Music matters to people, and theologically rich music is one of the greatest legacies of the church. The type of music we use also matters. It should challenge and encourage the saints while also providing a clear, powerful witness as to the truths and joy of the gospel.
One of the trickiest routes to navigate in the church is that of worship styles. There’s a very real and saddening reason why the term “Worship Wars” has been coined in American church vernacular. Churches have torn themselves apart and pastors have seen their ministries crumble in the wake of trying to change the style of music utilized in corporate worship.
Over my time at Slidell’s First Baptist Church, our style of music has changed considerably from hymns accompanied by a piano and organ to contemporary hymns and praise songs backed by piano, guitar, and drums. The transition wasn’t always easy, but it has been and continues to be worth it.
Here’s our strategy for successfully transitioning our worship style.
1. Make your goal bigger than style – Our goal was never to simply have newer music. If that’s your primary objective, then may God go with you in your future endeavors because the road you’ve chosen is a long and, I believe, unnecessarily hard one. Our primary goal was to celebrate God and while also giving our church members a chance to use their gifts. Our old format just didn’t give many people a chance to engage with their abilities. Adding more instruments did that. With the addition of instruments came a different sound, which allowed to naturally introduce some newer, more vibrant music.
2. Make it homegrown – This component was crucial for us. We didn’t go hire a band. We simply opened the door for people to serve by using their talents. It not only clearly demonstrates the God-given diversity of our rural congregation, but it also helped squash a lot of the angst that typically comes with these kinds of changes. It’s simply not as easy to get mad at people whom you know and love. I believe that had we simply brought in musicians whom had no connection to our church that our sincere attempts to move the church forward would have been disastrous.
3. Pick good, Christ-centered music – You might think this is obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many songs touted as worship songs are vapid. They lack substance and theological richness. Too many songs are based on emotional responses rather than eternal truth. I’m not anti-emotion, but emotion that does not emanate from the disclosure and celebration of truth can often supplant God as the focus of our worship.
Find music that 1.) teaches the people, 2.) draws their focus toward Christ, and 3.) is arranged in a manner that can be performed well by your musicians. What good is your well-executed music if it doesn’t shout the gospel, and what good is your gospel-shouting music if it sounds like a train wreck?
4. Find the common ground – There is a place for preferences when it comes to music in the church. In our context, we couldn’t simply say, “This is what we’re doing, and if they don’t like it, then oh well.” I don’t know of any contexts where that’s typically a good idea. We had to find where the junction between the “new” and “old” would be. There’s no exact formula for this, not that I’ve find anyway. It was simply trial and error for us. There were some Sundays where our praise team sounded like a Chris Tomlin cover band, and then others where it was Fanny Crosby who held sway over our style. Over time, we found the right balance of original hymns, contemporary hymns (new arrangements of older hymns), praise choruses, and contemporary worship songs.
5. Go slowly – This, along with using homegrown talent, was vital for us. We couldn’t get in a hurry, even when our progress seemed to stall. Our transition started in 2010 and has only in the last year been accepted as the new normal for our church. We had musicians move, with or without notice. We went through periods of not having ANY musicians, singing to performance tracks downloaded from LifeWayWorship.com. We had battles over the volume of the drums. There were times when people came to me crying saying that I had robbed them of their joy because we used a newer version of “The Wondrous Cross”.
We choked back fleshly responses to what we knew were emotional arguments. Instead of reacting with tyranny or surrender, we simply listened to the concerns, explained where we were trying to go, and asked for patience. We backed off for brief periods when we felt things were nearing a dangerous tipping point, but then we pushed on full-steam ahead with great success. Our praise team used the offering time to introduce new music and would then use that as a congregational song in the next week or two. Eventually, the same songs that were so unfamiliar are now some of the most requested.
One final note, if you’re a leader who is trying to transition your church’s worship style, please remember that you are called to make disciples first and foremost. Lead the people God has entrusted to you with courage, patience, and gentleness, just as Jesus has led you.