Renewing Our Worship: Attitudes

The tension in the room was palpable. You could seemingly even smell it. Five elders sat on one end of the table, trying to act like shepherds, even though they didn’t feel like shepherds. You see, they were angry, although they knew they shouldn’t be.

On the other end of the table were a dozen or so older church members, obviously distressed. The elders hadn’t anticipated such a large delegation, and people were futzing about looking for chairs. It was very uncomfortable for everyone.

The chairman of the elders led a brief prayer — for wisdom and patience — and then the delegation’s leader spoke.

We asked for this meeting to talk about the song selection. We thought the elders had agreed many years ago to a blended worship service. Half traditional and half contemporary. But I think we’ve drifted more to 80% contemporary.

There was some discussion about what should count as traditional and what should count as contemporary, and the mood wasn’t getting any better. Finally, an elder spoke up. He called the leader by name.

Here’s my offer. We’ll tell the song leader to lead your favorite music just as often as he leads mine. What do you think?

The delegation was silent. They smelled a trap.

It’s not a very good offer. We’ve not sung any of my favorite songs in over a year. Look at all the time and energy I’ve invested in this church, and yet it’s been a year since we’ve had a song service with my favorite kind of music. It’s not a good offer, but it’s a fair offer. I can’t see why I should be treated any better than anyone else. You all get the very same deal I get.

The elder paused. No one else seemed inclined to speak, and so he added,

We’ve both been members here for decades, haven’t we?

The leader nodded his head, his posture defensive.

I’ve taught hundreds of  classes at this church. I served on countless committees. And I’ve even served on a worship planning committee years ago.

Now … do you or do any in your group know what my musical taste is? Do any of my fellow elders know what kind of music I prefer?

The elders smiled and shook their heads. The delegations tried desperately to find an answer but had to admit they had no idea.

I’m an elder and a Bible class teacher. If I’d wanted to, I could get my way on music. You know I could.

The group nodded. This elder normally did get things his way, but they were taken aback at his frankness.

But despite the fact that I’m better positioned than anyone else in this church to have the songs I most like led — I only have to ask, you know — no one knows my taste in music.

Why do you suppose that in my 25 years here I’ve never told anyone my taste in music? Why wouldn’t I do that? I mean, you know me. I don’t lack for opinions! Why not share my opinion on music?

The group was silent. They really had no clue.

The elder opened his Bible and read,

(Phil 2:3-7)  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

I take this passage seriously. I think it means exactly what it says. And that means my role here in this church is to serve others, not to be served. Here’s another —

(Mat 20:26-28)  “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now, let me explain what I think it means to serve others in this context. As a leader, I have to ask what is best for God’s work in this community. And I look around and see that this church gets most of its growth from young couples. And I see that we aren’t growing as we need to be. We’ve not had nearly the baptisms or even the membership placements any of us would like.

Growth comes from the young. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way. Maybe we should be having more conversions among our older members, but here, it’s always been mainly among the young.

And this means, I think, that I can best serve God’s purposes here by helping our young members be evangelistic. I think we should support them any way we can, because if we don’t, this church will die. And I’ve talked to our young couples: they like contemporary music. And they find it easier to invite their friends when we have mainly contemporary songs.

And getting my taste in music is nothing compared to keeping this church alive and well and growing — and growing God’s Kingdom.

The leader stared at the floor.

The oldest of the elders cleared his throat. He wanted to bring things to a close.

I’ve been an elder for 20 years. I’ve been a Christian for 58 years. And I’m still learning. In fact, I used to do and say and think some things that I now know were wrong. Every night I ask God to forgive me for having been so stupid.

But here’s one thing I’ve learned just recently. And it shames me to say it. But here it is: being a Christian is not about getting your way or having people please you. It’s about giving up. It’s about giving up all you are for the cause of Jesus.

And here’s the amazing thing. Once I learned this — and it took God a long, long time to get me to understand.  — but once I learned this, my life has been nothing but joy. I enjoy church more than ever before because I no longer keep score or worry if I’m being shown the respect I deserve. No, I worry about whether other people are happy. And I get so much more out of life by seeing other people happy.

So here’s my advice. This is not a command or an instruction. It’s just advice from someone who’s lived a long time and made a lot of foolish mistakes.

Stop counting songs. Throw your charts away. Instead, count smiles. And tears of joy. And baptisms. And membership placements. And visitors to church and small groups.

And do what you can to get that count just as high as you can get it. Encourage the song leader to lead someone else’s favorite song. Watch that person’s eyes shine with delight when he does.

Think of those young couples and their children as your children and grandchildren. We like to say we’re family. Well, if we’re not lying to ourselves, then we ought to enjoy seeing our 10-year old boys and girls enjoying the singing. Learn to see church through their eyes.

Die. Die to yourselves. Live for others. Find joy. Serve. Do what makes others happy. You’ll find a joy that you never thought possible.

