There are Sunday mornings where I absolutely love the organ.
In particular, I love the organ’s ability to make me feel incredibly puny and insignificant. On those mornings, I’m reminded of the organ in Princeton Chapel where, due to the all wooden Calvinist decor, my butt would often vibrate in the pew in time to the music. Only an organ has the power to approximate God’s sovereign majesty.
However, there are other Sundays when the sound of the organ makes me feel like I should be riding a fake blue horse on a merry-go-round or it makes me feel like Chewy or Han when they receive their medals at the end of Episode 4 (you know you can hear the music now) or it just makes me feel… bored.
There are Sundays when contemporary worship music hits just the right note between rootsy and soulful, where the plain speech works as well as an ancient chant and where the energy of the band feel incarnational.
There are other Sundays, though, when contemporary worship music strikes me as narcissistic (it’s all first-person, God’s almost always the object of MY desire), vapid and devoid of any catechetical power, and a poor imitation of better pop art.
In other words, I don’t have a genre preference.
Many Christians and many congregations, especially in the UMC, are still fighting the worship wars- contemporary vs ‘traditional- from the early 1980’s, which is funny since those contemporary songs are no longer even contemporary. I was like 3 years old then. Wham is no longer contemporary either.
It’s also an odd debate to have at all because it’s historically myopic.
What we so often refer to as ‘traditional’ worship was once ‘contemporary’ after all.
King David didn’t worship with an organ. For that matter, St Thomas Aquinas didn’t worship with….anything.
That’s right, for all our talk of ‘traditional’ worship most Christians don’t realize that for the better half of the Christian Church’s history we didn’t worship with any instrumentation whatsoever.
The Gregorian chant was the musical mode until the 13th century. Thomas Aquinas himself opposed the organ and argued it would lead people to confuse Christians as ‘Judaizers.’ An unpleasant expression today but you get the idea.
Little known too is that even though Martin Luther wrote wonderful hymns and taught his own children music, Lutherans themselves didn’t introduce instrumentation into worship until a century and a half after Luther’s death- and then not without a fight.
In fact, well in to the 19th century worship music was congregational singing sans ‘machinery’, much like many Mennonites continue to worship today.
So when we talk about ‘traditional’ worship we’re often talking about a form of worship music that dates to the latter half the 1800’s, which is the very period whence comes a huge chunk of the UM hymnal. This is a period of time that, given the full expanse of Christian history, occupies a not much larger chunk than the one covered by so-called contemporary music.
All this shows, I think, that any robust understanding of Christian worship, one that learns from the beauty of the past but acknowledges that the Spirit is still working and creating, should include everything.
Authentic Christian worship shouldn’t have a genre preference.
The true tragedy to so many churches getting mired in genre disputes, the ‘worship wars,’ is that in the meantime a whole generation of my peers and the generation after me are not being discipled at all.