Tag Archives: Music

Letter 40: Adventures in Combined Worship

Like many churches, our church has gone to a summer schedule of only one service.  This has brought some challenges, as we seek to combine elements of both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service.  To my mind, the combined format has not worked very well.   While both services have their own flow and logic, as combined, the resulting service has a Frankenstein feel to it, with bits and pieces stuck together without much regard to how they function.

So, we start with two hymns, each sung singly, with a pause to move from one to the other, followed by a prayer, and then the worship set. The flow goes start-stop, start-stop, start, stop, then start, and continue on for the next fifteen to twenty minutes.  The rubric of the traditional service involves a series of discreet parts intentionally chosen (when done well), that are designed to focus and direct one’s mind.  The contemporary model seems to require broad bands of time, giving the Spirit room to work, chiefly on our spirit and emotions.

As we’ve worked with trying to combine the two styles, it has become clear to me that it is not the music necessarily, that separates the two.  Music is music, and one can perform it in virtually any manner imaginable, and I’ve seen hymns performed as worship songs, and worship songs sung as hymns.  Instead, the two styles have different flows and different foci that make it difficult to combine them, unless you wish to create something entirely different.

The traditional service has many individual components, which works to fulfill a checklist of sorts.  We come into God’s presence, express praise, worship, and awe.  We confess our sins, and offer up our prayers and petitions.  We then let God speak through His Word.  We may also partake of Him directly through His Supper.  We close in a statement of praise and purpose thence depart.  Each part is distinct, not unlike the singing, and few last long, except the sermon.

The contemporary service has far fewer parts, and most of them are of far longer duration.  It is unhurried, seeking, I think, to free the mind, and welcome the Spirit’s embrace.  It is intentionally unintentional from the standpoint of human thought and activity.  The discrete and rapid shifts of nearly every aspect of the traditional service jars with the contemporary worship experience.  Thus we are dropping the traditional hymn singing from the combined service, and we may not get to prayer.

The strength of the contemporary format is an openness to the workings of the Spirit (thought one is left in the lurch if the Spirit decides not to act).  The strength of the traditional format is a completeness in the range of worshipful activities offered, and the more conscious effort to ties the congregation together.  But the traditional approach can also be rote and stale.  How would a service that combines that openness to the Spirit with the fuller dialogue with God flow?

First, we are called to worship.  We hear God’s invitation to us, to turn out eyes and minds toward Him.  This is a communal act, and need not take much time.  Having drawn near, we engaged in praise and worship, and luxuriate in His presence.  Here, we can sing, dance, or remain in silence.  The challenge here is to draw everyone together.  The best way I can think of to accomplish this is to begin and end the set with strong congregational singing.

Following this, I know the hope is that people will spontaneously burst into prayer.  However, in my experience that tends to yield the same voices, often uttering the same prayers.  I think the prayer should be led and guided, making a point to address concerns of the congregation, hopefully submitted in advance, and other affairs of the moment, but also leaving space for people to pray as the Spirit leads.  Prayer is a time to speak to God in hope and faith, but also presenting our questions, fears, and doubts.  It comes from the time that we have spent in His presence.  Ideally, close with a few moments of silence, inviting God to speak to us individually.  This should then prepare us to hear God speak to us collectively through His Word preached.  Alternatively, one could place the corporate prayer after the message, placing it as a final response to God.

Close with one quick hymn or song, invite people up for further prayer if desired, and formally dismiss the congregation.  I did leave out a specific time for confession, something that has been a part of some traditional liturgies.  This can be incorporated into the time of prayer or the call to worship.

The time breakdown should probably run thirty minutes for worship, ten for prayer, thirty again for the message, and ten to close.  If one assumes a ninety minute block for the service, this breakdown leaves ten minutes as a cushion.  Obviously, if you have something like Communion or a baptism, everything needs to be shortened.

Part of the key to making this work and flow is to think about what each part is doing and how it relates to the whole of the service.  The Sunday worship should be a time for the people to come together before God, engage Him, and depart from thence into the world, renewed and reconnected.  Each part does its bit in that process, by drawing us in, uniting us, speaking to God, listening to God, finally going forth to do His will in the world. There should be movements and pauses as we make this journey.

That isn’t what my church doing, alas, but then I’m not sure they know what the various parts of a worship service are for, or that its significance is as a collective experience.  Something for you to add to your prayers for us.

Nov_ 29 combined


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Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

Our church has gone to only one service during the summer, and we are trying to combine elements of both services. This article does a good job of explaining the challenge we face in trying to combine musical styles.

A Question of Style Let us limit our discussion to congregational singing. Some concepts can be applied to choral singing as well. However, for the sake of brevity, we will ignore entirely the issues of solo and instrumental music.

Source: Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

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Letter 13: The Building Blocks of Worship

ImageHandlerWhat should we be seeking in worship? Outside of the proscribed sacrifices and festivals in the Old Testament, the Bible does not offer a comprehensive and normative statement of what should be in a worship service. Strangely, beyond the command to keep the Sabbath, there is no apparent obligation in the Old Testament to attend a weekly worship service. Formal worship was strictly centered on the Temple. Given the Sabbath travel restrictions, it is highly unlikely the people worshipped on a weekly basis as we do. We do have example of private prayers (Hannah, David, Daniel), and private altars, (Jacob, Gideon). From the accounts of the temple, we also know that there was music and choirs.

