When you grow up in church, you tend to take things for granted, and don’t pay as close attention as you should. At least that’s how it was for me growing up in the Bible belt south. Church is routine, and depending on how life is outside the church house, it can be so routine that it doesn’t mean so much – it’s just a box to check off on your moralist checklist.
For the first 19 years of my life, I went to 4 different churches (5 if you count the few months I went to a Catholic church, but it was a technicality, and I had no intention of converting), and in those churches the service order was practically identical, and they each sang pretty much all the same hymns with the primary (if not only) accompaniment a piano. Good old southern 4-part harmony gospel with a definite country-western bent (like a Gaither Reunion only faster).
Then 20 years later, I discovered different sub-genres within Christian music just like secular music, and the churches we attended were singing these songs. Then we found a church home that sang both contemporary songs and traditional* hymns. I joined the choir and played guitar along with the music leader. Then he resigned and I became one of the worship leaders, which was not in any way a goal of mine. But because of this, I have a much different perspective on the songs we sing both from things I hear (whether direct or second hand) that people say, and from how I hear them singing along with us. But I also had my own bias to contend with.
The old saying “familiarity breeds contempt” was totally applicable to my attitude towards the “old” hymns. While a few I like because they were upbeat, I found them mostly old-fashioned and boring, and just went through the motions of singing them. Oh, sure, Amazing Grace would make me cry, but I always associated it with funerals so it was always a grieving song to me.
Then one morning, we sang a song called “Lord Have Mercy.” We had done the song before, but this was my first time leading it. (Note: this is not the arrangement we sing, but it was the only version I could find on YouTube, and it is the same song.)
I barely made it through the last verse and ending, and I remember thinking “I need to compose myself before the next song,” and when I turned to Josh to tell him to give me a minute, I guess he saw it before I had to speak, and spoke for a couple minutes while I stopped myself from sobbing. It was the first time a song had affected me like that, and would not be the last. I’ve had it happen again off and on, mostly during contemporary songs which reinforced my hymn bias.
But then it happened during a hymn that wasn’t Amazing Grace.
I grew up singing that song, and for the first time, of course while up in front of the congregation, I actually paid attention to the words I was singing, and nearly lost it. Oh, I had it coming because not long after having to step up into a music leadership position (albeit a shared one in which I still don’t want the lead position), I was aggravated over grumbling about the contemporary music. It wouldn’t have bothered me so bad if the person grumbling was singing the hymns with “gusto” (for lack of a better word), but there was no visible passion watching that person sing any of the hymns. As I told the pastor, I am not looking for a “holy roller, dance in the aisles” type of display, but that people would sing the songs like they mean it – like we are standing before the Lord singing to him. That’s when I determined that it would start with me, and that I would sing the hymns with all the energy I was pouring into the contemporary. It was reinforced when I read Singing to Build Up. That’s why Pass Me Not got me.
The worship wars aren’t specific to a particular church or even denomination. I think that as a body, we have slid towards relying on a particular musical style or accompaniment to motivate us to worship instead of relying on what God has done for us through Jesus on the cross to motivate us to worship. I just can’t help but think if we truly have hearts centered on what Christ has done for us, it would not matter what kind of song we sing, what accompaniment we have (or even if we have any at all), or whether or not we have sheet music or a power point slide on a screen. I came to that conclusion after reading Song Story: Matt Redman’s “The Heart of Worship”, and taking an inventory of my own heart and how I was approaching the worship service.
As I hear of further grumblings from the other side of the worship war, there is only one conclusion I can come to as to why there is so much active conflict and strife over music. Idolatry. Yes, that is harsh, but when you are dissatisfied with the music in your church, you are making music the object of your worship instead of the means of worship. Ask the members of underground churches in countries where being openly a Christian results in torture if not death if they need a praise band with the talent of Hillsong. Ask them if they need sheet music. Worship wars are a self-centered 1st world problem, but it is really a problem of the heart focused on the wrong object to worship.
*By traditional, I mean songs in a hymn book, which in the churches I have been in are relatively modern (reformation-era) with the oldest being written by Martin Luther.