Saturday, March 1, 2008

Hymn vs. Praise Chorus: A Defense of Blended Worship

Covenant Pastors and theological students receive a quarterly theological journal published by the Covenant Church titled (appropriately) The Covenant Quarterly. The most recent issue is on church hymnody, and my esteemed professor of Church history Dr. Phil Anderson writes an incisive piece on the advantage traditional hymns have in communicating the content of Christian faith. In it he critiques the flaws of contemporary praise and worship music; namely that it lacks connection with the whole story of our faith, its language is abstract, it is subjective, individualistic, and egocentric. I think that in much "praise and worship" music this is sadly true and Dr. Anderson is quite fair in his critique. Still, I would argue that there is a place and a validity for music from the "praise and worship" tradition. As one who has worshiped in both traditional, contemporary, and blended traditions-- and as one who currently devotes a majority of his current ministry energies to worship leadership-- I'd like to offer a defense for the use of "praise and worship" music in Church life that compliments and partners with the "thicker" music of classic church hymns.

First it should be noted that the specific songs which Dr. Anderson critiques are the 47 most popular church choruses from 1972-2000. I think in a movement as young as contemporary praise music, that even in the eight years since 2000 you'll find further maturing songwriting in the praise and worship tradition. The movement is broad, extensive, and rapidly transforming--a limited selection of music from a limited time period may not fully capture the entire ethos of the praise chorus tradition. Some of the newer music of artists like Chris Tomlin and David Crowder have grown better at grounding their content in the full Christian story and capturing deeper theological content than the more shallow, abstract, and one dimensional "love songs to Jesus" that critics are right to judge. There is decent contemporary music that is well grounded theologically to be sifted out from the shallow, just as there are hymns with great theological error that need to be sifted out from the catalog of excellent hymns. No tradition of music is totally immune from this.

I would certainly agree that most "praise and worship" music is "thinner" in communicating the Biblical story compared to the "thicker" content of traditional hymns. But in corporate worship of the Church there needs to be some sensitivity to context. When a congregation is made up of "churched" people who have long sung hymns in their homes and with their families, the content of hymns is familiar and the traditional language and extensive biblical storytelling within them can be very effective at transmitting the message of Christian faith to those participants. But what of worshipers in a "post-christian" context? In my home state of Washington, we have the situation of being the least "churched" region of the United States. Many people who enter the life of a local church do not have a tradition in it. Church and Christian theology are altogether new to these people. There was no hymn singing in their homes. For these worshipers, the "thick" content of the hymns is not fully digestable--they are learning the faith as they go, as they worship. Now this is certainly good reason for us to carefully consider the faithfulness of the content of our songs because they are important communicators of what we believe, but the "praise and worship" tradition has the stylistic advantage of being able to present the Christian story in smaller and more manageable pieces to those who don't have the same cultural repertoire as those who grow up in Christian settings.

Phil Anderson argues that hymn singing transmits the content of Christian faith better because it requires reading the text of the song while praise choruses are typically learned through imitation. I would counter that given what we know about learning styles, significant numbers of people learn best through aural, visiual, and kinesthetic learning over reading. The point is further made when you consider congregants who suffer learning disabilities like dyslexia or perhaps worshipers for whom English is not their first language. Nevertheless, the point remains that the music we use in church transmits the content of faith, and thus it must be evaluated with biblical discernment.

Finally, I'd like to argue that while the music which is thoroughly grounded in the wholeness of scripture's redemptive narrative needs to be a central element to our worship, it is not entirely unbiblical to engage in worship in a more personal and abstract way. Consider the book of Psalms, whose content includes both a corporate celebration of redemption history but also includes songs that are deeply personal and portray an emotive relationship between the worshiper and the living God. One could also point to the pictures of worship in Isaiah 6 or Revelation 4 and the simple song the angels and elders sing. By some standards, these could be called shallow. The biblical vision of worship includes a proclamation of God's historical redemptive work but there is also room for a simple expression of awe inspired by God's presence. Elevating one while denigrating another could leave our worship life a purely emotive affair or a purely intellectual one. Worship needs to be a response of the whole human being to the whole of God's revelation.

Truth be told, I do actually prefer the classic hymns over most praise choruses. Nevertheless, I think that worship leaders who critically and biblically reflect on the material we sing together can find that songs from both traditions can have their place in Christian Worship. The contemporary praise music movement has much to learn from its predecessors in worship, and the well argued points of Dr. Anderson and others should be heeded. But in a world of polarities that divide more than unite, it is good for us to remember that few of our treasured traditions are completely unredeemable or completely untarnished.


Anonymous said...

Interesting--and I agree!

See you and Nicole Friday.

Aunt Marge

Lefdawg said...

Interesting post. My family is Catholic, and my husband was just having a sort of debate with our priest over this sort of thing. Well, except it was over exclusively having our hymnals only in latin or letting some be in the vernacular.(We are part of a very Traditional Catholic parish)

I myself perfer more traditional Christian music(i.e. gregorian chant, large mass music stuff by Mozart, Hayden) over either praise and worship stuff and even just regular vernacular hymnals.

I do believe there is a place for all this music, however I would never allow praise and worship stuff at church, for the same reasons as that Dr.Phil Anderson wrote.

Anyway, that's my too cents and I really enjoyed the blog! Have you listened to much Gregorian chant? If not, I highly recommend it!