Friday, August 31, 2007

Music Matters: My Two Churches

I mentioned in my last blog that I am the pastor of two (or more) very distinct churches that meet together in the same place. That is not an accusation, it is an observation. In reality, most churches over about 100 people have churches within the church – smaller fellowship groups. It is impossible to have a close bond with everyone in a church of any size. But at Southern Hills, the distinction is more pronounced, more drastic. They work together pretty well, most of the time, sharing a building, a budget, a church staff and a lot of good Christian fellowship. But they are two distinct bodies with distinct viewpoints.

This was brought into focus for me several months ago after an incident in our second service. A young man visited our church for the first time. He sat several pews behind me, wearing a baseball cap. One of our ushers, a strict traditionalist, came over to him and told him that he would have to remove the hat or leave the church. Of course, he left the church.

I saw none of this; it all took place behind me. When I heard about it several days later, I was sick. My sermon that day had emphasized the gospel of Jesus Christ very clearly. Here was a young man who came to church for the first time. We don’t know if he was saved or lost. I just knew he was not coming back to our church again. We lost a chance to minister to him because he was wearing a hat.

Then, I took this to a leadership group in our church to try to figure out what we could do to make sure it never happened again. I was shocked that several of the men in the group sympathized with the usher. The thought of a young man wearing a hat in church was horrifying to them. To them, it was better that he not be allowed to hear the gospel than that he hear the gospel while wearing a hat.

That is when I realized that I had left Kansas and landed in Oz; I now pastored a “church-within-a-church” that had a value system very different from my own.

My Traditional Church

That church is the traditional church at Southern Hills. It is the church that I grew up in, the style I experienced all of my life. It is the Baptist church of the 1950’s and early 60’s, my father’s Baptist church.

There are several distinctives of the traditional church. Their core belief is that the church of the 1950’s and 60’s is the closest representation of the early church that we have known. The standard for what is right and good in a church is how things were done back then. In the 50’s, the people were more righteous, the preaching was more biblical, the music was more worshipful, and the graded Sunday School was life-altering. Everything was better in the past.

Because they believe this, they view all the changes in the contemporary church as negative. In one of the Narnia books, a character says, “I have seen progress in an egg. We call it ‘going bad.’” To the traditionalist, change is always for the worse and anything new has been watered-down, cheapened or ruined.

So, the traditionalist believes that the best way we can honor God is to keep things as they used to be. We must only sing the songs the songs that we have always sung. We must only do the things we have always done. We must preserve the church of our youth, the church of yesterday.

What are those things that distinguish a traditionalist? First and foremost, they prefer the traditional worship style of the 1950’s. That means that the church sings hymns out of the hymnal, accompanied by a piano and organ, with a guy in a suit waving his arms to the beat. I don’t think it is required to sing the “first, second and last” verse of every hymn, but it is a step in the right direction.

The traditionalist believes that formal dress is necessary to show respect in worship. They expect pastors to wear a suit and tie. Others should dress nicely, respectfully when they enter the “house of God.” A young man wearing a hat in church is considered an affront against the holiness of God.

If you sense a note of levity in my tone, it is because I do not understand some of the things the strict traditionalists are passionate about. But I know that they believe that the preservation of the church of the past is necessary for the preservation of the kingdom.

On a higher note, the traditionalists I know love biblical, doctrinal, passionate expository preaching the Word of God. They are not likely to complain about longer sermons as long as they teach the things of the Word of God. They are grounded in the Word and know why they believe what they believe. They want to do things the biblical way, even if sometimes they confuse the biblical way with the way things were done 50 years ago.

Traditionalists are usually loyal and faithful. Look at the hardest working, most faithful, most diligent servants in your church. Chances are good that they are traditionalists.

These folks have not drifted with the tide of moral decay in our land and so they are strong in their moral stands on issues of the day. They do not compromise the truths of God to get along with the ways of the world. They are willing to stand outside the mainstream to stay faithful to what they believe the Word teaches. They can lean toward the rigid and legalistic on issues, but they are always willing to take a stand.

