The War over Music


By Stephen Terry




“Point your kids in the right direction—when they're old they won't be lost.Proverbs 22:6, MSG


Today many churches that should be places of rest and retreat are instead battlefields. No issue is more contentious on that battlefield than the issue of music, often euphemized as “worship style.”


On one side are those who prefer to limit worship music to that which has been preserved in the church hymnal. Usually the songs in a church hymnal have been selected by committee to avoid causing offense to anyone while offering an uplifting message and melody.  Whether as a more refined form of worship or simply a paean to arthritic bones, singing from the hymnal usually means that the most physical activity involved is to stand once in a while when singing.


Complaints from this faction tend to be that music with more beat and enthusiasm is too much like the world’s music. They cite endless repetition of phrases, too much emotion and moving around. They go into tortured explanations of how this beat or that rhythm is from the Devil. The Bible says nothing about these issues, but that does not stop these saints from mustering their arguments. Convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they will rise up and walk out during a church service that is not in accord with their wishes, and then gossip with others of like mind about how “ungodly” the service was.


On the other side are those, often young, who look at the Bible’s account of David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant as well as the many references to singing, dancing, and musical instruments and ask themselves, “Why not?”  They do not understand how those who are moved by the Spirit can simply sit and sing from a hymnal. They feel that the joy and power of the Holy Spirit moving upon the heart will naturally bring a person to their feet in exuberant and joyful praise for their Creator. They feel that those who are against such charismatic worship are trying to block the work of the Holy Spirit. When prohibited from sharing their joy, they often “vote with their feet” and leave the congregation to start congregations of their own where they are free to pour out their hearts to God in an open and expressive way.


Some congregations try to appease both groups. They try to include elements of both styles of worship in their services. This simply means both groups are unhappy and may express it by refusing physical participation in the portion of the service they disagree with. Unable to find harmony with this approach, some churches have gone to holding separate services: one that is contemporary and charismatic and one that is from the hymnal and sedate. If neither of these approaches allows the groups to live in peace with one another, then the result is that one faction or the other leaves the congregation to start their own church based on the image of worship they hold dear.


This war over music crosses denominational lines and can be found to some degree in almost all churches.  I first witnessed it in the 1970’s when a Catholic Church in Walla Walla, Washington decided to resolve the issue by offering a more contemporary “guitar mass” on Saturday evenings for those who wanted a more charismatic experience than the traditional Sunday mass. More recently, I saw the struggle illustrated on a sign board for a local Baptist Church that advertised that they now had two services: one at the regular Sunday time from the hymnal, and one in the evening for contemporary worshippers.


So why is this warfare taking place? Doesn’t the Bible say, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35, NIV Some act as though their love for God supersedes their love for their fellow man in this matter, but the Bible says differently. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” 1 John 4:20-21, NIV

As the verbal and musical salvoes are fired back and forth perhaps we can take a time out to see that the problem causing the disunity is of our own making. Did the forces of “the world” co-opt our young people? Hardly. Did the older congregants lose their experience of praise and thanksgiving toward God? Probably not. How then did we get to such an impasse over music? Just like most things, it did not happen over night. The seeds of our present harvest have been sown over many years and are in some ways cultural in North America and perhaps elsewhere.

We live in a culture where many no longer involve themselves in the continuing care of our young. We rely on schools, churches and television for much of our children’s upbringing. Gone are the days when fathers took their boys fishing and camping, and mothers took their daughters under their wing in the kitchen to teach them cooking. Now, children rise up in the morning with one or even both parents already gone to work. They watch the Disney Channel on TV while eating a cold breakfast and then rush off to school. For several hours, school takes care of the childcare and hopefully accomplishes some education as well. Morality is not as high on the agenda as math, science and geography. It is best left to the churches on the weekends. Of course that begs the question of where children get it who don’t attend church.

After school the children often return home to an empty house until their parents get off work. Some children may have school work to do and may be disciplined enough to complete it during the afternoon, but for many it means more time with television. When the parents arrive home, they are often exhausted and pizza, fast food or micro-waved meals become the foods of choice with each family member retreating to their rooms and computers or video game consoles. If the children are lucky, the parents will spend some time with them before bed nurturing them and communicating about their days. The next day the cycle repeats.

On the weekend, if the family attends church, the children are involved in weekly classes where they hear Bible stories and sing songs. Here is where a disconnect starts to happen. While attending school during the week they are expected to remain in their seats and be attentive and quiet. However, in the classes at church they are expected to be active and sing. This will be the message they receive for almost two decades in the church.

Beginning with active songs with accompanying body and hand movements like “This Little Light of Mine,” and “I’m Too Young to March in the Infantry” they progress through other songs like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” until they are old enough to use the youth song books. An example would be “He is Our Song” published by Review and Herald Publishing in 1988. There they find songs like “The Coloring Song” made famous by the Christian Rock Band “Petra” on their “Never Say Die” album, “Hey, Mon” written by Christian drummer and guitarist, Danny Taylor, or “Friends” written by Michael W Smith, a Billboard magazine top ten Christian pop and rock artist.

Whether you feel that this musical repertoire is good or bad is not the point I am making here. Don’t assume that because I list these songs that I am either for or against them. The point is that these are the experiences of the children and youth for about two decades as they grow up in the church. The same “laissez faire” attitude about child rearing that takes place during the week probably means that most adults don’t even know what their children are experiencing in church. They shuffle them off to their various classes with little thought about what takes place there. They reason “After all, it’s the church. I can trust them to do whatever is right.”

Why, then, are they surprised after such a long exposure to activity during worship and contemporary Christian music when their children, now young adults, want to continue the experience they have been taught? As the verse at the top of the page suggests, when you train a child a certain way, why would you expect a different result? If you want the children to grow up to be sedate pew sitters then why wait until after training them for twenty years to be something else? Recriminations about the youth bringing the world into the church are hypocritical. They are only doing as they have been taught.

The youth of today can rightly ask “If contemporary Christian music is so bad, why did you encourage us to enjoy it while we were growing up in the church?” The answer we give to that question will shape the future of the church. We can either love our children and accept that what they have learned has been handed them by us, or we can deny our involvement and alienate the coming generation.

It is time the church members accept what they have been teaching their children and embrace it. The time to make them into something different was back when they first entered the Sunday Schools and Sabbath Schools as children. Waiting until they are teenagers or young adults is wrong. For whatever reason, we decided to teach them as we have. We should not fight wars against our young people for what we decided they should learn. That would teach them another lesson. That would teach them that they should not be held accountable for decisions they make about their own children.  That would be a tragedy.





This Article is Provided by Still Waters Ministry



Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.


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