Most of the group had moistened eyes. All but one looked ashamed. And without a word, they filed out of the room. But one woman, still wearing a scowl, said to a friend as they were leaving,

When will someone die for me? When will someone do what makes me happy?

A friend grabbed her by the arm and said in a pitying voice as she hurried her out of the building,

How could you be wearing that cross around your neck and even ask those questions?

[This story, of course, never really happened. It’s just something that could happen — you know, in theory.]

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to Renewing Our Worship: Attitudes

  1. Alan says:

    Paul wrote that we should speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. To one another! If the song I'm singing doesn't speak to my brother, then it's not accomplishing its primary purpose.

    If we all had that conviction, the young folks would insist on singing some of the traditional hymns that the older members love — so they could speak to those members. And the older members would insist on singing the contemporary songs that speak to the younger members. And similarly across all the other demographic lines in the congregation.

  2. mark says:

    Alan
    If the song I’m singing doesn’t speak to my brother, then it’s not accomplishing its primary purpose.

    excellent thought!

    Jay
    Are you sure that's not a true story? It seems to me I've lived through that situation before.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    You've got me thinking through the story from the standpoint of the young people. I think you're right that the young people should want to give joy to the older members by singing their favorite songs. They should.

    And I think that this should work well as to unbelieving visitors, who would see the evident love — if the older members will allow us to skip some of the truly bad music we all grew up on. There's plenty of excellent old music in the hymn book.

    However, when the older members demand their music as an entitlement, they deprive the younger members of the joy of giving. It's rather like giving to a kid at Christmas who demands toys and doesn't say thank you. It's not fun, and you wonder whether you made a mistake by giving the present and feeding his selfishness.

    For the young people to take joy in giving, the older members have to let go of their demands and find joy in their own giving — without keeping counts or tallies. When they do that, two wonderful things happen.

    First, we can plan our services for the church and for unbelieving visitors without having to worry about giving offense. This gives joy to those who plan the service — who are often made miserable by our selfishness.

    Second, when the older songs are sung, the younger members won't feel defeated — they'll instead feel the joy of giving.

    The usual approach of negotiation and compromise is, I think, exactly the wrong approach, even if it leaves us in the same place. Sometimes how you get to the outcome is more important than the outcome.

    Thanks for helping me sort through this.

  4. willohroots says:

    Amazing story, you could use what color to paint the vestibule, or any other bone of contention. Simply amazing. thank you.

  5. Bob Brandon says:

    You wrote: "However, when the older members demand their music as an entitlement."

    I don't see that at all; "their [traditional] music" is their spiritual food, just as surely as more contemporary music may be that of younger members. Couched in those terms, visitors will observe that, badly handled, one portion of the congregation is taking joy in worship and edification while the rest is not. The problem as posed assumes spiritual starvation as the inevitable price of outreach. Visitors wil notice that as well.

    Plus, it's a bit of a false dichotomy: much of contemporary Christian music is simply unsingable at a congregational level. Written as performance music, it rarely converts well to four-part harmony. Combined with a worship style that seems to emphasize performance above all, what results is the congregational equivalent of shooting the wounded and leaving the dead, especially among those who have formed the backbone and foundation of the congregation.

    And those who can't keep up with the change will drop out. Invoking an eldership's authority to silence objection will simply accelerate the process.

  6. I know a little about music (and you know the saying – a little knowledge is a dangerous thing).

    Many "contemporary" songs were written for a solo performer and are hard if not impossible for a congregation to sing. I believe Jay has written in the past about songs that are too hard to sing.

    Back to what I read from Jay's orginal post.

    "Please sing my mother's favorite song. She cries tears of joy when she sings it and remembers a wonderful moment in her life."

    "Please sing my daughter-in-law's favorite song. She cries tears of joy when she sings it and remembers a wonderful moment in her life."

    "Please sing the song that a member of my small group loves. He is renewed in loving spirit when he hears it and is spurred on to help others he meets everyday."

    "Please sing these songs. I am inspired to see the power of God and the power of His church working through these people."

  7. A side note about "meetings"

    Five elders sat on one end of the table…
    On the other end of the table were a dozen … church members…

    Who arranged the chairs? Such a confrontational arrangement. I see this far too often.

    Please Elders, if you use a table space yourselves out around the table so the members sit among you. We are all members of the congregation. It is not the members versus the Elders.

  8. Joe Baggett says:

    I am sorry but maybe I am not getting it. The theme of the post was "attitude", songs or music type was just the catalyst and setting.

    The idea is that selfishness cloaked in "we want our music sung” is wrong. Especially people who should be older more mature Christ followers. Jesus would not act that way. It also shows how much of a club member mentality we have in so many congregations as if we are owed or dued something. I wish we would stop using the term “church member” and replace it with Christ follower or disciple. Church membership sounds too much like a country club.

