Responding to the music wars.


Part One

Every church I visit is responding to the music wars. They have either been through the war, are in the middle of the war, or have decided not to participate in the war. Deciding not to participate is, in itself, a war.

There are basically five ways of dealing with the music wars:

  • Transitioning model
  • Blended model
  • Leave well-enough alone model
  • Start a new church model
  • Multi-congregation model

Transitioning model

The transitioning model assumes that if we move slowly enough, and skillfully enough, and with great enough people skills, that we can transition a people from liking one style of music to another style. I doubt this is the case.

It is true that change that occurs gradually is probably easier to deal with than change that occurs all at once. Still, I think a person's musical taste is more or less fixed. It is very difficult to change what a person really likes.

As I think about it, I wouldn't want someone to try to transition me. I think they would just irritate me and I doubt if they would change me very much. My musical taste has stayed pretty constant ever since I started liking to listen to music.

This model is not unlike what my college professors taught me 20 years ago. I was seeking a major in music, preparing to be a church musician at Wayland Baptist University. My professors consistently taught me that my job as a church musician was to, "raise the musical taste" of the people I served. Translated, this meant moving them from the popular music of the day--stuff like Bill Gaither--to more classical, high-church music. "Take them from where they are, but move them to a higher level." I wish I had a nickel for every time I was told that.

I remember once asking my voice professor to help me prepare for a solo I was doing at my home church. I had picked out the then-popular Bill Gaither song, "It Is Finished." I brought in the music for him to work with me on it. He took one look at the music and then looked me in the eye. "I am so disappointed in you, Josh. I thought we had taught you better." It still makes my eyes tear up thinking of that moment. I was so humiliated.

Anyway, these professors bought into the transitioning model, only they wanted to transition to a kind of classical, high-church style.

I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now. I don't think there is any particular value in changing a person's taste from one type of music to another, even if it is possible (which I doubt). I think God loves all kinds of music and the real point is to move people from where they are to connecting with God, regardless of the style of music.

It is a basic missionary principle to me. I grew up as a missionary's kid in the Philippines. One of the rules on the mission field is you use the stuff and style of a culture to reach that culture. You don't try to change their taste. You just work within their taste to connect them with God.

Here is the real problem with the transitioning model. Let's describe a thorough-going contemporary service as a "10" on a scale of one to 10. Let's call a traditional service a "1". By the time you transition from a 1 to a 3, generally speaking, you have thoroughly irritated the lovers of traditional music. This is problematic on several levels. Most important, you cease to serve people in connecting with God through worship that communicates with them. Beyond that, you irritate them, they get grumpy and life spirals downward. The fellowship and unity of the church is disrupted.

But, here is the real rub. You have to get to 7 or 8 on our scale to really hit pay-dirt with the people who love contemporary music. In other words, there is a huge gap between the kind of music that satisfies traditional music lovers and the music that satisfies contemporary music lovers.

Some people just opt to stay in that gap.

Blended model

The highest and best that a blended model can do is to keep everyone equally unhappy. Not so contemporary that the contemporary music lovers actually like it, but too contemporary so that the traditional lovers don't really like it either.

This raises and important question: what is contemporary music, anyway?

A lot of people think it has do with with singing choruses, versus hymns. This is a partial answer at best. Hymns, done in a certain way, can sound very contemporary. Choruses, done in a certain way, can sound very traditional. It is not so much the selection of music as the style of music.

Style is, of course, hard to describe in black and white, English language sentences. Not that it is hard to understand. You know it when you hear it. It is just hard to put down on paper.

Think about Youth Camp. I don't know if you have been to Youth Camp in a while, but I went with my kids a few years ago. Now, that is contemporary music. It is loud. The dominant instrument is the drums, followed by a wailing electric guitar. A lot of people don't know this, but they actually pay money for a box to plug those guitars into to make them sound that way...on purpose! It is called a distortion box. There is a clue. If a guitar played loudly with a distortion box fits in with the sound, it is a contemporary service.

Think about mixing that style with a beautiful and stately traditional service. We have the pipe organist play a beautiful prelude. The choir marches in and raises the roof with and beautiful call to worship: "Holy, Holy, Holy". Ok, that was nice, now, let's blend something in for the young people. Bring out the guitar and loud drums and let's do a thorough-going rendition of, "Trading My Sorrows." During the bridge, the guitar wails loudly on a big solo riff. Well, that certainly woke up the crowd. Now, let's do something for a different audience. Let's get a quartet out here and do a peppy, "I'll Fly Away."