Turning to the New Testament, its authors seem to consciously steer away for any specific instructions on how we are to worship. Temple worship is abolished, so all of the sacrificial rules and regulations are no more. We do know that congregations sang and prayed. Words were spoken, as either teaching or prophecy (see I Cor. 14: 26ff). Given Christ’s teaching (Matt. 5:23), confession was expected, and these meetings were regular. Revelation envisions worship in heaven as including prayer, singing, and offering of praise to God.

This leaves the question of Communion. Christ clearly commanded it, but how often are we to receive it? Weekly? Monthly? Quarterly? Since Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension are the core of the Christian message, I believe it should be a part of the weekly service. Communion forms a visible and tangible representation of the message, and serves as bond of unity within the body, as we all partake, at the same time. Paul offers some specific guidance on how we are to partake of it (I Cor 1:17ff)), which again highlights its importance and centrality to Christian worship. Here again, Paul makes mention of the need for self-examination and confession, as a prerequisite for partaking.

So we have some sense of the basic ingredients of worship: Prayer, Praise, Song, Teaching, Confession, and Communion. How might these flow? Some of this is dependent on what we take to be the apex of worship. We know that the basic models suggest: Communion, Sermon, or Experience. I am not sure any of these are entirely adequate. The worship model depends too much on the state of mind or soul of the congregant. If I do not reach the desired state of worship, I do not really participate in the service, and thus the service fails. In the traditional Protestant model, if the minister mishandles Scripture, again, the service fails, or worse, commits blasphemy. The catholic model offers the advantage of offering every worshipper something that is not limited by any of the participants. But is that satisfactory for the focus of the entire service? I will consider that question next.

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Letter 10: Where Have All the Worship Songs Gone?


He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Matthew 13:52 (NIV)

This past Sunday, due to a shortage of musicians, we sang mostly older worship songs in the praise and worship service at church. Many were songs we had not sung in two years. People quickly joined in the singing. There was a sweet spirit in the air, and it set me to asking, “Where have all the worship songs gone?”

I can guess, literally, what has happened to many of them. They lie in a box in a storage closet somewhere moldering. Just a pile of old overheads that will eventually be thrown out whenever the church goes through a spring cleaning.

I did find it very strange though, that we are unlikely to sing older worship songs. I asked my wife, who was one of the musicians that day, about it. She explained that many songs have a dated feel to them that simply don’t fit with the rest of the worship set. It may also be that certain songs require a certain set of instruments to perform, and as time passes, the church may not have the requisite musicians to perform that piece.

But I countered, we do just that with the hymn service, which she also plays for. We play old songs. We play nothing but old songs, really, and we will mix various hymns of different styles: old Reformation chorales, Wesley hymns, Victorian sentimentalities, and turn of the century revival songs. Somehow that works. Why not with worship songs?

Every hymnal is the result of a centuries long editing process. Each hymnal is a bit like amber, freezing in time the thoughts and sentiments of whatever body produced them. But across the spectrum of hymnals at least a third of the songs would be the same songs. Roughly another third represent the particular tradition of the publisher: Psalms in a Presbyterian hymnal, the works of Charles Wesley in a Methodist hymnal, a sampling of house writers and composers in a hymnal produced by a publishing company, etc.

The remaining third represents newer songs, perhaps carried over from a prior edition because somebody liked it, and hopes enough people like it going forward to move it to one of the other two categories going forward, or brand new inclusions. Most of these aim to be “contemporary” expressions, focusing on particular issues of the age. For that very reason, they tend to be the most dated. But there are a handful of these that live to future editions, and may yet join the ranks of the perennials.

My concern is that the practice of worship music does not allow that process to continue. The perennial hymns remain because they struck a chord with the congregations that originally sang them, and they saw fit to pass them down to succeeding generations that found similar value in them. But they achieved this status only by virtue of repetition. We do not repeat worship tunes long enough for them to pass on to posterity.

In this, our practice seems to follow the world. A song enters the stream of music for play. It catches on, and gets played more frequently. If its popularity grows further still it will be played still more frequently. Should it enter the blessed ranks of the top 10, it will become inescapable over the airwaves. Make it to the top two, and you may well hear it twice within the hour. But then a funny thing happens. Having ascended the greasy pole of popular tastes, a song’s decline will be rapid indeed. Within weeks, it is hardly, if ever, heard. It may make a brief reappearance at year’s end or on an awards show. Then it is heard no more.

Why? In the case of Top 40, the need for novelty, and the ever changing tastes of the teenaged ear explain much. But why are we so fickle when it comes to worship? We are supposedly worshipping an eternal God (“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever.” Heb. 13:8). Why wouldn’t we try to convey something of that eternity in our worship?

A worship service can fill many functions. In it, we teach about God, and what He expects of us. We explain something of the Christian life. We are encouraged, chastised, and renewed. We direct our worship toward God, and remember the elemental truths of our faith.

In the Apostle’s Creed, we state that we believe in “the communion of saints.” We speak of it as if it were a present reality. But what is that communion? This side of heaven, I believe this works out to a sort of conversation across time, as we commingle the old words and songs with the new. To do that, we occasionally need to sing some songs we haven’t sung in some time.

So, if I may from this remote vantage, suggest to worship leaders that they dig out those old boxes of overheads and troll them for selections for the coming week’s service. You will be doing the Church Universal a favor, and in a small way, be fulfilling the will of God in helping to leave generations yet unborn some new timeless masterpiece.


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