FACING THE MUSIC
“Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.”
There is much talk and even argument in the modern church about the relative values of contemporary and traditional Christian music. As a minister who is heavily involved in both music and the teaching of the Word, I thought it might be good to add my "two cents worth."
First of all, let me say that I am personally familiar with a wide range of musical styles. I play a little jazz. I strum and pick a guitar on a pretty regular basis. Through the years I have conducted a wide range of choral and instrumental compositions from all style periods. I have sung traditional Christian hymns from my childhood. When I married into Vicki's family I was exposed to Southern Gospel music. Later I was introduced to "Scripture songs" (new settings of the Psalms and other Scripture to contemporary melodies) and praise choruses. Within each particular style group I discovered inspiring messages of biblical truth, faith, and encouragement. I also found songs with particularly beautiful melodies and interesting harmonic progressions. Sadly, I also found many songs in every style group that, even though they might have catchy tunes, fail to express true biblical doctrine. There are others whose message is wonderful, but whose melodies plod and bore and whose harmonies are bland and trite. In short, there is music of great inspiration and exquisite quality, and music of little artistic or spiritual value in every style. So, in my opinion, what the church needs to be looking for is not a particular style but a favorable and expressive combination of word and music.
For some, nothing is acceptable unless it is contemporary. Let’s think, for a moment, about the term, contemporary. The word itself has some inherent problems: first, it is not a very precise term and second, it is used to describe both a musical style and a worship style. Contemporary simply means "of a time." Ludwig Beethoven and Thomas Jefferson were contemporaries. When Jefferson listened to "contemporary music" he listened to music of Beethoven and composers of his era. For us, "contemporary music" is music written during our lifetimes. All of today’s composers--good and bad--are contemporary composers.
It is interesting to me as a student of music that composers have always tended to write sacred and secular music with no distinction as to style. Unless there is a text, it is not possible, in a historical sense, to distinguish between music of the world and music of the church. J.S. Bach, for example, believed that all music was a gift of God and reflected His divine glory and majesty. He put the initials SDG, standing for Soli deo gloria (to God alone be glory) on all of his manuscripts, sacred and secular. G.F. Handel wrote the orchestral portions "Messiah" and "The Water Music" (music for a royal party) in the exact same style!
I recently read an article where modern Christian musicians were called "barbarians at the musical gates of the church." If we applied that author's foolish standard to historical church music and musicians, we would have to include J.S. Bach, Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley in our list of barbarians along with Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Brenton Brown, and the like. In the course of their musical ministry they have all introduced new, fresh, and Christ honoring music styles to the worshipping church.
Traditional songs of faith have a special place in our worship and in our memories. They can teach us truth, build our faith and give us a means to express our love for God and the joy of our salvation. And we must take care that they are not forgotten. At the same time, we must be mindful of the many Biblical passages that speak of "singing a new song." (See Ps. 33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1; Isa. 42:10; Rev. 5:9). We are not to dwell on the past. We serve a God of the present who is even now doing a "new thing" in our midst.
Pastor Keith Andrews