What's wrong with this picture? By trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. If you do it really well, you can reach the high and holy calling of keeping everyone equally unhappy.

It is like a radio station playing classic, then rock, then country. They don't please everyone; they please no one. Imagine a good romantic comedy. Right in the middle, the producer throws in a few explosions to reach the guys. Some things just don't work together.

This raises an important point. I have described contemporary music in a certain way. Many are using the word contemporary when it is not contemporary at all. They just don't want to sound old fashioned so they say, "We use a contemporary or blended style." Sounds more respectable than saying we are just keeping on doing things the way we have always done them.  

Here is one more description. Get Michael W. Smith's Worship DVD. Play it really loud in your worship center. Music is not contemporary until it is loud. Contemporary music lovers love the verse that says, "Praise him with the cymbals, yes, loud clanging cymbals." Psalm 150:5 [Living] Imagine this scenario. Suppose you were to come to your Sunday morning crowd and explain to them that your Minister of Music got suddenly ill. You have decided to replace him, just for today, with Michael W. Smith. If you can imagine your people saying, "cool" you have a contemporary service. If you cannot imagine actually doing this, you don't.

Leave well-enough alone model

This is not an altogether bad approach. There is something to be said for figuring out what you do well, who you are and who you can reach and doing it well.

We need to remember that God does not have a preference in terms of style. When we speak of dealing with the worship wars, we don't mean to imply, "How can we get people over to the good music?" All music is good music. Well, not all music, but all styles. Except, maybe, country. Just kidding.

Still, this problem has a serious limitation. It comes back to the missionary perspective.

One tribe in the Philippines uses the Killington as its dominant. (No, this is not the Klingons.) It is a kind of bell that you play with a maillot. Now, ask any WMU lady this question: If you were seeking to reach Killington-loving people with the gospel, what instrument would you choose as the dominant instrument in the worship service? 100 out of 100 WMUers will get it right: Killingtons.  Ask the same group: What instrument do you use to reach 16-year-old-kids whose dominant instruments are the drums, electric guitar and electronic keyboard? Uh, choirs, pianos, and pipe organs?

This is not rocket science.

Most of the churches that are reaching young people are using the music of young people to do it.

And here is why I wrote this article: we are doing a terrible job of reaching young people.

The vast majority of people who come to faith in Christ do so before they leave their teenage years. Yet, only about 4% of teenagers have placed their faith in Christ. We have a crisis on our hands. We are loosing a generation of people.

You can read a 100 books on reaching youth, post-moderns and the younger generations. 90% of the value of those books comes down to one thing: get the music right. Rick Warren is right in saying that music defines who you will (and will not) reach more than any other single factor.

Some have disagreed as I have taught this. "I just don't think music makes that much difference. I just don't think it matters." I disagree. I disagree, but let's assume it is true. Let's assume that music doesn't matter. Say it out loud: music doesn't matter. Assume it is true.

If it is true that music doesn't matter, let's think about what this means. Who do you think we should defer to, biblically speaking, since musical style doesn't matter? Should we defer to 60 year old, mature, seasoned saints, or should we defer to 16 year old weaker brothers? According to the Bible, who should we defer to?

16 year olds.

So, since music doesn't matter, and we should defer not to the mature, but to the immature, then here is what I suggest. I suggest we remove the choir, organ and piano and replace them with drums, guitar, and electronic keyboard and a vocal band. Turn it up really loud and tell the electric guitarist to wail--don't hold back.

"No, no, no, we can't do that!"

"What do you mean we can't do that, I thought you said music doesn't matter?"

"Well, we can't do that!"

"Are you saying that music matters to your seasoned saints?"

"I suppose so."

It matters to young people as well. The difference is, young people will not show up at business meeting and cause a stink about the style of music in the worship service. They will just stay away.

And, these days, they are staying away in droves.

If we want to reach young people, use the stuff and the style of young people to do it.

And, let's be clear, I don't think you ought to replace the choir and organ with a band. I have already argued against the transitioning model. But there is another way.

I have ranted long enough, perhaps we should save that more excellent way for next week. I know I have been long on problems and short on solutions this week. Next week, we will get to solutions, I promise.