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Hymns in contemporary worship?

Yes, but first let’s define “contemporary” as it apples to musical style. I use it to include any “popular” style that has a viable…

…any popular style that has a viable audience (radio stations, a bin at chain electronic stores, etc.). That includes country to jazz, classic rock to Latin, or rap to gospel. “Contemporary Christian” appears more limited than that.

The music here makes no attempt to directly imitate what is heard on Christian radio stations. That market is saturated, and the music is mostly uninteresting to me. Volumes have been written about the shallowness of the theology expressed in the lyrics; there are way too many “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs and 7-11 songs (seven words repeated eleven times). Since contemporary Christian is a relatively new genre, weak examples are to be expected. There have been a lot of bad hymns written over the centuries, too. Through time, most of the chaff does get sifted.

As an arranger, I am as disturbed by the one-dimensional, trite music (notes, rhythms, sounds) I hear played in churches calling themselves contemporary as I am by the lyrics. So much of the music has an extremely limited harmonic vocabulary, little rhythmic variety or imagination, and a restricted palette of timbres (2 guitars, bass, and drums – there are other instruments). Those are content issues that can be applied to any style.

Two guys from Florida, Greg and Warren, visited this site at different times and emailed to express how bad they think the arrangements are. So I went to their church websites to investigate. Both sites and churches appear very hip, very contemporary, very seeker-friendly – progressive in every way. And there were audio clips of the praise team Greg directs. The clips all fit the description above.  A national worship leader conference I attended featured a “worship concert” every night with several of the current big-name performers and the music was much like that done at Greg’s church. It is all so limiting to what music can be and, by reflection, limiting to what God can be.

Since Greg and Warren didn’t provide support for their opinions, I’m left to speculate as to why they don’t appreciate what’s here. I assume those clips from Greg’s church represent, to some degree, the depth and breadth of his musical experience and understanding. If that’s true, it’s probable he’d have difficulty grasping music with a mature harmonic vocabulary and rhythmic variety.  Just as I’m unable to grasp the meaning of a German play because I don’t speak or understand German. But that doesn’t make German plays “bad.”

I have no problem with people using what works for them. Folks should find different musical tools useful for their own reasons, but there is no cause for anyone to be disparaging of those who find something else useful or inspiring. Contemporaries accuse traditionalists of music and style bigotry but they are often guilty, too.

That conference I attended billed itself as the place for all worship professionals to be enlightened and renewed. It was advertised as inclusive but it was actually a very exclusive gathering focusing on a narrow, limited approach to worship and worship music. It was representative of the way many contemporary churches have become exclusive places. Exclusivity can be revealed in many ways (architecture, music style, clothes), but exclusive always means that something has been rejected. When conferences or churches reject worship or music styles, people are being excluded.

By staying within the narrow parameters of contemporary Christian music, some of our most vibrant churches put up walls against worshippers who might know other inspiration. A church can’t call itself welcoming or inclusive if it only embraces and serves those who share its taste in music. And it can’t hide behind, “We all have our niches.” Do we suppose the Holy Spirit distributes gifts or interests according to our marketing plans?

The point: One would think that the contemporaries would be more open and accepting of diversity than the traditionalists since the contemporaries originated, in large part, as a rebellion against the exclusivity and narrowness of the traditionalists. Trust me; there are plenty of contemporaries out there who are every bit as snobbish, closed, and judgmental as the worst of the traditionalists.

Conclusion and answer: So will this music fit in contemporary services? It certainly can. A purpose for these arrangements is to provide a means to introduce the great songs from our Christian heritage to worshippers who are turned off by the traditional style of those songs. If you, your worship team, and your congregation have an appetite for useable hymns in contemporary styles with an evolved harmonic vocabulary and rhythmic imagination, you might find something useful here. If you want hymns that sound just like the music you hear on contemporary Christian radio stations, you should look elsewhere.