    I will say this about the post. I want the music to do what the Bible says: encourage, edify, lift up, speak to one another, spur one another on to good works and reach the lost. Any music that is not sung the contemporary vernacular can not be missional or connect with the emerging generations. People don't bring in the sheaves anymore they download the next report. People don't through out the life line anymore because most people don't travel or work on boats and more they drive to work in their car. It is time to realize that "our favorite music" is term tied to selfishness not discipleship. Before you all go judging me, my "favorite music is the older songs but I realize that their context has expired.

  9. As a guy who leads worship, and has for many years, Jay's story rings true. But also misses the difficulty guys like me have in even selecting songs for worship. To do it thoughtfully and considerately is very demanding.

    And most worship leaders are trying to do it as best they can.

    If you survey a congregation, you'll likely find little agreement on what songs should be sung. So what do I do?

    I simply do the best I can

  10. Jay Guin says:

    David,

    I don't underestimate the challenge of good song selection. My only suggestion is that it would be a lot easier if we were all less selfish in our demands — and more outreach minded.

    I have nothing but sympathy for those who plan worship and have to deal with the rest of us. I've about lost patience, though, with those who use song selection as a way of keeping score.

    Personally, I get my favorite songs about once every two years. As I get older, I hope to hear them less often — because my taste will be less in touch with the taste of my children and grandchildren and the lost of this world every day.

  11. Bob Brandon says:

    One advantage to being part of small congregations (and being able to carry a tune) is the phenomenon of the rotating songleader. I grew up in Nashville (and was in chorus in a CoC high school before taking a degree at Lipscomb), where preachers may come and go, but the songleader never changed. Here in my part of Missouri (as well as the other part of Missouri we lived in), my turn comes up about once a month. I get to sing my favorite songs a bit throughout the year, but I also get to figure out how to lead the Bill and Gloria Gaither songs as well. And the ones I don't know, I learn from others.

  12. Alan says:

    By the way, traditional vs contemporary is not the only cultural line to consider. Our congregation is about 50% African-American. We also have some Hispanic members, some Carribbean and some African members with their own distinctive musical heritage. So for us there are several other styles of music to put into the mix. And yet I rarely hear a complaint about the mix of musical styles in or worship. Everyone knows we are going to do a mixture of styles.

  13. Reggie says:

    Gordon MacDonald addresses this very thing in his fictional book WHO STOLE MY CHURCH? with a story of a similar conflict and how he and the objecting church members dealt with the conflict. It is EXCELLENT reading and one of the finest resolutions one could hope for. Check it out.

    Gordon says the book is fictional while he and his wife are the only non-fictional characters in the book. However, he has pastored for over forty years in five different communities and it sounds like the story could be a montage of reality.

  14. Joe Baggett says:

    The book who stole my church is great. I read it and thought for a long time. The phrase “My church” says so much about our church culture. It shows how empty that religion has become in America. I don’t read anything in the Bible about singing each other’s songs. I don’t read anything about fairly splitting up the services traditional r contemporary. We have done a great job of shaping church around our white middle class culture of club mentality. This is a sin we will answer for at the day of accounting.

  15. nick gill says:

    Our university choirs release CDs of contemporary songs just about every year — in a cappella arrangements.

    Why is it that the "older generation" expects a level of self-sacrifice and spiritual maturity from the "younger generation" that their own more mature generation is failing to manifest and model?

    Young people in a congregation have very few forms of "power" — really, they only have one source, and that is their attendance itself. The older, backbone members probably will not sacrifice their attendance, but they have influence, they have years and years of networking within the congregation. THEY are on first-name basis with congregational leadership.

    This is also the wisdom of introducing an unscripted singing gathering once a month, where for 45 minutes or so the songleaders simply take requests.

    Also, why aren't these songs being sung in small groups? If you struggle with it, our university choirs have released a tremendous number of recordings of traditional music. Find it, buy it, sing it.

    Serve one another.

  16. Reggie says:

    Joe said:
    " I don’t read anything in the Bible about singing each other’s songs."

    However 1 Cor 14:26 says:
    (I paraphrase) When you meet together, ONE PERSON HAS A SONG, another has a teaching, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

    My guess is that the song ONE PERSON selects to share is their favorite or a new song from the heart which would strengthen, encourage, or edify the church to the glory of God. The song of the ONE PERSON really sounds like a solo reindition for all the right purposes.

  17. David Himes says:

    I need to remember that the next time someone objects to a solo!

  18. nick gill says:

    Jay calls solos (or duets, or other moments of singing when most of the assembly is listening) meditations — they are no different than the meditations during the Lord's Supper, etc.

  19. David Himes says:

    Excellent perspective

  20. Joe Baggett says:

    Reggie I had always looked at that scripture in the way that everyone wanted to share what God was doing in the their life through song or revelation, and Paul just says let everybody have a turn and don’t talk over each other because everyone has something important to contribute. This perspective seems kind of antithetical to a selfish desire to sing songs with the words, beat and tune you like.

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