Mark Peterson recently wrote an article titled Contemporary v Traditional: 8 reasons it’s hard to choose. I’d like to comment on this issue as it is one that is very close to my heart!

To be upfront - I play guitar. Not wimpy acoustic guitar, but screaming 80’s metal guitar. I like to lather on the distortion and see how fast I can play.

I don’t have much of a choice. I love heavy metal. I LOVE it. I can’t play piano, I can’t play hymns, and I don’t have a clasically trained voice. With that in mind, I think there are some guidelines that we can follow to determine if we should be playing contemporary or traditional music at our church.

Let’s say I turn up to church, and there’s one hundred people in the congregation. Everyone is older than 70, and they are eager to get down and start belting out the hymns. If I was to turn up with a big rock band, cranked it up and started playing Hillsong tunes, it just wouldn’t work. People wouldn’t be able to sing, the rhythm that I’d be using would put them off, songs wouldn’t sound how people are used to hearing them… it would be a disaster. The purpose of playing music is to encourage people to worship God with their voices, and boy would the music style be absolutely detrimental. It would honestly be better if I hadn’t played at all, and perhaps a better option would be just to sing the songs acapella.

On the flip side, if I turn up to a Planet Shakers youth service and start playing “Onwards Christian Soldier” on an organ, people wouldn’t know what to do. They wouldn’t know the song, wouldn’t be able to sing, etc, it just wouldn’t work.

So in these specific scenarios it’s actually quite easy to determine the style of music needed. So what do we do when we’re in a grey area? What if there are a broad mixture of ages and cultures at our congregation? (The way church should be?) Perhaps one solution is to do both. Two hymns on the organ, two modern contemporary songs. But this isn’t going to work. The oldies will hate the new stuff and the youngies will hate the old stuff. Unless you have a complete congregation of very mature and graceful Christians (and really, you shouldn’t!), this too isn’t going to work.

This is where the difficulty sets in.

Ultimately what most people do is to find a mixture of the two. Play a few contemporary songs in a way that isn’t too in-your-face, but will still encourage everyone to sing. Do a couple of hymns but incorporate a solid 4/4 beat. Change the tempo, change the key, change the rhythm, anything to make it work. (Except don’t change the lyrics… pick a different song instead :) If you’re in a fortunate position where you have enough gifted musicians it can work amazingly well. With enough prayer you can satisfy the needs of the majority of the mixed congregation.

This is where most people call it quits. Try to please everyone, find a middle ground, and voila. Everyone’s happy.

But is this what we’re aiming for? Are we just trying to please everyone within the congregation? Hang on, isn’t our job to encourage people to worship God? Or are we just trying to make them happy?

In the past 50 years or so there has been an explosion of new musical styles. From 50’s rock’n’roll to modern hip hop, a huge number of styles have been introduced and revolutionalised music. Jazz, Reggae, Rap, Pop, Electronic Dance music, Heavy Metal, the ever-expanding sub genres of Rock, Country music & Folk music to give a quick list. Alongside with the development of pop culture, religion is rapidly being seen as outdated, irrelevant and antiquated in a modern, civilised society. This is a photo my band playing a gig… it doesn’t really look like church music to me.

Toehider rockin out

As church music leaders, we have an obligation to ensure that church music, and therefore Christianity, does not have a perception of “belonging in the past”.

Monday morning’s conversation at work normally goes “So, get up to anything on the weekend?” I cannot tell you the number of times where I have told people that “Yeah, I played drums at church” and the response is normally astonishment. Most people don’t believe me. I tell them that we had drums, bass, guitar and few singers and to some people the concept of modern music in church is unheard of. “You can’t do that” or “What do the (old) people say?” are the usual responses, as the average Australian pictures “church” as being a bunch of old people sitting in pews, doing their weekly penance and singing a few hymns. In their view, in a few decades the church will have disappeared as the older generation dies out, and civilisation can move on from those dark times. This is genuinely the perception that most Australians have. Unless they actually know someone under the age of 30 who goes to church. I have met a lot of Australians who in their mid-thirties have never even met a christian. To meet a Christian who seems like “one of them” (or at least can converse with them in their language) is often a revelation.

With all that in mind this is a long way of pointing out that if we don’t continue to modernise the music at our churches, the church will indeed turn into a relic of a by-gone era. This is indisputable. If we stuck to pipe organs in churches, only a few die-hards will remain and over a few years it will all fizzle out. How much we modernise and to what extent remains a variable that must always be examined given the unique situation of your church.

By the way, the tenth commandment isn’t “You must make your music sound MODERN”. But I do think I think that deliberately modernising the music at church is an appropriate response to our current cultural situation in Australia.

A favourite passage of mine is from Psalm 150:1-6:

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his excellent greatness!

Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

Yeah! That’s what we want. (I particularly like the LOUD CLASHING CYMBALS part.)

So what’s the essense of this chapter in psalms? “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” Everything!

Will playing contemporary music guarantee the survival of your church? Not at all. Will people be saved due to the music alone? Probably not. Will it guarantee that your church won’t disappear? Probably not. Should we be ensuring that our church remains relevant to our society and culture? Of course we should. It is our duty to talk to non-christians, answer their questions, get to know them and love them (and our joy). By playing daggy songs from the 70’s every week and expecting them to “put up with it” or somehow realise that we’re not stuck in the past, we are essentially thumbing our noses at our culture and putting a giant obstacle in the way of their faith.

It is our job to encourage “everything that has breath” to praise the Lord. So as a result, I play acoustic guitar most weeks. (I had to go out and buy one!). I don’t play guitar solos. I encourage everyone to sing, and I try to make it as relevant as possible to everyone who attends. It has been a very long and drawn out battle - possibly the longest of my life, but we are getting there.

I only hope that other worship leaders will do the same.