Limiting worship styles limits participation: Churches should mix best of old, new

One of my cherished childhood memories is arriving late to church one hot August Sunday. The windows were open wide and I was enthralled with the glorious sound of 400 people singing in four-part harmony without accompaniment. It was the grandest sound I had ever heard. The music was engrained in the culture and people learned to read music practically by osmosis.

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. Worship leaders use peoples’ inability to read music as an excuse to toss aside the hymnal and years of tradition, poetry and beauty. In its place we have “7-11” music (seven words, 11 times over) or “off-the-wall” music (words projected onto a screen). This has become the only music in many churches. While not necessarily bad music, it lacks complexity and musical interest; neither does it engage the intellect or the soul in a deep way.

What it does, primarily, is make the audience feel good. It’s easy, catchy and has a good beat. I give it an 85, Dick! Oh, wait! We’re in church, not on American Bandstand. But in today’s churches, what’s the difference?

Church has become entertainment over worship, and music is only one example. Several years ago my children attended vacation Bible school at our neighborhood church. The sanctuary contained an array of expensive toys for attendees to win, and the theme song for the week spoke of heaven as a place where we can play football. The music was so earsplitting I feared all the children would suffer hearing damage. I took my kids home after the pastor told me I didn’t know what I was talking about and said, “We’re just trying to praise God here.” I didn’t know God liked it loud.

The purpose of a Sunday service is to bring together the people of God, to welcome new people to God and to learn more about God through the study of Scripture and worship together.

Do Christian pop songs, worship bands and teams, big screens and lots of drama do that? Yes, if they truly bring the congregation closer to God. My experience, however, is that these gimmicks are more about converting worshippers into viewers and making them feel good. Flashy productions are familiar and repetitious music leads to trance-like well-being.

Lest you think I’m a music snob, the CD collection at my house includes The Beatles, U2, Miles Davis, Beethoven and even Webley Edwards’ music of Hawaii. My parents raised me to appreciate a wide variety of music and my father, in particular, was always aware of what was new in popular music. He passed that passion for music on to me.

Certainly we must reach people where they are—and most Americans are watching television—but when do we challenge them, not just to sing, but to participate in church: in worship, in service, in outreach? If only a small number of people, the qualified specialists, are up front every Sunday, then why shouldn’t the audience think it’s enough to attend, watch the show, maybe put money in the plate and call that being a disciple?

Some say reading music is too hard: If they think about the notes they miss the song. I think God desires and deserves the best we have to offer from the gifts He gave us, no matter how modest they may seem to us, and that includes developing each gift as best we can. God doesn’t favor one music or worship style over another, but He wants us to use our hearts, minds and souls. That’s biblical, you know.

When we limit our music and worship diet to one style, we lose perspective. Let’s not stay at the bottom of the food chain. People are writing good, new Christian music; let’s find it and let all styles pervade our churches! No one will like it 100 percent of the time, but we will reach everyone sooner or later. With more balance in our worship we will reach not only the heart, but also the mind and the soul. Then we will have participants in our pews. Then our worship will be complete.

Arlene Steffen teaches piano and directs the Women’s Chorale at Fresno Pacific University. She is also an accompanist, church musician and private piano teacher of more than 20 years experience who has held offices in local chapters of Music Teachers of Association of California and Music Teachers National Association.