of his young ministers, “A steady diet of anything is not good for people.”)

A second solution is to sing new hymns to old tunes.  There are two significant advantages to this.  When a melody is familiar to a person or congregation, people are not challenged to get both the words and the notes right when singing.  A familiar tune allows people to enter into the words and meaning of a hymn more quickly because the learning is carried by a tune that is familiar (and often times cherished).  Another advantage is that new hymns give the church new, fresh language to express new contexts, to address current concerns, and to articulate a crisper and more robust theology.  

These first two solutions involve both content (hymn text) and form (traditional hymn tune or contemporary musical setting).  The third and final recommendation regards form.  Some congregations and parishes are beginning (or continuing) to ask whether they should use hymnals orscreens.  Again, binary thinking.  There are some practical reasons to choose one over another.  However, if one does not have to choose and the environment can accommodate them, books andscreens are an excellent example of “serving this present age” while “stay(ing) true to our tradition” of hymn texts.

From a practical standpoint, screens are a wonderful compliment to the hymnbook.  Screens can serve congregations and parishes where there are not enough hymnals for those gathered and where budgets cannot afford additional hymnals or a set of new hymnals for an entire congregation; in this way, screens can be economical and efficient.  Screens allow the entire congregation to sing regardless of an individual’s access to the physical hymnal.  For congregations with budgetary constraints, sometimes screen projection is the more fiscally prudent option for congregational singing.  Beyond the purchase of the technical equipment to facilitate projecting the words on the screen and the electricity to run it, there are no material or production costs to have congregations and parishes singing. There are no hymnals to purchase (except for the musicians) and the music is not printed on paper (either a copy of the actual sheet music or text only).  For congregations with budgetary constraints, this can be an economical option to facilitate the corporate singing of good theological music.

From a current contextualization standpoint, young(er) people are people of the tablet and phone, not the physical book.   My worship colleague at Columbia Theological Seminary, Dr. Rebecca Spurrier, provided a great insight to young(er) worshipers.  She said, “Many young people feel constrained by [hymn] books.  They hold them awkwardly, and they feel that they are constraining in worship.”  Once she said it, it seemed so obvious.  Many young(er) people have onlyknown a world with screens on smart phones and tablets.  And I have observed young(er) people in worship with screens. They sing and move freely, often in very embodied and engaging ways.  And, even in the midst of a gaggle of young(er) people, there will be a few who will still sing from the book… because they want to read the notes andthe words… because they are musicians and singers who happen not to be leading that day but still want to fully engage all of their gifts and training in offering their voices in praise to God.  Additionally, hymnals allow us to expose and teach music to young people. Sometimes a child’s first introduction to printed music is through a hymnal.

My greatest appreciation of books andscreens is from a pastoral standpoint.  I am becoming increasingly aware of people who cannot or do not participate in worship because its execution is weighted in a particular way.  What I mean is that sometimes worship is very “word” heavy.  Sometimes there are a lot of words in worship.  We pray.  Words. We sing.  Words.  We read Scripture.  Words. We preach.  Words.  Words. Words.  Words.  And often those words are usually printed in a particular font size that is not kind or friendly to non-20/20 or non-youthful eyes.  Sometimes people need visually larger words, and screens are a great way for individuals with less than perfect vision to still participate in the words of worship without shame or embarrassment.  (We also need to consider the multiple way that people learn and communicate with respect to screen usage in worship, but that is a discussion for another blog.)

While I appreciate anyone finding value in hymnbooks andscreens, just because you have the money for screens does not mean that you should now purchase screens and put them up all over the sanctuary.  Again, screens are a wonderful worship aid if your environment can accommodate them…structurally and aesthetically.  Structurally, the walls have to be able to support the weight of screens (which is practically a non-issue because they are quite light these days) and well positioned, close enough to outlets without posing accident risks to people.   This is fairly straightforward and objective to assess and determine. Aesthetically, screens should not be an eyesore or a distraction from the acts of worship.  This is less straightforward, subjective and quite debatable.  We do not all share the same sense of what is aesthetic, what is a visual intrusion, and what is visually innocuous.  Pastors and worship ministry leaders may want to be in conversation with other ministry partners (people who serve in the buildings ministry or architects) to consider the aesthetically and architecturally best places for screen placement.  

It is actually not as difficult as it may feel to have music that spiritually and theologically engages and grounds multiple generations in a church, especially the younger generation. We must remember that worship is informative, formative, and transformative.  People are always learning something in worship, whether we intend it or not.  However, we are called to be intentional in our planning and execution of worship.  If we are willing to abandon the default of binary thinking (either X or Y) and if we are willing to let go of our preferences for the good of those we serve, we may find that “to serve this present age,” at least through music, can be a generative and enriching experience for everyone.  May we “engage all our powers” to do so.

P.S.  Pastors and worship ministry leaders, be sure that you have a license (either with CCLI or OneLicense.net) to reprint/reproduce music (whether it is reprinted/reproduced on paper or a screen).  This information should appear on all reprinted music (on paper and on screen).  In this, too, we model good Christian practice.

One comment

  1. This is a wonderfully informative, engaging and thought-provoking blog. I agree; our binary ways of thinking can greatly interfere with the work we are called to do through and in the midst of worship. Thank you, Dr. Weaver!

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