Traditional vs. Contemporary: end that conversation by starting a new one

Let’s cut right to the chase on this one: I am so over this debate. 

I bet you feel the same way. And honestly, the conversation is mostly over, right? There are plenty of churches that have had success with Contemporary music styles, plenty of churches that have had success with Traditional music styles, and most of each are still in decline. (Turns out picking the right music style doesn’t end the real enemies of the church like racism, sexism, homophobia, or the use of Comic Sans…) 

Worship is best when its leader creates a space for people to wake up to the presence of the Divine. Style is irrelevant. 

But for you,

…the worship leader who clicked on this article because you’ve been charged with introducing new music to a congregation used to hymns, 

…the worship leader who has congregants coming up to them every week saying “why don’t these contemporary songs come with notes?

…the worship leader who knows that God can do something amazing once you get out of this stupid debate about Traditional vs. Contemporary music, 

I’ve got some ideas for you. First, let’s name the obvious. 

Both styles have their fair share of crap. 

In my first church, when I was fresh out of college, I was hired as the contemporary worship leader in a community that was mostly used to hymns. As I stomped in with all the hubris of a 22-year-old and forced new song after new song into everyone’s faces, some of the noisiest people in the congregation came up to me almost every week. Their message was clear: “Bring back the hymns!” 

Along with that, I heard the all too-familiar: 

“These new songs are just emotional, like they’re saying ‘Jesus is my boyfriend!’”

“New songs just repeat the same thing over and over again.”

“None of these new songs have the narrative arcs or beautiful lyrics that hymns have.” 

I hardened, and responded with more new songs. My argument was just as critical: 

“These hymns are stale, and the instrumentation is campy.”

“Hymns are just as repetitive as the new songs, but in a different way. Who wants to sing nine verses of the same melody?” 

“Some of these songs are just bad songs kept around because of nostalgia and sentimentality.” 

We were both right. 

These are valid critiques of two different styles of music. It was our preference that blinded us to the fact that neither style is in itself inherently trustworthy for cultivating spiritual growth. 

Hymns can be campy and redundant and saccharine and golden calfs. Current songs can be predictable and emotional and shallow and a flash-in-the-pan. Not to mention the fact that Christian music across the board has no shortage of patriarchal, violent, and theologically unhelpful lyrics. 

And so, since we’ve established that neither style is 100% without fault…

It’s time to reject binary thinking around worship styles

From the Psalms to the new chorus being written right this moment, we have centuries of musical dialogue within our Christian tradition that we can be inspired and informed by. And to assume that they can’t teach us something about the big, beautiful story God is leading us through is a mistake.  It’s our responsibility, then, as worship leaders to bring that story to light. 

It’s the Traditional purists who will destroy the legacy of hymns by locking them in a museum case, and the Contemporary purists will never create any new songs of substance if they keep chasing after radio hits. Innovation means holding the balance between both styles — and sometimes creating something altogether new — in a way that honors where we’ve been and where we’re going. 

Both styles have something great to offer. Learn from the best of both. 

I learned quickly that my congregation was fearing the loss of something deeply valuable to them. Hymns were a foundational piece of their Christian identity and their understanding of what church is. 

So, I dipped into my church’s favorite hymns, found one I liked, and finagled it into something my band could play. When we introduced it on Sunday, it was the best the congregation had sung, and — get this — they participated more with the new songs as a result. 

We didn’t delete any new songs. We just added a few pieces of the story that were missing.

When it was time for me to move on from that church, I had made this the model for how I approached worship leading. My next church only played contemporary stuff, so I (still can’t believe I’m saying this) brought back the hymns

The music we made was still undeniably current; it was just rooted in our Christian history. 

I’m developing the contemporary ministry of my newest church, too, using the same model. I’m honored when both elderly congregants tell me how much worshiping with hymns deepened their experience. Gen Xers and Millennials also tell me how these songs engage their minds in different ways and help them feel connected to a larger story. 

Everything we play seems new because it either is (we still play mostly current songs) or it’s been reincorporated in a way that prioritizes the worship experience of God’s people. 

Which is what we’re supposed to be doing, instead of having this stale conversation. 

“So… where do I start?” 

Good news. If you’re looking for practical ways to get moving on this, I’ve put together some posts about what’s worked for me. 

COMING SOON!

Creating a Strong Hymn Arrangement

This post shows the nitty-gritty for how to arrange a hymn into something new and engaging, and also how to explain it to your congregation. 

6 Non-Negotiables For Choosing A Worship Song

If you’re looking to introduce a new song to a group of people who have a hymnal with a thousand time-tested songs to choose from, your new song better be worth it. 

But We’ve Always Done It This Way!”

Ugh. Right? How to survive that conversation so no one ends up crying. Including you. 

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