There are two types of traditionalists in my church. First, there is the strict traditionalist. He believes that any change to the church of yesterday is an abomination to God. We please God by singing the older songs, running our churches the older way, preaching the older style (from the King James Version), dressing in older fashions and refusing to change with the culture. He tends to view all change as compromise with the world. To him, contemporary worship is not worship at all; it is entertainment that dishonors God and disrupts worship. He talks wistfully of the way things used to be and believes that the church can only go forward by going back to the way we did things in the good ol’ days.

The moderate traditionalist prefers older music and more conservative methods, but does not imbue them with moral or spiritual superiority. He likes hymns, but he does not believe that new music is an abomination. He dresses nice for church, but doesn’t care what someone else wears.

At Southern Hills, we have a lot of moderate traditionalists. They prefer the traditional church style and like our second service, but do not condemn those who like a contemporary style. We have a small group of strict traditionalists who are very passionate about resisting change in the church.

My Contemporary Church

At Southern Hills, our contemporary service is almost half-again as big as our traditional service. We are mildly contemporary in comparison to most contemporary services. But we are led by a keyboard player and praise team, accompanied by drums and guitars. We sing new hymns and choruses. The words are up on the screen and no one cracks a hymnal. We are not a “shorts and sandals” type of church, but you are far more likely to see blue jeans and t-shirts than a tie or coat in our contemporary worship. Half the people, it seems, bring a water bottle with them into the sanctuary. I am surprised, from the length of my sermons, that they do not bring popcorn.

As with the traditionalists, there are several distinctives that mark those who prefer contemporary style in worship.

First, they believe that the many of the rules and traditions of the church of the 1950’s were not based on the Bible, but on legalistic, even pharisaical traditions. The Bible doesn’t tell us to wear tie and coat, or that hats are wrong. The Bible doesn’t tell us that all music has to be old music, or that drums and guitars are wrong.

American culture has changed dramatically since the 50’s, and if the church is to continue to be relevant, we must change as well. Newer music speaks to the hearts of modern people better than organ music. Using newer styles and methods will provide a better worship experience for 21st Century Christians and help attract people to the church.

Contemporary worship is often casual as well. A man in my church told me of visiting a church where the preacher wore blue jeans with holes in them, sandals and a t-shirt to preach. If I can come to Jesus, “Just as I am” why can I not come to church as I am? They see the dress code of the traditionalist church as another extra-biblical legalistic rule. God is more concerned with the purity of our hearts than the clothing we wear.

The contemporary church can be dismissive of traditionalists and their traditions, often throwing the good out with the bad. They see the emphasis on externals by the traditionalist as indication of an empty heart, devoid of passion; a pharisaical outlook.

Those who support contemporary worship believe that rigidity of the traditionalists will drive people from the church. If we want to grow, we must focus on what is biblical, not what is traditional, they would say.

As with the traditional church, there is a range of beliefs in this group. Some are passionately committed to newer styles of worship and want nothing to do with the old hymns. For others, it is more of a mild preference.

Three Truths

As I look at these two sub-churches within my congregation, I am convinced of three things. First, both of these groups believe the Bible and want to proclaim the gospel. This is not a matter of one group loving Jesus and the other not. Both of these groups are filled with blood-bought, Bible-loving, gospel-preaching, Jesus-loving folks.

Second, both of these groups believe that their preference of worship style is best for honoring God and promoting the work of the church. It is not that one group wants the church to grow and the other does not. They are both committed to the advancement of the kingdom through the growth of the church.

That leads me to my third point. These two groups are very difficult to bring together. I sat in the living room of a man who has asked to have his name removed from our membership roles. He does not want to be part of a church that will hold a contemporary worship service. It is not enough that we have a traditional service. We must have no other kind.

Many churches have tried a blended service, and that is probably the best compromise most can reach. However, these services tend to leave everyone a little dissatisfied. The strong traditionalist doesn’t want a blended service. He wants hymns and nothing else. Those who want contemporary worship usually find traditional worship to be unfulfilling and inferior.

It is a daunting task to consider bringing these two churches together into one church. The ultimate question is whether it is worth it to even try.

Next time, we will look at Ephesians 5:19 and begin a study of what the Bible says about music.

1 comment: said...

This is a fantastic post. I was raised in a VERY traditional church and now attend one of those seeker-sensitive churches everyone loves to hate.

I think you have done an outstanding job describing the groups involved in this post.

i'll be praying for your recovery from west nile.